Chapter IV. Weather And Crops.

"A misty May and a drappy June Mak' a fat stackyaird in ilka toun".

These two subjects are inseparably connected in the farmer's mind. For all his failures he blames the weather ; occasionally he gives it credit for his successes, but who ever saw a contented farmer? The utmost he can do is to be philosophical, like Punch's farmer, who, standing in the midst of his sodden fields watching his sheaves floating away in the swollen river, says to his neighbour, "Well, I've always noticed when things are as bad as they can be, they'll either mend or get worse".

The Cabrach has the reputation of being a cold, wet district. People say, "There's a place they ca' the cauld, cauld Cabrach, far it dings on delaverly, for sax 'ooks on ither's en', neither upplin nor devallin'". But this is a libel, and what one may particularly notice is this, when it is as bad as it can be in the Cabrach, it is much worse somewhere else. It seems very hard, however, to convince strangers of their mistake about the climate. A friend asked, "But do you ever have it really warm there?" When she was told that the polish on some furniture that happened to be outside in the month of May was blistered by the sun, she began to think it might not be such a bad place after all. Another question was, "How many really fine weeks do you have in the year?" A great many more than in some other places thought to have a good climate. The Lower Cabrach especially, as a rule, enjoys excellent weather. There is plenty of sunshine all the year round, no fog, warm days in summer, and bright frosty ones in winter ; while the air is bracing and exhilarating, and is often compared to champagne. For those in want of a new place in which to spend the winter, we can thoroughly recommend the Cabrach.

This may sound exaggerated, but it is a fact that of late years the winters have not been severe, and indeed the farmers have found a new source of discontent in the lack of snow, for water has been scare in the succeeding summers.

At the same time, after studying the weather records of the past two centuries, we are bound to admit that there has been good ground for the popular notion. What strikes one very forcibly on reading over these old records is the "disappointing" quality of the weather. So often, after perhaps a hard winter, the farmers' hopes were raised by a fine, genial sowing time, only to be dashed by a cold, wet autumn, when the unripe grain stood out in the fields till all chance of securing it in good condition was gone. Or it might all be reaped in good time, full and ripe, and then be rotted by the damp before it could be stacked. Turnips, too, often suffered, and even if spared by the weather, were sometimes attacked by disease. If farmers are discontented, truly they very often have reason to be so, but they are also characterised by patience and perseverance, and those in the Cabrach display these qualities in a marked degree.

The most outstanding of these bad seasons of which we have been talking were the "seven ill years", 1693-1700. The continuance of bad harvests told so heavily on the Cabrach that the meal mill fell into disuse, and it is said "the thistle grew from the mill 'ee, and the fox nursed her cubs in the happer". One family after another was forced to leave the district and seek a living elsewhere, until in the Upper Cabrach only one house was left inhabited. This was the house near the Gauch, which afterwards received and still bears the name of Reekimlane. It was the only house with a smoking chimney left, and it "reekit its lane" for some days before the tenants finally decided to leave it and follow their neighbours to some better provided district. They had just started on their sorrowful journey, when, in crossing the burn, they saw a brown trout flash by. This gave them an idea, and having little difficulty caught a few fish, they returned to the house to blow up the still smouldering peats and enjoy a last meal. While so engaged a horseman was sighted ; he proved to be carrying a sack of meal to Glenbucket, and gave them a share of it. He also brought news of a shipload of grain from the south having arrived in Aberdeen, and cheered by the timely help and the prospect of more to come, the farmer and his family unpacked their belongings and settled down to wait and hope for better times. By and by matters improved and the farms were again occupied, though in many cases by strangers, and the "seven ill years" were gradually forgotten. Not again have the farmers experienced such a run of ill-luck, though now and again there have been very unproductive seasons.

On September 30th, 1913, there appeared in the Banffshire Journal "A Glass Farmer's Diary", which we may give in full as far as it refers to weather conditions:-

"1769. One of the worst harvests on record ; storm prevented corn being got in till Martinmas Day.

  1. No sowing till April 3rd ; whole month of March stormy, eight weeks of storm, but peats all well home before Glass market (3rd Tues. of July).

  2. First bere cut 1st Sept. No dry weather from beginning of July. 23rd and 24th Sept. storm (snow), all corn not cut, and none taken in.

