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The Art of the Scythe

by Sir Stephen Tallents

(This article first appeared in Strand Magazine, July 1947)

Writing as gracefully as the man with the scythe works, a distinguished countryman discusses one of the great and beautiful arts of the fields.


And the Mower whets his scythe.

Milton couples and rhymes that music with that of the milkmaid. Tennyson recalls another song of the blade:

O sound to rout the brood of cares,

The sweep of scythe in morning dew.

There are few surely in whom those lines do not stir some memory. But today the whetting and wielding of the scythe is a vanishing art. How many of those who enjoy that music are themselves able to evoke it ?

Let me try, by recounting my own experience, to enlist some apprentices to the craft. Handling a scythe for the first time in middle age, I can now claim to be a proficient mower. I bought my first scythe on an impulse, because the grasses and nettles in front of my house were getting out of hand. I still remember how awkwardly I first shouldered my new weapon; how solicitously the man, who had just heated it in his forge and hung it for me, steered my scythe and me through the door on our homeward way.

I am ashamed nowadays to think how I bullied that first blade of mine. I whetted it abominably. I slashed at the grasses when I should have guided the blade serenely through them. I caught my edge in a tree. I embedded my point in the ground and bent it in the extrication. A point once bent never recovers its full strength; and, before the season was out, my first scythe was blunt and pointless.

Yet I enjoyed even these first days of uncouth and laborious effort. Since then, summer by summer, I have added to my experience and skill. Now I can claim to have' mown hay to a farmer's approval. Last autumn, fitting a bow to my scythe, I cut a field of wheat for the first time. I had covenanted in the spring with some neighbours, who had sown half an acre of wheat near their house, to reap their harvest for them. They, I could see, were sceptical — I was a little doubtful myself — about the due performance of this contract. But when, seizing the opportunity of a fine morning in the middle of rise rainy autumn, I cut .my first swathe of their stiff-necked wheat, I knew, at once that here was an easier prey than grass. The family followed me up and down the field, gathering the fallen wheat into sheaves and piling them into stooks. By supper-time the job was finished.

There is a common belief that the scythe is dangerous to its user and that a man may cut off his legs with it. Scythes were used as weapons of war in Cromwell's day; and 300 years later a pilot making a forced landing in Hampshire was faced with villages armed with them. But to him who wields it a scythe is far less dangerous than an axe. Its long shaft keeps the blade at a distance; and the only real danger to be thought about is that of cutting one's first finger when whetting.

Another common belief, against which Miss Margaret Leigh and Miss Sackville West have separately protested, is that mowing with a scythe is beyond the strength of women. A competent girl pupil of my own will join them in exposing this fallacy. If the blade be really sharp and properly used, "no one;"as Miss Leigh has said, "need tire at scything." But proper use implies both knowledge and experience.

The scythe is trustee for some good old English words, few of them to be found in the dictionary, that vary in their spellings and vary from district to district. Its shaft, generally of willow or ash, is the "snath" or "sned' Its two handles are known as "doles," "rubs" or "nogs".An old Wiltshire champion told me once that his nog were made of apple wood, baked for two hours after their shaping. The hook which fastens the heel of the blade to the snath is called the "tang":the riveted rib of steel, which strengthens the back of the blade, the " chine."


I have come across many different rules for the proper adjustment of a scythe. But "no two men,” it has been well said, "mow alike" and everyone must suit himself. Personally I find a formula which a Lincolnshire man once gave me about fits my style:

The distance between the heel and lower nib of the scythe should equal the distance between your heel and a point just below the hip bone. The distance between the two nibs should be that between your elbow and your fingertips. To get the correct angle between blade and snath, put the snath behind the left shoulder with the lower nib pressed against your back. The tip of the blade should then reach the thumbnail of your extended right arm.

Good mowing depends above all on the skilful whetting of the blade. “There's more in whettin' nor in mowin,” an old countryman used justly to say. Here, too, there are varieties of counsel and practice. German prisoners, I am told,, taken in the 1914 war, used to sharpen their scythes by working the stone from toe to heel of the blade ; and I have seen a Russian postage stamp of a later date which showed that some Russians at least did the same. But the English practice is to sharpen the blade from heel to toe.

