Fearn Balintore and Hilton Community Collage

Chapter 11 - Houses and Furniture

Many houses in the villages are at least two hundred years old, probably more, and are still occupied by descendants of those who built them.

They were all thatched and because this is heavy stuff the walls had to be thick and the construction narrow in order to support it. The walls were built of large round stones gathered wherever they might be found, carried home in creels and bound with either red clay or lime. Red clay came from various clay-holes including one at Easter Rarichie. Before lime was imported from the south the only place where it could be obtained locally was a rich layer of shells about a foot under the sand at Nigg Bay. [88]

Floors were made of grey clay which set harder and more quickly than red and was not so messy. There were plenty sources of it - behind Shandwick village, near the Well of Health and at Tullich. Many people remember these floors and how practical they were for jobs such as baiting as they were easy to clean with a sprinkle of sand and a good brushing. Very few people had flagstones as flooring. Cement was introduced shortly before the First World War and has now been followed by the most modern materials.

Timber for building came from local woods - Shandwick Hill, Cadboll and so on. It was worked with the eetch (adze) except for the couples which might just have the bark removed without being dressed. These couples were inserted right into the wall to give strength. There were no ceilings and people still remember when the rafters were an ideal place to store nets, lines and creels. From time to time dried fish were hung from nails in the rafters, ready to hand and just the thing - no refrigerator necessary! Simple ceilings were made later by tacking on split sacks, sometimes covered with paper and whitewashed. Someone once used newspaper and the daughter of the house was very hurt when her young man looked up and remarked that she'd never be short of news!

Many men built their own homes themselves with the help of  neighbours, but a large part of Hilton is said to have been built in the 1840s during the Clearances by a builder, Hugh Tarral. There were several joiners later on. One, Mackenzie, lived above Hilton and of course there was George Mackay who was a joiner in addition to making boats and coffins.

Thatching is skilled work and made for a warm and comfortable house. Most of the men could thatch themselves, but there were also regular thatchers who worked for the villages and the farms. One of these about a hundred years ago was Donald Morrison who lived in Shore Street, Shandwick; a little later there was Hugh Macdonald in Shore Street, Hilton; and more recently Dan Ross in New Street, Shandwick.
There were several stages in thatching. Fir slabs were laid across the couples about an inch apart. Overlapping divots (turf) were placed on these, the slabs preventing them from sliding off. The thatcher prepared 18 inch long bunches of straw or bent grass, tightly tied with string, and laid them along the base of the roof to form the 'aising'. He laid his ladder far enough out to lie right on the roof and worked from the right gable to the left, thatching sections of 18 inches or so at a time. He worked upwards, laying straw or bent from the bottom of the roof to the top, putting clay in between. As he worked he used a sharp knife to tidy the ends but always allowed the thatch to project over the walls so that drips would not run down the sides of the house in wet weather. Then he moved his ladder over to the left and did the next section. The straw protruded at the top so when he came to do the back of the house he folded them over into the thatch there.
Bent grass made the best thatch as it is very strong, but it needed more labour to cut and gather and it was often too short to be of use.

Occasionally people went to Nigg Ferry for what they called Point bent which was considered the very best, but generally it was more practical to get straw from nearby farms free of charge and teaze it at home by hand.

Divots could be cut from the banks near home but the very best place to get them was Inver where the grass was like a short springy cushion and was therefore very warm. They were cut with a specially curved spade and taken home by horse and cart.  Thatch had a distinct disadvantage in stormy weather - and the Seabord is a windy quarter - so that it was often in danger of lifting with the wind and blowing away, thus causing great distress and inconvenience to the inmates. It was quite a common sight to see ropes or wires stretched over the thatch, weighed down by large boulders rolled up from the shore, and in a storm everyone would be up with sticks and divots trying to hold down their thatch. People who had slated houses before these became common sometimes found themselves giving refuge in bad weather to their neighbours from thatched houses.

Apart from these few early slated houses, the change-over from thatch to other forms of roofing took place within the last fifty years, with one or two thatched houses surviving till after the Second World War. Tarred felt was the first step and some of these roofs still remain, but the majority of the houses now have slates or rubberoid tiles.

An interesting feature of these old houses was the fireplace, and many people remember the hanging chimney or 'praze' as it was called. The chimney was set not in the gable wall but against an inner wall with a canopy overhanging the fireplace. This canopy was a wide wooden hood projecting over the hearth connected by a wooden
flue to the chimney, the whole thing made separately and attached to the wall.  [24] Miraculously they never seem to have set any houses on fire! The fireplace was on the floor flanked by two 'cheeks' or hobs of rough stones and clay. The chain and crook (hook) for the cooking pot hung from a wooden beam across the flue and could be hooked up or down to raise or lower the pot, depending on how fast it had to boil. So wide was this type of chimney that frying pans had to have lids to save them from droppings from gulls perched above.

An example of the hanging chimney is thought to exist in a disused house in New Street, Shandwick, and there is a slightly modernized version in a house in Park Street, Balintore. The presence of these fireplaces can be distinguished by their very distinctive little wooden chimneys which are seen in the photograph of Shore Street, Balintore.

A further stage in development was reached when the fire was raised from the floor by a simple iron grate made by the local blacksmith. Later on fireplaces were set in the gable wall with high mantelpieces on which ornaments were placed. Some boasted a brass
rail used mainly for drying small items of the household wash. There were no ovens till about the beginning of this century when more ambitious grates were bought from Wallace & Fraser, Tain.  

