by Rosemary Goring

Trivial Pursuits

October 29, 2009 | by Rosemary Goring

HOME MAY BE where the heart is, but that organ could have been made of tin for all the interest historians have bestowed on it in the past. While battles, executions, dynastic feuds, political revolutions and the vagaries of the economy have been given devout consideration over the centuries, the locus of some of the most dramatic and important events in human life has been studiously ignored. Though the humble domestic dwelling witnessed – cumulatively – more violence and death than all but the worst battlefields and bombsites, and minutely reflected the impact of the country’s shifting financial and political fortunes, it has been as invisible to most of the historical fraternity as the thoughts and dreams of its frequently illiterate occupants.

In her introduction to Scotland’s Domestic Life, editor Susan Storrier reflects that “It may be that the patchy and oftentimes inadequate study of Scottish domestic life has been in part a reaction to notions of status. There is a long history of viewing the domestic arena as inferior to the public and dwellings have often been associated, correctly or not, with groups somehow regarded at times of being of lower status – women, children, older people, the unwell and the disabled. This home life may on occasion be considered a less prestigious focus of academic endeavour.”

Despite the notable examples of a handful of far-sighted social historians, starting with H G Graham, author of the ground-breaking The Social Life of Scotland in the 18th Century and, most recently, A Carruthers (who wrote The Scottish Home, which was the starting point for this present work), excavation of the domestic realm has remained for many a slightly feeble-minded enterprise, as if the universality of experience it represents automatically strips it of any mystery, fascination or intellectual stimulation.

A mere hour in the company of Scotland’s Domestic Life should not only dispel that thought, but send anyone with the slightest imagination or curiosity about their forebears to hunt down every other history on the subject available. Though it is magisterial in size, the book’s cover image is the first indication that what lies within is not dry, dreich or didactic, but entertaining. It shows a photograph, taken in Dundee around the middle of last century, of a father holding out a budgie on his wrist, while a chubby infant, held in the lap of her grandmother, reaches out to stroke it. That snapshot captures a crumb of 20th century social history, showing the working-class fondness for pets, especially those that didn’t demand too much room or money.

Scotland’s Domestic Life is only one in a 14-volume project, an awesome venture from the European Ethnological Research Centre. Earlier titles in the series include histories of Scotland’s education system, religion, buildings, and communities. The breadth of coverage is staggering, but in each of these, as in Scotland’s Domestic Life, the subject is broken down into short, digestible chapters, lavishly augmented by photographs, and written by experts who, keeping closely to their remit, offer an intensely instructional overview of their area.

What is immediately striking about this collection is that the most basic material or practical aspects of domestic life offer clues to the psychological meaning the home holds for its inmates. So, while Alexander Fenton discusses the methods of heating and lighting used over the centuries, or John Bur-nett examines the games and recreations pursued in leisure time, seemingly banal observations on fir candles or Trivial Pursuit can carry deeper insights. As Storrier writes, “dwellings and domestic life have profound importance beyond translation of the wider world…to study domestic life is to explore both the centre and the larger part of human experience.”

The picture thrown up by the 47 essays here is extraordinarily rich. Almost every subject could be expanded to book length. And those, like this reader, who prefer to read about the distant past will find themselves ineluctably drawn into discovering the allure of very recent history, as each chapter gallops from the Middle Ages to the 21st century. A small contemporary gem, for instance, is Hannah Avis’s study of young professional women living in Edinburgh in the late 1990s, who revealed their need for privacy in the one-bedroom flats they shared with their partners. Within the confines of restricted space, some managed to carve out personal zones for themselves, erecting invisible barriers around, say , a special chair or nook, where they could retreat to think and act in solitude. Though these women were living in comfortable accommodation that once would have been considered palatial for a mere two-some, space and solitude were still serious issues.

The feelings of cramped irritability these women confess to highlight the brutal standards of living that T C Smout describes in A Century of the Scottish People, 1830-1950, where he wrote of teeming one-end tenement living: “There was no privacy, no play space, no work space, no place to get out of the tensions of family life, to think, relax or sulk. There was not even space to die.” He quotes a horrified doctor of the time, who was on the sharp end of the high infant mortality rates in 19th century Glasgow: “Their little bodies are laid on a table or on a dresser so as to be somewhat out of the way of their brothers and sisters, who play and sleep and eat in their ghastly company.”

