• Crusies

    by  • 5 August 2009 • Archaeology, Artefacts, History, Life in Uig • 0 Comments

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    A stone mould for a crusie, an oil lamp of ancient design once in common use throughout the Hebrides.This mould, of unknown provenance, is in our museum collection but unfortunately we don’t have a crusie itself, much as we would love to.  (This piece is the first in an occasional series on objects in our collection.)  From Highland Folk Ways, Isabel F Grant (1961):

    Crusies were mainly used in the islands and the coastwise districts because fish oil was the usual illuminant (although mutton fat might be used). The crusie consisted of two leaf-shaped vessels, the upper one fixed on a ratchet above the lower one, so that the drip should be caught and the crusie could be tilted forward to use every drop of the oil. I have been told that peeling the rushes which were used as wicks was one of the children’s jobs. A thin sliver of the outside was always left to prevent the pith from breaking. Occasionally square crusies were made with four lips and I have been told that these were used by craftsmen.

    To make crusies a thin plate of iron was hammered into a mould and some Highland blacksmiths had such a mould in the corner of their anvils, but I had a crusie-mould made of stone that came from the island of Tiree. Crusies vary much in shape, some clumsy, others elegant, and also in the amount of iron used in their making. A few have decorative curley-worleys on the back of the crusie. I have, however, twice come across crusies made out of a natural knot of firewood, one of the many devices for economising the use of iron, and I have seen a prehistoric stone lamp that had evidently been used in later times. Middle-aged people [in 1961] can remember when crusies were still sometimes used to light byres or threshing barns.

    One notable difference in the Hebrides was the use of bird oil in the lamps.

    A study of the crusie, particularly in its Zetlandic form and Norse origins, was made by Gilbert Goudie for the Scottish Society of Antiquities and published by in the Proceedings of the Society of 23 January 1888:

    The Crusie, like many articles indispensable at one time in domestic use, has passed quietly out of view, superseded by more modern appliances. Too common, too trivial for the notice of the historian, it has left in its demise scarcely so much as an epitaph. The name, and a vague impression of what it may have been, is perhaps all that is known of it to the younger grade of the present generation.

    Turning to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th edition, we find the following description of the primitive lamp of this country:-

    The simple form which was used down to the end of the eighteenth century, and which as a ‘crusie’ continued in common use in Scotland till the middle of this century, illustrates the most elementary and most imperfect arrangement of a lamp. Here, as in the lamps of antiquity, the oil vessel lies immediately behind the burning point of the wick, with which the oil is about level when the reservoir is full. The wick is a round soft cord or fibrous mass. Such a lamp has no merit but simplicity. The light is thrown only forward and to the sides, the back being entirely in shadow. The wick, being a round solid mass, takes up the oil equally at the centre and circumference; but to the outer edges of the flame only is there any access of air; consequently combustion in the centre is imperfect, resulting in a smoky, unsteady flame, and a discharge into the atmosphere of the acrid products of destructive distillation. Further as the level of oil sinks in the reservoir, the wick has to feed the flame a greater distance by mere capillary force, and, the supply thus diminishing, the light decreases in proportion.

    Such is the latest, and probably the fullest and most authentic description of the old Scottish lamp available for general readers; and though imperfect, and with some slight misunderstandings, it is fairly accurate. But no drawing is given, and the precise form and dimensions are open to conjecture.

    In the Rhind “Lectures in Archaeology,” 1876, Sir Arthur Mitchell alludes to the rapid extinction of the crusie, and two examples are figured. Since then attention has twice been directed to it before English societies; but though vast numbers of these lamps were, at no great distance of time, in use in Scotland, and several stray samples have found their way into the Museum, no account of them has ever appeared in the Proceedings of this Society. I desire therefore to put a description on record here, based upon personal acquaintance with the illustrated by examples in the Museum and in my own possession here exhibited.

    The examples in the Museum are the following, viz:

    Crusies of Iron, with Hooks for Suspension.
    1-7. Crusies (one with iron stand) localities unknown.
    8. Crusie, Lindores, Fifeshire, 1876.
    9. Do. Burraland, Sandwick, Shetland.
    10. Do. Shetland, probably Fair Isle, 1883.
    11. Crusie, Sumburgh, Shetland, 1883.
    12. Do. Stonybrake, Fair Isle, Shetland, 1883.
    13. Do. Upper shell, locality unknown.
    14. Do. North Uist
    15. Do. Burra Isle, Shetland, 1887.
    16. Do. Aboyne, 1883.
    17. Do. Brass, with initials, Dundee, 1883.
    18. Do. Square-shaped, locality unknown, 1883.
    19. Do. Iron, with wooden pin, locality unknown. 1884.

    Of these nineteen the localities of nine are known, five of them being from Shetland, and the rest from different parts of Scotland, viz. Lindores, Dundee, North Uist, Aboyne. Not a single example comes from south of the Forth, though it is as nearly as possible certain that the lamp in this form was common from one end of the country to the other. In the Shetland Islands, as may be inferred from the predominance of preserved examples, it was in constant if not universal use, under the local name of kollie, until within a quarter of a century past, when a tin lamp, in form resembling a coffee pot, was introduced, supplanted in turn by a cheap form of the ordinary paraffin lamp.

