Meeting Report: The Scottish Regional Chair

23 November 2012
Dave Hutchinson

The Scottish Regional Chair was the subject of the latest talk delivered to Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. Dave Hutchinson, FSA Scot., the speaker, now residing at Wanlockhead, had a distinguished career as teacher and headmaster.

Twenty years ago a change of direction led him into studying the design and composition of Scottish furniture, especially the chair, which has become his obsession and causes him to scour the country in search of its variations. A Churchill Scholarship in 2010 enabled him to study Scottish influences in this field in New Zealand. Fittingly he holds the chairmanship — pun intended — of the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working Group.

Found timber, sometimes sourced as driftwood, has led to many primitive forms of seating, such as the cutty stool. 'Primitive' in such cases is not a derogatory term but rather a source of great delight to Dave. The wee ('peidie' in Orkney and 'peerie' in Shetland) creepie represents a slightly more-advanced stool.

Examples of naturally-occurring shapes in wood, such as 'knees' or 'elbows' were incorporated into simple hand-made chairs by forming a continuous line along the sides of chairs down to the floor or up the sides of the backs; they are now in museums in the North of Scotland. The 'T-joint' from one piece of wood formed in some cases the top-to-bottom back line of a chair with the branch emanating along the side of the seat.

Dave proceeded to show illustrations of chairs, some typical and some unique, from the regions of Scotland. Shetland chairs display Scandinavian influences involving mortice and tenon joints. Orkney chairs, the only vernacular chair still commercially made and commanding high prices, have semi-circular sides — originally to exclude draughts — made from roped and twisted barley straw and are often fitted with driftwood as the seat. The Darvel chair, from Ayrshire, is the Scottish version of the Windsor chair, which looks simple but is difficult to create. A marriage chair from Wanlockhead had planking running from back to front instead of side to side.

Early forms of langseats, ladderback and brander back chairs, some rescued from barns and abandoned houses, were all highlighted. Metal repairs by the local blacksmith are often to be found. The Glasgow chair pattern, with tapering legs and seats extending all the way to the edges, spread to other regions. Those in the North East of the country, with bridle joints, demonstrate the rural influence of the wheelwright, for instance, and are less primitive than those of the North West. Caithness chairs, made by a good house carpenter, exhibit refinements tending to a Regency style.

Dave, having invited attendees to bring along samples of Scottish seating, found himself facing a total of 17 stools and chairs. There was everything from a cutty stool to an Orkney chair to a grand exquisitely hand-carved caqueteuse chair (for the lord-of-the manor), dated 1663. Revelling in the variety of woods and styles represented, he pointed out that laburnum was the Scottish 'fancy' timber before mahogany was imported; and also that, when green timber is used, it dries out and wooden pegs tighten. He was in his element and the owners of the chairs were grateful to benefit from his profound knowledge.

Dave has a number of inexpensive publications to his credit. Some Chairs from the Far North of Scotland and The Vernacular Furniture Maker, His Tools and His Craft relate to this fascinating talk.