On the seafront of the quaint Fife town of Anstruther, amidst fish-and-chip shops and ice cream parlours, is a small, white terraced house which dates back to the 1700s – if not earlier.
Andy Sherriff has been calling this home for over three decades now, and over the years he’s made some fascinating discoveries here, from hoards of pottery and clay tobacco pipes buried in his garden to an uncanny face caught on camera peering out of a wooden beam. Of particular interest to me are the objects that appear to have been deliberately concealed by the house’s past occupants; by those enigmatic members of history who also once called this place home.
I’d come across reference to these in Andy’s publications in Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal and Vernacular Building (details below), and having contacted him, Andy kindly invited me to his house to see these finds. So on a sunny Sunday afternoon I took the trip up to Anstruther to take a gander at them myself. Weaving through the throngs of ice-cream-licking tourists on the seafront, I knocked on the teal, chalk-painted door and was called up the inner stairs to Andy’s home: a cosy, eclectic treasure trove of art and history.
I was treated to a tour of the house and garden, for which Andy has some fascinating stories to tell. And then I was shown his finds, which he’d laid neatly out across a wooden sideboard. “Betsy” the doll immediately caught my eye. Found within a lath-and-plaster wall and named by Andy after Betsy Wilson, a dancer at a local 18th-century gentleman’s club (Andy jests that it’s her ghost), it’s not technically a doll but rather a piece of fabric crudely crafted into semi-human-like form. However, whether it’s the fact that it’s been given a name or the gentle way Andy handles it, it becomes easy to view the piece of cloth as a figurine – and I’m soon referring to “Betsy” as a ‘she’ rather than an ‘it’ (see my blog post here about figurines secreted into the fabric of buildings).
But “Betsy” wasn’t found alone. Alongside her were two torn-out pages (one from the Bible showing psalm CXIX and the other showing hymns), a George II halfpenny, a broken bottle, a piece of glass, some ears of corn and dried peas, and a few animal bones. Andy thinks the wall dates to the 1800s, so this cache probably does too. Other than “Betsy” and the Bible pages, nothing remains of this concealed cache, but Andy does still have the objects from another concealment he stumbled across: this one from behind his current water tank. These included broken pieces of crockery, glass, a shoe polish tin, marbles, and what looks like a small horseshoe but is in fact a heel plate from a child’s shoe (read all about concealed shoes on Brian Hoggard’s excellent website here). This cache has been identified by expert Timothy Easton as a spiritual midden, added to over time and probably dating to the early 20th century.
Andy believes that such caches were hidden because some of his home’s past occupants “were superstitious, because they wanted to stop the vampire or witch coming down the chimney…They were carrying on the tradition of concealing. It was an ongoing superstitious thing – they’re doing what their ancestors did.”
As well as hidden caches, Andy has also found some interesting markings on the wooden beams above his fireplace: inscribed letters and burn marks (see Malcolm Gaskill’s blog post about burn marks here), which Easton believes were probably created over time rather than on one occasion. Andy notes that such markings “used to protect the property allegedly against fire.”
So Andy’s house really is a cornucopia of mystery and history with its concealed deposits and inscribed markings, the purposes of which we can only guess at. But the custom hasn’t stopped with the past occupants: Andy continues to layer meaning into the fabric of his home. Masks bought from gift shops have been plastered onto the walls and painted over, giving them a sense of antiquity and permanence, and Andy has concealed a Victorian, silver-handled walking stick within the window sill he built “for people to find in the future.” Why does he do these things? I asked. “Because I thought it would be in the spirit of the place,” he responded with a smile, gesturing around his Aladdin’s cave of treasures. “It’s as this place is.”
Watch my interview with Andy here
Alex Darwood & Andrew M Sherriff. 2003. Apotropaic markings and spiritual middens found in a house at 21 Shore Street, Anstruther, Fife. Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal 9, 125-128
Andrew M. Sheriff. 2004. 21 Shore Street, Anstruther, Fife. Vernacular Building 28, Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working Group, 35-41
Timothy Easton. 2016. Apotropaic Symbols and Other Measures for Protecting Buildings against Misfortune. In Hutton, R. (ed.) Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke: 39-67