Crofting – A Wee But and Ben

Croft House, Shetland

This is the type of cottage called a “but and ben.” It’s two rooms, one  a parlour or a keeping room, a place for gathering and socializing. The second room would be  kitchen, family room, and bedroom. Additional sleeping would be in a loft. There would be fireplaces in the two rooms, for heat and cooking, but fairly primitive ones. A but and ben would most likely be built of stone and roofed with thatch. The floor might be hard clay or it might be flagged. Rushes would cover the floor for insulation and cleanliness. I realize that we think of rushed floors as something rather dirty, with crumbs and insects hiding amongst the plant stalks. But a properly rushed floor was swept up at least a week and fresh rushes put down. I imagine that one had to be careful with the fire, though, lest a spark leap into the dried rushes. When people went out they banked the fire with pieces of peat to keep it smouldering but not flaming. When they came back in, they pulled off the heavy peat layer and built the fire with dry peat or wood.

Our own house is not much more than a but and ben. It has a small shed at the kitchen entrance, now used as a kennel. Eventually it will be our pantry and coat storage in the winter. Then one enters the kitchen, a good sized room for a small house, where we have the woodstove. It is the warmest and sunniest room in the house, and with a little re-arranging, we will use it more for for sitting. The parlour is where the spinning wheels reside.

Carding and spinning, Shetlands

Upstairs, we have two bedrooms and a bath. The house used to be home to some large families. Sleeping arrangements were probably a little more casual than we expect now. All the children might be in one room, or all the girls in one, the boys in the other, or the littlest ones had cots in the parents’ room. Older family members might sleep on benches in front of the fire. My grandmother remembered that when they lived on the farm before her father died, she had a cot in the dining room. She didn’t know why she wasn’t given a bed in one of the bedrooms, but apparently the extra room was reserved for an elderly aunt. The idea of “privacy” was a bit foreign to my immigrant great-grandparents. In Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall, they were used to small houses and close quarters. The large farmhouses we admire were much more common in North America, where building materials were plentiful. Of course, people worked and even lived outdoors much of the year. There wasn’t much reason to have a big house, considering the amount of work and the scarce materials it required. Some Highlanders built their cottages right in the cleft of a hill, building up front walls with stone and roofing with timbers and thatch across the sides of the hollow. I imagine they looked rather like hobbit houses. There was always the danger, though, that a heavy snowfall and subsequent avalanche would collapse the roof and bury the occupants.

When my parents were first married, most houses were about 900 square feet, with a large living room, small kitchen, and a couple of tiny bedrooms.  Within a few decades, the average newbuilt American house was at least 2000 square feet, while family size was shrinking. Each family member seems to need his or her own zone of privacy, to engage in activities alone – watching television, surfing the net, social networking, exercising. Parents worry that they might not be able to afford a house big enough to  give the children each their own room, and still have rooms for leisure activities. They may not even enter all the rooms of the house in the course of a week. More developments go up every year, with more of these mostly empty houses. They cost a lot, and they are expensive to maintain.

We love living small. We don’t lose each other in the house as we did in the last big house where we lived. With a little creativity and re-arrangement, I think we could fit in a small floor loom, which is something I have wanted for years and years. And we like being together – neither of us feels the need to retreat into private space. I’m hoping that this summer we will be able to have guests here at the croft. If the weather is good – and it usually is – it will be very pleasant to sit in our garden, admiring the flowers and herbs. We could fit quite a few around our kitchen table too. And then we can sing,

“Just a wee deoch and doris, afore ye gang awa’; there’s a wee wifie waitin’ in a wee but and ben…”



19 thoughts on “Crofting – A Wee But and Ben

  1. Our house is just 1000 sq ft. It’s a little small with a busy little person like Ella and my sewing/knitting habit. Sometimes we are too much on top of each other. A ‘man cave’ or second living room would be nice, then Ella could have a play space and Daddy have space to relax and actually hear the tv (or himself) 🙂

    • I suppose it was different before television, and even before electric light! People just went to bed when it got dark. A story from my community was that old Mr. Carlsen used to sit in the pump house to read his newspaper, to get some quiet away from a large family in the evenings. It’s a nice little pump house- about the size of a child’s playhouse. He would finish the chores, light the lamp in the pump house, and sit in an old rocker until things got quiet, reading the paper. I can’t imagine how they lived here with twelve children, except that the older ones would be out in the barn doing chores.

      • Colin wishes he had a nice pump house. Once it gets a bit warmer he can hang out in the greenhouse when Ella gets crazy. He can’t stand up in the cellar and no one wants to hang out in a pig barn. I would love just a bit more room, then he could get his train sets back out.

      • Maybe that’s why my husband keeps talking about a workshop. My father had a basement workshop.

  2. Our main floor is only a living/dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and bathroom. We finished the basement last year for some additional space — now my husband has his own study and a bathroom there — but since everyone else is still small, they must stay upstairs where they are supervised. That means two children in a bunk in one room, and one in our room in our bed.

    It is quite small. Standards of child safety were rather more lax back in the day, and I cannot have my children in the kitchen with me when I’m doing quite a lot of work, and I cannot let them alone outside for fear of the neighbours calling child protection.

