Friday 4 January 2013

Objects in Focus: Winnowing Riddle

Happy New Year to all our blog readers!
© Carsten Flieger
The first object of the year to be presented is the winnowing riddle, also called a criathar. In the Carmichael Collection, West Highland Museum, there is a fine example of a riddle on display in their agricultural section. This tool was used between threshing and grinding corn and was made of a cured and dried sheepskin or calfskin fastened to a wooden frame - nasg criathair. The skin was then punctured with a hot point, occasionally in a concentric pattern, creating a sieve. 

The sieve was held with both hands and the corn was shaken in a circular motion to allow unwanted dirt to filter through, leaving behind the larger and heavier grains. Often this was done outside with the wecht and the corn was tossed in the air allowing the chaff to be blown away by the wind.
©University of Edinburgh: Dept. of Celtic and Scottish Studies,
The image above, from the Werner Kissling Collection, portrays a woman using the winnowing sieve on South Uist in 1936. In Carmina Gadelica there is a description of two stages of sieving:

Càthadh. Winnowing corn in the barn – the first operation; the second and final operation was fasgnadh, winnowing on the knoll. The toll-càthaidh, ‘chaff-hole’, was a small hole about three feet square in the back wall of the kiln to admit wind to clean the corn. This hole was on the ground and, when not required, was closed with a board, or a plàt made of straw or bent or rushes. (VI-37)

The corn, now separated from the chaff and extraneous matter, was ready for grinding.
© Carsten Flieger
There were also some divination practices associated with the riddle, the most common was a method of identifying a future spouse. This was carried out by winnowing specific items: silver coins or even winnowing an empty sieve. In the notebooks Carmichael provides another example from Skye of a servant girl foretelling her future husband:

CW7/32 Càthadh an Fhras Lìn. The lint seed was winnowed in the, "comh-ràth, dusk The was done at Draoineach Skye by a servant girl in the house. The wife of Draoineach asked the girl whom did she see and the girl answered that she had no luck that the only saw her master. Well you shall have him yet said her misterss. The mistress died soon after and before the year was out Fear na Draoinich married this young girl!

Grant, Highland Folk Ways, provides an account of a woman in Arran, in 1709, who went before the local Kirk Session for using a riddle to identify a thief!  

A similar sieve was made in Ireland but variations developed: thin strips of wood were laced across the frame to create a mesh (instead of the sheepskin) and the thickness of the mesh would vary according to its purpose. Wire eventually replaced the wood strips.

Carmichael, A. Carmina Gadelica vi (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1900-1972)
Grant, I. F. Highland Folk Ways (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1961)
Lucas, A. T. "Making Wooden Sieves" The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 81: 2 (1951), 146-155. 

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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). [©]