Freedom To Choose
The fight against erosions of freedom...


Ian Dunbar
23rd February 2009


Those who sing and dance about tobacco are mainly concerned by the smoke. All manner of pathogens are attributed to it. I thought it might be interesting to look more closely at smoke and the intimate part it has played in all our lives since humanity first discovered how to make fire.

When archaeologists discover Stone Age artefacts, a flint arrow head for example, they wonder about the people who made them. I had visited most parts of Britain in the course of my life except for Caithness, Sutherland and the Outer Hebrides. In the summer of 2003 I found myself at John O’Groats. There, across the water, was Orkney and, a few miles down the coast, a ferry.

Orkney is famous for its Stone Age remains and I set out to explore some of them. That was how I came to Skara Brae. In the winter of 1850, there had been a severe storm. It stripped the grass from some dunes on mainland Orkney revealing an ancient settlement. A large midden of refuse was discovered. Beneath it were the ruins of ancient buildings. This was the village of Skara Brae. It had been inhabited five thousand years ago, before either the pyramids or Stonehenge were built. Not only had the buildings themselves been preserved but, being made of stone, so also had the furniture. This made it possible to see how our stone age ancestors had lived.

Each house consisted of a central fireplace with box beds on either side, a dresser against the wall opposite the door, and several storage areas. It was constructed entirely of stone. The nature of the roof was unknown. It is a mystery how light got in and smoke got out.

Then as now, Orkney was almost without trees. However, wood would have been available in the form of driftwood floating across the Atlantic from the eroding virgin forests of North America. But wood would have been necessary for building things for which stone is not suitable such as boats, roof timbers and tool handles and too precious to burn. It is not known exactly what was used as fuel for the usable peat that is so abundant on Orkney today did not form until several centuries after the settlement was abandoned. Fuel was probably a mixture of animal dung, dried seaweed, heather and bracken. Being vegetable rather than fossil matter, tobacco belongs in a similar category.

Several days later, I came to Arnol on the west coast of Lewis. There I was able to walk round a preserved crofter’s cottage known nowadays as a blackhouse. The walls consisted of an inner and outer skin of stone with a central core of peat and earth five feet thick with a roof of thatch. Rumour has it that whisky stills where hidden in the thickness of the walls!

In the centre of the living room floor, which measured about fifteen feet by twelve, was a central hearth, just like the houses at Skara Brae. It used peat fuel from a large stack at the back of the house. The iron links and the crook from which the pots and kettle hung, were fastened to the roof ridge, the strongest part of the roof timbers.

There was no chimney or smoke hole in the roof. The smoke slowly made its way out through the thatch and in so doing preserved surplus meat or fish hung from the rafters. The aromatic smell would also have diminished the pong from the neighbouring byre! The only openings in the thatch were small fixed rectangular roof lights.

The living room led to a sleeping room through a wooden door. It too was about fifteen feet by twelve. It contained two double box beds making three in all with one opening directly into the living room. The sleeping room and living room floors were roughly paved with flagstones.

At the other end of the building was the cow shed which measured about twenty four feet by twelve. It had stalls along one side separated by three wooden partitions. The floors of the stalls were raised slightly above the floor where a gutter drained urine through a hole in the gable to the field outside. There was a wooden loose box for calves to the left of the byre door. A barn for storing and winnowing grain ran parallel with the house and byre, with its own roof, but sharing a common wall.

From the earliest times, everyone, including pregnant mothers, and children would have spent long winter hours wreathed in smoke like a pub before the smoking ban. It was a question of the survival of the fittest and those whose lungs could not cope with smoke were stillborn or died young. The lungs of the majority of the population would therefore have been naturally selected to cope with smoky atmospheres.

Three generations lived together in the warmth and shelter of such dwellings. By day the kitchen was the centre for the everyday domestic jobs of the women - mending clothes, preparing food for the family, the hens and the calves, the business of housekeeping generally. The fire was the focal point of the whole house and in the evening the whole family gathered round it. They were not necessarily idle. Spinning, winding wool and knitting kept the women busy and the men might wind ropes out of freshly pulled heather fronds, or mend a broken creel.

During Winter, neighbours would call. They formed a circle round the fire to discuss their world. The fire could be built as high as they liked because there was no chimney to catch fire. It would have been here that the ceilidh originated as neighbours gathered on long winter evenings to exchange gossip, and sing and drink the illicit produce of a still. The smoky atmosphere must have resembled a modern public house before the smoking ban. In the Summer they could go outside to dance. Whole villages of such dwellings were inhabited until as recently as 1974, and the ceilidh tradition lives on having spread to the rest of the country.

Similar dwellings had existed in England. There are numerous reconstructions of Saxon houses round the country. They too had a central fire with no chimney so that smoke made its way out through the thatch. The reason for this system is that had there been a chimney, the fire would have burned too fiercely setting fire to the thatch of the roof and allowing wind and rain to blow in wasting heat. The public house with its smoky atmosphere and crowded camaraderie is thus a relic of a very ancient domestic tradition.

Nowadays, with the new world being gradually wrought by the industrial revolution, many with weak lungs who would have been stillborn or succumbed at an early age have survived. They are in fact newcomers to British culture just like immigrants from overseas. As such, it would have been good manners and common decency to acquaint themselves with the customs and traditions of the culture in which they found themselves. If their lungs are too weak to cope with our smoky traditions, then they should stay away from public houses and other enclosed places and seek employment elsewhere.

But instead, they have agitated to ban smoking, not only in public houses but all enclosed spaces. The ban is an assault on time-honoured ancient British culture. The perpetrators are subversive of the British democratic tradition. This is treason. It is also racist, anti-British racist. In olden times such people would have been hung drawn and quartered. More recently, until Tony Blair dictated contrariwise, they would have been hung. Nowadays their treason is actually supported by law. British culture has been overwhelmed by aliens with a passion for more power than they know how to handle. The consequence has been to provoke a smouldering hatred among the natives. For this the aliens will one day pay, like Napoleon or the Nazis.

Ian Dunbar.

Watch Ian's video on 'smoke' here.

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