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Talking Thatch

By Bernie Bell

Unlikely as it  may seem, I was discussing thatch with friend Hannah.  Hannah had been to Shetland, where she saw a reconstruction of a thatched house, and the information board said that the thatch was re-done every 3 years. I doubted that.  Hannah and I were having this discussion, then I realised that it includes some of those memories of past times, which can so easily be lost.

Hannah……..”Also I forgot to say in my last email, the Lerwick museum had a model house from olden times in Shetland including a thatched roof. According to the sign it required regular maintenance and had to be re-done every three years.”

Me ….…………..”This puzzles me. From when I was a small child, every year, our family went ‘home’ to Ireland, to visit.  My Auntie Bridie and Uncle Anthony still lived in the 2 room thatched cottage which Mum, Auntie Bridie and siblings, had grown up in.  I remember the roof needing regular maintenance, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t replace it every 3 years! That would be a terrible do – and – how would they manage, where would they live,  while it was being done? That’s a puzzle to me. Maybe it depends on what the thatch is made of? Uncle Anthony used reeds from the river. This was true self-sufficiency – their stretch of land, went down to the river, so they had access to the river,  and it’s reeds.  So, maybe the material used in the thatching, makes a difference?  I am absolutely certain they didn’t  replace the whole thing every 3 years – that just wouldn’t have been practicable. Maybe there’s an element here of the old ways being partly forgotten?  When I was about 12/13, they had a new house built in the top field, and the old house, became a cow-shed, roofed with corrugated iron. That was hard to see, when it had been a ’home’ to the family , for so long, in fact, no-one could remember how long. But – needs must. Bernie Bell: Orkney Walks (with Stories) – Rousay

One memory I have of staying in that house,  is….I got out of bed one morning, put my foot into my shoe, and …scrunch! A big May-bug. Things used to be in the thatch, and, sometimes, drop out of the thatch, unexpectedly!

Here it is….The Old House, as it was known, with one of my cousins standing in the doorway – probably in the 1960’s.

Thatched house B Bell

My other granny, a widow, worked a hill farm, also with access to a river, and she used the sand from the river–bed, to clean the flag floor. She’d spread the sand, then sweep like b*****y!  Here’s a thing – when my Auntie Mary-Ellen ( known as Auntie Mary-Ellen-In-America) was coming home to visit, with her new, American husband, Granny put lino down, thinking that the old flagstone floor wasn’t smart enough. Isn’t that a sad thing? That someone should feel ashamed of a good, old flagstone floor, and put lino down to keep up with the new ways? This is long before I was born, but it became a family story.”

Hannah………..”I’m trying to remember – I thought every three years was a lot! Perhaps they meant just a top layer or something? I suspect they would have used straw there- I don’t think there are too many reeds in Shetland, but who knows? I could be surprised!

I remember when I was younger we would go on holiday to Wales every summer with my grandparents- always to the same village of Angle, in Pembrokeshire. A while away from the village they had an iron age fort which had been re-done so you could imagine what it would have been like back then- a huge roundhouse with yet another (!) thatched roof! Funnily enough that roof had a small hole in the very top of it acting like a chimney for the fire inside- apparently they had built it a couple of times without the hole but the fire would die and the smoke would build up too much. However, every other fort I have been in since then has never had a hole in the roof- so who knows what’s really going on. The mysteries of the thatch! “

Me………….”Some of the old dwelling places, did just have a hole in the roof, for the smoke to go through. It’s thought that some didn’t, and they relied on the smoke, somehow filtering through the thatch – not all that likely! There would have been terrible health problems – eye problems, respiratory problems. It is nearly impossible to know, as there are no solid remains, to show how the roofs were constructed. My mother’s family home, had a big stone chimney at one end – one of those with a  ‘crane ‘ in it, on which to hang pots and the griddle, so that dealt with the smoke.  Though that house was old – I don’t think it would be classed as ancient!  As to some of the very old houses having no way for the smoke to escape, except by filtering though – I do find that hard to believe, as, mostly, humans aren’t stupid when it comes to survival (though our behaviour, at the moment does seem to contradict that – ‘Highway to Hell’ comes to mind!) – they are survivors, and work out ways of doing things which….work.

Written records would help – but, the people who could write in those times, mostly didn’t give a s**t about the living conditions of the working people, so they didn’t bother to write about them!”

(PS – the central room in Kirbuster Farm Museum,  has a hole in the roof, over an open fire, with a flap which can be adjusted to suit the wind direction.)

Hannah………..”That reminds me of those stories of people peeling up horrible old carpets to reveal beautiful wooden floors underneath. No doubt the previous owners had done much the same as your gran. Funny how the normal becomes the old becomes the unfashionable becomes the desirable…”

Me……. “Oh, yes, very well put, young Hannah!  Very well put.  Yesterday’s throw-outs are today’s collectables. All those lovely old tiled fireplaces which were covered by plasterboard, in front of which was placed an electric fire. All those old, multi-panelled wooden doors which were covered with plain, flat panels of chipboard/laminate.  At least they survived, and the panels can be removed, many were simply thrown away/burnt.  So it goes.

People – always want something new, often the opposite of what they last had – what last was fashionable. When that shifts into politics is when we get the real problems – Obama is replaced by The Trump.  And, as Mike said….. “Hopefully that particular bit of horrible old carpet will be peeled away soon…..”

Readers may also like: Straw House Features at the Science Festival

Kirbuster Farm

The hole in the roof at Kirbuster with the central hearth 


3 replies »

  1. Morning Bernie, did they not use a far more durable type of ‘thatch’ (a type of water reed I believe) in Ireland. My memory of our old family house at Raney, near Ardara was that once the ‘thatch’ was available, usually towards end of July (school holidays, both my parents were teachers) then maintenance took place which was effectively adding another layer of thatch. I only ever once remember seeing a whole roof being re-thatched and that down to damage during a winter/spring gale.

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  2. And good morning Charles…………..yes, that’s what I’m on about. The whole conversation began with this….

    https://theorkneynews.scot/2018/05/31/the-western-isles-or-there-and-back-again-v/

    and I knew that Uncle Anthony used reeds from the river.
    The Iron Age House at Bernera has been re-turfed, and looks good

    https://en-gb.facebook.com/Bernera-Historical-Society-482812091870994/

    As the text says, it’s experimental, to see how it works out.
    I’ll now send this most recent piece in TON, to the man at Bernera Museum – all grist to the mill!

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    • Hi Bernie, I missed the previous which, as you say would have filled me in. Anyway nice speaking to you this bright, dry but still no sunshine morning. Take care.

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