Warming by the Hearth’s Fire

The following article was published in the December 2019 Spotlight Magazine – Inverness and District; Nairn and District; Forres and District; Buckie, Keith and District; Turriff, Huntly and District; and Strathspey and District editions.

As we enter the colder months in the North of Scotland, many of us will be considering the use of fire to warm our homes if we have a clean lum and a good stove.

Historically, the hearth, or the place the fire sits, is much more than just a useful heating mechanism. To our ancestors, the hearth was a giver of light; a social gathering point for sharing stories, traditions, music; and staving off the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. It was the focal point of strong cultural communities in the winter time and Hugh Cheape describes the hearth as being associated with the true West Coast and Hebridean cèilidh.

Alexander Fenton observed that the open grate hearths were more traditional in Highland and North East homes, rather than the European-style wood stoves that are now becoming popular. These open fireplaces are perhaps a close relative of the early central floor fires which we can only guess must have been used since prehistoric periods.

It is difficult to date the earliest use of fire within the home, but ancestors living in caves, crannogs and more recent blackhouses all appear to have had a central fire, but without a chimney to allow the smoke to be removed cleanly. Instead, in crannogs and blackhouses, smoke would dissipate through the roof structures, or through a small central hole which would help create a draw of air.

In castles too, a central fire would have been a usual sight in the earliest wood and stone fortifications. The use of decorative hearths and chimneypieces developed in the early 1600s, according to Ian Gow, which is why many of the surviving castles and ruins usually have obvious hearth structures after 17th century additions. Designs were brought from Europe by various Royals and copied throughout the homes of the Scottish gentry, with personal emblems added for variation.

In most Scottish homes, only one fire would be in regular use, regardless of the number of rooms or hearths. This is perhaps a link with the old cottage dwellings. Many cottages were a longer structure than the romantic view of the Scottish blackhouse – usually a smaller structure dating from the 1800s. This is because the original houses would be used to house animals during winter at one end of the house, with the fire in the middle.

Changes occurred when the ‘byre’ section was closed off from the main living area, with a hearth built into the central wall. Many of the byre sections were later dismantled, like the cottage at Culloden battlefield, or not built on later croft structures like those of the 1800s in Caithness.

As Gary West notes, the hearth was also an intriguing part of custom and superstition in the Highlands. After Culloden, the Gaelic poet John Roy Stuart wrote a curse on Cumberland:

“May your hearth be bare,
No wife, son or brother there,
Without Clarsach music, without candle light.”

The fact that Cumberland died unmarried, with no legitimate heir and predeceased by his brothers is seen as testament to Stuart’s curse. For Stuart, the hearth was clearly a very central family symbol to be attacked and included in this deeply personal curse.

If you don’t own a stove or fireplace, see if you can find one in a friend or relative’s house, a bar, or a hotel this winter. It will be a good place to meet people and discover common interests. If you’re lucky, one of them might also be a good musician…

If you have a topic you’d like to find out more about, or have local traditions and stories to share, please e-mail andrew@highlandhistorian.com and visit highlandhistorian.com to book your bespoke guided tour!

Andrew Grant McKenzie MA (Hons) FSA Scot



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