Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Objects in Focus: Cas-chrom

Carmichael's collection contains a vast array of objects including a cas-chrom, a foot-plough, that is on display at the Museum of Rural Life, East Kilbride. This agrestic implement was commonly used throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to prepare and cultivate the soil. It was particularly useful on stony and boggy surfaces where horses or men could not easily manoeuvre a plough. The tool had a dual function as it served not only as a plough but also as a spade. Interestingly the cas-chrom , that literally means crooked foot, was called a cas-chaba in Applecross only, and the head of the plough was referred to as meirgheal 

L. C. Hopkins writing in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1935, described the plough as recently obsolete, if indeed it is even now absolutely disused in some remote spots in Northern or North-western Scotland. He also had initially proposed that nothing can be termed a plough that is not hauled from in front (whether by oxen, yaks, horses, or even men) until the cas-chrom came to his attention. From various accounts it appears that the Isle of Skye was one of the last places the tool was used in the early twentieth century.  

The following is a proverb and note related to the cas-chrom recorded by Alexander Nicolson, 1882:
Caib air no dheth, cùm do chas air a' sgonnan.
Iron on or off, keep your foot on the peg.

The 'caib' of the old crooked spade, 'cas-chróm', was the iron with which it was pointed; the 'sgonnan' was the peg on which the right foot was pressed. The meaning is, 'Keep working, even with a defective implement'.  

And the following verses were published in Carmina Gadelica vi and the informant was obviously not a fan of the labour intensive tool:

Coma liom a' chas-chrom.                                                                    I dislike the crooked spade,
Nar bheil fonn fearann dhi;                                                                      Nor love for land has she;
Tha i casach 's tha i trom                                                                 She is legged and she is heavy
Air gach com is anail dhiom;                                                     On every chest and breath of me.

Iarann geur air a ceann                                                                         A sharp iron upon its point
Chum a cur gu gearradh leis,                                                                               To set it a-cutting,
Sgonnan fiodha sìos 'na bonn                                                         A wooden peg down at its base
Chum a cur fo thalamh leis.                                                             To drive it beneath the earth.

In the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland from 1857-1589 James Johnston notes that while he was in Skye he noticed a man using this primitive tool and submitted an account of how the tool was used:

The ' cas-chrom,' or crooked foot, is a crooked piece of wood, the lower end somewhat thick, about 2 1/2 feet in length, pretty straight, and armed at the end with iron, made thin and square to cut the earth. The upper end of this instrument is called the shaft, whereas the lower is termed the head; the shaft above the crook is generally straight, being 6 feet long, and tapering upwards to the end, which is slender ; just below the crook or angle, which is an obtuse one, there must be a hole, wherein a strong peg must be fixed for the workman's right foot, in order to push the instrument into the earth, while, in the meantime, standing upon his left foot, and holding the shaft firm with both hands, when he has in this manner driven the head far enough into the earth with one bend of his body, he raises the clod by the iron-headed part of his instrument, making use of the heel or hind part of the head as a fulcrum,—in so doing turns it over always towards the left hand, and then proceeds to push for another clod in the same form.

While it was thought to be time-consuming for large areas of land the advantage of the cas-chrom was indeed that it allowed crofters to work land that was otherwise ignored. Macdonald writes: 'Cottars and very small tenants may use it, however, very profitably, both in providing food for their families, and in bringing into a permanent state of improvement, for their masters, lands which otherwise would remain always unproductive and useless.'

For more information on the 'crooked foot' see the catalogue entry on the Carmichael Watson Project website, anseo. And we would also highly recommend a visit to the Museum of Rural Life, a great day out!

Armstrong, Robert Archibald, A Gaelic Dictionary in Two Parts (London, 1825) p.103. 
Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica vi (Edinburgh, 1971) pp.36-37.
Hopkins, L. C. 'The Cas-chrom v. the Lei-ssŭ: A Study of the Primitive Forms of Plough in Scotland and
Ancient China', Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 4,(1935) pp. 707 - 716.

Macdonald, James, General View of the Agriculture of the Hebrides (1821) pp.151-156.Nicolson, Alexander A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases based on MacIntosh's Collection (Edinburgh, 1882) p.382.  
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland iii (1857-1589).

© National Museums of Scotland

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]