(as published in Windrow 17 April 2022 – updated with photos)
In part 1, I suggested that scythes are not handed tools, and as such referring to them as left and right handed was confusing and misleading. I proposed referring to the standard scythe set ups as anti-clockwise rather than right-handed scythes
As so-called left-handed (clockwise) scythes are produced and sold, albeit in very small numbers, one is obliged to ask the question as to why, and for what purpose?
Simon Fairlie on his scythe shop website says “The only good reason I can think of for buying a left-handed scythe is that you have a good excuse for not lending it.”
If you are a lone scyther there is theoretically no problem with learning to mow with an atypical clockwise set up – the conflict of mowing out of sync with others simply does not arise. The limited availability of clockwise blades and snaths may however be an issue.
For many years I repeated this received wisdom: that there seemed to be no good practical reason for having a clockwise scythe set up, other than to be different.
That is until one day I was put right whilst delivering a scythe course to a group of drainage workers in the Cambridgeshire fens. This was not my typical group. These were a group of land workers with a long unbroken history of using scythes to mow drainage banks. Whilst they now use high powered long reach flail mowers for most of their work, they each carry a scythe with them on their machines in case the come to a culvert or other area out of reach of the flail cutter arm
I told them that to my knowledge there is no practical application for a clockwise scythe; they responded simply: “yes there is”. They then explained the particular scenario where being able to mow from both the right and left, anticlockwise and clockwise, is very useful.
To start with, when mowing the often steep-sided embankments of drainage ditches, they mow uphill away from the ditch water. Whilst this seems counter intuitive (because one then has to move the weight of cut grass uphill against gravity), they explained that if they mowed down into the ditch they would then have to go back as a separate operation with a fork to lift the cuttings well clear of the water – double handling. If they did not do this, and there was a heavy flow after rain, the cuttings would be washed down and block culverts.
Organising mowing of each side of a ditch from the centre out is not a problem provided one can mow down one side (left side initially) and then mow from the bottom back up the other bank. If, however the prevailing wind has funnelled along the ditch line, laying the grass all in one direction, then (as all experienced mowers know), you can only mow following the direction of the laid grass.
One practical solution they had for this scenario is to mow with an anticlockwise scythe down one side of the embankment, then walk up to mow back down the opposite bank with a clockwise scythe.
Dah da! – a niche application for clockwise scythes!
The drainage team I taught had generations worth of unique scything experience and knowledge passed down from one team and foreman to another, and I learnt quite a lot myself during that session.
On the other hand, it was interesting that some of this knowledge seemed to have been somewhat corrupted over time, Chinese whisper style. This probably as result of the scythe only being an ancillary tool? It had resulted is some odd practices and set ups creeping in.
No longer able to purchase English blades they had converted to using Austrian ditch blades. These they had attached to their own traditional style of snaths. They fitted English type grass nails; but for some unexplained reason attached the nail to the blade on the underside. This rendered the the inside third of the cutting edge useless as it was obstructed. It also meant they could only sharpen the outer two thirds – which they did with a coarse English cigar stone. The results after only two seasons use can be seen above. They largely converted to using Austrian Scythes, and a better sharpening strategy after my visit!