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BARE BOARDS AND SCOTCH CARPETS Neatness and comfort in the 18th-century home

Vanessa Habib explores the history of the Scotch carpet, produced by Scottish handloom weavers for more than two centuries, which has carpeted both humble and grand houses, from Edinburgh to London

Floor coverings in all their variety and colour have been little studied and since many of them were susceptible to wear and damage we can now only guess at the impact they had in a room when new, or look at paintings of interiors where the freshness of pattern has been preserved. Scotch carpets, for example, are still so little known that the name is often thought to refer to any carpet made in Scotland. In fact they were a specific flat woven carpet with a long history, a popular domestic furnishing for at least 200 years from the 1720s onwards.

Originally made in and named after various locations in the wool-growing areas of Scotland, for example Hawick carpets or Kilmarnock carpets, they became generally known as ‘Scotch’ after exports flooded into England and further afleld in the later 18th century, the name reflecting a degree of national identity after the union of Scotland and England in 1707, and perhaps also commenting on the desirability or otherwise of these utilitarian mat-like floor coverings from north of the border.

As parlour carpets or ‘bedsides’, however, they provided a colourful covering for the floor affordable for the first time to many different kinds of home, particularly for the growing number of those of the ‘middling sort’, the homes of tradesmen, merchants and the professional classes. Their appearance in a room must have been as marked as the arrival of wallpaper. Early on they were also admired and purchased by members of the gentry as the carpeting of a whole house became a possibility. A carpeted floor became synonymous with comfort to such a degree that a room viewed with ‘bare boards’ was the one most closely connected with poverty, if not destitution.

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About History Scotland

In the May/June issue of History Scotland we present the latest research from experts in the fields of Scottish history, heritage and archaeology, as well as news, opinion, book reviews and upcoming history events. Highlights include: · The tragic attempt by the tobacco heir David Guthrie Dunn to sail around the world in his small yacht, Southern Cross, in 1930 · A fresh contribution to the ongoing debate as to where the elusive abbey of Selkirk was situated during its brief existence in the early 12th century · A new study of the causes and consequences of the devastating famine of 1623 Plus: Family history advice, archaeology dig reports and finds analysis, National Records of Scotland column and lots more…