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Westside Croft (Mary's Cottage), Caithness

12th April 2015

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This article was published in the Caithness field club Bulletin

Westside Croft (Mary's Cottage), Caithness
A Fenton

I have known Westside croft at Dunnet Head in Caithness since the 1960s. Then and in the 1970s, I carried out an examination of the buildings and their contents with the willing help and support of James and Mary-Ann Calder. Information gathered on visits was supplemented by subsequent correspondence with Mary-Ann over several years.

The croft is of just over 11 acres. In its heyday it worked on a six-shift rotation (latterly 5 only):

1. ley corn, c.l3/4 acres

2. turnips, C.13/4 acres (with 1/4 acre of potatoes in the same field)

3. corn (oats) or barley, sown with grass seed

4. hay

5-6. grass, for grazing.

By the 1960s, four fields to the NW of the house had been run together. In front of the house were four other fields lying intermixed with those of the Calders' neighbours. This marked an interesting survival of an older community farming (run-rig) system, of which few clear traces survive in Scotland.

A form of cultivation, that linked in with the garden in front of the house, is represented by the turf-enclosed plant-cots on the hill behind the house. These square enclosures (they could be circular also in Orkney and Shetland) were taken in from waste land as required. James Calder just worked one, but there were others near to his one. Their use ended with the increasingly intensive grazing of the hill by sheep. Their purpose was to bring on cabbage (here called kail). The system was that the plants were seeded in the house garden, the heart was cut out and the plants left to sit. They would branch out and the seeds eventually grew out of the stalk, and were cut and dried by being hung out in good weather.

The plant cots were dug and dunged with byre manure laid on top. A graip (fork) was used to 'harrow' in the kail seed. Some folk would put the seeds into their mouths and blow them out to get a more even scatter, but mostly they were simply scattered by hand from a bowl. They were sown in late August-early September, grew quickly, and were tightly packed. They were ready for planting out in the yard (garden) in spring. Some folk sold them at 6d per 100, though six score might be given for the hundred. They had good big hearts and could stand the whole winter. Any surplus would be given to the cattle to avoid waste, but this was not a regular practice.

For eating in the kitchen, the cabbage was boiled with a little pork for an hour or so. Oat-bread or potatoes were eaten with it. The cabbage was put on the plate with a bit of home-killed pork, the heart being cut into four or two, and either a half or quarter was lifted from the pot and put on the plate.

The stock was 2 cows, 2 stirks, 2 horses, and 12 Cheviot ewes with their lambs. The ewes were kept on tethers, fastened into the ground by a wooden peg, a backie. Alongside each backie lay a stone for knocking it in. The tether rope had a two-holed wooden swivel, a sule, in the middle, to prevent the rope from twisting up or unravelling. At one time James also kept a ram. He thought he got a better lambing average when the ewes were tethered and once had 28 lambs and 12 ewes.

Grazing was supplemented by feeds out of boxies. Marking of sheep used to be done with a tar mark, but the tar was hard to clean from the wool; a paint mark was used later. Even though the ewes were tethered, they were given a lug-mark, a fore-bit clipped in one ear with an iron punch. This too could be seen as a relic of the old community crofting system, even though tethering made lug-marking superfluous. James Swanson Calder came here in 1920, the year in which he married, after returning from the War. He was born in 1886 at nearby Corsback, and married at 33. He bought the croft in 1946 for £55.4s. The title deeds name Charles Rowcliffe Munro, CA, 50 Frederick Street, Edinburgh, factor for the estate of Admiral Sir Edwyn Sinclair Alexander Sinclair of Freswick as the agents (see General Register of Sasines, County of Caithness Book 238, Folio 116-118, Registered 17 April 1948). The croft seems to have comprised three original units, according to the description: 'All and whole the three holdings at Dunnet, in the Parish of Dunnet and County of Caithness, extending to approximately 5 acres and 26 decimal or one hundredth parts of an acre, and 4 acres and 24 decimal or one hundredth parts of an acre and 2 acres respectively ....'

The Dwelling House
About 1960 a scullery was built against the back wall of the house, at a cost of c.£300. No Government grant was got because only a toilet was put in, but not a bathroom. The door knocked through the back wall led out of the old kitchen. The new unit had two windows, a sink unit with a Creda Crusader water heater on a shelf above, an electric stove, and a washing machine. In spite of this gesture towards modern times, Mary-Ann preferred to use the lazy-hearth in the old kitchen for baking and preparing food, and partly because James preferred the flavours it produced. This extension serves to mark the contrast with the traditional nature of the furnishings and fittings of a croft-house built about a century ago.

Along the front of the house is a flagstone-paved close with a drainage channel, strand, along its outer side, leading to a drain in front of the barn-door. Opposite the door is a flagstone-built peat-neuk for the day-to-day supply of peats from the peat-stack beside the barn. The peat, cut on Dunnet Head, an hour's cycle ride away, was carted home and thatched over with turfy spade peats to protect the better quality peats below. Beside the peat-neuk was a flagstone base for a former rain-water barrel that was linked by a gutter to the roof. From a bar across the peat-neuk, some pails used in feeding hens etc were suspended.

