Remembering James Finlay

Sun, 19/05/2024 - 12:11pm

David's father - James Finlay - recently passed away, just a few weeks short of his 101 birthday.

James was a remarkable man who lived an active and very full life. Ten years ago, in his early 90s, James gave a talk about cheese making at Rainton Farm. We had recently embarked on restarting cheese making - something that James was very supportive of - and it was wonderful to hear his memories of how things used to be done.

We thought you might enjoy reading his words.

Change of Hell and a new devil!

Ladies & Gentlemen, Welcome to Cream o’ Galloway whose ideas and experiments are prevalent so that there is never a dull moment.

I have been asked to give a picture of farm cheese making seventy years ago as a warm up. 

The farm in the thirties was a little empire with class distinction, but with mutual respect.  The farmer had a car and the dairyman a motor cycle and the rest had cycles if they were lucky.  The dairyman was his own boss on the bigger farms where he could be a self employed contractor in some form.  At harvest time he could offer labour and I remember the greatest sight I could see was John McCarlie coming out to the harvest field to help me fork sheaves on to the carts after his long day cheese making and milking.

The shepherd was a part time farm worker in times of stress depending on the sheep, fencing and dyking requirements.

The foreman gave the detailed orders to the ploughman and general farm workers who could be women. Peggy Cannon was as good as a man and had a way with horses.

The houses were tied to the job and contracts could finish at May or Nov terms when the road could be full of horse and carts loaded with all the cotters goods, before lorries were available.

Story:  The farmer says to the ploughman “Are ye staying on?”. “Na” was the reply.
“Why for na?” asks the farmer. “Just for a change o’ hell and a new devil”’

And of course the dark cloud on the sky was the threat of war.

For many years, before transport was easy, the only way the isolated milk producer could market his produce was to turn the milk into cheese and the whey into pigs thus doubling his return from the milk from 3d per gallon to 6d per gallon. The farmers near habitation could sell direct to the housewife or their milk round. And so developed a respected class of craftsmen and their families who undertook to carry out all the work of management of the cows in the larger herds.

The cows calved in the Spring ready to go out to graze the new grass so that the heavy chore of feeding turnips and straw in the byre and mucking out the dung up the greasy midden plank was replaced by the lighter and more interesting one of milking, feeding calves milk and pigs on the whey from the cheese making.  Usually a single young man was employed which were difficult to get so we here had Herbert Heil, a German prisoner of war, who was at the Twynholm camp and stayed with the dairyman, becoming good family friends with whom we are still in touch.

The discipline of dairy boy produced some excellent young men who in time could take on a dairy of their own. Sometimes a Bowing agreement where the dairyman rented the cows grazing and winter rations for a rent of 2 stones (at 24lbs) of first class cheese as decided by the cheese grader who at 2 months could determine what cheese would go on to mature as a first class product to compete with Canadian imports or what cheeses would be better eaten quickly or be processed in a silver paper product.  With the best will in the world the final product of a hard day’s work did not always make the grade if the starter was playing up.  With the profits from his pigs and the balance of the milk, after paying his rent, these men often took farms. I asked Wilma if she was going to discuss the effect of starters.  She said ‘No because she didn’t understand them. They were ‘magic’. Cheese is really a form of fermented milk and acid production is carried out by starter cultures. In 1873 Pasteur discovered “lactococcus cremoris” for cheese starters to accelerate and direct the fermentation. It was found to be the answer to discolouration by cooling the night milk and adding to the mixed morning milk.

The process of cheese making is an ancient craft that dates back thousands of years and is still a complicated one that combines “art and science” together. Milk is protein, fat, lactose and minerals and the basic steps of cheesemaking is the adding of a starter bacterial culture to the mixed night and morning milk after milking. One hour later the coagulant rennet is added, producing a solid soft curd that is sliced by horizontal and vertical knives to small squares.  These are cooked by warming by steam the water in the double sided vat. At a certain acidity the harder curd settles at the bottom of the vat as the whey is run off to feed the pigs from the whey tank. The firm curd is scooped into a rack with a cloth on draining boards to dry out and start the cheddaring process which forms a rubbery substance that is ready for milling into pieces that can absorb salt. This finished in the chisset inside a cloth and is gently pressed to form a solid mould that is bandaged after scalding creates a skin. Upstairs the cheese loft and daily turning in the dales that turned 6 cheeses at 80lb each a time. I remember carting cheese to Kirkcudbright train station with Charlie the horse who refused to face the hill with fifteen 80lb cheeses on the cart.

In 1823-26, my great grandfather made 2,200 gallons of whisky at the Stell (still) near Kirkcudbright according to a book “Industrial Archaeology of Galloway”.  He is reported to have said that he made ‘good whisky, good friends and no money’ so he landed at Ross, Borgue as tenant farmer on the Isle Estate where I was born and bred.  The 70 cow herd managed by Sam Hogg a wounded survivor of the PBI, a piper - cheese maker with whom I served an apprenticeship in the dairy which nearly killed me by the sheer slog of hard work seven days a week, so I can appreciate the heroes and heroines of family cheese endeavours.  The dairy house and cheese dairy were together so that meals and work could be co-ordinated such as stirring curd while cooking.

I was saved from hand milking by the milking machine invented by Nicholson of Bombie who thought there must be something better than facing fighting women who came to milk their quota of ten cows night and morning. I remember especially the carrying of whey to the pigs when Sam said ‘It took Hitler to teach us to feed pigs profitably’ as the war had cut out bought in-feed for pigs which managed well on whey alone.

As he slid off his clogs on the boiler house he used to say “The end of a perfect day”. I noted the red weal on his lower leg. The war wound was heeling too quickly in hospital and his fear of returning to the front induced him to pour a bottle of red ink into the bandages, a court martial offence alleviated by the family loss of two sons already. 

We were privileged to work and deal with the cream of the countryside in the cheese world until it finished in 1973 at Ross farm. Wilma could be in the Guinness Book of Records as the only one to have restarted cheese making on a farm that had a history of 150 years of the craft.

By James Finlay

From a talk in 2014 about restarting cheesemaking at Rainton Farm

A photo of James Finlay
James Finlay