Most windows were very small, but in some houses where they were larger the original windows still exist although their frames have been renewed. Doors seldom had locks as they were not necessary in such a closely-knit community. The most that was ever done was to put a broom handle through the sneck. (latch).

The large houses in Main Street, Balintore, are thought to have perhaps been improved for herring yard officials but this may not be so. They were certainly there before the herring yard - one has a rent book dating from 1831. In 1861 such a house changed hands for £50 and about 1900 smaller houses were also sold for roughly the same
amount. One would have to pay many times that price for them now. 

What was a typical house like at the beginning of this century?  The door opened into a lobby with a room on either side, the but and the ben, and a little room at the back called a closet. The door to the closet was usually in the kitchen but occasionally in the lobby. The walls, innocent of plaster, were lime-washed a brilliant white as was the praze and a surround on the clay floor. Sometimes ochre (distemper) was used for decoration, blue or red on the floor, perhaps pink around the lower half of the walls.  In the far corner of the kitchen was a box bed, originally all wooden, but later on the doors were taken off and replaced with curtains and pelmet. A type of four-poster bed was made by fixing
posts to an ordinary bed, with a frame round the top from which hung an 18 inch valance. With a similar valance round the base of the bed the whole thing looked very attractive.

Box Bed

On the bed was a tick bag (mattress cover) made of ticking or cotton, filled twice a year with fresh chaff from nearby farms at threshing time. With a flannel sheet on the tick and a covering of two to three blankets people were very comfortable and warm. The tick and curtains were made by the housewife, as were the rag rugs scattered over the floor. These were made from strips of rags worked on sacking with a button-hook, and they were warmer, prettier and cheaper than any modern rug. Making them entailed frequent popping in and out of neighbours' houses to compare notes on the patterns!

Clootie covers (coorie cloot, cooreeck) were bedcovers woven from household rags gathered by the women. They tore the rags into strips, sewed these together and wound them up into the size of a football. It took from seven to nine of these balls to make a cover, and when they had collected the right number the women carried them in their creels to be woven at the cardie mill at Tain. Sometimes they made patchwork covers themselves at home.

Next to the bed was a dresser of white scrubbed wood, with plates and bowls ranged on the shelves. The dresser had two drawers and two presses (cupboards) underneath where the housewife kept utensils and the food for the family. People remember wooden spoons and ladles, and horn tumblers, spoons and bowls, the latter used for both porridge and tea. These were followed by enamel ware and then modern dishes. A big black pot was a kettle would be handy to hang from the crook.

Most housewives bought bed and table linen during the welcome visits of the packmen, and crockery of all kinds was supplied by Williamson, Tain, who sent a horse and cart round the villages prior to the First World War.

In the middle of the kitchen stood a deal table, either scrubbed white or covered with American cloth. Beneath the window was a shelf where the two water pails stood, as all water had to be carried from the well. Furniture was made locally and people remember
stools, chairs and beds made by George Mackay in Balintore. Another carpenter who made tables and chairs was called MacDougall who lived on the way to Hill of Fearn. On one side of the wide fireplace was a settle, a long high-backed bench, where members of the family gathered of a.n evening, and a few chairs and stools completed the furniture. A pair of china dogs, an ornament and a picture or two brightened the bare austere room, souvenirs of happy times at the herring fishing.

Beside the fire was the inevitable cradle. Complete with rockers and hood and fitted with knobs for string to hold the baby down, it was rocked with a foot while the mother's hands were busy baiting, knitting or sewing. A slightly older child might sleep in a crib fitted with rockers, the sides embellished with fretwork and a curtain. 

The ben room was a bedroom-cum-parlour, the best room, and only used on special occasions. A large commodious chest of drawers containing the best household linen and Sunday clothes stood there.

The children slept with their parents in the kitchen or the closet, but the addition of an upstairs room or rooms, usually reached by a ladder, greatly eased the accommodation problem when large families were the rule rather than the exception. This improvement came about in 1913 when the building of the forts at North Sutor brought employment and prosperity.

While some families added to their houses others lived in a 'half house'. They shared a house with another family, sometimes using the same door or perhaps with two doors, side by side. Up to eleven children are known to have been brought up - and well brought up - in a 'half house'.

Sanitation was non-existent but that did not mean there was not hygiene. A bucket in the shed took the place of a W.C. and it was emptied and washed out regularly in the sea. Later on dry closets were used until the public water supply came in the 1950s when modern bathrooms were installed.

In early days lighting was provided by the crusie, an open iron lamp with a rush wick, fed by home-made fish oil. Home-made candles, and later on, bought ones were then used, followed by paraffin lamps which were introduced in the first quarter of this century. Some had a little reflector, and others which for some reason were usually painted red, had a flat back so that they would hang on the wall. A simple way of getting maximum concentration of light was found by Sandy Skinner, the Graiseach, in Hilton. He blacked
the lamp glass with soot, leaving only a small portion which threw a clear light on to his shoemaking. Aladdin and Tilley lamps were then introduced, superseded in the 1950s by electricity.

When much of the work like baiting and preparing fish for smoking was done outside, it is not surprising that all the houses face south, which incidentally means that they face the sea. The resulting one-sided streets give a distinct charm to the villages. The indispensable black tarred shed was built opposite the houses and there lines were baited except in the most severe weather, washing done and many other chores. It was also the store for the barrel of salt herring and the fisherman's tackle.   Cutting an upturned, old boat in half produced the half-boat shed, which was not only thrifty and practical but also very attractive in a fishing village. It is a great pity that none of them remain.

Half-boat shed.

Continue in Chapter 12
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