Meeting Report: Cottage Life in Eighteenth-Century Scotland

18 November 2016
Fiona J. Houston

Some people talk nostalgically about the 'good old days' but Fiona J. Houston went one step further and spent a year in the '18th century'. Her talk to a packed meeting of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society explained just what she did.

The idea developed from Fiona voicing the opinion that food, for many people, was better in the late 18th century than it is today. A vague challenge to her to prove her theory and 'put some meat on the bones' of her argument was met by her with a determination to put these ideas to the test in the most direct manner possible.

Fiona had possession of a cow byre which had, at one time, been a single-room artisan-type cottage. A good clean-out and installation of a wooden floor was the starting point. Fiona then began the task of making all aspects of her new situation as authentic as she could, to enable her to reconstruct life for a year as a Dominie's wife circa 1890.

The very limited amount of furniture needed was sourced or constructed. Wooden plate racks and even a box-bed was made from aged wood and all the crockery used was wooden (apart from a pewter plate for 'best'). She even made her own mattress and stuffed it with wool, which turned out to be slightly problematical and drew attention to the importance of ventilation — an aspect often forgotten today. Her clothing was hand-made and based upon contemporary prints, although she did admit to choosing the rather more dashing mop cap, so fashionable and practical in the 1890s and thus she rejected the more common older head-dress look — so 1870s!

Her daily tasks illustrated just how hard the women of that period had to work. Her busy days were spent collecting and chopping wood, fetching water, tending to the vegetable gardens, and general repair and maintenance. She even made and used a broom for brushing. This perhaps led to the nickname coined for her by her son. Thereafter she became affectionately known as 'The Hag in the Hovel'.

The evenings posed different challenges as the lighting was often from rush lights and home-made candles. Even the use of matches was foresworn and Fiona became a dab hand with the tinder box. She spent much of her evening writing up her adventures using goose quills and home-made ink (from elderberries and later from oak apple).

Food was simple, yet nutritious. It was primarily a vegetarian diet based upon staples such as porridge, barley bannocks and tatties, and supplemented by wild foods and home-grown vegetables. At least she could occasionally treat herself to a chunk of her own hard cheese.

She brought an excellent evening to a close with a Q-and-A session and an examination of some of her artefacts used during her 18th-century year. The success of a talk can sometimes be gauged by the number of questions posed and if this is a true reflection of interest Fiona Houston's talk certainly caught the imagination of the large and appreciative audience.