A snatch of old song
Ten days ago I spent a weekend in the northern rain teaching people how to mow grass with a scythe. I’ve been using a scythe for four or five years, though it’s only in the last year or so that I’ve got any good at it. I began using one because I wanted to cut the grass in my orchard without using smelly, noisy, petrolly power tools, and also because I had come across the great Simon Fairlie and his persuasive addiction to these ancient and mesmerising tools.
Scything, largely thanks to Simon, is undergoing a renaissance in Britain. Scythes were used here from Anglo-Saxon times right up until the 1940s, initially to mow grass for haymaking and later also to mow cereal crops. They were operated by large mowing teams in the summer months and they were, and are, a terrific example of what used to be called ‘appropriate technology.’ The wooden handles, known as snaths, can be made anywhere there are trees by any competent woodworker, and the blades can be made by any blacksmith. They’re a genuinely pre- and post-modern tool, and will doubtless be around long after the Flymo has faded into legend. Keep the blade honed and peened, and know how to use them, and you have probably the most efficient and effective tool for cutting grass ever developed. This is proven entertainingly year after year at the Somerset Scythe Festival where the annual ‘scythe versus strimmer’ contest is always won by the scythe.
Like many other rural crafts, scything pretty much died out in Britain after the second world war, though this was not the case in many other European countries. In eastern Europe, mowing grass with scythes is still very widely practised, and both skills and tools are passed on from generation to generation. Even Western Europe still has a working scythe culture. Here in Britain, as in so much else, we are both ahead and behind: industrial revolution and enclosure rendered our fields empty and our slums full long before this happened anywhere else, and one of the consequences has been the widespread death both of small-scale agriculture and of the crafts, skills and ways of seeing associated with it.
Simon Fairlie has effectively kick-started a reinvention of scything in Britain by importing, selling and teaching the use of scythes manufactured by the 600-year-old Schröckenfux company in Austria. It was the use of the Austrian scythe that I was teaching at the Cumbrian Scythe Festival. Austrian scythes are terrific, lightweight instruments, with a vast array of interchangeable blades, that can be used for anything from mowing your lawn to harvesting wheat to trimming grass around trees on a forty five degree slope. As I say, there is a quiet renaissance going on as a result of the use of these instruments. Landowning charities and local authorities are starting to use scythes rather than strimmers to manage their grasslands, and thousands of people like me are using them privately. But what I saw at the Cumbrian scything event was something I had never seen before, which brought home to me the real meaning of the reinvention of tradition.
The people engaged in the sycthing renaissance in Britain are largely – though not entirely – people with no background in this tradition. Often they are middle class back-to-the-landers, pemaculture enthusiasts, smallholders, environmentalists and the like. They – we – are part of a movement which is attempting to re-learn land-based and practical skills that have been lost, both because it’s fascinating and enjoyable and because it seems increasingly obvious that such skills are going to be where it’s at in a post-industrial future. We are starting in this, many of us, from zero. Before I got my own Austrian blade I had never picked up a scythe before, and never thought about doing so. Like many, I was converted when I did. But I was converted to a tradition other than my own.
The kind of scythe we new-wavers use is not the kind traditionally used in these islands. British scythes are quite different to their European counterparts. The blades are heavy and stamped rather than light and hammered, and the snaths are thicker, weightier and more elegantly curved. They’re heavier, less adaptable and seemingly harder to use, particularly for women – scything in the pre-modern era in Britain was exclusively men’s work. For all these reasons, the old English scythe (and indeed the Scottish scythe, which is something else again) has been largely overlooked by the new-wavers. I’ve seen a few people use them, and have tried myself, but it’s always slower and harder work. Until ten days ago, I was much happier with my more adaptable, sleeker imports. But then I met Jim.
Jim farms Herdwick sheep over at Millom on the west coast. He’s a traditional Cumbrian farmer, from a Cumbrian farming family. He’s no-nonsense, wry and deeply practical. Jim turned up at the scything festival with an English scythe he had inherited from his father. He came because he still uses it on his farm, mainly to dock thistles, but knows few other farmers who do, and wanted to see what we were all about. In a Langdale meadow, in the middle of a downpour, Jim showed us, quietly and simply, how an English scythe is supposed to be used.
It was, for me, a revelation. Jim was a natural. In his hands, this heavy, tough old tool was wielded with efective simplicity. It cut through the grass easily, and left a beautiful swath of lawnmower quality. Jim simply turned up and got on with cutting a whole strip of meadow, and gradually the rest of us stopped what we were doing and watched him. When he’d finished he smiled triumphantly and told us that these fancy foreign scythes were not a patch on the real thing.
Talking to Jim afterwards I learned a lot I didn’t know about how English scythes are and were used, and I’m now caught up in a desire to get my own and learn how to use it. I may even pluck up the courage to seek Jim out and ask him to teach me – if he has time, which farmers rarely do. But I learned something else too, and it was about the difference between an inherited and a learned tradition. Watching Jim cut that meadow was like hearing a snatch of old song that I dimly recognised but could never learn to sing. The man was part of a living tradition. He may be at the end of it, but it can still be found, even here, even now. He had learned his skills from his father, who had done the same. The same tool had been passed on, along with the knowledge of how to use it. The connection, between generations and within communities, was part of what Jim brought to that weekend.
That connection is part, I think, of what we look for when we try to revive these old skills. Yes, we want to learn all sort of practical things that we think will be of use to us, and we talk a lot about peak oil and climate change and all the rest of it, but at least part of what we are doing is trying, clumsily but genuinely, to fit ourselves back into a broken lineage. But we can never do it; the links were severed long ago. We are the deracineated generations: we can sense what we’ve lost, but it’s only when we see it in action that it really bubbles to the surface.
Yesterday I was up in Scotland at the Big Tent Festival, which is full of people working hard to reinvent these ways of life, or to build on them: permaculturists, green woodworkers, low-impact housebuilders, grassland management charities, spinners and weavers and organic food growers. Alastair McIntosh was speaking there about resilient communities, and was talking about his childhood on the Hebridean island of Lewis. Alastair grew up at the end of a dying tradition, and he spoke powerfully about it. As a child, he explained, he was taken out fishing in small boats by his ‘elders’ and taught how to bring in mackerel and herring from the bay. When the boat landed he would walk home, distributing the fish around the village as he did so. It was a close-knit community in which skills and stories were passed on down the generations.
Most of that is gone now. The island is full of people from elsewhere in Scotland and elsewhere in the world, supermarkets on the mainland provide the mainstay of most people’s diets and the young are not taught to take the fishing boats out by their elders anymore. Even if they were, they would catch nothing, for the bays around Lewis have been emptied of fish by industrial trawlers.
What is lost when these skills are not passed on, when the links are broken? Not just the skills themselves, some of which are useful and some less so, but a deep sense of inter-generational community, of being part of a human lineage, in time and in place. What comes instead are new kinds of ‘community’ – atomised individuals and nuclear families, surfing a world of astonishing ‘choice’ within their ‘communities of interest’. One of Alastair’s contentions is that planning for a different future is not simply a case of thinking about tools, fuels or housebuilding techniques, but crucially depends upon building resilience both into real, geographical communities and into the human spirit; resilient human communities are the rock on which everything else is built.
For me, seeing Jim and his scythe at work spoke of something more than ways of cutting grass. It spoke of the broken links that got us here. We can never re-forge them, but we can try to remember them, and we can pass on what we still can. We can also look wider and deeper, beyond where we are and beyond our own background and assumptions and circles of friends and acquaintances, for what still remains, and listen to what it has to say to us. Or, as Alastair put it to me: ‘seek out the elders, and ask them.’