Tuesday, March 08, 2005


The oven on our gas cooker stopped functioning recently, necessitating the return to service of the trusty, somewhat rusty peat-fired Rayburn, once the sole means of heating and cooking in the manse, now a fallback option for those times when more modern technologies fail.
A recent absence of central heating oil (during which I seriously considered using diesel, cooking oil, extra virgin olive oil or a mixture of all of these with turpentine) led to the firing up of the old range, which I must say is one of the easiest-lighting solid fuel stoves I have ever worked with.
Wise men and wiser women inform me that the length of the chimney and the shape of the (right hand) flue on our Rayburn contribute to its almost supernatural ability to light first time, every time, as long as The Sunday Times (non-colour bits) is used to get the kindling going. And I suppose the fact that we stored away all the old lath from the lath-and-plaster walls we had to replace helps: you can never have too many sticks, in my opinion, as John Knox reputedly said to his final torturers.
I have, though, struggled with a variety of dodgy stoves in cottages and caravans, houses and huts throughout Shetland and points sooth. The unexpectedly blocked chimney, the house reeking with, well reek; the way some fires can produce what seems to be concentrated essence of peat oil, in commercial quantities. The freezing living room which simply stays cold, despite repeated attempts at lighting a recalcitrant fire. The increasingly deranged attempts to create a draft on a windless day, and the use of dangerously flammable substances to get something started: salmon feed bags (oh, the damage to the ozone layer!) the aforementioned diesel. Err…petrol, lighter fluid, air freshener (straight from the aerosol – don’t try this at home kids) and aftershave (Yves St Laurent, since you ask). The chestnuts we roasted didn’t taste quite right. But they had a certain je ne sais quoi.
Our Rayburn (its redundant back boiler now filled with sand) is not a beauty. It could never feature as an Aga-substitute in one of those interior design features. For a start, it’s that hideous brown-fading-to-grey colour from the 1960s. The enamel is chipped in numerous places, there’s rust aplenty. When the manse was seriously flooded, way back in the years BA (Before Armouring) it had a firebox full of seawater, and allegedly two workmen perched on the hob to escape the attacking giant sea urchins swept in by the implacable tide. But it still works. And how.
The problem we had the other week was an inability to cook pizzas. In fact, everything edible in the fridge needed an oven. So it was time to sweep the various ornaments off the Rayburn and get to work with the Sunday Times, some lath and the best blue peats we could find.
It was moderately windy. And once the oven began to heat up, it wouldn’t stop. Way past 300 degrees C it went. Pizzas (or peatsas, as the bairns called them) cooked in seconds. A chicken stew was carbonised in 15 minutes. We were offering cheap saunas to passing Finns. And eventually, anxious gazes at the smoke belching out of the chimney indicated that bad things were happening in the lum.
Even a large shovelful of wet sand in the firebox didn’t put the Rayburn out. It just stopped the chimney turning into Northmavine’s Mount Etna.
As things have returned to normal, as ovens have started working again, as we have grown confident in our supplies of kerosene, the Rayburn has returned to coolness and operates as a kind of cast iron sideboard once more. But when it’s in full fiery flow, it regains its rightful role, becomes the absolute core of the house, the centre, the thing around which we huddle and have our being.
Last week I was raking around in the ruins of Seaview, one of the old Heylor houses, and found a bit of its old stove. The piece of iron door still had the range’s name (and it’s significant that all stoves have names – Royales, Regents and the like) clearly embossed: Enchantress. And yes, there’s a magic about a good solid-fuel stove. Ours has a name too, but it’s not stamped anywhere, or visible to anyone but me. It’s home.

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