  3. Jan. 13th. Ann Gordon or Leslie, Ardwell, died. Funeral delayed by great blowing and drifting.

  4. Jan. 9th. Great wind, Huntly Tolbooth damaged and houses and stacks broken.

1783-1784. Winter very severe, cattle going to low country to eat straw. No meal to be had. Duke of Gordon and others brought pease from England.

  1. Storm lasted eight weeks without a break.

  2. Broken harvest, but good winter, only eight days' storm.

  3. A brave spring.

  4. June 23rd. Snowstorm, three feet of snow in some places in Glass.

  5. July 2nd. Great cold and dearth of meal.

  6. Jan. 5th. Adam Slorach lost on Gormach in storm and drifting. May 29th. Spate in Deveron, twelve ankers of whisky lost between Invercharrach and Church of Glass. Glass market that year a day of thunder and rain.

  7. A comet appeared, the like not seen since Culloden-a warning to all".

The diarist omits to mention the year 1782, commonly called "the black aughty twa". There was, according to "The Old Statistical Account", a great fall of snow on Sept. 15th of that year, which ruined the oats, and it was Christmas before all the crop was cut, then it was mostly given unthreshed to the cattle. There was great scarcity of meal, and the people were so far dependent on charity for food. John Gordon, Esq., of Craig, proved a good friend to the Cabrach at this time, importing meal to be distributed to the poor, and the Duke of Gordon gave his tenants a rebate on their rents, or time to pay them. Next year in some measure made compensation, for the calves were earlier and more numerous than usual, and there was very little sickness among the people.

In the diary kept by John Taylor of Boghead, which contains records of the weather at intervals from 1816 to 1887, only the bad seasons and severe storms have been noted, except in one or two entries. Presumably when nothing is said to the contrary, the weather was good and the crops plentiful.

In 1816 the summer was cold, snow lying on Garbet during the whole season. On Oct. 20th there was a great hurricane and snowstorm. The stooks of corn were yet out in the fields, and the snow had to be cast to get at them ; when dug out they were a frozen lump, and could not be thawed for the cattle.

1817 was a very bad year. The corn was all frosted early and of no use for seed. Seed had to be imported at a cost of œ2 2s per boll on board ship.

In 1836 the crops, especially those on low-lying ground, were blighted by mildew. Snow in October delayed the harvest, the cutting of oats not being finished until Nov. 12th.

In April of 1837 the snow was so deep on the hills that the deer were dying for want of food, and the frost was so severe that many lambs died immediately they were born.

The year 1838 had a particularly bad record. In January the river was frozen sufficiently to allow of horses and carts crossing on the ice ; snow commenced to fall on the 8th, and on the 16th, James Ramsay, a drover, was lost on the hills, and though diligent search was made for him by a party of two hundred men his body was not recovered until May 7th. During February the drifting was so great that the mails from Aberdeen could be brought through only with the greatest difficulty. A party of three carried them four or five miles, being then relieved by a similar party, who carried them the next four or five miles, and so on to their destination. Sowing commenced on April 7th, but it was a slow business, for snow fell nearly every day. From Jan. 8th till May 3rd hardly a day passed without at least a shower of snow, and it still fell on some days of June. On the longest day there was a spot of snow on Gromack, above Tomnaven, the remains of a wreath that at Whitsunday had been a mile in length, while at this time peat-casting was stopped by the frost. The crops, already very late, were damaged by frost in August, and frosty weather continued through Sept. and Oct. Capt. Stewart's tenants received back 20% of their rents in consequence of the short, poor crop, much of which was lost.

In March 1839 there was a severe snowstorm, with much drifting, and Charles Stewart of Haddoch perished on the hills. About the middle of May there was a heavy fall of snow, and a funeral party from Rhynie going to Wallakirk across the hills had the greatest difficulty in performing the journey, being compelled to lift and pull the coffin through enormous drifts. In September there was a remarkable spate ; the river rose to within six inches of the flood mark of '29, and bridges at Milltown of Cabrach, Tornichelt, Lesmurdie and Wallakirk, besides three others in Glass, were carried away be the Deveron.

The year 1840 was not so cold, but there was a great deal of rain. A month after being cut, the corn was still too wet to be brought in, and large quantities were spoiled. During five weeks of the autumn there were not forty-eight consecutive hours of dry weather.

