I’m not talking about one of those twee things you see in nativity plays. I’m talking about a real manger. Years ago I was on a walking holiday in Iceland and we were well and truly in the wilds. We’d got permission to sleep in the shielings, these are the huts or bothies used by locals for when they have to accompany their animals out at pasture.
As you might imagine they varied from basic to squalid. Some were merely dry-stone huts with stone and sod roofs. In some you could barely stand upright. Yet others were bigger and often incorporated corrugated iron in the structure. Some had bits where sheep had obviously been kept, but one, the largest, had a manger and hayrack. Whether they’d tied ponies or cattle there I’m not sure.
Still I looked at the various places to sleep, the floor was starting to look crowded so I cleaned any rubbish out of the manger and slept in that. It was longer than I was tall and wider across than my shoulders, so there was plenty of room. With my carry-mat down first, I could crawl into my sleeping bag and be more comfortable than I had been for a while. I remember going out in the middle of the night to look at the Northern Lights. Inside the sheiling wasn’t a lot warmer than outside the sheiling. The older ones with the sod roofs and thick dry-stone walls kept far warmer than those build with corrugated iron.
I can remember my father talking about various sorts of cattle housing. The tradional shippon (or byre) would have cattle tied up by the neck on a raised boose. In some places there’d be a passage in front of the cattle where you could walk up and down and feed them from. This was known as the fothergang or foddergang. Behind the cattle was the muck channel, gripe or group. I’ve worked with cattle in these shippons and if you had a hay loft above, they kept really snug. In the old ones without water, cattle would be allowed out to drink and then tied up again, but eventually water was piped in and each cow had a water bowl of her own. Finally cattle would be fastened to a vertical bar using a cowband running on a ‘ringwiddy’.
Surprising how many of these words are from the Norse, and interestingly I’ve seen the excavation reports from the Norse farms on Greenland and they built their shippons in just the same way to much the same dimensions.
My father remembered when he first started farm work before the war; in winter the shippon door would always be kept shut except when somebody was going in or out. Indeed in some farms, the finger hole in the door, which allowed you to lift the latch on the inside, even had a plug that you could stick in it to stop draughts. Nowadays everything would die of pneumonia, including the men working there, but it never seemed to be a problem back then.
In my time we moved from shippons to the cubicle house where the cow is free to walk about, get up, lie down, go to eat or drink, just as she fancies. It might or might not be better for animal welfare, who knows, but built of modern materials they’re never as snug as the old shippons were. Mind you, they’re a lot less work for the people looking after them. No more faffing about with a shovel and a wheelbarrow, a tractor scraper cleans them out in a tenth of the time.
I remember one Christmas Eve, we were just about finished milking on a night, which means it must have been about 6pm. This means it would be dark. I hadn’t finished with the cattle in one shippon so I’d left the light on. As I walked across the yard in the darkness, the shippon door, with a yellowish light spilling out of it, somehow seemed warm and even Christmassy. Walking in amongst quiet cattle who’d been fed their mixed ration and were just waiting for me to throw their hay in front of them was almost restful.
There’s something about working amongst cattle in those circumstances. They’re dry, comfortable and full. There’s the scent of their breath in the air and nobody is bullying anybody so none of them are stressed.
It’s when a stirk casually scratches his head on your leg as you go to put the hay in front of him, while his mate in the same boose doesn’t think your presence warrants standing up for, that you realise you’re an accepted part of their world.
It’s funny, to me, that has always been the world of the Nativity. Forget sheep, nobody in their right mind houses sheep unless you’ve got blizzards coming. Yes, a donkey wouldn’t be out of place, but for me it’s the cattle that make it. Their casual curiosity, the warm breath, the soft questing nose with a long tongue which will tentatively wrap itself about anything that looks as if it might be edible.
Walk among cattle lying snug on Christmas Eve and you can almost hear the soft voice of a young mother soothing her child.
Merry Christmas to you all.
Welcome to my world