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…”