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13 Mar 2019

Moirlanich unlocked – home and hearth

Written by Emma Inglis
A view of the kitchen inside Moirlanich Longhouse with a large hanging chimney. A black kettle hangs over the fire. A wooden chair sits beside the fireplace.
The heart of the home at Moirlanich Longhouse
Moirlanich Longhouse was the home of the Robertson family from the 1850s until the 1960s. Different generations lived in the house together and worked on the farm.

The Robertsons’ house appears very basic compared with modern-day standards but the longhouse was once common in rural areas and many other smallholders across Scotland would have lived in exactly the same type of dwelling. At the end of the 19th century, when there was a general move to update these old buildings or to build anew, Moirlanich Longhouse somehow remained untouched and the Robertson family continued with an older style of living. Longhouses are now very rare.

A cutaway illustration of Moirlanich Longhouse
A view through the house

The simple construction of the longhouse made use of local materials and was quick and cheap to build. The family rooms were at one end, and the adjoining animal byre at the other. Wooden partitions divided up the space. The best room was located furthest from the byre to keep it clean, away from dirty feet.

The kitchen fire was the heart of the home at Moirlanich Longhouse. It was always lit, fuelled by logs or occasionally peat, and was essential for heat, cooking and light. The hingin’ lum – hanging chimney – was once common in rural homes, but as improvements were made by landlords they were usually replaced with the more familiar brick chimney flue and iron grate. Remarkably, the hood hanging over the fire at Moirlanich is made mostly of wood and paper. Soot deposits in the room behind the lum remind us how smoky the house would have been with an open fire such as this; on a breezy day, hints of peat and smoke still dance through the air.

Colin Kennedy grew up in Killin in the 1940s and remembered the fire at Moirlanich Longhouse. His father, the village blacksmith, played cards there with John Robertson.

‘My job was to keep the fire going by pushing a log maybe three feet long into the fire, which was on a stone slab on the floor. By the time I reached ten I was given another job, which was the task of climbing up the chimney, which had footholds to stand on and with a brush sweeping down as much soot as I could reach. When I was finished a big tin bath was placed in the middle of the kitchen floor filled with hot water for me to have a bath before going home. My pay was a scone and a glass of milk.’

A black and white photo of an old lady sitting by the side of a fireplace, with a large hanging chimney above. The fireplace is open and a pot hangs from a metal hook over it.
Lizzie Robertson and the hingin’ lum

Lizzie Robertson is pictured by the hingin’ lum with the ever-present black kettle hanging over the fire in a photo taken some time between 1910 and 1930. It’s one of a series taken at that time, showing the chimney and fireside must have been something of a curiosity, a rare survivor, even then.

Lizzie had three sisters: Janet, Annie and Kirstie. Kirstie moved to nearby Callander to work as a maid; Annie married and moved away, also to Callander. Lizzie and Janet remained and kept house for their brothers Donald and John, who worked the farm. They were later joined by their nephews Tom Proctor, John Robertson and Johnny Strattan.

Shelves next to the lum in the kitchen of Moirlanich Longhouse
Keeping it bright in the kitchen

For many years the kitchen at Moirlanich was brightened with floral wallpaper, which wrapped around the lum and into every nook and cranny. Food was mostly kept in the dresser cupboards and came fresh from the farm. Eggs were collected from the hens; milk and cream came from the cows; ham legs were hung from a beam. Lizzie Robertson would cut strips of meat and throw them into the big iron frying pan to cook over the fire. Pat MacNab, who stayed with the family for a time, remembered it well:

There was always a black-faced wedder – a castrated male sheep – killed and salted at the end of the year you know, it would always be a lamb. So we were very well fed, very well fed.

We were out o’ bed at 5 every morning, and the cream would be sittin’ there in the mornin’ on the bedroom windowsill – it would be skimmed off the top o’ the basin o’ milk from the night before. The porridge was there and the horn spoon – and they always made the porridge the night before, they’d make it and put it in the middle o’ hay, on the kitchen table or somewhere away fae the fire, like a cosy to keep it warm, in that hay. So it wasn’t hot but it was warm.

First thing in the morning she’d [Lizzie] be there in her nightie, in her bare feet an everything else, and she just went through to the hen-house and took the eggs out of the nest an’ she would knock two eggs in there, and the ham would be sliced there. She’d get me tae get up an’ get the ham down. An’ then once she had me settled, she’d skip back into bed – still in her nightie!

The kitchen in Moirlanich Longhouse
A fully fitted kitchen, Glen Lochay-style

The Robertson family didn’t have many pieces of furniture and those they did have were locally made. Many pieces, such as the kitchen dresser and beds, were built into the structure of the house. The kitchen dresser was central to every rural home and would have held simple kitchen equipment, dishes and food. The dresser at Moirlanich is of typical Lowland type, fully fitted with three drawers and three cupboards below the dresser top. Chairs were often made by the men of the house using wood acquired nearby.

There’s no sink or running water at Moirlanich Longhouse. Water was fetched from a spoot – or spout – at the roadside, which was fed by a spring up the hill. The dry closet – toilet – was also outside the house across the road. John Milne visited when he was a boy and remembered the kitchen there:

‘There was a sideboard which is still there. It was built into the wall. There was at the window, I suppose what would be known as a winner bunker in which blankets and clothes were kept and which also served as a seat. There were only two wooden chairs in the kitchen. That was the only moveable furniture there was, this chest thing and the two chairs plus this huge sideboard thing. She had plates on the top racks. I was more interested in the fire which was in the middle of the floor, for which she had to go outside of course to get her water. That well or burn is still there. It came down and sort of fell down to where she was able to put her pans to gather water.’

A view from the kitchen looking through to the animal byre at Moirlanich Longhouse
From the kitchen through to the animal byre

The area between the kitchen and byre used to be the hen house, with a ramp up to the small window to allow the hens to climb in and out. The rest of the byre was used for milking the cows when they were brought in; in later years it was used as a general store for farm tools.

The twin box beds in the best room at Moirlanich Longhouse
Twin box beds in the best room

With space at a premium in the house, the best room at Moirlanich doubled as a bedroom and a parlour, but local people remember that it was rarely used by visitors. Instead, visitors to the house always sat in the kitchen and the door to the best room was usually kept closed. Mr Anderson lived in Killin in the 1930s and remembered visiting Moirlanich Longhouse.

‘When we went to call we had to have a cup of tea and a barley scone although old Janet’s hands were as black as the ace of spades. They made butter and cheese and rather unusual barley scones as well as plain. These were just for themselves, not for sale.

The beds at Moirlanich are built into the structure of the house and form the partitions between rooms. They’re known as box beds and were lined with paper and hung with curtains to keep out the draughts. At one time ten people may have slept in the house at Moirlanich. Pat MacNab remembers when he was there that Lizzie Robertson slept in the kitchen. Other people recall that Lizzie and her sister slept in the best room, so family members must have moved around depending on how many men or women were in the house at the time.

To modern eyes the house seems to lack comfort but with the fire lit, the rooms warm and busy with people, it can’t have been a bad sort of home.

Look out for the next article in the Moirlanich Unlocked series which explores more stories about life in this remarkable little house.

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