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History of Caithness
J. T. Calder
Appendix No 2 - The Dwelling Houses, Dress, Etc., In Caithness



Pref. 2nd Edition

Publishers Preface

Memoir of Author


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Appendix 1

Appendix 2 Roads

App 2 - Superstition

App 2  - Houses, Dress

App 2 - Extracts

App 3 - Extracts


Notes To 2nd Edition


Caithness In 1887

The Dwelling Houses, Dress Etc In Caithness

The houses of the Caithness peasantry in the olden time were such as would have thrown a connoiseur in architecture, like Mr Ruskin, into convulsions. They were wretched hovels of turf and stone with a divot roof, and consisted generally of two rooms, a “but and a hen,” or, as they were provincially termed, the “fire.house and cellar.

 The fire was in the middle of the floor; and the smoke issued out at an aperture in time roof, not unfrequently at the door, and in short, wherever it could find an egress.  The byre formed a part of the main dwelling; and the domestics and cattle entered at the same door, and were only separated from each other by a flag or two in the way of partition, and by a straw mat at the one end, which by being lifted up or moved aside served the purpose of a door, and admitted you to the sitting apartment.  A canopy of smoke commonly rested over the heads of the inmates from which by long custom they seemed to feel no sort of inconvenience or discomfort.  On the contrary, they considered that it added greatly to the warmth of the place, and there can be no doubt that dwellings of this description were much warmer in the winter season than finer houses that were provided with chimneys, and built of stone, with slate roofs.  The supporting couples or rafters were black as ebony with soot, which hung also in festoons from the roof.  The inferior bipeds and quadrupeds had free access to the fire house.  Hens and ducks freely mingled there; and the pig walked about very familiarly among the pots and pans in quest of dainties, or lay enjoying a siesta by the hearth.  Occasionally too, when the weather was cold, a cow with a young calf at her feet might be seen ruminating in one corner of the apartment.  Nor was there an ill-natured collie wanting to salute you with a growl as you entered.  T’he cellar, which was the bedroom of the family, had no fire in it summer or winter.  The principal bed in which time good man and his better half reposed, was shaped like a large square box and called a “close bed” from its being every where shut in except in front.  This was furnished with a folding door which was always drawn close to when the parties retired to rest, for it never occurred to them that the admission of free air was necessary for time preservation of health. The barn and kiln were attached to the upper end of the house.

The midden was always in front, and the back was the kail-yard, which was usually well supplied with cabbage, with the addition, perhaps, of a few sybots, some camomile, and southron-wood, and one or two saughs or bowtrees.

In some of the houses belonging to the higher grade of the farmers there was an additional room off the “cellar” which had a chimney, and was styled the “chamer” (chamber).  It was never used except on great occasions, such as christening or catechising, or when the family received a visit from some of their wealthier and more respected friends.  In a recess in the wall was the family library, which consisted of the big ha’ Bible, the “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Boston’s “Fourfold State,” and the “Crook in the Lot,” with perhaps “Jack the Giant Killer,” “Goody Two Shoes,” and a few ballads, the property of the junior members of the family, purchased from some travelling packman.

The houses of the poorer sort of the people in the highlands of the county were mostly altogether of turf, and generally consisted of but one appartment, with the family in the one end, and the cattle in the other.  The roof was thatched with heather, and not unfrequently with rushes.  The couples, which were of undressed birks, rested on the clay floor, and to these the cattle were attached by a binding of twisted withes, called “nasks.”

Tallow being expensive and oil not to be had in the district, the peasantry used for light bogwood, that is, decayed fir, in which there is much resinous matter, dug out of the mosses. This was cut up into small pieces, and one of these when ignited served as a candle, could be carried conveniently in the hand, and in a dark winter evening showed the way to the barn or any of time premises outside.  A good rousing fire afforded abundance of light for all domestic purposes indoors.

Nor could much be said in praise of the houses of the gentry.  They were large ungainly erections, generally of two storeys, with small windows and high-peaked crow-stepped gables.  Time seat of the late William Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, at Ratter, which was standing not many years ago, was an unsightly lump of a building, more resembling an old granary than the mansion of a nobleman.  With the exception of the dining-room, the apartments were small, and the whole were unfurnished with anything in the shape of sofas or carpets.  To most of the houses was attached what was called a “loupen on stane,” for the benefit of such ladies and gentlemen as could not otherwise get easily on horseback.  The old gentry, however, paid some attention to horticulture, and they had very passable gardens, modelled somewhat after the Dutch style, in most of which were to be seen a dove-cot and a stone dial.

