The old pine dresser in the kitchen here changes through the seasons.
Plates and cups and the remnants of my granny’s delicate wedding-set china sit amongst other mementos. Jugs of flowers come and go, summer walks bring feathers, cones, shells, prized bits of amber that are as nuggets of real gold for the wee one.
Later there are rowanberry strung necklaces, bracelets made from rushes, a bowl of nuts from the hazel tree, conkers in the autumn proper and a snèip and a pumpkin at Halloween, both for good measure.
There are cards for birthdays and at Christmas an advent calendar. It is a busy shifting celebration of happy chance finds and markers of the year’s passing.
The worn worktop has a stash of books and letters, binoculars and sometimes cakes, for all of their brief existence.
The drawers are full to the brim with ‘trealaich’; toys, postcards, marbles, matches, batteries, seed packets, screwdrivers and such like. They offer things back to the light sporadically, fortuitously or to frustrate, depending on the timing.
The depth and dimensions of the base are reassuringly solid. The first thing the children did when the dresser came was climb inside the press, to see how they would fit.
“Feuch an dreasair” is often the reply for where the lost thing is. “Try the dresser” and the best of luck.
For the minimalist this would be overmuch but my kitchen would be bare without it.
The proverb ‘a h-uile càil na àite fhèin is a’ phoit mhùin air an dreasair!’ was a favourite of my mum’s.
It proposes the inevitable upending of any reasonable hope you might have had of things being ‘just so’. ‘Everything in its own place and the chamber pot on the dresser’. You ought to just drop the show. The entropy of the universe is increasing despite our best efforts, so the scientists say, and my dresser would suggest this to be true.
I wish I knew more of my dresser’s story.
The metal hook door fastenings, bun handles and carved plate rack suggest it’s Scottish and from the 1880s. It came from an old house on the Black Isle and was a while in pieces in someone’s garage. One biographical layer may be lost but the dresser is acquiring a new one.
My granny’s dresser was a very different style. The dark wood doors had elaborate carvings. It had glass doors and mirrors and was similar to those photographed in island homes in the late 70s by Gus Wylie in his beautiful book ‘Cur is Dlùth’.
Experts on vernacular furniture comment on the wider social patterns that reveal themselves through the story of the dresser; agrarian change and expendable income, seasonal travel and access to consumable wear. Dressers and how they were used speak of settled domestic life and illustrate larger cultural and societal stories.
Even the practice of how a traditional dresser was ‘dressed’, is its own study.
Professor Hugh Cheape says the dressers made by joiners in the islands “usually had three open shelves for the plates and dishes which stood ‘canted’ forward and leaning against narrow rails to avoid dust settling on them. The bowls, ranged ‘base-to-base’, were usually the products of Clyde potteries but might include more exotic wooden painted Baltic and ‘Riga’ ware, sometimes acquired from fishing boats in return for eggs and fresh milk.”
There are some great insights into the dresser as a focal point of the home on the Tobar an Dualchais site.
The Rev Finlay MacLeod from Bernaray talks of the reed chanters kept on the dresser being in every home, illustrating how rudimentary instruments like the chanter or the jews harp were kept there, handy for an impromptu tune (TAD ID: 42149).
He gives this rhyme
“Ghoid an tàillear orm am feadan,
Nach b’e am mèirleach a thug leis e,
An dèidh dhomh fhàgail air an dreasair,
’S e cho deiseil ri mo làimh. “
The provenance of Flora MacCuish’s dresser, seise and kist are given in this track (TAD ID: 65674). They were made by Dòmhnall Saor in Uist in about 1880 and made from wood taken from the forest at Rodel. She says “Bidh mise a-mach an toiseach, mus bidh iadsan a-mach às a seo”. “I will be out of here first, before they are”.
One of Kenna Moffat’s most prized possessions is her pine dresser that was in the old family house in Stilligarry (TAD ID: 8654). A family member had told her to throw it in a skip but she resisted.
Many dressers didn’t survive the domestic purges of the 70s and 80s.
Jane Webster reflected in her search for ‘living dressers’ in the islands in the late 90s, those with their origin stories still being told like Flora MacCuish’s, that she was perhaps a generation too late.
In contrast, the history of the Irish dresser has been well recorded and written. Claudia Kinmonth’s valuable field work in the 70s and her books, ‘Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings’ (2020) being the most recent, document a lifetime of research.
She speaks with sadness of returning to find some of these items and the houses now “turning to soil”.
Michael Fortune’s ‘Dresser project’ (thedresserproject.ie) is a generous celebration of the Irish dresser, undertaken in recent years. He photographed dressers in situ and people alongside them, recording many personal histories.
Dressers were often made as wedding presents and painted to help preserve them, some have spoon slots and some ingenuous built-in hen coops.
In the autumn of last year I helped Tobar an Dualchais devise a creative mapping and research resource for schools called ‘Mapa na sgìre agam’. The aim was to guide pupils to do some field work in their communities, to use their own knowledge of place, along with archive and analogue sources and to make a collaborative map of their own areas.
As covid restrictions eased we had the chance go into schools to introduce the resource and speak to the broader subject of dualchas or heritage. It’s such a huge subject. How to speak about it to children?
I wondered if the dresser could be a helpful metaphor. Dualchas is a store of useful and beautiful things.
The dresser could help illustrate that, in part, tangible and intangible heritage is what we are given, to know, to keep and remember.
Dualchas evolves and is constantly added to. Some things are taken or lost, jettisoned and forgotten, falling down the back of the dresser, as it were.
In the classes in Uist, Lewis and Skye, we began by talking through photos of dressers in domestic settings; my own, others from Scotland and Ireland and cultures around the world. The instinct to preserve and display things, is a shared human one it would seem.
Did anyone have a dresser? Some hands would go up – in granny’s house usually.
They had all brought an item with a story, remembered in families or special to them. They shared these, drew their items and other things and together painted a large dresser in ink.
Their cut out illustrations quickly filled the shelves, a jumble of treasures and practical things; a clock, books, false teeth for comedy, a punked wally dug wearing some sunglasses, a shinty stick, a tairisgeir in Lewis.
There were medals, special photos of people and pets, toys, a handed down pen knife, binoculars, a brooch all with a story of people and a time.
The forgotten things they put under the dresser were wee toys, a letter, a clockwork mouse and cobwebs.
The finished dressers were bold and joyous. ‘Tha e a’ coimhead math!’ The children often seemed surprised how interesting their finished dresser was.
I asked my own children what they liked about our dresser – “Tha e ag atharrachadh fad na h-ùine” “It changes all the time” and “Tha rùm ann an còmhnaidh, ma tha thu airson rudgein a chur air” “There is always room, if you want to put something on it”.
To load the dresser metaphor further; dualchas is more than the sum of its parts. It evolves and has space for more.
When the telling and the making was done and the children’s dressers were on the wall, we could make one last observation; there is room for all their kept things and stories and the culture is the more interesting for that.
If anyone would like to contribute to a small press booklet on the theme of Highland dressers, memories or affection for it, then please get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org.
The website tobarandualchais.co.uk contains some 50,000 oral recordings of songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield.