In my previous blog I wrote about Highland houses, how they were designed and built, taking into account the weather conditions and the materials available locally. But the subject wouldn’t be complete without saying something about the furniture that was inside the houses.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Highland furniture is that, unlike in England and other countries, there was no separate distinctive style of furniture (or in fact clothing) between the clan chief or wealthier members of clans, and the poorest clansman. The furniture differed only in the amount of it, and in the fact that the wealthier imported a good deal of furniture as well as crockery, glass and books, whereas the poorer people’s was made locally. When Boswell and Johnson went on their tour of Scotland, they noted how many books the Skye tacksmen possessed as well as tea services and other luxury items. But in this blog post I want to deal mainly with the items found in the normal clansman’s house.
The main items of furniture in any house (including modern houses) are beds, chairs, tables and storage items, and that was no different in the past. The bed is a major item, but in the early 18th century many of the poorer people still slept on mattresses of heather or straw with blankets. In this period box beds became more common in larger houses, and then later in small ones. The curtains or doors on them gave a measure of privacy, and helped to keep the warmth in. They were also used as partitions, separating one part of the house from another. The top of the bed served to protect the sleepers and their bedding from any roof leaks in wet weather, so was practical in many ways!
For babies and small children, cradles were made, which might be simple with a hood, and with rockers on the base. These were handed down through the generations, and the sides would eventually be worn smooth by the hands of the successive mothers rocking them.
Chairs were usually made locally, of wood. On the coast and islands driftwood and bent grass was used, or wicker. Because they were designed for use around a central low fire, the legs were often very short and the fact that in many surviving chairs the bottoms of the legs are rotted shows how wet the interior floor of houses often was.
The man of the house would often have his special chair placed by the fire, and his wife would have hers opposite him. Often children would also have their own miniature chairs, specially made for them!
Important additional seating was the seise or seisach, which was designed to hold several people and was a kind of bench, but with arms and back – a forerunner of the modern sofa. These were often made by craftsmen, and poor people who could not afford one would use a simple plank supported on stones. The seise was usually set against the wall opposite the fire, and was used on social occasions, like the ceilidh, which provided the main entertainment in hard winters.
The table for dining was not an important feature in poorer Highland homes as it is today. People would generally eat their meals sitting on chairs round the fire, although tables were of course used for other practical purposes. It was not until later, when houses were built with a ‘parlour’ that dining tables became important.
The other main items of furniture were those used for storage. Even the poorest houses would have some kists, as they were essential for storing meal, which was packed very tightly by being stamped down, so that it would keep. They were also used to store clothing and blankets, but often a house would have several of these, and sometimes cloths would be placed over them, and treasured ornaments displayed on the top.
Also used for storage were cupboards, or presses (I still remember my English father’s confusion when we visited my uncle in Glasgow, and he was asked to fetch something from the press, a Gaelic word (preas) that has been absorbed into Scots dialect). In the west of Scotland, these cupboards were often made of wickerwork, with wooden frames, and in other areas of wood alone. They were usually square, and were used to hold food stuff, utensils and other things. The ones used purely for keeping foodstuff were called larders.
Smaller items are also interesting. Highlanders were not in general known for making pottery. Clay pots were only made in some of the islands and even then the craft was simple and the workmanship primitive.
In general people used wood, and had a large number of wooden vessels, including bowls, quaichs (drinking cups or bowls) and platters. Wooden ladles were also used, often with a hook at the end so they could be hung on the edge of the cooking cauldron and would not fall into it.
Staved wooden vessels were also used, and were essential for salting meat and fish, and for dairy work. In early times clothes washing was done at the river or burn, but later wooden washing tubs were also used.
Many utensils were made of wood, although spoons were more often made of horn. Most houses, however poor, also had a cooking pot. In the distant past (or in the wilds) food could be boiled in the skin or stomach of an animal suspended on sticks over a fire. The skin would not burn as long as it had liquid in it, but in the house a pot or cauldron was used, usually made of iron. These were used for boiling meat, vegetables and potatoes, the latter of which became an important part of the diet. Potato mashers were made from wood, and spurtles were also made, for stirring the porridge – these were usually home made.
A girdle was also used for making oatcakes and bannocks, usually made from flat iron with a handle, although a stone could also be used for this purpose.
In addition to this, most houses, no matter how poor, had some treasured ornament, that was handed down from generation to generation. This could be a beautifully made local piece, but often was something exotic, such as a carved coconut shell or an ostrich egg. There were a great many items from remote places, which is unusual to the Highlands, and shows the propensity (or sometimes necessity) of the Highlanders to travel widely.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my blog. Once again, credit to the Highland Folk Museum in Kingussie, where I took all the photos in this blog, and which is a fascinating place to visit for all those interested in Scottish domestic history!