Whetting, as I know it, begins at the heel with the tin of the scythe resting on the ground (or, in expert hands which must have it kept clean, resting on the toe of the boot or on a rag). Then the blade is lifted, the top end of the snath is planted firmly on the ground behind one's shoulder, the chine in front of it is gripped with the left hand. My earliest counsellor caught me to pay special attention to the heel and toe, and to give the blade a last light backward brush with the stone: One should stand, as one sharpens, with the light falling on the blade over one's left shoulder; for thus one could better see how the stone was bearing on the edge of the blade. I have since come across an old tradition that the blade under the stone should point north or south; and a scientific friend says then may possibly be good reason for this, akin to that which demands that a ship's keel should be so laid in the shipbuilding yard.

Once the mower has got the hang of his scythe adjusted to his height and physique and has learned to whet his blade correctly, the worst of the battle is over — but not the whole of it. He then has to learn so to wield his scythe that it cuts the grass close to the ground with the least possible effort to himself. This is an accomplishment which only the practice of seasons can bring him ; but there are plenty of simple injunctions for his guidance.

He should note which way the grass is lying and cut it from behind. He will find it easier to cut when it is damp with the dew or rain. He should bring his scythe round with a movement akin to that of a half mashie stroke at golf, relying, as with a saw, on the combined weight and sharpness of his blade, rather than his own effort, to do the cutting. He should keep the heel of his scythe close to the ground and the toe an inch or two above it.

The width of his swathe will depend partly on his own strength and suppleness, partly on the nature of the ground and the weight of the crop. In the south a swathe of six feet is satisfactory; among the sparser crops of the north-west the swathe will be longer. I have read that in North Wales they look for swathes of ten feet six, and in Cumberland of twelve feet. A good mower in a straightforward field of grass will put in about 30 strokes a minute.

Once a man has mastered a good and rhythmical style of mowing, he will find satisfaction and indeed delight in its exercise. Tolstoy, under the scarcely veiled disguise of Levin, described this in the best account of mowing in literature — the scene on Mashkin Hill in Anna Karenina:

"The longer Levin went on mowing, the oftener he experienced those moments of oblivion when his arms no longer seemed to swing the scythe, but the scythe itself his whole body, so conscious and full of life." "You would hardly believe,"

says Levin that evening to his brother, who had spent the day indoors solving chess problems,

"what a remedy it is for every kind of folly."

To-day the mower is generally a solitary reaper. But in the old days, before the coming of the machine cutter, men mowed in teams. Levin on Mashkin Hill was one of a team of 42 men. Old farmers have told me of English teams of as many as nine men, each with his five-quart cider keg, working under the direction of their "lordy," and mowing from four in the morning till eight at night. The old rhyme that begins "One man went to mow" built up, it will be remembered, to a team of ten. Teams of mowers used to travel regularly in the hay harvest from Hertfordshire to Middlesex. The nearest approach to a team mowing that I have seen was the line of competitors at the Bath and West Show in 1937.

I have come across old farm accounts which, in 1815 and again in 1851, recorded two shillings an acre as the mower's reward. A good man, it is reckoned, should be able to mow an acre a day; a fine performer an acre and a half. Still, in mowing as elsewhere, there is much to be said for solitude. You can go at your own pace, you can think your thoughts and, I suspect, you will make better use of your eyes. I seldom come in from my mowing without some fresh detail of the countryside observed, some new glimpse of it etched on my memory. From the closing September day of my season last autumn, I brought in a haunting view of setting sunlight reflected in the blade of my scythe.

There is a whole literature of mowing that runs far back into English history ; runs, too, across Europe, southward through the Pyrenees, eastward through Russia. It reflects sometimes, as in Milton and Tennyson, the delight of one who has enjoyed the sights and sounds of mowing; sometimes, as in Tolstoy, the active experience of a mower; sometimes the mind of one who has thought on the fate of the falling flowers and glasses. The loveliest lament for them that I know is that of the anonymous 16th century poem : "Ay mee, ay mee, I sigh to see the sythe afield." Marvell, in the refrain to his Mower's Song, writes with the trace of a like sympathy: When Juliana came, and she, What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me. Of all this I am reminded when I look up at the two crossed scythes, blade and snath ready for action, which I have hung as a winter decoration on the wall of the room where I write. I lately set myself to discover what was the finest scythe now made by English craftsmen. One of my pair is of the make to which those inquiries guided me. The other has been my companion through the last two mowing seasons and still has plenty of work in it. I should like to think that this record of my own experience may lure someone — man or woman—to become apprentice to this delightful art. If any such there be, I wish him or her, as I wish myself, good mowing during this summer.


Decorations by TR Poulton

This article originally appeared in TATHS Newsletter No 105, Summer 2009.

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