About eighty or ninety years ago, and before the introduction of potatoes, the diet of the lower classes was very poor, consisting generally of brose or porridge to breakfast, of cabbage boiled with a mixture of oatmeal for dinner, and of bere bread and brochan (water gruel) for supper.  Butcher meat, with the exception of a little pork, rarely appeared at table.  Sowens, when it was to be had, was a favourite dish for breakfast, dinner, or supper.  Another favourite dish was “bursten,” which was prepared by a portion of oats and bere being hastily dried in a pot over the fire, and then ground in a hand­quern.1  The kind of meal thus produced, when taken with milk, formed a very palatable dish, and was by many preferred to the ordinary porridge.  The inhabitants along time sea-coast, when fish was to be had, got on pretty well; but when they were prevented by rough weather from going to sea, or when, as sometimes happened, the fish appeared to have left the coast, they had recourse to shellfish, such as limpets, mussels, and periwinkles, which were but an indifferent substitute for the other.  One luxury, however, they had which their descendants, by the stringency of the revenue laws, are deprived of, namely, good home-brewed ale. There was scarcely a family without this wholesome beverage.

The gentry, on the other hand, though without the refinements and luxuries of modern life, lived well and sumptuously.  They had plenty of roasted and boiled, and abundance of wine, particularly claret; and when whisky punch became the order of the day, they did ample justice to it, commonly drinking it out of large china bowls.  One of these relics of time good old times the writer saw in the Castle of Dunbeath.  It was a magnificent article of its kind, about forty-eight inches in circumference, and deep in proportion.

The dress of the lower order of both sexes was very plain, consisting entirely of woollen stuffs of home manufacture. The men wore coats, vests, and breeches of black or hodden gray, and those who could not conveniently get metal buttons used ones made of wood, which they called “knobbies.”  For Sunday attire they had a finer stuff, called manky, which was generally dyed blue.  The women wore plain gowns of drugget.  Silk and straw bonnets were totally unknown.  Before marriage young lasses went bare headed to kirk and market, with only a narrow stripe of ribbon—Scottice, a snood round the brow, while the hair was secured by a large comb which extended from ear to ear, and was termed a “kepping comb.”  Their chief finery was a string or two round the neck of glass beads of various colours.  The headgear of the married women was a plain “toy,” and that of a matron in full dress a “box-plait mutch,” or cap puffed out at the top and encircled with a broad flashy ribbon.  Elderly females wore scarlet plaids, and the writer remembers to have seen his grand-mother go to church habited in a plaid of this colour.  One piece of dress frequently worn by the women, and which had a picturesque appearance was a blue short gown with long red sleeves.

At the time of which we speak, when there were no roads or bridges in the county, travelling, which had to be performed either on foot or on horseback, was often attended with much danger, especially in the winter season.  In 1620, the eldest son of Sir John Sinclair of Greenland and Ratter was drowned in attempting to ford the Burn of Reisgil, when it was overflowing its banks after a heavy fall of rain. When a lady travelled she rode on a pad behind her husband or a servant.  The greatest difficulty was in crossing moors.  To obviate this in some measure, the rider usually carried a bundle of heather at the saddle bow, and when he encountered a boggy step he threw on it some of the heather, and then led his pony over it.  Notwithstanding these drawbacks and inconveniences, there was much visiting and sociality among both the upper and lower classes.  A visit was a visit in those days, and not a mere formal call of a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes.  When a family of the better sort visited another, they commonly remained with them a week or a fortnight, faring on the best, and whiling away the hours that were not devoted to festivity in dancing, in playing at cards, or “blindman’s buff,” which were the chief indoor amusements of the period.  People were not then in the habit of reading.  Indeed there was nothing to read except long-winded stories, such as Richardson’s “Pamela,” or Smollet’s “Roderick Random,” and Fielding’s “Tom Jones,” which last, though amusing enough, were certainly not calculated to improve the mind or mend the morals.  A stray newspaper from Edinburgh perhaps found its way into the county once a month.  With much boisterous hilarity and freedom of manners there mingled at the same time a good deal of formal etiquette and ceremony, the going through some of which was rather trying to one who happened to be afflicted with what the French term mauvais honte.  For instance, when a gentleman visited a family, he had to kiss all the ladies in the house.  This was no doubt a pleasant enough ceremony so far as regarded the young ladies of the establishment, but it was not quite so agreeable to have to salute in this way the elderly ladies, especially if they took snuff, which in these days they very generally did.  From Dr Somerville’s autobiography, it would appear that the fashion of snuffing prevailed to a much greater extent among the fair sex in the south of Scotland than in the north.  “Many young ladies,” says he, “and perhaps the greater number of married men and women carried snuff boxes.  The habit prevailed so generally that it was not uncommon for lovers to present their sweet­hearts with snuff boxes, which were to be purchased for that purpose adorned with devices emblematical of love and constancy.”  The worthy doctor also mentions that acquaintances of both sexes, when they met after long absence, amid sometimes even on the occasion of visiting, saluted with a kiss.”