    • Yes, one reads old diaries and news papers and some poor child was always getting burned or scalded. We will get a child gate to put across our kitchen door once our granddaughter gets mobile. A friend who recently was in Africa said she found it unbelievable that very small children run around the village unsupervised. We wouldn’t even leave hert three year old grandchild alone in a room to play!

  3. When I was a child we mostly had all 4 of us kids in one bedroom. We had bunk beds and my little sister and I had the top bunk. I was on the outside edge and little sister was near the wall. The boys had the bottom bunk since my youngest brother would wake up during the night and pound on his little cobblers bench toy.

    Now our family is looking for something that is 4 bedroom or can have a bedroom “created” on the first floor. For the past 5 years my daughter and granddaughter have shared a bedroom. Daughter and 13 year old granddaughter are both ready for their own space, even if small. Grandson, being the only male human in the house, needs his own room or we risk child protection services being called. I need to not climb stairs, but still have access to a bedroom and a roll in shower in the bathroom. We keep all electronics, except one radio, in the living room though our living room is rather small. It helps us keep track of what the children are watching and where they are going on the internet. We do really like the kitchen we have now and hope to be able to get a place with a similar kitchen.

    • Modern expectations do mean that children of different genders have to have their own rooms. I think if I had a very large family I would have just two big dormitory style rooms for the children, and a family room for their activities and schooling, with a separate parlour for the grown-ups! Children of a couple of generations ago didn’t have a lot of personal stuff, either, which meant they didn’t need storage space for toys, books, electronics and clothes.

  4. OK, this must be a cultural thing because here in Sweden no one would even think twice about having your child in the kitchen. Stoves are constructed not to tip over and ovens not to be opened by a child. If you are scared they will pull a pan off the stove you get this little barrier that makes the children not being able to reach them. I also doubt anyone would call child protective services just because a child was outside alone unless it was outside in the middle of the night or seemed clearly abandoned. Well, a very young child might be another story but I think that in most cases people would just try to find the child’s parents instead.

    In summer the kids of the area run wild kind of like I did as a child. My parents did not know exactly where I was, just kind of, like somewhere in the neighborhood not too far away but out of sight (of course, hiding from parents was part of it). I was nostalgic to hear that some parents even shouted from the top of their lungs for their children to come home to sleep, I thought that all kids had cell phones now, which of course is kinder to the parent’s throat… I know some of my colleagues at work would probably not let their kids do that though, but they think their 12 year olds are babies. At 12 I would sometimes be kilometers away from my parents on one of me and my best friends bike tours of some part of our home town. And, no, my parents were not very relaxed, they were probably the strictest in the neighborhood, much to my disapointment.

    • I have a big hot woodstove in my kitchen now, so the little one would have to be kept at a distance. I never worried much about my children playing around the neighborhood, and we ran wild after about the age of ten. There is a cultural difference between Europeans and Americans. A German couple visiting in the United States got in trouble a few years ago because they left their baby sleeping in a push-carriage outside the coffee shop where they stopped. Rather than simply asking if the baby belonged to someone in the shop, passersby called the police.

      • When I was in Britain, I saw the same thing: someone leaving their baby buggy outside as they did their shopping. That was in 1985. Even then I found that unusual for it would not be done here.

  5. Regarding wood stoves according to the friends I have who use them. It is good to have something so that the kid cannot accidentally touch the stove (like a little fence abound it) but they don’t touch it volontarily, they feel it is too hot. If they are burned it is usually because they forget or they bump into the stove by mistake. Also, if you have both an electric stove and a wood stove and don’t use the woood one during summer then the child might forget that it turns hot once you start using it again so then you have to guard them. I would probably build a rack for drying clothes that could double as a fence if I had a wood stove. I have seen some pictures of these and they seem quite nice but you need to move one of them when you put in more wood.

    • If I had little ones in the house all the time, I would install some sort of fence. Small children falling into the fire seems to have been an all-too-common mishap two hundred years ago. Still, I knew a family that had a child severly burned because the wheels of his babywalker caught the cord of a deep fat fryer and pulled it down on his head. It’s one the reasons that newer appliances have short cords – so that a child can’t catch them. Accidents happen with all electic appliances – a woman I knew accidentally looped the cord for her electric kettle on the oven door handle, and scalded herself badly when she opened the oven door and the kettle full of hot water flew off the counter and splashed her. A parishioner tried to warm some crystallized honey in her microwave, and when she opened the door, the cold air hitting the hot jar made it explode. She was not only burned but cut; blessedly, her glasses protected her eyes. It is the same with the buggy accidents we hear about; an Amish family lost seven children when their buggy overturned into a creek, but another Plain family that had switched to using a car were in accident a year ago that killed 11 people. We can never know if we are going to be safe. We take what precautions we can and as we see them, but we can’t anticipate every possible outcome, and must trust in the Lord.

  6. When I was a kid I would be free to visit my village and to wander about the nearby country roads and fields.Sometimes my mom would send me to neighbours and the village to get messages.Nobody in my area is at all bothered by this.

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