Skeps, boles and the Dairsie Manse.
I knew that the house we were going to stay in had not always been a dwelling. Situated just outside the village of Dairsie in Fife, it was a renovated out-building behind the original manse. (A manse was the house provided for the local minister and his family). It was a solid stone-built edifice crouching next to a rippling field of ripening, bearded barley. The landscape has probably changed little since the 1800s.
The village of Dairsie is shown on several maps as “Dairsie or Osnaburgh” and the navigation in the car we hired also gave us the choice of going to one or the other even – though they are essentially the same place. I was born and brought up in Fife but could not recall why this tiny village – no more than a small grocery store, a pub and a few original stone houses – had a mysterious extra name.
Ordnance Survey map showing the dual names “Dairsie or Osnaburgh”. The Manse is marked towards the bottom left.
I did some “light” research on the origins of the name “Osnaburgh”. A similarly named town in Lower Saxony, Germany, called Osnabruck had given its name to a course linen fabric woven there. Internet stories centered around the suggestion that the first inhabitants of Osnaburgh/Dairsie were German immigrants who manufactured the same cloth. In the 1850s the name was noted in the Ordnance Survey book of place names with the following explanation:
“This village is also called Osnaburgh, from the circumstances that the first house in the village being occupied by a weaver who was working for some Cupar manufacturers a type of cloth called Osnaburgh cloth. The Rev. Mr Scott says that for the one letter directed to Osnaburgh there are fifty directed Dairsiemuir. He emphatically states that Dairsiemuir is the proper name. “*
The Rev Scott along with the schoolteacher and the local postmaster all concurred. It’s likely that “Dairsiemuir” was a “planned” village, with houses built specifically to house hand-loom weavers so this explanation fits well with the history of the location.
The Rev. Mr Scott who gave this affidavit was the parish minister living in the Dairsie Manse in the 1850s. Unlike many of his parishioners, who had to cram a large family and a loom into two rooms, the Rev Scott lived palatially just outside the village. The Ordnance Survey book also describes the Manse:
“A neat and well-constructed house two stories high with suitable offices, vegetable garden and 6 acres Glebe land.”**
In 1861 the Reverend Scott was 59 years old, according to that year’s census. His wife was considerably younger and they had a one-year-old child – suggesting either that the Rev. had married late in life or that perhaps this was his second marriage.
The Manse was reached up an elegant driveway bridging a small stream. There was a very large walled garden to the left as we entered, and our house, the “Bee House”, was a short distance behind.
The current owners of the Manse had chosen this name based on the building’s former use as a place for “wintering” bees. Behind the wood-burning stove in what was now an elegant living space, there was a series of small square cubbies called “boles”. A “bole” in Scots is an alcove in a wall. Each bole was big enough to hold a wicker “skep” – a domed basket used in bee-keeping to encourage a hive. The skeps containing bees would be brought inside in winter to ensure the colony’s survival.
A wicker skep in a bole.
Bees had to go outside to keep the hive alive, so in one corner of the original building there was a hole in the considerably thick wall. This was the bee escape route. The current owners kept the feature during the renovation.
The bee “escape” route set high in the wall.
Having never heard of bee boles or skeps before, I did some more “light” research and discovered that there is a whole organisation devoted to the preservation of boles. They have documented many of these in the bee bole registry! The boles in this house were included along with a photograph of how they looked pre-renovation. You can view it here.
The unspoilt view from the kitchen window of the Bee House to the field of barley and beyond.
*Note that the name “Dairsiemuir” seems to have fallen into obscurity too. “Muir” is a common Scottish word tagged on to many place names, meaning “moorland”. It is also a common surname.
**Glebe land was a parcel of land that came with the manse used to support the minister of the parish, possible through farming use.