Robin Rolfe looks back at harvests past, and 50 long years of change in his part of the world
Harvest is just beginning up here as I pen these words. What a change from the days half a century ago when I started work on a farm in Hertfordshire. The huge combines of today would dwarf the six-foot cut machine of yesteryear, and the monsters that thunder around our fields were nonexistent save for on the vast prairies of America and Australia. I came on the scene as the old binders were becoming museum pieces. With them went the excitement of the last few rounds of the crop and watching the rabbits flee under a hail of shot.
Sadly, roe in those days were given no quarter and more often than not staggered off recollections with a load of birdshot in their haunch. Thankfully those days are long gone and roe, for the most part, are given the respect they deserve.
When I first came to the far western Highlands the binder was still in use. Instead of bolting rabbits, Jack and I made hides with the stooks of oats from which we ambushed the mallard that flew in from the nearby loch. As in all wildfowling, a stormy evening – quite common in the western Highlands – was most productive, and often we would return with half a dozen mallard.
I used to enjoy being concealed in the stooks as the twilight deepened, especially if a touch of early frost was in the air. Then the rutting stags on the hills that formed a backdrop to our little fields would be roaring their challenges to each other. Occasionally a late shot from a stalking party would reverberate in the high corries, maybe the result of a long stalk finally meeting its quarry. Not to be recommended really, but the stalker knew every nook and cranny on his ground and would not allow his guest to shoot if he was not satisfied with his capabilities. After a successful shot, a long, steep drag was the order of the day, for no pony or vehicle could attempt those steep hillsides and rocky cliffs.
Once back in the larder the Tilley lamp was coaxed into life, the warm hissing glow welcomed by cold, wet hands. Maybe a pipe would be lit, a chunk of plug tobacco or a fill of rubbed Condor filling the larder with a comforting fug of blue smoke. Job done, we would hang around to discuss every aspect of the stalk, invariably accompanied by a dram or two.
In those far-off days the benefits of free electricity had not arrived. Sure the ‘big hoose’ and steading had a diesel generator thumping away, but we just had the Tilley lamp. Nevertheless, it gave a bright and comforting light. There was nothing to compare with a bath after a long day, with the lamp hissing and a dram to hand. ■