The Use of Rattan in Scottish Baskets by Lois Walpole

The one definition that is usually true about baskets made anywhere in the world, is that they are made with locally available, natural, materials. But, there are exceptions and perhaps Scotland has more baskets made with non-indigenous materials than many other countries. Here rattan from South East Asia has played an important part in many of the baskets particularly those used for fishing since at least the early 20th Century, if not before.

At that time for a basketmaker in Scotland to be making baskets madeout of a material that grows in a tropical jungle on the other side of the globe required several things to have happened. Firstly the material needed to have arrived in Scotland with a price tag that was not prohibitive.  Secondly someone needed to have spotted its potential for use in basket making. And thirdly someone needed to have made baskets with it and found it to be a better material for the particular job in hand than anything available locally.

There are various theories as to how it may have arrived in Scotland, but so far little documentary evidence.[1] The most common and plausible theory is that it arrived as dunnage, which is a waste or non valuable  material used like packaging to prevent the cargo, in the hold of a sea going vessel, from shifting during passage. The evidence for this theory seems largely to come from this story of the arrival of rattan in America printed in a history of the Heywood Wakefield Company (1926) and quoted in American Wicker, Woven Furniture from 1850 to 1930[2] by Jeremy Adamson.

One morning in the year 1844[3] a young man stood on a wharf in Boston watching the unloading of a vessel just arrived in port. A stevedore threw a small bundle of rattan over the railing of the ship. The moment for which the youth was waiting had evidently arrived and he hastened up to the mate and asked what he intended to do with the discarded rattan. He was told it was of little value and chiefly served as ballast [sic] to prevent the cargo from shifting on its long voyage from the East. So he secured the rattan for a small sum and, shouldering his burden, carried it back to the grocery store on the water-front which he and his brother conducted.”

According to Adamson, the man who bought the rattan was Cyrus Wakefield who subsequently went on to found the Wakefield Rattan Company which ultimately became the biggest rattan furniture manufacturer of its kind in the world.

It seems sufficiently plausible, given that Boston was a major port for tea imports and with Scotland having long had a thirst for the same brew, to suggest the rattan may have arrived in Scotland in the same manner.

If the basket makers had had to pay a lot for the rattan it is unlikely they would have used it, as basket making was (as it still is in many places all over the world) a subsistence activity. It would have been therefore unlikely that Scottish basket makers would have had money to invest in expensive materials, so the dunnage theory has a lot to commend it.

The next stage is for someone in Scotland to have spotted the potential for its use in basket making. It is possible to conjecture that this could have been received information that in fact preceded the arrival of the rattan.  It is certainly likely that baskets being made in England or Holland that employed rattan were being used on the boats docking in Scottish ports. Both countries had been importing rattan since the 17th Century for furniture and when herring fishing grew into a major commercial activity the need for materials to make baskets that could withstand salt water, and carry very heavy loads on a daily basis, became paramount and rattan could do both.

Despite a shortage of documentary evidence, the fact remains that there are various baskets such as crans, sculls and rips, that were widely used in the fishing trade in the British Isles up until the 1950’s, that employed rattan in one way or another. Although many of the crans were made in Norfolk, some of the other baskets were made in Scotland. We have evidence in the form of photos and sales documents that William Corner, based in Wick, made ‘official’ herring crans from willow, wood and rattan. According to Dorothy Wright, herring crans were designated as an official measure of herring in 1852 and the official size of the quarter cran was fixed in Scotland in 1889.[4]

Perhaps the most intriguing indigenous example of the use of rattan was not for fishing, but rather it was for carrying peat and anything else that needed carrying including shopping. This is the so called “willow” kishie, its mis-naming being evidence that both willow and rattan were completely unknown to people in the Shetland Islands, where this basket was made in some quantity between about 1920 and 1980. Someone, possibly in either Shetland, Orkney or the West Highlands, where straw kishies were in use, had thought to try the traditional kishie shape in rattan, they discovered that it was a lot quicker to make a “willow” kishie than an oat straw one and that it could take getting repeatedly wet  without rotting.

Whilst we know little about the initial arrival of the rattan as a raw material in Scotland we do know that latterly English importers of rattan such as Jacob Young and Westbury sent considerable quantities of it to mainland Scotland and the Northern Isles. There is also a lot of information available about rattan the plant and the processed material. From this it is possible to determine that much of the fine 3-8mmdiameter rattan used in Scotland for weaving with was either palembang or white poelut with kooboo at 6-15mm commonly employed for handles or reinforcing purposes.[5]

Whilst it would be interesting for us to know more about the timing and circumstances that led to the introduction of rattan into Scottish baskets, what its use does demonstrate, very clearly, is that Scottish basket makers were opportunistic and unsentimental about their own tradition. Able to recognise the potential of rattan for the baskets they needed to make, they subsequently went on to exploit it to very good effect, with scarcely a backward glance at what had gone before.

Lois Walpole, November 2012

[1] It may be out there but I have had little luck in tracking anything down so far.

[2] Adamson, Jeremy, American Wicker, Woven Furniture from 1850 to 193,Smithsonian Institution, 1993,p.22

[3] Research by Adamson puts the actual date at 1840 rather than 1844

[4] p.162  Dorothy Wright The Complete book of Baskets and Basketry, David & Charles ltd.1977

[5] Rattan is the name given to 13 genera with over 600 species of a climbing palm. It is often referred to as cane though this term more accurately describes the stem of the plant. The harvested stems of rattan are canes.