Stone and Turf, Clay and Thatch
earliest buildings (or traces of buildings) that have come down
to us are the hill fortifications, but these vary greatly in antiquity
and type. Some sites are clearly pre-Roman, the Caterthun (Menmuir,
near Brechin) is an example. In the case of others (as at Turin
Hill) several constructions can be traced, overlapping to some
extent. Some sites (like Finavon and The Laws) show signs of vitrification.
hilltop buildings were the forerunners of the castles built on
lower ground. Denoon Law, for instance, was probably the site
of an earlier Glamis Castle, and Macbeths Castle (Dunsinane)
is misleading in its name, for it is a hill-fort and certainly
never was a turreted castle.
excavation at Ardestie (near Monifieth) has shown what an early
farm settlement looked like two thousand years ago-partly built
underground, with surface huts for the humans. But even as late
as the 15th century country cottages were very humble two rooms
usually, with the walls built of stones, wood and turf. The walls
would be about six feet high, made of stones packed with clay,
and topped with two feet of turf. The wooded supports for the
roof were fitted to posts built into the walls, and bolted with
Branches were laid across the supports and these were covered
with turf and overlaid with thatch heather. The only virtue of
this type of dwelling was that, if it got out of repair it could
be dismantled and rebuilt in a few days.
in the parish of St. Madoes (pronounced locally Semmiedores) can
still show a few of its 17th and 18th century houses, clay built
and with thatched roofs. They are mostly used as sheds and storehouses
In most districts the thatched roof is now a thing of the past,
but some Tayside villages (especially in the Carse of Gowrie)
can still show many cottages with this traditional roofing. Rait
is a striking example.
and again I have travelled a country or glen road, and found that
yet another old cottage had shed its familiar thatch in favour
of the more durable, if less picturesque, galvanised iron.
factors have brought about this change. Thatch is composed of
perishable materials. One man said to me:
Yere never dune mendin and patchin at
Furthermore, it needs to be renewed completely every fourteen
years or so, and this recurrent expense makes the galvanized-iron
roof more attractive-economically, at least.
A lack of competent thatchers has been another factor in the disappearance
of thatch. The local handiman has taken over the work of the professional,
and patched and mended roofs show a general decline in the standard
not only is it costly to keep a thatched house water-tight, thatch
is also highly inflammable, and insurance rates are in consequence
rather high. Further, there is the question of social prestige,
and a new-fangled roof, whether of slate or iron, does give the
owner a certain satisfaction.
At the same time I must confess I have seen the thatched roof
passing with some regret. Rural housing may have gained in hygiene
and general comfort, but it has lost in appearance, for the thatched
roof had a valuable regional character quite lacking
in many modern houses and housing schemes. From the aesthetic
point of view standardisation is by no means a blessing!
too, has certain advantages. It is non-conducting and it keeps
an equable temperature, warm in winter, cool in summer. It suits
our climate, and it will withstand the gales better than slate.
In villages where the thatch remains they speak of galvanized-iron
as the lazy mans roof, and seem well content
with what they have.
Before leaving this subject I should like to mention cruck-framed
buildings. Throughout the greater part of Scotland roof
frame-works of cruck form are widespread, but a special type of
this, called the ad roof truss, is well represented
in the area around the eastern end of Loch Tay, especially in
the villages of Camserney and Dull.
a footnote referring to thatch, perhaps I should mention that
the reed-beds along by Powgavie, Seaside and Errol (though we
are inclined to accept them as a natural feature of the firth)
were actually planted for thatching purposes, this about 1836,
when reclamation projects were also carried out.
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