Two hundred years ago, the Hill of Foudland and its Skirts a couple of miles to our north were dotted with slate workings whose workers lived in croft houses of a similar vintage to ours.
Our main house has moved far beyond its humble beginnings, but the semi-derelict cottage at the end of our steading buildings can be easily matched to Ann Dean’s descriptions of croft houses in her book Foudland Slate Quarriers and Crofters in Aberdeenshire (Books for Dillons Only, 1998.)
In Chapter 5, The Quarry-Crofter Families in the 1800s, Ann writes” The typical slate quarrier’s house had rubble built low walls and was straw and clay thatched.”
All our buildings have rubble-built low walls, but none have thatch. The cottage does have a slate roof, which an Aberdeenshire Council archaeologist said was definitely made from Foudland slate.
Ann describes the interiors of the 1800s’ houses as being “but and ben”, with box-beds acting as the dividers between a kitchen and a parlour. The kitchen floor was of beaten earth or slate slabs, the parlour usually had a wooden floor.
In our cottage, the right-hand end has a slate floor while the left-hand end has a void above the natural earth. Examination of the lower walls reveals supporting stonework for wooden beams, indicating there was once a wooden floor. No trace of the box-beds remains.
According to Foudland Slate Quarriers and Crofters, the walls of the kitchen and closests were smoothed with lime mortar, while the parlour could have wood lining. In our cottage, the walls of both the kitchen and parlour have vestigial remains of mortar as do the closets to either side of the two fireplaces.
In the 1800s, the fireplaces would have had “a hanging wooden lum” to prevent smoke coming back into the rooms. (Lum is Scots for chimney, a “hingin’ lum” was a hearth hood made of wood and clay to direct smoke into the flue.
Ann describes the fire itelf as being contained within iron bars, with “binks” (hobs) to either side, possibly with an oven under one hob, and a swey from which the crook hung. Pots were hung on the crook.
The kitchen fire in our cottage still has the bars and binks, but not the swey.
Kitchen furnishings would have consisted of a wall-mounted plate rack, or perhaps a dresser in more affluent households, a table, a wooden armchair for the man of the house, and a collection of chairs, stools or deece (wooden settees), a saut (salt) bucket, a tea caddy and a meal girnal.
The meal girnal contained the household’s store of oatmeal and was filled one a year, with the children being empployed to stamp the meal down hard to drive out the air and keep the meal fresh.
In our cottage, the joists still bear the nails that once held the ceiling laths in place, plus occasional traces of the lime plaster that was once smoothed over the laths.
The loft area was floored over at some point in the cottage’s history, possibly to provide bedrooms or storage areas, and skylights let into the roof. Again, the rafters are still embedded with the lath nails and marked with traces of plaster.
The original windows are long gone downstairs. However, the single north-faching window matches Ann’s description of “tiny windows about 12 inches square and not made to open”.
The two south-facing windows are rather larger but still small by modern standards. The deep casements are angled to open out inwards, letting in the maximum light.
All in all, it’s not difficult to see the cottage as it would once have been—and not too long ago at that.
Algie Watson’s description of Growin up Aside the Gadie may refer to the baker’s van, the butcher’s van and the fish van, but otherwise his description of a similar cottage in the 1930s and 1940s is much the same as Ann’s description of them in the 1800s.
So, while it would be nice to have to money to convert the cottage into a functioning, modern house with high insulation values, low-carbon heating sources and construction techniques sympathetic to the original, I have to confess to rather enjoying the cottage’s clear links to its original design and use.