The door opened onto a short inner passage, at the right end of which was the kitchen door, made of 4 upright planks and 3 cross Pieces. Inside, above this door, was the jam press. To the left was the box bed, 4' wide x 5'6" long, with a front board 2' deep, where the Calders slept. Across the top was a fluted length of cloth. The wooden partition above the bed was covered with oval patterned wall-paper (as elsewhere in the kitchen, except that the walls were painted brown to a height of about 2'5" above the floor level).

In the middle of the front kitchen wall was the window with a shelf below, and the table in front of it. On the left of the window recess was a round barometer, and on the right a cloth bag containing a comb etc, with a mirror below. Here Mary-Ann combed her hair, which was done in a special way with pig-tails gathered into a bun at the back. She often wore a knitted or crocheted woollen cap. To the left again was a wooden box with a television set above and a radio beneath it. Above this was a wooden shelf with a slightly overhanging plastic cover.

In the back wall was the new door leading to the scullery. Alongside it was a substantial dresser with 2 doors below and shelves above, then a sewing machine, above which hung a German clock.

The gable end had, on the left, a two-doored wooden press dooked into the wall, below which was a wooden kist for odds and ends, including knitting. On the right was a full-height wall press with a door. Between was the hearth, the main feature of the kitchen, with wooden mantelpiece and cheeks, a hinged wooden smoke-board to control the draught, an iron swey for holding pots and pans above the fire, and below the fire a lazy-hole in which ashes and rubbish could accumulate. On the floor in front was a long (5'4") stool (form). Two brass candlesticks, family photos, the tea-caddy, a clock, a lamp etc were on the mantelpiece. An aerial photo of the croft was on the wall above. At the side of the fire was a 3-legged iron cran or crannie with a circular top, on which the pot stood.

Emptying the ashes from the lazy-hole beneath the fireplace took place once a fortnight. Mary-Ann whitewashed the back of the fireplace once a week. James claimed he knew nothing about this job - it was purely woman's work. The bottom parts used to be done each day with black lead and whitening. When black lead became almost impossible to get, Mary-Ann began to use tubes of Zebrite (Reckitt & Sons, Hull), which did not need to be used so often because it could be brushed up again.

It is very seldom that I have come across such a natural representation of an older style of life as in this kitchen. It did not fossilise the past, but represented the past, with a blend of the new (including the scullery) to mark changing times.

To the right of the box-bed in the kitchen was a 6-plank door leading into the 'little bedroom' Just behind the door was a hanging shelf for boots and shoes, and a wall-recess with a door. Next to that was a kist, then a small, 6-paned window (one pane of which had been made to open, and could be covered by a netting-wire grill), then a chair, and, in the corner, an 'Airiolite Popular Clothes Airer'. Against the far wall stood the meal-girnel. The croft had 4 bells (40 stones) of oats ground at the mill each year, and 2 bells (20 stones) of barley. The left-hand wall contained a second box-bed, lying at right-angles to the box-bed in the kitchen. In front of it was a round-topped kist. Both here and in the kitchen, the box-bed tops were used as further storage spaces.

The third room in the house (not counting the scullery) was the 'best room', at the opposite end of the 14'3" long entrance passage. To the right of the entrance door opening into this passage was a wall-recess, formerly for holding the water-buckets, but now shelved and fitted with a door. It contained the girdle, frying pan etc. Just by the entrance to the best room, but still in the passage, was a clothes space. The best room had a front-wall window, a dressing table and chair, a fireplace with a mantelpiece, a book-case, a press and a bureau. There was also a conventional wooden bed to the right of the door, backing against the little bedroom wall.

At the front of the house, beyond the close, was the flagstone dyke enclosed garden and kail-yard. Here were two 4-sided, sectional hives for bees. The dyke was needed to protect the plants because the croft was a windy place. Swaps of wind could come off the hill and once the whole hey-silt, rectangular hay sow, was lifted.

The Outbuildings
The outbuildings were attached in line to the dwelling house, except for the main barn, which stood at right angles.

The 'little barn' was on the right of the house, divided in two by a wooden partition. The kitchen wall against which it stood was badly soot-stained here, and oozing with a black, tarry substance (from the peat fire on the other side). The unit nearest the house was to some extent a food store. It had the tattie neuk in one corner. A shelf held a number of lyes (pollack), some with sticks to hold them open, ready for hanging up outside under the eaves in dry weather. Other fish were wrapped in polythene bags to prevent them from absorbing moisture again after having been dried.

On the floor was a barrel for the hen's mash, a bucket of boiled potatoes mixed with hen's mash and a flat stick for stirring, and a 2-lugged wooden tub in which hen's food had been mixed.
Also on the floor was a 3-compartment wooden mouse trap, a half- cran basket of chopped firewood, and 14 piled-up half-cran baskets, no doubt used for potato work. These were picked up on the shore.

