Dog days and scarecrows

This rare old timer still gets the job done
This rare old timer still gets the job done

by Heather Elvidge

We’re well into the dog days, the hottest time of the year. And for once, they’re living up to their reputation.

Fine weather is a big bonus for the agricultural shows, some of which were cancelled last year because of waterlogged ground. This year the animals, flowers, veg, crafts, cakes and assorted fur ‘n’ feather are attracting huge crowds.

The roots of these shows stretch back to the late 18th century, a time when there was a big drive to develop agriculture. Inventors and landowners would take their improved harvest wagon or turnip-cutter from county to county, in the hope of finding buyers. New breeds of cattle, sheep and pigs were on show too.

As old-style country fairs disappeared towards the end of the 19th century, these new agricultural shows took over. Today they have something to interest everyone, although machinery equipped with the latest technology still attracts admirers.

Mammets and mawkins

One thing you won’t see at the shows is a traditional scarecrow. We’re talking about the sort made from two posts, some worn-out clothes and an old sack for a face.

Specimens like this are rare these days. Farmers no longer rely on flapping rags to protect their crops; an automatic, gas-powered bird scarer is more efficient. To see the traditional model you have to visit a smallholding or allotment.

This kind of scarecrow is slightly creepy, probably because it wears its creator’s old clothes. The resemblance grows with each refurbishment, until the scarecrow has assumed its owner’s personality as well.

Although it looks archaic now, five centuries ago this was the latest technology. Before scarecrows, newly sown fields — they were much smaller than today — were defended by children wielding wooden clappers. For a long time youngsters and scarecrows worked together: farmer and writer William Cobbett, famous for his “Rural Rides”, worked as a child bird-scarer in the 1770s.

Eventually the fields were left to the scarecrows. Because they were everywhere, they acquired many local names; in Yorkshire it was mammets, except in the East Riding where they were called mawkins. Further north, tattie-bogles were found only in potato fields.

But straw men and women weren’t confined to fields. They could crop up in a parade, dressed up to celebrate a popular character. And they were often used to show what people thought of hate-figures like Guy Fawkes, Cromwell, or Napoleon. After being paraded, the effigy would be hung, burnt, or hacked to pieces.

Then there was “rough music”, also known as “ran-tanning”, an activity carried out in rural areas to send a message to known wife-beaters or adulterers.

Men and women would march through a village bashing pans, or anything that would make a racket. With them went a straw dummy made to look like the offending party, which was set up outside the person’s house. There it stayed, to shame the offender into behaving. For extra effect the effigy was hung from a noose, enough to make most offenders pack up and leave.

Hopefully there’ll be no rough music at Muston’s Scarecrow Festival. Washed out in 2012, this year it’s back, and the organisers promise it’ll be better than ever. The fun begins on Saturday and runs until August 4, at Muston, near Filey.