Naming the parts of the cowhouse

We’ve already mentioned the origins for some of the words used to name the parts of a cowhouse in Swaledale, but we’ve now brought these all together to go with a nicely labelled drawing of a cut-away cowhouse.

Swaledale barn parts

Booses/buses –  the stalls where the cows were tied. A wooden post in the middle of a buse allowed two cows to be tied side-by-side without bumping into each other. Probably from the Old Norse ‘bas’ meaning box.

Skelbuse – wooden or sometimes stone-built division between the hay store (mew) and the cow stalls (booses). From Old Norse ‘skelja’ meaning to divide & ‘bas’ meaning box. Also called the boose’yead (ie boose-head) in Upper Swaledale.

Group or groop – stone-lined channel behind the stalls (booses), where the cow muck collected.  From Old Norse word ‘grop’ meaning drain or open sewer.                                                                                                                                                 Boskins – wooden panels or large flagstones forming the division between the stalls (booses), again possibly from Old Norse ‘bas’ meaning box.

 Mew – large open part of the cowhouse where the hay to feed the cows was stored, right up to the rafters. The word ‘mew’ can have the meaning of ‘to shut away or confine’ but in this case it is more likely to come from the Old English ‘mūga‘ and Old Norse ‘múgi’ having meanings of stack, swathe or crowdAnd indeed ‘mow’ descends from these too.

Rudster or rudstake – wooden post to which cattle were tied using a chain, from the Old English ‘rodd’ probably related to Old Norse ‘rudda’ meaning club

 Settlestanes – stones forming a kerb along the back edge of the cow stall. From the Old English ‘stān’ for stone.

Truffs/throughstones – long stones binding together the inner and outer skin of the walls, usually projecting in parallel lines on the outside of the cowhouse.

Foddergang – passage-way linking byre to mew along which hay was carried to feed the cows, from the Old Norse ‘fóthr’ feed & ‘gangr’ to go.

Baux/baulks – wooden loft over cow stalls where green hay and bracken for bedding was stored. Early ‘stick-baux’ were made from wooden poles interwoven with heather. More recent baux were made from sawn planks of wood. From the Old Norse ‘balkr’ and Old English ‘balc’.

Forking’ole A small opening with a door, built high up in the back wall of the mew through which hay was forked into the mew.

 Muck’ole Cow muck collected behind the tethered cows in the group. It was regularly shovelled outside through the muck hole located at the end of the group nearest the hay meadow. The pile of muck was then spread by hand onto the field in order to feed the next hay crop. Muck comes from the Old Norse word ‘myki’ meaning manure or dirt.

Recess – a small hole built into the inside wall of the byre where a tin ‘budget’ or backcan for carrying milk might be rested along with a candle or lantern or perhaps cattle medicines and a milking pail and stool or ‘coppy’. There were no windows or electric lights inside the cowhouse.

Ventilation holes – hay that hadn’t completely dried could heat up and sometimes catch fire so good ventilation into the mew was essential.

Doors into mew and byre – different cowhouses have different arrangements and numbers of doors. A cowhouse with a single door into the cow byre end is probably an earlier type than one with doors into both the byre and mew. Sometime doors were inserted into older cowhouses. Sometimes they were closed up and new ones created. All part of the individual cowhouse’s story.

Barn owls

While we were filming inside one of the cowhouses near Keld last week, we sadly found a dead barn owl. It had died some time ago but we checked it over and found that it had a British Trust for Ornithology leg ring so we asked our Wildlife team to send it off for us.

Barn Owl (photo: Whitfield Benson)

Barn owls aren’t a common sight up in the Dales and it seems that numbers in Britain declined through the 20th century but are now recovering. They’ve had a particularly good breeding season in the Dales this year. Oddly enough we saw one flying alongside the road near Ribblehead the following day when returning from a trip up to Swaledale.