    In every case of the examples shown, it will be observed that the crusie consists of an upper and under shell, the upper acting as the oil reservoir, and the under one serving the purpose of catching any dripping or overflowing from it. The under shell and the upright back were usually made in one piece. The upper shell was a separate and somewhat smaller vessel, suspended on the toothed or notched bar which projected forwards from the back, at right angles, or on an upward incline. The back was always bent forwards at the top, and terminated with an attached hook, so as to adjust itself to the centre of gravity when in suspension. The kollie in Shetland was always the manufacture of the village or district blacksmith and never, so far as known, imported. Its successor, the tin lamp, was the work of the tinker.

    A CrusieAttention is directed to the simple but ingenious contrivance for keeping the oil for consumption at a nearly uniform level while the waste by burning of the wick goes on. This is accomplished by the mere movement from notch to notch on the projecting bar of the upper shell which contains the oil supply. The effect is to elevate the back and, by consequence, to depress the front of the shell, thus equalising the level of the oil at the front of the nozzle from which the burning wick protrudes, so long as the oil lasts. The writer of the article in Encyclopaedia Britannica, before referred to, seems unaware of this contrivance, and represents the wick, which the oil is low, as being fed by mere capillary action. The wick was usually of cotton, or native worsted yarn [and in the Highlands, the pith of rushes] and as it gradually burnt down, was trimmed and pushed to the front of the nozzle by a slight wooden pin, which, for the purpose, lay in reserve in the upper shell. When not carried in the hand, the kollie was usually hung upon a nail, or suspended on a cord, by the small iron hook which formed the upper portion of the back. In many specimens this hook has now perished.

    In the course of last Session of the Society, I placed in the Museum a decayed and wasted specimen of the Shetland kollie, but one possessed of some special interest.  This specimen was picked up in the island of Houss (Burra Isle), Shetland, in 1877, cast out of doors, discarded, useless. The owner, Mr John Inkster, now deceased, informed me that it had been made about fifty years previously by a smith in the parish of Dunrossness, well known to myself; from whom, curiously enough, I had secured the veritable stone mould in which, in his early days, he had played the village Vulcan, in the manufacture of kollies as occasion required. In this mould then, which is also now before us, and added to the Museum, I have therefore confidence in believing that the lamp in my hands was made more than half a century ago.

    Some friends, whose opinion was entitled to respect, were for a time sceptical regarding the claims of this stone to be a crusie mould. A similar stone from Orkney, which had been long in the Museum, had been regarded, in the absence of more definite proof, as a mould for metal mirrors of primeval type. The subsequent arrival of a similar mould, in 1884, from the island of North Uist, and of another, since then, from Orkney, couple with my own personal testimony, put the matter beyond a doubt.

    Separate moulds are recessed in either side of the stone. The large is obviously for the first rough shaping of the sheet of iron; the smaller, which is more distinctly formed to the outline of, especially the upper shell, is for completing the later stages of manufacture. After all this lapse of years, it will be observed that the lamp, expanded and battered by use and exposure, still coincides pretty closely with the matrix in which it was originally hammered out.

    The measurement of this crusie is as follows, viz: – Total length or height of back, 7½ inches; length of upper shell, 5½ inches; depth of cavity of uppoer shell, 1 inch; width of upper shell, 4½ inches. The undershell is very slightly larger than the upper.

    It may be stated, without entering into further details of measurement, that most other crusies known are of the same general type and dimensions, though it will be understood that the taste of the maker, quantity of metal at command, and the requirements of the purchaser would have a varying effect in every individual case. Usually crusies were of thin iron, but an article of a higher class was occasionally produced of copper.  Another variety is that in which the upper shell is covered with a metal lid attached to the upright back by hinges, of which several examples are in the Museum

    In the Shetland Islands, up to a recent period, imported oil was almost unknown. Oil, of home manufacture, from fish livers, was the article in almost universal use…

    In the foregoing remarks I have used indifferently the better known Scottish word crusie, and the the peculiarly Shetland term for the same thing, kollie. The latter may seem somewhat barbarous, but its origin is pure. It is the simple Icelandic kola; and here etymological science comes in to the aid of archaeology, for the occurrence of this primitive unadulterated root word in such early writings as the Sturlunga Saga, Vilkins maldagi and the Gisla Saga, proves the enormous antiquity of our humbe kollie, even if there were no other evidence; and indicates besides that in Orkney and Shetland its introduction is due to Northman influence rather than to the Scottish side.

    It is scarcely necessary, in conclusion, to allude to the Greek and Roman lamp, which both in metal and in the graceful forms of pottery, is essentially of the same type, though less complete. Lamps similar to those under consideration were known from the earlies times in Italy and other countries; and in recent times in Iceland, the Scilly Isles, in France, Algiers and elsewhere. It ought to be observed, however, that the Continental form, like the ancient Roman, has only a single shell, whereas the special characteristic of the modern Scottish form is that it is double-shelled… The notched bar, for the regulated suspension of the upper shell, marks the uniqueness, so far as known, of the Scottish crusie.

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