The fireplace - Scottish nostalgia

07 October 2016
Gael Hearn recalls the many rituals and chores associated with a cosy home fire.

There was a whole culture surrounding the home coal fire that was similar in every home that had one. I come from the island of Arran and where rituals around and attending the fireplace were a daily procedure.

I have many pleasant memories of our living room fireplace, some people say the kitchen is the heart of the home and for them this could be true. But I remember the cosy living room where family interaction was at its most relaxed.

Coal was delivered to the island by the good old Clyde puffer boat (of Para Handy fame) It was transferred from the hold of the boat to lorries waiting on the Jetty at Lamlash. During the transfer a small amount of coal would stream from the mechanical grab and spill into the quayside water, never to be recovered in the conventional way. Gradually with tides and storms, the sea coal would spread itself along the shoreline of the bay.

As kids we were avid beachcombers and spent a lot of time playing and collecting stones, shells, flotsam and jetsam and of course were encouraged to pick up any sea coal we could find. Sea coal was smooth, rounded and the best burning coal on the planet, it lasted for hours.


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Each night in the winter months the fire was ‘banked up’ which meant it there was a couple of shovels of coal put on last thing and then coal dross (which had been riddled by my uncle) was dampened and applied on top. It was a dark glistening mass, with smoke emitting from it and fleeing up the chimney. This concoction, in full heat, looked like lava with a dark crust on top. Best of all, it lasted till morning and saved my mother having to relight the fire; she broke down the crust with the poker and applied fresh coal. Then removing the front, she shovelled the still-warm ashes and cinders into a galvanised bucket.

Recycling comes to mind when I think of home fires, as the ashes were reused and scattered to combat icy paths, roads and pavements. Quite often they were used to fill potholes in rough tracks, and wood burn ash was dug into the garden to add nutrients to the soil.

There was little that could not be burned to produce heat – kitchen waste, tattie peelings, onion skins, old bread, fruit & veg skins, etc. There were myriad social aspects also, as adults sat round the fire and took tea beside its heat. We dried our hair at the fireside, melted Five Boys chocolate bars into a sweet gooey mess, and made toast with a long fork with the bread skewered to two large prongs at the end.

But the thing I remember most are the evenings of warmth, even if there were the inevitable and dreaded draughts from under the door, or from the edges of the heavily curtained windows. Various draught excluders were made at the beginning of the winter. I distinctly remember a long navy blue sausage dog, with red velvet ears and red button eyes and nose.

It’s really nice to see wood burning fires are back in vogue again, as they have brought back memories of my childhood rituals – chimney sweeps, kindling, rolled up newspapers, matches, flickering flames, bringing in buckets of coal from the coal house in the yard, coal scuttles, cleaning, the smell of smoke from blow backs and much more.

(Image copyright Tuck DB Postcards)

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