The BTO report came back really quickly and we discovered that the bird was male and had been ringed in the nest in August 2014 about 14km away in Cumbria. The floor of the cowhouse we found it in was thick with owl pellets so we assume that it’s been used as a roost/nesting place for generations of these wonderful creatures. Some barns were built with small ‘owl holes’ high up on the gable ends as these birds were a welcome visitor helping to keep rodent numbers down.

Filming Muker’s cowhouses

There’s lots going on at the moment including our film makers being out and about capturing footage of hay meadows and cowhouses. They began with a morning recording Karen Griffiths, the Every Barn project lead and Sue Wrathmell, the project’s historic buildings specialist talking about how to date cowhouses. They visited Willy Greens and Jordan Close cowhouses near Aygill and had a great time inspite of the showers.

We are employing a North Yorkshire-based company called Aberration Films to do most of the filming and editing and have been most impressed so far – there’s quite a bit of walking involved lugging camera and lighting equipment and the cowhouses themselves are dark and pretty dirty inside so it’s no picnic!

After filming around Aygill, the team moved on to interview Chris Calvert  talking about his childhood memories of working with his dad at various farms in the area. His wife Glenda took some great pics and has featured them on her Pry House blog

The imps of Pith Hill – update

We loved tracking down the locations for Arthur Harwood Brierley’s nineteenth century story about the unmusical imps of Pith Hill cowhouse. Will Swales who first alerted us to the story has now done some further research and seems to have identified the real person behind the unfortunate schoolteacher in the story and why it was that he was so unpopular in Muker. Read all about it on his Swaledale history blog. 

We wondered how people in those days would have pictured an imp and found this wonderful stone carving of a mischievous imp on Lincoln Cathedral – very scary!

Lincoln Cathedral imp

Cowhouse stories: Dorothy Brown

Sunny days out mowing, drying and bringing in the hay or ‘haytiming’ as it is known up in Swaledale sound like a rather idyllic way to spend your childhood. Years ago, the whole family helped out , it was often a race against the weather to get the mown grass dried off sufficiently and into the hay mew of the nearest cowhouse, so it was all hands to the deck, from the smallest child upwards as this photo of the Calvert family taken in the 1930s shows.

Kit & Mary Calvert of Hoggarths, Keld having their hay time tea in the shelter of Purse Cow’us.  Courtesy of Chris and Raymond Calvert, Keld

The children of the family usually ended up in the hay mew trampling down the loose hay. This was in fact far from an idyllic job  – it was hot, dusty and dark in there. Dorothy Brown (nee Clarkson), formerly  of Scarr House farm, has less than fond memories of one particular occasion inside Banty Barn, as she tells our interviewer Glenda Calvert here:

Banty is a large cowhouse – the first one after the Buttertubs pass.  Dorothy must have spent quite a long time in that hay mew!

Banty Barn


Two gloriously sunny days at the start of the week meant just one thing in Upper Swaledale – haytime! There were lots of happy farmers out yesterday turning , rowing and baling hay as fast as their machinery would allow them. The whole dale was filled with the thick sweet smell of drying hay – delicious!

Hay rowed up and ready for baling. Near Muker

We saw some small rectangular bales being made using some venerable old machinery, but much more popular were the machines that produce the large round bales. You can see clearly why our little cowhouses are no longer much used for storing hay given that you wouldn’t fit one of these big bales through a doorway.

We were also reminded of one of the memories we collected when we saw the steeper, harder to mow parts of fields left untouched .

“No, a lot of the fields up there are full of rushes now, but they didn’t used to be because they were cut. If we couldn’t get it with a machine we’d get it with a scythe, and Irishmen used to go round the sides and do the gills and that. They’re just left now because they can get all they need without.”

Richard Campbell (75) formerly of Ravenseat farm

Part-mown hay field near Muker

It’s also very noticeable how the number of fields that are haytimed has reduced, the higher fields are now permanently used for grazing, with their lonely cowhouses a reminder of the past.

Field with cowhouse no longer used for hay. Near Muker