The “Virginian weed” seems to have found its way into Caithness at a very early period.  In time old Session Register of Canisbay, from which I have quoted in a preceding part of this work, there is a curious entry of date 1655, mentioning that one of the congregation was fined for taking snuff during “the time of singing the psalm.”  The clergy, indeed, both Catholic and Protestant, would seem from the first to have been much opposed to snuffing during divine service.  “In 1624,” says Dr Macnish, Pope Urban VIII. published a bull excommunicating all persons found guilty of taking snuff when in church.”  At a compartively recent period, a great deal of tobacco was clandestinely introduced into Caithness and manufactured into it.  Some people had hand mills for the purpose of grinding the tobacco.

I have alluded to the ancient social habits of the people.  They were fond of congregating to drink and “trip it on the fantastic,” and to such a height was this carried, particularly in Wick, that the church there deemed it necessary to apply a check to time growing evil.  In the records of the burgh there is a curious entry to this effect.  On 2nd February, 1787, the Rev. William Sutherland and kirk-session send in a strong petition to the magistrates against the “keeping of disorderly houses for dancing and drinking” within the burgh, where­upon the civic functionaries issue the following edict :—“ The magistrates did and hereby do enact that in time coming every householder within the burgh who keeps disorderly houses for dancing and drinking, etc., shall, on a complaint to the magistrates from the kirk-session of Wick or the procurator-fiscal of the burgh, be liable in the sum of ten pounds Scots each, toties quoties.  That each musician or piper who shall take it upon him to play at such meeting shall forfeit time sum of six pounds Scots for each trespass.  That no public dances are to be allowed within the burgh except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and that only to continue till ten o’clock each night, under the penalty of twelve pounds Scots, to be paid by each piper or musician who shall play after that hour,” etc., etc.  The same records afford a number of curious entries, of which the following is one:— In 1741, “William Calder, fisherman in Wick, guilty of sheep-stealing, is liberated from prison, etc., on agreeing to become common hangman and executioner for the burgh, etc., and he binds and obliges himself to execute and perform everything proper and incumbent on him in that office, as he shall be ordered and authorised by warrant of the magistrates or of the sheriff of Caithness and his depute.  And as he cannot write, he empowers William Calder, notary public and clerk of the said burgh, to subscribe the enactment and obligation for him.”

I have in a former work, “Sketches from John O’Groat’s,” given a description of most of the old superstitions, and of time peculiar customs that were observed at marriages, funerals, etc., by the common people in the county.  One ancient custom to which I alluded was that of having a white flag carried before a funeral. Dr Henderson mentions a curious practice which, in the case of funerals, prevailed in Thurso in his younger days.  “The kirk officer,” says he, perambulates the streets with a small deep-toned bell in each hand; at intervals he raises the one, then the other, as he goes along, causing them to send forth a very solemn sound.  At the corners of the streets he stops and invites all 'brothers and sisters'to attend the funeral of the person mentioned by him.   As it was not the custom for females to attend funerals in this community, it is possible that this form of invitation has been handed down from Popish times,  or at all events from the period when Episcopacy prevailed, W‘hen the funeral took place the officer preceded it with the bells, which ever and anon sounded their sad notes, while the church bell tolled at measured intervals.  The whole scene was calculated to arrest the attention of the most unthinking passenger.”

It was also one of the duties of the sexton to go though the town on the Sunday forenoon ringing a small hand-bell to warn the people of the hour for public worship.  Both these customs have now fallen into desuetude.

1 In a Pict's house at Kettieburn, in the parish of Wick, A. H. Rhind, Esq. of Sibster, found among other relics two querns, a proof that at a very early period corn was to some extent grown in Caithness.