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25 Mar 2020

Keeping a distance in the past

Written by Vikki Duncan, Curator North
A kitchen in a basement of a castle. A range is tucked into an inglenook fireplace on the left. A wooden chair with a tartan rug draped over the back stands in front of the fireplace. A large wooden dresser stands against the stone wall, with candlesticks and jugs displayed on top. There is a closed, solid-looking, dark door to the right of the image.
Social distancing in the kitchen
The theme of ‘upstairs downstairs’ is in evidence in many of our Trust places but the clues are often very subtle. A series of rooms at Crathes Castle provide a great example.

Visitors start their tour in these ground-floor rooms. Each consists of a vaulted ceiling, tiny windows and extremely thick walls. The first room is called the First Kitchen as it’s the original one that served the castle. It still retains its massive inglenook fireplace with a wrought iron swey (a bar of iron from which pots can be suspended) to hold the heavy cauldrons of food required to feed both upstairs and downstairs. Our guides at Crathes Castle delight in challenging people to attempt to lift the largest cauldron – a difficult feat even without any food in it! They tell how, before the 17th century, much of the cooking was done by men and boys as brute strength was required to lift these mighty utensils.

The swey, or chimney crane, was an adjustable piece of apparatus used to suspend the pots above an open fire at different heights. There was usually a horizontal spit below, placed across the andirons or firedogs (bracket supports), that turned large joints of meat to ensure even cooking over the fire.

A close-up of the fireplace in a castle kitchen. Iron pots and spits stand in the fireplace. A wooden chair with a tartan blanket stands to one side. A woven wooden star hangs from the wall beside the fireplace.
The First Kitchen at Crathes Castle, with its huge fireplace

By necessity, all this activity generated both noise and smells that were not always palatable to the family and guests living above the suite of kitchens. Whilst communal living, eating and even sleeping together in the same room had been commonplace in earlier times, by the 17th century the family tended to withdraw to more private spaces. Food was prepared in separate kitchens and then transported by servants up to the Great Hall or to a withdrawing chamber, often just off the Hall.

The family withdrew not just physically but also symbolically. The delineation between upstairs and downstairs became much more marked at this time and evidence of this lies in the door that can be seen in the photograph of the First Kitchen. This door leads to the staircase that winds its way to the upper floors and the family apartments. It’s covered in thick green leather – a precursor to the ‘green baize door’ of later years – which acted as both sound-proofing and added a protective layer to prevent the drift of kitchen odours upstairs. It also meant that the servants had direct unobtrusive access to upstairs without being seen.

A close-up of a door, covered with a dark leather. It has a small brass knob and two key holes to the right.
The leather-covered door leading out of the kitchen at Crathes Castle

The green baize door has become firmly associated with the dividing line between servant and master. It served as the point between the two domains; trespassing beyond meant going into foreign territory, only permitted if servants had orders or were summoned. This door was universally recognised as the line between the two halves of the castle. As such, it was an early form of social distancing with which we’re now all becoming familiar and demonstrates that it’s certainly nothing new.

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