Nothing Degrading in Beds of “Caff” – February 1902

Whether it is in revolt against his own sentimentality or in protest against the proverbial national conceit of the Scot, or to win greater applause in the land of his adoption, certain it is that Ian MacLaren occasionally shows up his countrymen as only an enemy should.

The other day, he amused and embarrassed (so the English papers put it) a London audience by giving them a degrading picture of his country and his people as they were in the eighteenth century; and ascribing all the glory of our release from degradation to contact with the English.

According to him, Scotland was raised out of dirt and ignorance, misery and poverty by the Act of Union. It was the century of Burns, and here is how the modern and successful writer describes the Lowlands of that day

“……. A country where men were more concerned with the bottle than the glass, and with drink than with meat, where the butt-rooms of the farmer served as kitchen and dining-room by day and servants’ room by night, whilst in the bedroom slept the family in beds that were receptacles with doors, where the bedding was taken out and burnt when the limits of endurability were reached….”

That description of the kitchen and room of a lowland farm is true to the letter of many to this day. I have eaten and slept in them and have them perfectly off by heart. But Ian MacLaren ought to know that there is nothing degrading in that homely way of living, that he should hold it up to the disgusted scorn of the English. Generations of men and women, clean in body and soul, and not deficient in intellect have lived in this way.

As Burns says of the cottar:

“An’ buirdly chiels an’ clever hizzies
Are bred in sic’ a w’y as this is.”

That clause about the burning of the bedding is most unfair. Is it not a criminal fouling of his own nest? The bed of “caff” —than which there can be nothing sweeter or cleaner — is emptied yearly, not into the fire, but into the byre to be used as bedding for the “beas’” and the ticking (tyke) refilled with fresh, sweet-smelling chaff.

To speak of “limits of endurability” is grossly misleading. It is not so long since we gave up using “caff” beds for the servants because, their beds being upstairs, it was inconvenient to bring them down to be renewed; and in my mother’s young days there was no other sort of bed in the house.

They are immeasurably superior to feather beds, which are never renewed, and cannot be purified. History is silent on many points that would interest us; but it would not be astonishing to learn that English farmers in the eighteenth century also lay on chaff or straw beds, which were burnt yearly.

Just the other day, I was reminded of the sweetness of these beds in a funny way. A friend was showing me a cushion made, as a surprise gift to her, by her little daughter. It gave out a delicious fragrance, as of dried woodruff, and rustled slightly when I pressed it.

When she saw me putting it to my nostrils, she said — “She dared not take too many feathers, or I should have missed them and then her secret would be out, so it is half filled with chaff. That is what brought me a faint floating vision of the press-bed in my grandfather’s kitchen.

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