The Myterious Barrel by the Byre

Last time you were here and looking at Eddie’s House, did you notice the barrel sunken into the ground by the byre door? Although a barrel has been there since at least the 1890s, it remains one of Auchindrain’s many mysteries. 
We’re aware of a few other examples of barrels sunken into the ground outside old barns and byres, including one found by Argyll archaeologist Roddy Regan at High Morlaggan near Arrochar, but unfortunately it is unclear what they were used for.  When Auchindrain became a museum in the 1960s our founder Marion Campbell described this barrel as “to catch liquid manure, used as a mordant for dyeing, as well as for fertilizer”, but our research shows that these two uses needed slightly different things.  


A mordant is a substance that helps to bind and set a dye on to a fabric, and although cow dung has historically been successfully used, the urine of both animals and people was favored as urea is richer in ammonia. We’ve been told that it would have been rather difficult to ensure than only urine reached our barrel, and instead it would have been a rather sloppy liquid manure mixture. We’re also unsure of how much textile work went on in Auchindrain as we know almost nothing about the activities of our female residents outside of their general agricultural work, although it’s safe to assume that they did do some basic textile crafts, as was the case across the rest of the Highlands. It was common for women to dye wool using plants found within the local area, including lichens, berries, seaweed and barks, which would subsequently be spun into yarn to make the homespun tweed that was made into basic clothing. 
We also know from the census data that between at least 1851 and 1871 census one of the people of the township was the weaver Duncan McNicol. Duncan McKellar, who was recorded as living here in 1851 and 1861, was a tailor. It is plausible that some of our tenants worked with textiles and asked their friends and fellow tenants to help dye and spin wool, or at least to collect the mordant for them.  
What we are fairly certain about is that if this barrel was used for collecting mordant, then thiswould have been several generations ago. ‘Young’ Eddie MacCallum has no memories of a history of textile production within his family, and when his Dad, our last tenant, was farming, the barrel was connected by a drain to the manuring channel of the byre, and the contents were used as a fertilizerfor their garden. You can see from one of our pictures, though to have been taken in the early 1900s, that when Eddie was a child the family had a very lush garden.  Maybe the liquid collected in the barrel had something to do with this!