This basket has a huge variety of names. These include tatty baskets , tatty swales, oak swales, oak spales, spale-oak, scuttle, slop, skelk, wisket, spelk, swill, skep, skulls or sculls. It seems that some were made in Scotland but mainly they were made in the Lakes in the Furness area and then sent to Scotland and all around Britain. They were used for many other things than just for the potato harvesting.
1. Measures and containers for the charcoal industry and in the bobbin mills.
2. In the mining industry
3. In textile mills, snuff factories, and seed merchants
4. Sowing seeds where the baskets were made into a kidney shape to fit the body of the sower. Including Scotland.
5. Various crop harvesting. Including Scotland.
6. Feeding animals. Baskets were placed under turnip cutters to give a measured amount of feed, especially for cows.
7. Collecting cockles. Swills with a looser weave and handles were used by scooping sand and cockles into the basket with a stick. Then the sand is washed through the gaps to leave the cockles.
8. Domestic use such as clothes baskets, log and garden baskets shopping baskets and cradles. Current uses.
9. Treating the hooves of Clydesdale horses. The basket is filled with sawdust and the hoof put in them to dry the ‘feathers’ or long hairs around the hoof. Current use. Alisdair Davidson mentioned that during one of the Royal Highland Shows being told by a farmer that they were used to clean the hooves with the foot being put into a mix of sawdust and chalk. This was for when the horses were going to shows. Including Scotland.
10. Coaling steamships
11. Sorting fish at harbours in Scotland.
I have indicated the uses that we know were in Scotland, the others were in the Lakes or elsewhere in Britain.
Before the seventeenth century it is hard to find out anything about these baskets. Both France and Scandinavia had split wood basketry at this time and both countries influenced British craft. Originally it seems that they were called ‘spelks’, a spelk meaning a splinter of wood. ‘Spale’ was another name and this hung on for the Scottish baskets. In the Lakes the baskets came to be known as swills.
The basket depends on a supply of coppiced oak. This came after the Norman invasion on Britain when large areas of north west England were given over to monasteries. Charcoaling and iron smelting were started by the monks who planted and looked after large areas of oak coppice. By the sixteenth century oak coppicing was a big industry supplying material for spelk baskets, bark for leather tanning and sail tanning, barrel making and shipbuilding. In the 1800s a new demand from the oak coppices was for gunpowder which was made from charcoal. Swill shops which employed several makers plus apprentices were all over the Lakes at this point. Apprenticeships lasted four to five years. At this time the swillers themselves would not have been coppicing their own wood. Coppice merchants managed the coppices supplying debarked wood to the swillers. The bark would have been sold to the tanneries.
One family, the Aireys of Storth, believed that they had been making swills for 300 years.
Owen Jones describes the life of one Lakeland swiller called John Barker who lived and worked in Broughton-in-Furness. This was during the 1930s. He said that the swills were generally sold by the dozen, most of them going up to Scotland. In Scotland they were bought by agricultural merchants and ironmongers in Glasgow and Edinburgh. He remembers one order of 200 dozen. John would make 30 swills a week including all the preparation and would make a complete basket in 45 minutes. Some swillers could do them in 30 minutes.
After the 1940s the big swill shops shut down leaving mostly lone swillers due to lack of demand.
In Scotland the evidence we have is that they were made by individual swillers, travellers and at the Wick basketworks. In communication with Owen Jones, Rita Smith wrote about her family history of swilling. Her grandfather, John Singleton was a swiller in Gargunnock, near Stirling. From there he moved and worked in Haddington, near Edinburgh. Then he moved to Wray, near Lancaster taking and teaching the skill there. There are twelve oak spales in the East Kilbride museum made by a traveller. There is also a photograph on Scran titled a ‘Traveller making potato baskets or ‘tattie skulls’ from thin strips of timber at Finavon, Oathlaw, Angus 1930s’. This maker is surrounded by many skulls, some half finished and he is working on one. These could be being made in oak.
This invoice from William Corner of Wick shows that he is offering spales, although we do not know what he is making them from. It is also possible that he was buying them in from Furness. The spales are handwritten towards the bottom. Clicking on the photo will bring it up full size.
Liz Balfour comments
“I always thought that none were made in Scotland but someone ( a farmer) once commented to me that they were sent off to Fife by train to be mended. I was very surprised by this – it would be interesting to see if anyone remembers this in Fife. ”
There are several photographs on Scran of this work. Here the potatoes are being riddled to shake out the very small ones and then graded according to size and quality. The sorted potatoes were put into wooden spale baskets. The task required a large number of workers and provided seasonal work for many townsfolk.
The next photo shows that the spale baskets were put along the row ready for the workers to fill with potatoes earthed up by the horse drawn digger. Another photo shows women riddling potatoes on Stoneyhill farm near Inverask, East Lothian during 1935 again using wooden spales. Willow skulls were still being used in a photo of potato harvesting in East Lothian in 1950. We do not know when the spale baskets were no longer used.
Various sizes were made, usually described by their length. In the Lakes swills were made from 18″ up to 36″ but the four most common sizes were 20″, 22″, 24″ and 26″. The photograph of the swale for the Hope MacDougall collection is a 26″.
The Furness swills are made by weaving thin strips of oak around an oval rim or hoop made of hazel. This hoop is known as a ‘bool’.
The thin strips are obtained by cleaving small diameter oak trunks into billets of various lengths, boiling them in water for several hours, then tearing or ‘riving’ them into strips. The shorter lengths are riven into thicker spelks or ribs and the longer lengths give the thinner taws, ‘chissies’ or weavers. These taws are dressed on the padded knee of swiller with a sharp knife. The spelks are dressed on a swiller’s mare which is a type of wooden foot vice, with a double handled draw knife.
The oak itself is from coppiced plantations of between 20 and 30 years old. Coppicing is where a single stool produces several shoots which are harvested back to the stool at ground level usually at regular intervals. The part of the coppiced log used is the first 8 – 10′ from the butt to the first branch. The trunks are about 4-6″ ideally at the butt. Swill making demands clean straight logs which are knot free. If felled in the sap running season of late April to July, the bark can be peeled off and the logs can be kept for up to a year, out of sun and wind. Logs cut at other times with the bark kept on must be used within a couple of months. The oak is riven tangentially of ‘off the back’.
The hazel used for the bool is also a coppiced product. It needs to be 6’4″ long and preferably have very little taper in the rod. Coppiced hazel of 7 years rotation is suitable, when
it is about an inch in diameter. The rod needs to be straight and clean and preferably cut when out of sap during the winter when it is less likely to kink or crack. In the past the rims could be oak or ash as well as hazel.
A special thank you is owed to Owen Jones for providing most of the information for this article. Owen is the last professional swill maker making swills in the traditional way in Ulverston, Cumbria. His web site is www.oakswills.co.uk
Dorothy Wright ‘The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketmaking’ 1977
Alisdair Davidson in conversation with Julie Gurr 2013
Liz Balfour 2014 personal communication