Like any other community before the ready availability of plastic items, baskets made in natural materials were essential to life.
In the Outer Hebrides one basket was used for many jobs. The creel. Now creel as a description can mean any basket. I am meaning the back creel or pony creel. This creel was used for many activities.
Bringing the peats home
This job seems to have primarily been a woman’s job. Peats were cut on the moor. This could be quite a distance from the home fireplace. So once the peats were dry and stacked by the peat bank they were brought home a creel at a time. I don’t know if the women relied on just one creel full for a day or if more than one trip was necessary. My experience of a peat fire is that more than one would be needed for an all day fire. Teenanne Murray, of Valtos, Lewis recalled her mother’s tale of going to get a creel of peats before school, which would have been a two hour round trip. Even after tractors and trailers came in, creels were still used into the 1960s for gathering the small pieces or ‘caoran’ to then tip onto the trailer. For some communities, using a boat was a more practical way of getting the peats home and creels loaded with peats would have been stacked in to the wooden boats. This was done for particular villages on the Isle of Great Bernera. Some areas used ponies to bring a larger amount of peats home. Alasdair Alpin MacGregor wrote in 1929 that he saw as many as 50 ponies carting peats in Barra.
The creels were used to take the harvest to wherever the crop was going to be stored. It was also used to take the seed potatoes out in the spring to the growing area.
Seaweed was an important resource for fertilising the crop growing areas. I saw my crofting neighbours in Leumrabhagh use seaweed with the cow manure in layers. This apparently helps the manure mature quicker and is a great mix for the lazybeds, especially for potatoes which are heavy feeders.
A local told me that a creel would be used for the first year for the peats, second year for the potatoes and the third for the seaweed. And that would be the end of its life. There are creels in museums and in photos with rope around the top part of the weaving, so that was one part that suffered with the workload.
Creels were used with a rope or strap across the chest and a pad of material on the back. They were also put on the backs of ponies. One on either side, using a wooden made holder on top of a woven mat.
Women and children would go to the sheilings in summer with the cows for the summer pasture. Creels would have been used to take whatever would be needed. The women would bring butter and milk back to the village packed in to the back creel for men and the elderly left behind
Lina Fieldsend of Crothair, Great Bernera recalled to me how the women of the village would walk out to the loch to do the washing. They would use creels to take the washing to this loch. The sheets were spread out on the hill to dry overnight. She remembers how lovely they smelt the next day when they took them in.
These small coiled baskets were used as a meal measure and were given to a bride on her wedding day for her household use. TeenAnne Murray from Valtos, Lewis remembers her mother telling her about keeping the ciosan in the meal chest. They would have been used for the various grains and maybe also for bread.
The large oval frame baskets were used with a small line and the stake and strand great line basket.
During the height of the herring industry women sorted the herring at the ports like Stornoway. They used a mix of round frame baskets and barrels to sort the fish according to size and condition and also to put the guts in. The gutted fish were taken to a large barrel in one of the round frame baskets or oak swales to be put in salted spirals. These gutting crews of herring girls followed the ships and the fishing around the coast. The season started in Stornoway from May to mid July. From there to the East coast of Scotland and Shetland till early September and then to East Anglia for October and November. During the winter the local fishermen would fish for their own subsistence.
Herring girl baskets
It is difficult to tell from the photographs, and certainly none have survived in collections, whether any of these were frame baskets made with willow or all were oak spales. Because the industry was widespread and there would not have been any oak coppice on the islands, the swale baskets would brought over and not made on the islands. Talking to one of the last creel makers, Donald MacDonald in 2009 when he was in his late eighties, I showed him a frame basket of mine. He did not remember anyone locally making them and said he did not know how to make them either. It would seem likely that frame baskets were made in the islands but that the skill had died out…possibly with the import of baskets by the fishing industry.
Creel making would have been an important skill to learn and appears to have been a common one for most crofters. Each croft would have had a willow garden. This was a walled area for growing the yearly coppiced willow. Creels were made in the winter when there was less work to do on the crofts and the willow was ready, having been cut and left to dry for about eight weeks. Lina Fieldsend remembers that her father, Donald MacDonald of Crothair, Great Bernera would usually only make a creel every other winter. She remembers there being ‘willow everywhere’ and that all the male crofters would make them. Crofters would have passed the skill on to the next generation, usually the boys but I do know a woman in her eighties, Mary Mackay of Achmor, Lewis, who was taught by her father.
Latterly hessian sacks became available and men particularly took to using these instead of creels. They were used on the back with a rope around the sack and around the top of the arms. TeenAnne Murray said to me that she only remembers women using creels. Lina Fieldsend said that the sacks were so much easier to use than the creels. They didn’t take as much in them so were lighter and they were easier on the back.
By Dawn Susan with thanks to Maggie Smith of Achmore, Lina Fieldsend of Crothair and TeenAnne Murray of Valtos.