By Tim Porteus

A STORYTELLER friend recently gifted us an artificial electric log stove and hearth surround with mantle piece.

She is an expert at recycling, and placed it where the real fireplace used to be and it looks fantastic. When the fire effect is switched on, it gives an impressive imitation of a real one.

Our small terraced house once had a real fire place, of course, but like so many it was modernised before I moved in, and it was filled in and central heating installed.

Yet I am old enough to have lived all my childhood in the ‘60s and ‘70s without experiencing central heating! It did exist, of course, just not in the houses I lived in as a child!

One memory I have is of arriving home from school on a cold winter’s afternoon and seeing the smoke coming from the chimney of the church house we lived in at the east end of the Pans. My father had lit the fire early and I still remember its welcoming warmth, and the way it crackled and danced as it defrosted my face and hands. Me and my brothers sat by it, jostling for the best space.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about central heating! I know I’m lucky to have a warm house and never take it for granted. We don’t use the ‘fire’ for heat, that would be too expensive. But we switch it on for atmosphere. And the effect on the younger kids has been immediate. They sit by it, lie on blankets by it reading and playing and telling stories. I forget that they have little personal experience of having a hearth, even an artificial one. The novelty will wane, perhaps, but I hope the cosy pleasure of it won’t.

It’s not just the kids, as my wife and I love sitting by it in the evening. We’ve even moved some of the furniture, so this pretend but convincing fireplace, rather than the telly, has become the main focal point of the living room.

You could say I’m easily pleased, and I suppose that’s true. But our friends have commented on it too, one saying “it really has given your house a different atmosphere” as he sat by it with the wind howling outside.

The hearth has traditionally been the soul of a house. The family would sit by it, soak in the warmth and watch the flames, while telling stories and talking. It was a draw for social communion. Visitors would be welcomed with a place by it and most of the cooking would have taken place there too. The old saying “lang may yer lums reek” (long may your chimneys smoke) indicated the importance of a lit hearth as a symbol of wellbeing and good fortune.

No wonder so many traditions and ceremonies were centred around the hearth. People used to leave objects buried within or near it. There were various reasons for this: to capture bad spirits that may come down the chimney, for good luck or to deflect a witch’s spell. The hearth was seen as a kind of spiritual portal, to be defended and made safe, not just physically.

The hearth was also a focus of many ceremonies that marked the changing seasons. The Celtic calendar is full of such events, Imbolc being the most recent. And of course there were the daily rituals of banking up the fire at night, and reviving it in the morning, and keeping it going. All these simple tasks are now fast fading into folk memory.

Today, screens are more likely to be the focal point of our homes. It’s kind of unavoidable, of course, and I claim no moral high ground of this issue. But the truth is they drug our senses and dull our conviviality, and, like many parents, we have tried to limit their use in our house. It has felt like a losing battle with my children who, I understand, live in a very different childhood to mine. And I readily concede it’s got lots of benefits, even though at times I may sound like an old dinosaur lamenting the passing of the Jurassic age.

But the arrival of our fake woodburning stove has transformed our house in a way that shows we have lost something in the ‘modernising’ of our homes. As a storyteller, I have come to understand the importance of a hearth as a focal point for gathering; it has the power to bring people together, to share warmth and light but also each other’s presence and social connection. As the freezing wind rages outside, it is a magical space.

That magic has been the true gift from my storyteller friend, and she wisely knew it. While much is missing from an artificial fire, including the smell and sound of the real thing, our ancestral instinct still kicks in by the visual sight of a flickering hearth.

So now my instructions to switch off the screens is more readily obeyed, because it signals time to get together around the fire and ‘be together properly’ to tell stories and challenge each other with riddles.

Burn’s poem The Cotter’s Saturday Night now has new meaning in our house:

To meet their dad, wi flichterin noise and glee.

His wee bit ingle, blinkin bonilie,

His clean hearth-stane, his thrifty wifie’s smile,

The lisping infant, prattling on his knee,

Does a’ his weary kiaugh and care beguile,

An makes him quite forget his labor and his toil.