Although until recently the home was the domain where children were born (and too often died), where adults breathed their last, and where even today the majority of the women murdered in the world are despatched, usually by their partners, our attitude towards it, as Storrier writes, is tinged with nostalgia. This, she believes, reflects an innate tendency “towards maintaining comforting images of the domestic past”. Perhaps we like to imagine that home remains a sanctuary in contrast to the dangers and unpredictability of life beyond its doors. We prefer to associate the private hearth with the smell of newly baked bread rather than mould under the carpet, with raucous and happy family gatherings rather than wakes. It is a sentimental myth that has perhaps compounded the unwillingness to study the home with forensic rather than fond attention.

Not that the material in this book is predominantly disturbing or bleak. Nor does it set out to shock, though there is no escaping the conclusion, as the chapters unfurl, that life until recently has been at best harsh and troublesome for the vast majority; and even those who lived in rare comfort were as vulnerable to pain and fear as their less wealthy neighbours. In chapters on medicine or childbirth, for instance, the flimsy partition between life and death is dealt with matter of factly. Those who now opt for a home-birth probably cannot imagine the grime in which many children were once brought into the world. One midwife from the 1930s always carried newspaper with her “because it was cleaner than the sheets or whatever they had on the beds. There were these beds in the wall where they all slept and you had to turn father and all the children out whilst mother produced her thirteenth.” Yet even the cleanest of houses could still be deadly for a new-born, as on St Kilda where severed umbilical cords were commonly wiped with fulmar oil, thereby transmitting a potentially deadly infection.

One of the few areas well served by historians in the past has been food, yet in her chapter on this, Una A Robertson highlights the lack of knowledge about what children ate, especially those who were fed separately from their parents. The obvious answer may, of course, be that what was good for grownups was considered good enough for them. Certainly, Elizabeth of Rothiemurcus’s recollections of her father standing over her and her siblings with a whip in hand while they ate, suggests this may have been the case, but speculation is nothing compared to fact.

Home may have been an uncomfortable place for many by comparison with today’s standards, but for some it could be a haven. The son of a Jewish father recalls the relief he felt when Friday arrived, and his father came home from his week away, to oversee the Sabbath ritual: “We all ate together and there would be readings from the Jewish Bible. The tranquillity was bliss after a week of squabbling and shouting which sometimes got so bad that I wanted to pull a blanket over my head. On Friday evenings, even a slightly flippant comment by anyone would immediately be shushed by Father. I grew to love that atmosphere of calm.”

Among the more obviously painful areas analysed here is the chapter on Children’s Homes, some of which could have been lifted straight from Dickens. Home for those who ended up in orphanages, or the workhouse, was a memory. Many contemporaries were outraged by the conditions these abandoned children suffered: “children were degraded by hideous uniform, shuffling boots and prison-cropped hair. With overcrowding, vermin and skin disease spread like wildfire… No child had ever handled money; some had never eaten with a knife and fork. Workhouse children grew up permanently unfitted for normal life.”

The move to fostering rather than institutional care has eased the misery implicit in being separated from family, but in this traumatic area as with several others discussed here, it would be unreasonably optimistic to assume that all problems faced in earlier generations have by today been eradicated. Obvious examples include growing anxiety over the nation’s nutrition, despite the abundance of food available, the increase in feral children, and – more curiously – the rise of bed bugs, the scourge of previous eras, as pesticides lose their bite.

There are probably as many definitions of domesticity as there are latch keys, but Scot-land’s Domestic Life makes impressive inroads into the subject. Covering the physical, from building materials, furnishings and fittings to the overtly psychological, such as spirituality, hierarchy and security, it also addresses home in its more untypical forms – prisons, monasteries, even homelessness. Though I’d quibble over putting the chapter Living Alone under the section on ‘Less common types of household and home’, and found on occasion that the writer’s interest outstrips their perspective – as when David Jones in a discussion on storage tells us that many today don’t disburse rice or pasta into jars but keep them in the cupboard their packets – the quality and quantity of research and information this volume contains is dizzying and inspirational.

One of the most illuminating essays is that on Custom, by Gary J West, who explains the traditions households and communities uphold, from carrying the bride over the threshold, or taking a suicide’s corpse out by a window, to guising at Hallow’een. His conclusion could stand for the book, and this historical arena as a whole: “We have some way to go yet before our understanding of the full range of meaning we bestow upon our own homes is in any way complete.” On the evidence of these essays, however, the foundations and walls of the matter are already in place, even if the roof is still missing a few slates.

Rosemary Goring is Literary Editor of The Herald


SCOTLAND’S DOMESTIC LIFE
(Scottish life and Society: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology)
Ed. Susan Storrier
John Donald and NMS, £50
928pp, Isbn: 0 85976 649 7

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