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Biggin da Dess By Hazel Sutherland

Hazel Sutherland's essay (2004) recalls a major annual task on the croft: ' Biggin da Dess' (building the haystack).

Fae New Shetlander No 230, 2004.

Hazel Sutherland says ‘I hed not written onything, idder dan formal stuff for wark, fae I left da styul, but I wis draan ta Alex Cluness’ nightclass on Creative Writing in da winter a 2004, an inspired ta write dis piece when Alex set wis hamewark ta write aboot wir childhood memories.’

Wir folk wir aye on an amp until da hay wis in. So, when da day dawned wi a warm south easterly wind an blue sky wi da promise o a good few hours o sunshine, we knew we wir in for a day in da lower toon. We couldno start afore ten o’clock or else da grund wid still be damp wi dew fae da night afore. Afore da haands a da clock wan roond ta ten, Dad wid be oot in da garden, bendin doon wi his palm on da grund ta check how da dew was doin an if da grund wis dry enough yet. I don’t know why. Ten o’clock wis da rule. Ten o’clock it wis. Mam said so an Mam wis da keeper o da Hay Rules.

Dressed in t-shirts an shorts an sandshun, we head ta da lower toon. Surroonded by fences ta keep oot da sheep an separated inta patchwork squares wi deep, broon ditches sliced oot o da grund. Once bright green an lush fae da fertilizer ta force on da girse, now lyin dull wi criss-crossed roogs o creamy green hay gently curin. Each peerie park is a bite-sized junk; just manageable wi Granny an Auld Daa’s labour wi nae help fae machinery. But dir kept da same size an cured in da same order. Some hae da girse laid oot as it wis cut, but teased inta orderly drills wi da flick o da rake. Some are colled inta peerie roonded heaps o hay, with a tapered top an a net to hadd him at peace fae da wind. For aa dir particular finish, dir aye een teen a cant ta da easterd. Dat’ll be een dat Dad bigged!

We march in line fae wir hoose ta da byre to pick up wir rakes. My rake is special. It wis Auld Daa’s winter’s wark, sitting on his seat in da byre in his black an white gansey, blue dungarees an short, black rubber boots. Da haandle is rubbed smooth, made fae a saft, light wid; nae fear o a splinter. My een haes a short handle, cis I’m no very tall. Auld Daa tweated da teeth a me rake oot o a bit o hard wid; no square peg in a roond hole for me but fashioned neatly ta fit tighter dan a screw. He carved me name inta da haandle wi his gentle an contented haand. I lik ta trace me name wi me finger, feelin da hard ridges an grooves dat spells me. I twirl me rake aroond in my haand as we walk doon past da tattie rig. Open da grinnd. Shut da grinnd ahint you. I keen, I keen, don’t let da sheep oot. Past where da dess will be bigged, laid ready wi a line o pallets an da nets an da stanes, waitin for dir fill.

Open da grinnd ta da lower toon. Yes, I keen, shut da grinnd. Keep da sheep oot. I set doon my rake, gently, an set aff runnin, leapin across da broon ditches, enjoyin da freshness a da day. Da first job is to bal oot aa da coles. I lik ta dive bomb dem, laandin in da middle an slidin ower da idder end, ower an ower again till I get dem flattened.

Next, we set to ta turn da hay on da parks at’s no been colled yet. Back an fore, twa tae a park wi a regimented order, born o years o practice. Start at da edge an work ta da middle. One step up, work oot fae da middle ta da edges o da burn. Turn it ower. Don’t just pull it. Flick it ower. Turn da weet side up oot o da weet, dewy grund. Turn its face ta da sun. Don’t walk on da turned-up stuff; leave it light an fluffy ta let da wind blaa it dry an da sun bake oot da weet. In an oot, oot an in, up da rig. Turn aroond, da sam again.

Dat job done, we hae a break. Always keepin a wadder eye ta look oot for any rain clouds. If wir lucky, Granny might hae a sweetie for wis in da pooch o her pinny. Some-een aye purlin wi da hay. Ir we laid it oot thin enough? Is it dryin aa right? Will we manage to get it in afore da rain comes?

Efter dinner, it’s back doon da toon, ready ta rake it trow aa ower again. Dusty da ginger tom cat followin me, fed up wi naebody at da hoose an curious to see whit’s goin on. I hide him in da hay an pile him up intae a bundle. Wi da creamy tip o his swishin tail pokin oot trow da hay, he’s ready ta pounce. Oot he springs, peltin up da rig. Dan, more rakin; back an fore, oot an in, up an doon da rigs. I always get blisters in da same place every year; een on my palm under my middle finger an een atween me thumb an fore finger.

Hit’ll surely be dry noo. More triffilin an gadderin it up in dir bozy for a cuddle an ta bury dir face in da crisp hay, to smell da freshness an test for dryness. Spreadin dir airms oot as dey let it faa wi a light dustin haand. Hay crinkles when it’s ready.

At last, hit’s passed Mam’s dryness tests an wir ready ta bigg. First, rakin it aa inta strips. First rake fae da edge an inta da middle. Dan in fae da ends o da rigs inta bundles in da middle. I turn my rake aroond ta get a better leverage an bend doon ta push as much as I can as hard as I can. Rigs raked till dir bare; sometimes gadderin up da new green sprigs pokin trow in wir aet ta catch every blade.

Uncle Robbie haes dis wye a carryin da hay like a kishie but wi nets carried ower his back, held tagidder wi da ropes at da front. He starts aff bent doon, one knee on da grund while he gets his bundle shaken inta place. Slowly, he rises, takin da weight ower his leegs, shigglin his pack ta get da right balance, ee haand at his back haddin him steady. Bent for’ard ower wi his perfectly balanced bundle.

Mam supervises da biggin a da dess, settin da steid just da right size for dis year’s crop. Layerin an spreadin, pooin an tuggin ta tame da straands inta da right shape. Wir a manual production line fae rakin inta roogs on da rig to teasin an taperin da dess. Mam biggs until da dess gets too high for her to reck on tap. Dan Dad taks ower; but Mam circles ahint him, watchin an pooin an tuggin da dess inta shape. Dir aye kempin ta get da best taper, like hospital corners. It needs just da right narrowin o da sides as da dess grows an grows. Higher an higher he grows, absorbin endless scurtfoos a hay wapped up fae da grund. Oot comes da ladder to get mair height apun him.

By dis time, da rigs are clean an wir staandin aroond watchin an waitin. Dan it’s time fur da best bit. Up da ladder we go to stamp doon da dess, up an doon, squashin him doon tae a workable height. I lie in da middle an Dad covers me wi scurtfoos, dan I’m up an off again trampin him doon; a for’ard flop here, a back flop ower dere; he’ll hadd a grain yet. Me peerie legs workin hard, buxin trow da dess wi da hard tufts a girse, scratchin my bare legs an leavin red welts up ta me knees. What a sweet, fresh smell!

Endless circlin da dess; mair proddin an pooin. Wir aa at grund level noo an ballin up scurtfoos for Dad to pit on tap but most o it faain back doon on da grund again as it’s way abun wir heads. Aa dat’s left now is ta tap him aff wi da coorse, weet stuff foo a dockens an sooriks. Mam’s no done yet; she’s rakin doon da sides, like a body reddin dir hair ta mak it neat an tidy. Sculptured inta dat age-auld frame ta haad aff da lang winter winds an rain; like sheep’s ain oo.

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