The Manx farmyard was known as ‘the Street’ and around it stood the stable, cowhouses, barn and pigsty. The ‘midden’ was never far from the stable and cowhouses and here the poultry were often busy scratching. The farmyards of the past were alive with the crowing of the cockerel, the quacking of ducks, the calls of geese, cattle and pigs. They were very much mixed farms with a variety of stock.
Near a crofter’s cottage there might be a goat tethered to a ‘kibbin – a stake drawn into the ground. The free-range poultry were often a problem in the summer when they went into a field of newly sown corn. Crofters sometimes tied small pieces of sacking over a hen’s claws to prevent it scratching the corn, or else took the hens away to the hills, making little round sod hen houses with thatched roofs there whilst their precious crops were growing.
Arrangement of Buildings
The buildings around the ‘street’ in the 18th century tended to be rather scattered with each building standing by itself. Later developments, first seen on the bigger quarterland farms, led to more planned farmyards with the buildings arranged in blocks at right angles to one another. On the large farms progressive farmers of the 19th century would arrange the buildings in a quadrangle. Earlier thatched outbuildings gave way to ones with slate roofs and single storey buildings were replaced by two storey buildings. This had already happened on the quarterland farms in the 18th century. Small Manx slates were used for roofing at first; larger, thinner Welsh ones later.
Barns, Stables & Cowsheds
On the upper storey there was often a barn above the cowhouse where hay and straw for the animals was kept. Pigeon holes could be seen along the front or gable of the barn. Early barns usually had two doors opposite one another to give a good draught when the farmer was winnowing his corn on a breezy day. The buildings usually had half-doors so that the top could be open, but the bottom half closed. Farm buildings were whitewashed like the farmhouse, or if not, at least whitewashed around the doors. Wooden shutters could be seen instead of windows on certain farms and there were farmers who said that cows milked better in a dark cowhouse. Larger farms, of course, had more out-buildings. Extra ones added in later times would include a cartshed, turnip house, calf houses and ‘loose boxes’ for cattle, sometimes also a boiler house where large quantities of potatoes were steamed for animal food.
The stable was an important building. Two pairs of horses for ploughing and carting were often necessary, with three pairs on large farms. Each horse would have a separate stall with a rack and manger in front. The back part of stables and cowhouses was often made of cobble stones. Wooden pegs or hooks held the harness, collar, cart saddle, bridle and other items. In earlier times horses fed from a wooden box-like manger, in later times a glazed trough at the right height replaced the wooden manger. The stalls were usually divided off by wooden planks nailed to posts which were set in the floor and reached the ceiling. In 18th century cowhouses, large flat stones on edge were used to divide the stalls and the cattle were often tethered to projecting stone pegs with holes through.
Smaller Farmyard Features
The ‘mucklagh’ or pigsty was often shared by the poultry. The hens roosted on perches set up inside the pigsty and could move in or out through a special opening in the outer wall. This kind of sty, sometimes with a curved thatched roof, was typical of the crofts. A specially made goose nest might be built in a nearby hedge. Beekeeping was widespread in the 18th century and the straw hives or ‘skeps’ were placed in recesses in a wall.
Not far from the house would be the outside toilet known as the ‘Thie Veg’ (little house). In another direction would be the well, so important in days before there was piped water. Much water was required for the farm animals. The site of the farmyard depended as much as anything upon where water was available and where there was most shelter. Sometimes a pump was necessary. There was usually a large water trough on the ‘street’ for the animals to drink from.
Close to the ‘street’ would be the ‘haggard’, or stackyard. The field nearest to the farm was usually called ‘Naaie’ and this home field benefited from being so close to the ‘midden’. In later times a special pump for liquid manure pumped this up from an underground pit by the midden for use as a fertilizer.
Farmyard Clues to the Past
There were certain features of the older ways of farming which died out during the 19th century and only ruins of these have survived. One important building on 18th century farms was the corn-drying kiln. Because fire was used in it, the kiln would be constructed well away from the stacks in the ‘haggard’. When grain had been thrashed and winnowed it was dried over a slow fire in the corn kiln. The kiln was often built of sods and turf was used for the fire. Grain was placed on a rack above the fire. The rack might be a wooden framework or a metal sheet. The drying had to be done slowly so that the grain was not scorched. After the grain had been dried in the kiln it was ready to be taken to the miller for grinding. In later times, grain was dried at the mill and by the 19th century the old kilns were grass covered ruins.
Another of the old farming methods which went on longer in some areas, was bruising gorse to prepare it as winter feed for the animals. Old farmyards had a trough, usually made of pieces of flat stone on edge and in this, young gorse was ‘bruised’ with a mallet before feeding it to cattle or horses. Bruised gorse was said to put a shine on a horse ‘just like a rook’s wing.’ On some of the large farms special ‘gorse mills’ with interlocking metal teeth on rollers prepared gorse for animal food.
The old farms had a flax dub where the sheaves of flax were soaked in preparation for being sent to a flax mill. A little wet patch with rushes growing may be all that is left of this.
When we visit farmyards today we often see out-of-date farm implements once pulled by horses, or perhaps the remains of a ‘horse-walk’ outside a barn where there was once a horse-operated thrashing mill. There are many clues to past life to be seem on old farm ‘streets’.
(source: ‘Manx Farming & Country Life’ school resource materials © MNH (1991); all photographs © MNH courtesy of the imuseum.im)