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Virginia, Pennsylvania, And The Scottish Border: Backcountry Squalor

October 2018


Cabin architecture was striking for its roughness and impermanence. It was a simple style of building, suitable to a migratory people with little wealth, few possessions and small confidence in the future. It was also an inconspicuous structure, highly adapted to a violent world where a handsome building was an invitation to disaster. In that respect, cabin architecture was an expression of the insecurity of life in the northern borders.

The cabin was also the product of a world of scarcity. It was a style of vernacular architecture created by deep and grinding poverty through much of north Britain during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In that barren country, cabins made of earth and stone were an adaptation to an environment in which other building materials were rare.

Cabin architecture was also a style of building well suited to a people who had a strong sense of family and a weak sense of individual privacy. Travelers from the south of England expressed horror at the lack of respect for privacy. Much the same observations were also made in the American backcountry. ‘They sleep altogether in common in one room, and shift and dress openly without ceremony,” Woodmason wrote, ”. . . nakedness is counted as nothing.” Sometimes there was not even a bed. William Byrd described one backcountry family that “pigged lovingly together” on the floor.

In the eighteenth century, these cabins began to rise throughout the American backcountry wherever migrants from North Britain settled. The strong resemblance of these houses to the vernacular architecture of the borders was noted by travelers who knew both places. One English traveler noted of a Scots-Irish settlement in the backcountry of Pennsylvania that the people lived in “paltry log houses, and as dirty as in the north of Ireland, or even Scotland.”