What we know about hen baskets

'Brigitte Bardot' basket by Donald Crawford, Ard Fern
‘Brigitte Bardot’ basket by Donald Crawford, Ard Fern

This design is a very widely used and known, and there is some evidence that its origins are Scottish. The design went across the Atlantic with Ulster-Scots immigrants, who continued to use it in the Virginian Appalachian Mountain area in the Eighteenth century. They used local materials to that area such as split wood and it continues to be made there. A source on ‘flickr’ describes it as a design derived from a Viking basket. But in Scandinavia these baskets are known as ‘Scotch’ baskets.

Dorothy Wright believes it’s origins to be very old and possibly Celtic. She has seen it in fourteen illuminated manuscripts dated from the twelth century onwards, shown as the basket in which St. Joachim carried the sacrificial doves at the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. It is also depicted in Opus Anglicanum embroideries of 1315 in the same role and in a stained glass window in York Minster.

There is a widespread tradition of it being called a hen basket because it was used to carry a broody hen from one croft to another. Alisdair Davidson said ‘You would take a broody hen across to your neighbours to help them out. If you have got a hen that will sit a lot and they have got the eggs and the hen will not sit, its easier and safer to take the hen to the eggs than the eggs to the hen. If you bring them across they are going to chill but if they are lying in a nest and you know the other hen is going be killed or wandered off you know’. Once a hen was inside she couldn’t move her wings and so couldn’t get out. Maybe this is connected to it being used to carry birds in the distant past. Basketmakers at Kilmuir in Skye made these baskets and one of theirs appeared in the Living Traditions exhibition in Edinburgh in 1951.

Another use for the basket in a bigger and heavier version was as a builder’s basket, where stones were winched up structures in them. There are twelfth century references to this use in England.

It was after the Edinburgh exhibition that this basket became very fashionable. It was very popular in the fifties and sixties for women to use as handbags after Brigitte Bardot started using one. Catherine Murphy remembers her aunts in Glasgow using them in the 1960s. It was made in vast numbers all over Britain. It was also copied in bulk in China, Japan, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Firstly it was made in willow, then rattan and finally in a plastic ‘rope’. It came to be called the Brigitte Bardot basket! By Dawn Susan


Dorothy Wright ‘The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry’ 1977

Alisdair Davidson in conversation with Julie Gurr 2013

See also Frame baskets in the how to make section

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