1841 began with severe weather and deep snow, but the crops were well forward in June. There is no further entry for this year, but we hope the promise of June was fulfilled.

The harvest of 1855 was good, and there was plenty of straw, but owing to the late spring and wet summer turnips and peats were scare.

In 1875, for the first time, a really good harvest is mentioned. There was a great deal of rain during the time of reaping and much grain was lost on Donside and Deeside, but "eight days of dry windy weather dried the corn in the Cabrach, and the whole of it was led in fine condition".

1876 began with a dry, mild January, but the next three months more than made up for this. Sheep and lambs were lost in the snow and the roads were blocked. The land was very wet for ploughing and sowing, and was in much worse condition than in the springs of '37, '38, and '55, which were all late and wet. The harvest this year was, however, on the whole, good.

The year 1880 was one of the best. Sowing was finished early, and the hot summer ripened the grain, so that harvest commenced on August 20th and was finished by the end of September. The winter came in early, there being a heavy fall of snow in the second week of October. On the Wednesday before the term, the day of the feeing market, twelve inches of snow fell in two hours. In December heavy snow and the most intense frost for fifty years destroyed the turnips, which had been an exceptionally good crop. The hard winter weather of the end of 1880 continued till April 1881. The roads were blocked by snow from Dec. 8th, 1880, till March 10th, 1881 (fourteen weeks). Many persons, cattle and sheep perished in the snow, and the railways were blocked five times during the winter. For twenty-seven weeks (half a year) the landscape was covered with snow, and sowing commenced on April 8th while the hills were still white. The seed was deposited in good condition, and the month of May, the hottest May on record, promised well. But during June, vermin, "like large black beetles", destroyed all the seed, and the fields had to be resown (in some cases three times) up till July. These vermin appeared all over Scotland except in Argyllshire. There were snow and frost in June, and young grouse died in large numbers. June, July and August were very cold, and snow fell on August 12th. Harvest began in the second week of October in wet, cold weather, and much of the corn was cut while still green and stacked "in a deplorable state of dampness". The weather for thirteen months, except the month of May, was one continuation of wet and cold. It changed for the better in December.

January and February 1882 were mild and dry, with hurricanes of "brisling" wind, which dried the corn stacks and prevented the straw from rotting. Windy weather continued up till the beginning of June, but the summer was wet, consequently the turnips were poor, though there was a remarkable growth of grass. The harvest was pretty fair, but protracted owing to rain.

The first severe snowstorm of 1883 was in the first week of March ; bad weather continued until the middle of April, and the sheep were hand-fed till that time. After one of the best seed times on record, there succeeded intense drought in May and half of June, then rain and cold till the end of October. The turnips were a poor crop, and failed altogether on damp land. There was no peat and coals had to be used ; while the crop of cereals was "thin", though harvested in good condition by the middle of Nov., its average weight being 38 lbs. to the bushel, and the meal very good.

The year 1884 commenced well, but a great snowstorm on January 26th did a great deal of damage ; the cattle could scarcely be attended to in the byres, and many sheep were smothered in the drifts. The rest of the winter was very windy, and the failure of the turnips the previous year was much felt. The oats were deficient in weight when they came to be reaped.

  1. The whole of this year was cold, chilly, dry and windy. Harvest did not commence till October 10th and finished on November 23rd. The corn, damaged by frost, was of no use for seed, though the meal was very good. The average weight was 37 lbs. to the bushel.

As a consequence of the frost in '85, all seed had to be imported in '86, at an average price of 24/- per quarter. Sowing began in the last week of March, the season up till the end of July being dry and cold. About the end of August mildew blighted the crops on Auchmair, Milltown, Kirkton, and other low-lying ground. More elevated farms escaped, and their crops were exceptionally good. The later half of August, September and October were very warm, and harvest was finished about November 12th. December was a snowy month and the sheep were hand-fed, but there was abundance of cattle food of all kinds, and grain and beef were very cheap.

The year 1887 was also good. The snow had all disappeared by January 10th, and fine dry weather continued up till the end of February, ploughing being uninterrupted for seven weeks, and sowing finished by the of March. In consequence of the hot, dry summer, water was scarce, but the grass was abundant and good and the grain heavy, though short in straw. Harvest was finished in the first week of October. Oats sold this year at 10/- to 12/- per quarter, and meal at 11/- per boll.

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