What’s in the box?

In the attic of his Aunt’s house, George found a box. It was bit battered about but sound. A good example of a 19th century pine kist.


These chests were very common in Scotland and had a multitude of uses. They could be simply storage vessels or they might be used to transport a family’s worldly goods as they moved from place to place, hired seasonally to work the land or perhaps to seek a new life overseas, whether voluntary or forced.

It was covered in thick layers of varnish and dark paint but obviously had good potential, so George set about stripping it down. But first it had to be opened and emptied. And so we found. This.

inside the kist

What we found..

Pages from a commemorative edition of the Glasgow Weekly Mail of 1871 marking the engagement of HRH Princess Louise with the Marquess of Lorne, later the Duke of Argyll.

princess Louise

HRH Princess Louise

Why had this been pasted inside the kist? We can only make wild guesses. It must have been decorative it can’t have served any function, it’s not lining there’s too little of it. We don’t even know who put it there.  But suddenly the serious sometimes forbidding looking people in old photos become more familiar. Could those newspaper pages pasted inside a chest be the 19th century versions of the posters of Donny Osmond on my childhood walls or Kim and Justin on Instagram?

bessie and robert paterson

Bessie (Hill) Paterson on left and her husband Robert on right, with their children. The little boy in the sailor suit is George’s grandfather (also George). Bessie and Robert married in 1879. Bessie was 16 in 1871.

It’s fun to imagine and make up stories but it would be even better if the real story or even parts of it had been passed down the years. But it’s too far back, even in a family with long memories. So the  mystery stays in the box.


So what is a Sheiling?

It’s a summer dwelling for the herdsperson while the stock, in Scotland usually cattle, feed on the higher pastures.  Ruins of these dwellings can be seen in many parts of upland Scotland; they remained in use until the  early19th century when land enclosure ended the practice. It can also refer to the pasture land.  The hill farms of Northumberland used the same system, and if you travel around the hills of Wales you might notice many buildings called Hafod. These were the summer dwellings of the shepherds, distinct from the farmhouses Hendre found down on the gentler valley floors.

But this house doesn’t fit that description,  it’s not on high pasture, the sea washes  the bottom of the garden. Because even though parts of the house have been here for over 150 years it hasn’t always been called Sheiling. Many years ago it may have been Clachan cottage, perhaps part of Clachan farm just over the bridge? An early postcard view shows hay stacked in the “garden” which suggests livestock. The settlement around the bridge was once bigger, there are remains of at least two other cottages nearby and another one clearly marked on the old maps has disappeared without trace.  Even before the bridge it seems to have been a crossing point to and from the mainland.

We’ll be keeping the name though, because we’re offering a temporary home. Though please, don’t bring your cows!

old photo


A peek into the past

Do you keep a diary? Alice MacLachlan did. She was the teacher and wife of the Minister of St Kilda in 1906-9. The National Trust for Scotland are posting weekly episodes of her diaries on their website,  St Kilda Diaries, The Diary of Alice MacLachlan . They are are fascinating, beginning with the MacLachlan’s life near Garve,  then documenting Alice’s initial dismay at her husband’s posting to St Kilda and subsequently their life there.

As the diaries are being released weekly it’s possible to follow life as the seasons turn. At the moment hay is being gathered and there’s great excitement as a whaling ship visits. The steamer service has already finished and soon the islanders will be facing the winter….

Alice probably never imagined her diaries would be read let alone mind published. Her carefully recorded domestic details take us to the past in a way that photographs and artefacts can’t. We share her excitement, moments of boredom, sadness and joy. Today many of us share our lives through blogs, Facebook and Twitter but these tend to be edited to show us at our best. There is still a place for the diary recording those things we may not want to share.  Yet.