Diana Gabaldon is a master of mixing business with pleasure when it comes to facts and fantasy. She put a dream guy in a real-life world that we can all immerse ourselves into. But Jamie’s a laird, even though he’s usually on the run. He has friends and relatives in high places that generally keeps him, and his wife Claire, fed and dressed and reasonably housed very often. But what about the common man? What of the farmers and their wives or the lads and lasses who went to the cities to make their fortune?
Today we’re going to chat a bit about about what life was like for those not blessed with a title, a killer bod, or the ability to make us swoon with the swipe of a kilt…
The average Scottish family didn’t live in a manor home or castle like Jamie grew up in. Mostly, they were born, lived, and died in a small hut made of a mud and sand mixture over a wooden frame with a straw roof. There were usually no windows, as the common man couldn’t afford glass, with the only light coming from the front door, the hole in the ceiling that allowed smoke to escape from the center fire, and handmade candles.
If there was money to spare, and you had some strong lads from the nearby village to help you, the home could be made of stone with a small fire place built right into the wall. Some of these sturdier houses have even withstood the tests of time and still have people living in them today! In the winters, if you couldn’t afford a barn or shed for your animals, you’d be sharing some of your living space with your livestock, as the snow in Scotland can pile up!
And maybe you’d be lucky enough to share your living space with HIM!
The average Highlander relied heavily on milk products for a large part of their diet. So they kept high numbers of cattle, sheep, and goats. Goats in particular thrived in the Highlands, as they could eat anything and still produce milk, although cattle was largely preferred. The butter, cheese, and milk would be used by the family or sold and traded for other goods they couldn’t make themselves. There was also the meat to consider. Every fall, some of the animals would be slaughtered and their meat salted to keep the farmers through the long winter months. And if winter wasn’t kind, the animals could be bled, their blood added to the morning porridge to give added nutrients.
Barley and oats were also a farming staple, providing another large portion of the Highland diet. It could be made into things like porridge, cakes, bread, and then served with a bit of honey or butter. Kale and hemp were also grown, as were turnips and cabbages before the introduction of the potato.
But all these things took money and land, something that was usually controlled by landlords or lower nobles, making the farmers who usually worked the lands, tenants. These tenants would have to pay a portion of their crop to their landlords. Still, if the land was good and there were enough people to work it, a family could make it through the winter…even if it was only on stale bread.
What we see on Outlander are perfectly disheveled Scots in gallant plaid who still look handsome when covered in blood, women with polished buns and clean hems, and the rest of the costumes we’ve all grown to love. Now, the costumes were all carefully cultivated and created to be as historically accurate as possible, save for some tartan shades and the like, but what did the rest of Scotland wear?
Women’s outfits weren’t much different than those in England, Ireland, and the surrounding areas. Mainly consisting of linen shifts and homespun dresses in various colors, married women covered their heads in kerchiefs while the unmarried lasses were allowed to wear theirs down and uncovered. Many women did often wear tartan shawls that was really an all purpose item. It was used for warmth over the shoulders, around the head like a veil, to cover babies and small children, or used as a makeshift pouch to carry things in. They were often bare-footed year round, but sometimes donned leather or deerskin shoes that were similar to the Native American Moccasins in North America.
For the most part, men lived in their kilts, wearing them while working during the way, then using them as bedding at night. But as you can imagine, it wasn’t always easy to do all the farming with a great pile of tartan wrapped around you. So some men wore trews, a sort of leggings that were made of tartan or the usual homespun that made up shirts and dresses. A shorter kilt, that doesn’t have the upper portion that wraps around the shoulder, also came into style in the early part of the 1700s, an item that allowed them more freedom. When not barefoot, leather or deerskin shoes were the thing to wear over stockings. And of course, sporrans were worn, but not every day, as a small pouch of leather would be normally used instead. Knitted and decorative hats were also worn by men and were often colorful.
The Average Day
Highlanders would wake up when the sun rose, getting the most of out daylight hours. The wife/mother would dress and build up the fire while the husband/father would go tend to the animals. A large pot of porridge would be made for the family, who might take it with some milk or honey and some bread. Then the work would begin. If the family was rich enough and the farm wasn’t in need of their help, the sons might be sent to a local Kirk parish school to learn English, Latin, and maybe a trade. The girls could be sent to small women’s classes to learn the finer parts of sewing, cooking, and weaving, but those were skills that could be easily learned in the home. Largely, education among the average Highlander took a back seat to tending the farm and family.
The men and boys would go tend the animals again, butcher meat, work the fields, fix roofs, hunt, fish, and other physical labor. The women and girls would make candles, sew, prepare food for winter, do laundry, and help in the fields when needed. Keeping the farm and home in running order was a task for the whole family.
Lunch might be an oatcake with salted meat and cheese. Wild berries would be added to the mix when they could be picked by the children. This meal was meant to be eaten over a short break in the fields and not savored as other meals might be. And after lunch, the work would resume until the sun began to go down and it was time for supper.
Dinner was made of whatever was fresh in the warmer months, like salmon from the river or some stew made of whatever wild game they could collect. Unless it was winter, they rarely ate any beef, saving it for the colder months when butchering livestock was a necessity. In the winter, their evening meal was made of whatever they managed to preserve like sausages and roasted turnips, a hearty stew of cured meat, onions and carrots, and the ever present oatcake. This was eaten around the table upon low stools, lit by handmade candles.
Then after a final look at the livestock, it was time to sleep, unless there was some form of entertainment to be had like a round of songs and something being played on the fiddle. The parents usually slept in some form of pallet with the children either joining them in the single bed, in a small trundle, or on the floor beside the heath.
Other Forms of Income
If there were too many mouths to feed on the farm, there were other ways of making a living for the middle and lower classes. Boys could be sent to work at other, larger farms, which freed up the boy’s family from the burden of keeping him fed, while ensuring he was being payed and receiving meals at his new post. Girls could be trained as maids and housekeepers, which was an attractive option for many, as they could be nearer to larger cities and a bigger pool of potential male suitors. Apprenticeships can also be bought for boys who had the endurance to be a blacksmith or horse master. The military was also an attractive option, as it offered meals, pay, and lodging. Women who lived closer to villages or larger towns could get work as a laundress, midwife if she had the skill, or a weaver.
I know, a lot to take in in such a condensed version and it’s only the smallest peek into the life of an average Scot! But I hope it’s given you a look into what it’d be like to live in Scotland. It wasn’t all riding horseback over rolling hills and dinners at the castle, but hard work and simple food to keep the body going. I thought next time I might chat a bit about a Highland wedding. Thoughts? In the meantime, you can check out our other Outlander posts HERE!
And if you like my posts, you’ll love my books. The Scottish Stone Series is a collection of tales set in Victorian England and Scotland. There are handsome Scots, sassy heiresses, British suitors, and plenty of kilts. Book one, Queen of Emeralds is available HERE while book two, The Amethyst Bride, is available HERE!
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