By Fiona Grahame, Images by Martin Laird. A version of this article first appeared in iScot Magazine
Plastic ropes, nets and cable ties are amongst the most plentiful pieces of marine litter to be found both in the seas and washed ashore. They have become an indispensable material for farmers, fishers and an essential component in packaging. And yet their use is relatively recent.
Straw was once the choice material for Orcadians which they skilfully twisted and prepared for a myriad of uses around the farmstead. Gone now are most of those skills as are the words that went with the production of straw goods.
Straw is a by-product of cereal plants: barley, oats, rye, wheat and rice. Black oats was one of the most common varieties grown in Orkney and its fine, flexible stalks were excellent for making straw goods. These products were mostly for home use although a short lived strawplaiting export industry for bonnets was in existence in the first half of the 19th Century.
Straw products were an essential part of the Orkney farmstead. Everything from the furniture you sat on, the roof over your head and the basket the peats were in for the fire, was made from straw.
The Orkney chair is today recognised as a quality piece of furniture with a price that reflects the skill that has gone into making it. Originally it was made entirely out of straw until a North Ronaldsay man took some wood that had washed ashore and adapted the design to have a wooden seat. Over time changes were made with wooden arms and a drawer – the guidman’s stuil – where the heid o the hoose would keep his tobacco and copies of books.
Its construction from straw and driftwood meant it was seen as for the poorer type of house. The back of the chair is made from flexible oat straw, built up in regular courses less than an inch thick. All the courses (45 of them) were originally bound together with bent grass but today it is thin straw coloured cord.
The importance of having a successful farm and bringing in a good harvest had many traditions involving straw. In the parish of Sandwick when a man was to start his own farm he received a gift of sheaves from his neighbours. This was called sheaf getting.
Bringing in the last of the harvest was especially important. A bikko ( from the Old Norse bikkja) was a straw dog. It was made from the last of the straw gathered and hoisted onto a prominent position in the stackyard – usually at the top of the farm building. Over time this tradition changed to become a sort of insult and put up on the house of the man who was the last to get his harvest in.
Another tradition involved two short straws being placed in the fire. They are given the names of a lad and a lass and placed on a glowing peat. On one straw is a knot. Soon the heat will cause the straw to jump slightly. If it jumps towards the other straw then this is seen as an omen that the named lad and lass will be wed.
There are many different Orcadian words for the huge variety of straw products which were made.
The bent – straw – was bound into neat baets which were 2 spans in circumference. Each baet was carefully plaited together gradually tapering to end in a cord which allowed two baets to be tied together.
- 2 baets = band of bent
- 12 bands of bent = a thraive
From the baets could be made cords of varying thicknesses – the thickest being tether bands to the finest stuile bands
Simmans – these were straw ropes which involved a double twist making them strong. The double twist also acted against each other, preventing unravelling. It was wound into a clew.
Clew: wound in such a way that the end in the middle of the ball was accessible. It was as big as could fit through the barn door where it was kept until it was needed.
Simmans were used to thatch the roof and were laid in close parallel lines from eave to eave.
Sookans – a simple straw rope of a single twist. These were used for tying down stacks – perhaps 30 ropes for one stack.
Strae-buits: straw rope was wound under the instep of the boot, over the top and round the leg to the knee. An excellent way for the wearer to keep warm in winter. ‘Such straw boots formed the most comfortable part of a peasant’s dress.’ – Walter T Dennison
The whole of the farm horse’s harness was formed from straw.
Sitherhips (britchen) were formed by plaiting bent cord into a thin, broad belt.
Wazzie – the horse collar – this was formed by twisting 4 thick folds of straw together.
Maze – this was made by working the cord into a net. Sheaves would then be suspended on each side of the horse in the maze at harvest time.
For the house – there were straw products galore – of every conceivable size
Flackies were mats – the straw was bound together with bent cord. Small ones might be on the floor by the side of the bed, larger ones could be hung over doorways to keep out drafts.
Flackies were also used at kiln doors during the grain drying process. They were also used on horses to protect the animal’s back when carrying heavy loads.
The bed mattress – palliasse – was also most likely filled with straw.
Beek – this was a large number of flackies sewn together to make a long web of straw matting. It was rolled out and with its sides stitched together formed a large circular ‘vessel’. This was used to store grain and all held together by simmans neatly rolled around its outer side. The final beek would be thatched all over and form a cone shape.
Miels kaesie – these were of a closer texture than the flackies and made into a large bag or sometimes as a flexible oval shaped basket. After being filled it would be laced closed.
Miels kaesies filled with grain were used to pay the rent. They were also used to carry the grain to the mill and the meal from it – all transported by horse. The horses were tied to the tail of the horse in front. One man would attend every 2 horses or so always checking that the kaesies remained balanced each side of the animal. There could be 20 or 30 horses involved on some journeys.
Corn kaesie – this was barrel shaped and stood in the barn where it was used for holding dressed grain- it came in a variety of sizes Common kaesie – this was for carrying burdens on your back. It was narrow and rounded at the bottom. At the top was a fesgar – a circular rim. To the fesgar were fastened two ends of a bent rope. This was called the fettle. The kaesie was suspended from the shoulders of the bearer whilst his arm was placed through the hoop. If it was a long journey the fettle would be placed over both shoulders. Young children were often carried in kaesies by their mothers.
Cubbies – theses were slightly smaller than kaesies but were firm, and varied in shape.
Kirbuster Farm Museum image FG
- Window cubbie – from which corn is dropped while being winnowed
- Kiln cubbie
- Sawin cubbie
- Horse cubbie – a muzzle used on the horse
- Hen cubbie
- Ass cubbie
- Spoon cubbie – hung at the side of the fireplace
- Sea cubbie – carrying fish
- Bait cubbie – carrying bait
Beggars carried cubbies too and to say a man would have to ‘take to the cubbie and the staff ‘ was to infer that he would become a beggar.
Luppie – a basket for dry goods, eggs, meal – could be from 10 inches in height to 3 ft. A luppie had a rim round the lower end to protect the bottom and two lugs on opposite sides at the top. The smallest ones would be used as work baskets by the guid wife.
Luppies and straw stools tended to have the finest straw work done on them.
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