Wednesday, 20 July 2016

A Time to Reap (2) – How to make a haystack

See previous post on my current serial in The People’s Friend, A Time to Reap, set in a Highland farming community in 1963. In Instalment 3, on sale 20 July, Peggy is preparing for visitors from California while her farmer husband Alec and their boys are making haystacks. 

My lack of farming knowledge is lamentable considering I was brought up on a farm. I wanted to visualise what my characters were doing so I asked my cousin David Allison, who used to farm with his father in the Highlands in the 60s, How do you make a haystack? And I liked his answer so much I wanted to share it with you. (He's the lad in the hat.)

‘Haymaking in the 1950s and early 60s was a rather long drawn-out affair, even if the weather was favourable.

The first job about the end of June or early July was mowing the grass into 5-foot long bouts (rows) and depending on the weather the cut grass was left for a few days to wilt. About 4-5 days later the bouts were mechanically turned over. If it was a warm day with a bit of wind, by the afternoon the turned grass could be gathered into rows – this was done by a hayrake (a curved pronged machine about 10’ wide) pulled by a tractor across four or five bouts. A lever on the rake was pulled and the gathered bouts were released – then the big job started of making the now single row of raked hay into heaps called ‘coles’ (local term).

This was done using a hand-held, double pronged, 8-foot pitch-fork. The coles were dome shapes of layered hay, about 4-6 feet high and a similar base. It was a bit of an art to layer the hay and another art to ‘dress’ the cole so that the outside stems of grass were vertical and tight to shed the inevitable rain. The coles were left to cure and after a few days would settle down to about 4 feet high. A buckrake (a 10-foot wide implement with a series of 5-foot long pointed tines) was fitted onto the back of the tractor’s hydraulic linkage. The buckrake was reversed under the cole which was then transported to a corner of the field to be made into ‘rucks’.

Rucks were built on the same principle as coles and up to eight coles were used to make a ruck – they would stand about 10-12’ high. A couple of ‘hemp’ ropes (tied to a brick, four to five feet off the ground) were placed over the ruck. Over time the ruck would settle down to about 8 feet high.

A few weeks later the rucks were made into round stacks. This was a major operation as stacks were about 16-20 feet high, with a 16-foot diameter base (the radius of the pitch-fork). The side of the stack went straight up for about 10 feet, then coned into a peak. If the hay in the coles and rucks were properly layered it made the stacker’s job a lot easier.

The layers of hay were forked to the stacker’s assistant, whose job it was to place the fork-full of layered hay neatly in front of the stacker who equally and neatly locked each layer. There were usually three circles or rounds of layered hay, each going further out from the centre of the stack and each circle layer locked upon the other. As the stack got higher the hay from the ruck was forked onto a trailer, then onto to the stack. The stacker used a ladder to place the last few forkfulls to make the cone peak. Then the cone and the side of the stack were dressed using a wooden pegged hand rake. Later the stack was netted and or roped down. Stacks could be left in the field until the following March or even April.

I’m amazed now at the continual mental calculations that the stacker would have had to make in order to end up with a symmetrical 20-foot structure without any sophisticated measuring device.

There was great rivalry in the farming districts between farm workers as to who made the neatest and symmetrical stacks. Many Sunday afternoons were spent walking to stackyards to pass judgement and of course great play was made of poorly shaped stacks – with the unfortunate stacker reminded of his efforts long after the stack was carted away.’

The second and third pictures are from the wonderful Scottish Life Archive 
© National Museums Scotland


  1. Still with you and the story. How fascinating research is when you get into the detail.

  2. Yes, I love the research. Thank you – hope you enjoy the rest of the serial.