(as published in Windrow 17 April 2022 – updated with photos)
As a scythe instructor one of the most frequently asked questions I get asked is “I am left-handed, would I be better with a scythe configured differently to regular scythes?”
This is making the [not unreasonable] assumption that scythes are a handed tool, and are manufactured to suit the right-handed majority (roughly 90% being right-handed).
Having faced this question on numerous occasions I have thought about it quite a bit, and honed my answer over time. I have to ‘come out’ at this stage and declare that I am right-handed myself. I have however consulted often, without prejudice, on this topic with left-handed scythers.
The basic consensus that I have come to is that scythes are not a handed tool.
If asked, in my response to all prospective new scythers I now refer to regular scythes as being anti-clockwise scythes. That is a scythe that you work from a 3 o’clock starting position on the right, in anticlockwise arc finishing somewhere between 11 and 9 o’clock on the left.
The reason I give for almost all scythes being configured this one way is because all members of a mowing team need to mow in synchrony and in the same direction around the field.
With anticlockwise scythes, all mowers progress clockwise around the field mowing out from the centre, to leave cut swathes in windrows on their left.
In the current climate I feel obliged to qualify this view with some evidence to fend off accusations of being complacently hand-ist!
Andi Rickard, our current ladies, and overall scythe champion is herself left-handed. I have talked with her about this handed question on a number of occasions. Andi has told me that she believes that, if anything, the standard scythe is left-handed in its bias. Andi puts part of her mowing prowess down to the fact that her stronger dominant left arm gives her more “grunt” delivering controlled power to the end of each stroke.
At the green scythe workshop at Muchelney last summer a number of scythers mowed 5 x 5 m plots with a clockwise scythe set up to compare results to mowing the same area with their regular scythe. Both right- and left-handed mowers found switching equally awkward at first. It seemed to all that motor memory developed for the set up they had trained on was the key factor, rather than handedness. Interestingly, all found that with only a short bit of practice it was quite possible to mentally make the switch to mow in a clockwise direction so that it was not actually as challenging as one might imagine. This is much the same as making the mental switch from driving a car on the left to driving on the right – which is, even if it feels odd at first, fortunately for other road users not too difficult!
All of this confirms to me that scythes are not handed tools. All mowers have to learn balanced movement and to use both sides of their body equally to power and control the scythe. For this activity it does not really matter whether you are naturally right or left-handed. It seems that in practice left-handers have no more difficulty developing motor memory and adapting to an anticlockwise mowing pattern than do right handers.
I would encourage others to adopt anti-clockwise to describe the regular set up when asked this question. If nothing else it is easier to explain in these terms rather than confound the narrative with handedness.