The potato store was in two sections. The largest held Arran Banners, the smaller Kerr's Pinks. There were a few Beauty o' Hebron potatoes and long, white British Queens. These were both quite fine, dry potatoes. The Arran Banners were used for the hens, which ate a pailful a day. The potatoes were lifted by putting a drill plough on to the Iron Horse tractor.

Also here was a wooden pig-plotting trough, used when scraping the bristles off a slaughtered pig. It was formerly lent out to neighbours in turn as they needed it.

The other part of the little barn, with a separate door, held coal and sticks for the fire. Since the peat stack was fairly small, the Calders used a mixture of coal and peat on the fire. The system of making up the fire was to put a heavy spade peat against the wall at the back, then the better quality peat was laid in front, each peat being more or less upright. Some coal was then scattered on top.

The first outbuilding against the other house gable was the byre. There were two byre partitions, hallans, each of triangular form, making 3 stalls. In the middle of each stall, against the wall, was the animal fastening with its chain, the ask. There were three feeding-troughs fronted with flag crib-stones, and against the wall, above the stalls, was the heck for straw, etc. Behind the animals was the flagstone drain, the qreep, which emptied through the back wall into the corn-yard area. There was also a muck-hole with a door above the drain outlet, through which the muck could be thrown to the back of the byre.

The stable, separated by a wooden partition, was part of the same unit. There were three stalls with two partitions, and a blocked up muck-hole in the back wall. James had only two horses, however. He grazed the horses on the tether in the early days, presumably as a further relic of community farming, and in fact the first fences were put up for sheep.

A recess at the back of the door held the comb and brush. There were no special saddle-trees, but only iron pins, and wooden collar sticks were on the insides of the stalls. The stable held the iron plough for the Iron Horse tractor.

Next in the building sequence came the old cart shed. This contained the 6hp Iron Horse Tractor made by The British Anzani Engineering Co Ltd. The tractor was got second-hand from the South of Scotland, by train, from a newspaper advertisement. At first it had iron wheels but the pikes were no good for the roads, so rubber tyres were fitted. There were also smith-made drill ploughs for lifting potatoes and drilling turnips, grubber tines 1, wooden tummlin tam for hay gathering, bought second hand, and a scuffler (drill harrow). Of particular interest was a spinner for twisting ropes. This was mounted on a wheeled platform which could be weighted with stones to tension the ropes being made. At the top of an upright plank at the front were three hooks, arranged in a triangle, with a triangular piece of wood linking the wire handles so that all could be turned together. It was operated in association with a line of fixed posts, each 3-headed, that carried the strands of rope that were being twisted. Ropes were of 3 strands, with 6 twines in each for sheep, 7 twines in each for cows, and 8 twines in each for horses. A conical wooden tap with three grooves was used in compressing the three strands into a firm rope. The whole was a kind of home-made version of a rope-walk.

The shed was half lofted; the half loft held tattle boxes for sprouting potatoes for planting. These were sometimes cut in half before planting, to reduce the number of eyes and so prevent the growth of too many shaws. Also in the shed was a flaughter or divad (divot, turf) spade, for cutting sods for thatching roofs. At the end of the range of buildings, and at right angles to them, was the barn with its mill and engine to drive it, and a set of fanners for cleaning threshed grain, The mill was an old Orkney handmill which had been adapted by T S Allan, Millwright, Thurso, who put in a fan and a harp for cleaning the grain. Attached to the gable was a cart shed.

At the back of the houses, near the corn yard, was the pig's hoose with a small enclosure. The Calders stopped keeping a pig during the Second World War.

Footnote. These notes, from a notebook of 1970, are intended to give a factual outline of Westside Croft as a dwelling-house and buildings, enlivened by a flavour of the daily activities that went on in order to give more of a sense of the functioning and human purposes . In the blend of old and new (relatively speaking), and in the range of pointers to the past (including the field lay-out), this complex is an important marker of changing times.

The author of the notes, Professor Alexander Fenton CBE, has had a long and distinguished career in the field of Scottish studies. He was Director of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland and Research Director of the National Museums of Scotland. More recently (1990 - 94) he was Professor of Scottish Ethnology in the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Since 1989 he has been Director of the European Ethnological Research Centre, Edinburgh.

Appendix: by the Caithness Heritage Trust

It is believed that Mary-Ann's grandfather (John Young 1829 - 1920) built the cottage and most of the out-buildings in the mid-1850s. The barn was added in about 1905. The croft was subsequently taken over by a son, William Young (1856 - 1935) who was Mary-Ann's father. Mary-Ann (b.1897) married James Calder (1886- 1984) in 1920 and they ran the croft from the 1920s until well into their old age.

James Calder lived on the croft until just before his death at the age of 98. Mary-Ann continued in the cottage until 1990 when, a month before her 93rd birthday, she moved to a nursing home in Wick. Because of the historic nature of the croft Mary-Ann generously sought to gift the house, contents and land to the Wick Heritage Society. However, the property was required to be sold to provide for the costs of Mary-Ann's residence in the nursing home and so the Caithness Heritage Trust was set up with the primary aim of acquiring and preserving the cottage.


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