By Bernie Bell
Work is continuing, exploring and excavating around the outside of the Hall of Clestrain – family home of Arctic explorer Dr. John Rae https://www.johnraesociety.com/ .
Areas of paving have been found, giving possible insights into the ’below stairs’ life of the Hall https://theorkneynews.scot/2020/06/08/clestrain-courtyard/ , and also, in the area known as the moat, a real mixture of bits & pieces, of grand and humble origin – from a ‘branch’ of a candelabra, through china and bottle fragments, to bits of old iron, including a piece of a range.
I can picture the candelabra – all shiny – on top of a baby grand piano, with a lady singing, whilst a gentleman turns the pages for her. It really helps to paint a picture of the Drawing Room, in Clestrain, of an evening.
These bits & pieces give a direct link to the successive households at Clestrain – to the people above and below stairs, and outdoor workers too, in the form of a shackle and some farm machinery fragments.
Someone, sometime, lost a penny dated 1921, which has now been discovered – in very good condition – directly in front of the outside stair.
A penny, in 1921, was of more value than it is now – that ‘someone’ will have been very annoyed about losing this. And JRS volunteer Marie-Claire was probably equally pleased, to have found it!
In case you’re wondering at the mention of the Hall of Clestrain having a moat – the ‘moat’ is a narrow trench round the Hall. It was probably wider when the Hall was built and possibly had a 45 degree slope to make a HaHa. This was subsequently narrowed, by the construction of a wall, to make more space round the Hall. President of the JRS, Andrew Appleby, believes that the moat originally went along the north face of the Hall – where it has since been replaced by a big drain.
Layer upon layer of interest.
Years ago, I lived in a little old cottage in Wales, which was in a row of what had been mud houses – seriously – mud houses. When I moved in, the garden was a jungle, so I set about clearing it. I started at the bottom of the garden, where, not surprisingly, I found what must have been the rubbish heap, including lots of interesting bottles. I gave most of them away, but still have a couple. Similar ‘finds’ at the Hall of Clestrain can provide a more direct link with John Rae and his family – what we throw away, is very personal, and can tell a lot about us.
When we moved into our present house, the front garden was just lawn, with a bank at the side containing venerable dockens and nettles which, according to our neighbours, hadn’t been touched for about 20 years. Mike set about clearing the bank. At the beginning of his excavations, he started to uncover a big, rounded metal….thing. He dug and dug around it, trying to find out what it was, but it just went on and on – so he gave up, re-buried it, and we planted over it. We think maybe it was the top of the wheel arch of a tractor? Hard to tell.
It soon became obvious that the bank had been a dumping ground for the house which used to stand here, as Mike found more and more objects of interest – the kind of things which might turn up as they excavate further, and deeper, around Clestrain. There was a metal step, which we presumed was from a tractor, but on visiting Kirbuster Farm Museum……
……in the out-buildings, we came upon an old gig, with a step just like the one Mike had dug up from the bank. This indicates that the folk who lived in the house which used to be here, were posh enough to own a gig – giving a little insight into life here, where the old house is now gone, and only a workers cottage and byre ( now converted to a cottage) remains.
You can see one of these steps, clearly, on the picture in the Wikipedia explanation of what a gig is …. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gig_(carriage)
And ours, is propped up against an old fish-box found on the beach. Though posh enough to have a gig, the people who lived here will have based their lives around farming, and you might notice an old hand-sickle, also un-earthed from the bank….
We also have various other bits of metal – hinges, hooks, a hammer-head, and two fine horseshoes, from big horses – maybe Clydesdales?
Mike also un-earthed a section of stone wall, which we named the ‘Great Wall of Velzian’, in homage to the section of wall discovered at the Ness of Brodgar at about the same time. https://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/about/trench-j/the-great-wall-of-brodgar/#:~:text=In%202007%2C%20a%20massive%20prehistoric,symbolic%2C%20or%20ritualistic%2C%20function.
We cleared the section of wall, but the ’jungle’ on the top of the bank has now encroached and engulfed it again. Maybe to be re-re-discovered in years to come.
I’ve wandered away from the Hall of Clestrain a bit, but I think that all these ‘finds’ have something in common. They are domestic. They show what happened to domestic rubbish before we had Council rubbish collection. I remember my Uncle Anthony and Auntie Bridie, at my mother’s family home-farm in Ireland, making a heap of otherwise non-disposable rubbish, way back behind the house and the sheds, then having a bonfire every now and then. Maybe one day bits & pieces will be found there, which will be of interest to folk, who might even wonder what on earth some of those things were used for! Maybe the remains of a similar rubbish dump will be found, way back behind the shed, at Clestrain?
One person’s rubbish, can be another person’s treasure. I love to find bits & pieces on the beaches – crockery, glass, metal – but these have been washed up from who-knows-where. Whereas, bits & pieces found around a house or where a house used to be, are domestic, and can possibly be linked to known people and their lives. In the case of Clestrain – those people being the family and household of the man who discovered the North-West Passage through the Arctic, and who also discovered the fate of the Franklin expedition, partly from the bits & pieces they left behind, to tell their tale.