N E W S F E E D S >>>

Caithness Field Club

Caithness Historical Notes 1750 - 1900
D Omand - Moravian Field Club

Basically these historical notes describe a mode of living and a way of life that have long since disappeared, Regrettably lack of space has precluded a consideration of important subject material such as the development of communications, the growth of the fishing industry or an outline of church history. For those who wish to study this period in greater depth a list of relevant references is given at the end.

The Croft House
It is possible that the layout of  the older type of Caithness croft is derived from the Viking longhouse. The croft dwelling-house was often built in a line with the byre, barn and stable, the complex frequently aligned at right angles to the contour to permit easy drainage from the byre. The people and their livestock entered by the same door, the cattle separated from the inhabitants by low flagstone partition. A straw mat known as a fascal or flate served as a kind of door. Poultry and sometimes pigs shared part of the same accommodation as the people, hens perching in the rafters amid the strands of soot.

These early single storey crofts were hovels of mean construction whose dark interiors were most insalubrious. The majority consisted of two rooms called a firehouse and a cellar ( a But and Ben ). Some of the better-off houses had another room (the chaumer) beyond the cellar, which was reserved for important occasions. By 1800 a typical croft of rooms some 9ft. X 12ft. was built of stone for the first two feet; the remainder of the walling consisted of turf and highland couples usually made of birch. They in turn supported a thatch of divots sometimes overlaid with straw or rushes held down by simmons (ropes of twisted straw or heather). Such a croft could be constructed for £.27. A more sophisticated dwelling of rooms c.15 ft. X 12ft. was also available at this time, consisting of stone walls plastered with clay and whitewashed. It cost £8.55 (Henderson).

The croft houses of the late 18th century had no windows, or at best a small skylight permitting light through the unceilinged rafters (ceilings were not in common use until the 19th century). A weak light could be provided from the pith of rushes; knots of pine trees or fir roots, impregnated with resin, dug out of peat bogs were sometimes used. They were placed on small stands or in iron clips that were then set into a wall. In crusie lamps fish oil or mutton fat came into common use.

By the late 1830’s the quality of the average crofter’s cottage had been greatly enhanced. Chimneys and windows were now common and there had been an enormous improvement in interior cleanliness. In the main the inside walls of the cottage were lime washed. It would seem that many of the small quarries that dot the Caithness landscape can be attributed to this period of croft construction and renovation.

About the middle of the clay or flagstone floor of the firehouse was constructed a baak (back) against which the peat fire was built. Beside it lay the long iron tongs. Coal at this time was available only to the better-off. Smoke from the peat fire escaped through a hole in the roof, the 1um, which was placed eccentrically so that rain would not extinguish the fire. During inclement weather the lum would be plugged with bracken or heather. Inside the house the atmosphere was dim with a continuous pall of peat reek which hardened the skin and gave it a tanned leathery appearance. From the rantle-tree (a pivoting iron bar with suspended hooks or chains) above the peat fire hung the cooking utensils, e.g. the three toed pot and the iron girdle (griddle) an earlier form being a circular piece of local flagstone.

Furnishings of the early crofts were primitive: Stone cupboards (aumries) were set into the wall and most of the sideboards (dressers) were made of flagstone. The tableware consisted of flagstone plates. Spoons were made of wood or horn. No crockery existed until the 19th century. By the latter half of the 19th century, however. the living area had become a homely and comfortable room with wooden cupboards and chairs including a "rocker", a kist (chest) and spinning wheel as standard items. Mats of plaited straw or rags might be found on the floor, which was cleaned with a bosom (brush). Although chairs were available for adults, children usually sat on small wooden stools called creepies, which were carried each Sunday to the kirk for seating during the service. Some cottages could boast a sofa. Standard items were the milk cog and kirn (churn). Initially the crofters' beds probably resembled those of the stone age village of Skara Brae in Orkney i.e. stone boxes lined with heather or 'straw. This simple unit when covered with a canopy may have been ancestor to the box bed which had a ceiling and doors. A caff-seck (ticking filled with chaff) served as a mattress.

Published October 1974