Home Manx Life Manx Farming – Cultivation

Manx Farming – Cultivation

by Bernadette Weyde

Manx farmers had little understanding of crop rotation and scarcely practiced it, according to Basil Quayle, who described their farming in 1794. In the days before sown grasses or turnips were introduced to the Island, the only green crops to give a rotation were vetches, peas and beans. The aim of 18th century farmers was to get as many crops of corn from manured fields as possible, then either put the land to grass or apply a fresh dressing of manure. Famine was still a danger and the years 1739-43 were crisis years.

Grain was sown by hand ‘broadcast’ and grew in the V-shaped hollows between the furrows. Barley bread was most common in the homes of the poor. Oats were second in importance and indeed, the chief crop on upland farms. Oats were also important as the food of horses. Both barley and oats supplied porridge in addition to bread. Wheat provided bread mainly for the townsfolk, and, though this crop was grown in most areas, additional supplies of English wheat had to be imported. Of all the arable land more than half was given over to growing barley. Rye had been grown in earlier times but had become unusual by the end of the 18th century. Its existence in the past is indicated by place names such as Booil Shoggyl = Rye Fold and Knock Shoggil = Rye Hill. Vicar-General James Wilkes, reporting on the parish of Ballaugh in 1774 wrote: “The chief produce of our land are Barley, Rye, Pease and Oats, very little wheat being sown.”

Autumn sowing of wheat was the rule in the Isle of Man until the 20th century.

Potatoes were described by Waldron, who wrote in 1726, “as almost as common as grass.” The spread of this crop since 1706 was truly dramatic. Not only were they grown in the country, but also by the townspeople who had their little plots. ‘Lazy-beds’ were a favoured method of cultivation. The beds, or butts, were 2.5-3.5 metres wide. Potato cuttings (sets) rather than whole potatoes were planted. Various manures were used, including bracken and gorse tops. When ground in the uplands was being cultivated for the first time ‘lazy-beds’ were a favourite method of starting. In these beds the ‘sets’ were placed on the fertilizer and covered with spadefuls of soil from between beds. A second covering of soil was applied when the leaves appeared above ground. Dibbling of ‘sets’ was another method of planting, though planting in ridges 75cm apart was the commonest way. Traces of old ‘lazy-beds’ still used in the 19th century can be seen on Peel Hill and alongside the track from Cow Harbour to the Bird Observatory on the Calf of Man. The potato crop became of vital importance in the diet
of poorer people.

Flax and hemp are examples of crops once of some importance on the Island which were to disappear completely during the 19th century. Basil Quayle (1794) when mentioning flax, spoke of almost every farmer and cottager growing a little. The seed was sown in April, particularly on land where potatoes had grown the previous year. The stems were pulled in July and tied into small sheaves, then thrown into ‘flax dubs’ (pools) with weights attached. After a soaking of a week to ten days the adhesive substances binding the fibres in bundles about the woody inner core of the stem would have decomposed. The flax was then spread on grass to dry. Later it would go to a local flax scutching mill where the stalks would be broken and the fibres freed from the woody core. Sometimes flax was left growing until the seeds had formed and these were then removed using an iron comb. The linseed from the flax plants was used to feed cattle but was not considered as good as imported seed.

Flax growing was stimulated by a bounty from the English government and several mills were eventually established for weaving. During the heyday of the flax industry in the 19th century as much as 90,000 metres of linen were exported in one year. Flax spinning, like wool spinning, was an important cottage industry. Hemp, usually grown for net making, was a minor crop, usually confined to little gardens attached to cottages. Place-names such as Croit ny Kennipey = Hemp Croft, point to its former cultivation.

Pasture was not to be improved until c.1770 when red clover was first introduced. Meadow hay was highly valued and we have noted how the traditional quarterland included meadow land. Meadow hay was readily available from the norther Curraghs and from similar land in the central valley of the Island. The hay was cut by scythe. Thomas Quayle remarked: “The mowers who are to be procured are generally decrepit men, their juniors being usually attracted by the prospect of greater gain in the herring fishery.” Crofters, when short of grass for their animals, herded them in the ‘long acre’, i.e. the wide roadside verges.

(source: Manx Country & Farming Life 1700-1900, Resource Book (1991) by Manx Heritage Foundation; photo same source, is of carting corn to stacks)

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