Stone Boles

Once upon a time in Ireland all cottages had ‘keeping holes’ or little alcoves built into the wall beside the fire, for storing dry condiments like tea, salt, flour and sugar.

These nooks measured about 2 x 1 foot and had wooden surrounds and perhaps a shelf. Essential for dry storage & because of cramped conditions where cooking was done upon the open fire.

Since the bed itself was also tucked by the fireside, we find traditionally two smaller nooks – his and hers – for keeping personal items such as a comb or a pipe.

A stone dresser (below)

shows how slabs were used to make an ample storage unit – this one has survived for over two hundred years, despite mature trees rooted within the cottage rooms.

A mountainy man remembers  these keeping holes being called ‘boles’ – perhaps a clue as to the irish name (unknown to me) for these nooks.

He also showed me an unremarkable old byre in the Bluestacks.

It contains a special stone, the origin of which is a mystery, as many fine stones have witnessed multiple lives, recycled and embedded into newer buildings over centuries. Certainly not a keeping hole – but handsomely crafted for a higher purpose.  It’s a guess – but it may have been a font, possibly baptismal, from penal days when worship was secret in the mountains.

16 thoughts on “Stone Boles

    1. Thanks for the excellent link Nick – I had no idea about the existence of the bee- bole & shall certainly be on the lookout for these.
      I had misinterpreted the recess as being called a ‘bowl’ but now happily have the spelling straight – yet still can’t find the gaelic root of it.
      A bee-bole is called ‘cuasnóg’.

  1. I have found reference to ‘poll’ as the Irish word for ‘hole’ and this seems to tie in with Welsh and Breton words for a hole.
    It would be quite easy for ‘poll’ to become ‘boll’ or ‘bole’ especially in the days when there was no standardised spelling and districts had their own accents.

      1. Yes, there were nooks and crannies near the fire to keep things dry, everything from the salt to the Bible. Cats love the warmth too!
        Even today, in common usage, is the term ‘boley hole’, a space for storing odds and ends – though that might be anywhere in the house.
        In many old cottages the gables are burned through, the fire has eventually broken up the stone. Nowadays a protective covering of firebricks is used but previously a sacrificial stone would be at the bak of the fire, it could be replaced once it had deteriorated. What will you use in your rebuild?

        1. Despite living in Edinburgh for 7 yrs I never heard of a ‘boley hole’ but probably even tenements had them in the past.
          This fireplace is to get a wee black stove, so the plan is to build in a clay flue and surround that with dry sand & lime.
          Have you tackled a similar job before – maybe you would have some tips?

          1. I have fitted a stainless steel liner to an existing flue but never built a new one. Those clay pipe flues sections would work well in your project but do you want to go for historic accuracy?
            I wonder at not covering the wall in the heat of the day. What kind/mix of lime mortar are you using? The likes of concrete and portland cement benefit from dampening during hot weather, did you dampen the mortar walls while they were curing?

            1. A surprising number of fireplace gables are intact & as always, stone buildings which have escaped being rendered with cement have survived much better. Interesting re the sacrificial stone!
              I’m afraid historical accuracy shall be compromised for practicality’s sake, such as no thatched roof/ stove as opposed to open fire/double glazing.
              Structurally the chimney interior shall differ by supporting/enclosing the clay flue (8’’) pipe, with an insulating (2’’) dry sand and lime mixture packed around it.
              The lime is NHL5 mixed 2/1 with sharp sand. We didn’t dampen the mortar after building and it appears not to have shrunk/cracked. We thought about covering overnight with a damp blanket but it seems to have coped well without any special treatment – just a little extra water in the mix.

  2. Hi – we are using NHL5 firstly because of our proximity to the west coast and wetter weather; secondly because of foundations needing the most eminently hydraulic lime; thirdly the gables and particularly this slab built fireplace gable is load bearing. For the walls themselves NHL3.5 would have been sufficient, or alternatively you can add an extra measure of sand (half bucket) to the NHL5 mix.

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