Highlands and Islands thatching
The thatching of roofs in the Highlands and Islands tradition, using locally available materials such as marram grass, oat straw, heather, bracken and rush. See also thatching.
|Historic area of significance||Scottish Highlands and Islands|
|Area currently practised||Western Isles, Northern Isles, Shetland, Scottish Highlands|
|Origin in the UK|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||1|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||0|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
||Fewer than 10|
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Scotland has a long tradition of using thatch, and it has one of the most diverse ranges of thatching materials and techniques found in Europe. However, the number of traditional thatched buildings is decreasing. A 2018 report into Scotland’s thatched buildings listed 236 buildings in Scotland which were thatched or are recorded as having had been thatched. A number of these were deteriorated at that time, and the number has continued to decrease.
There is a modest revival happening in some parts of Scotland that is being supported by Historic Environment Scotland. Thatching in the Western Isles, and particularly Uist, is also being driven by tourism and second home owners, as many visitors to the Islands are keen to stay in a traditionally thatched building. This contrasts to the Northern Isles, where the tradition is virtually extinct, and extant examples all feature compromised techniques, as is the case in Lewis. In Shetland there were around 50 recorded thatched buildings in the 1980s, and in 2021 there were just three. As the materials used in Highland and Islands thatch are less durable than with English thatch, the loss of thatched roofs has been more rapid.
Highlands and Islands thatch is a different technique to English thatch and utilised locally available materials including marram grass, heather, broom, bracken and rush. It was less durable than English methods, because of the locally-available plants and wet climate.
When using oat straw or marram grass, the new thatch is installed over the old thatch, which settles and compresses over time. After three to ten years a new layer of thatch is added as the outside layer of thatch breaks down. The thatch is not fixed to the roof and is instead held down with a system of netting and stone weights to withstand the high winds and extreme weather. Other materials, such as heather, are fixed directly to the roof.
The techniques differs across the region. Hebridean and Highland construction typically utilise barley, heather or bracken, with hipped gables, and watershed into the wall-core; Northern Isles featured oat straw, with stone/turf gables, and watershed outside the wall-face.
ThatchingInfo.com has a useful series of resources on Highland Thatching traditions:
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Skills issues: There is a lack of training in heritage building skills and it is difficult to recruit trainees
Training issues: there is no financial support available to support training for thatching
Market issues: for financial and practical reasons, most home owners will opt for lower maintenance roofing options. Those that do choose thatch are tending to do it to attract tourists to rental properties, or because they are personally committed to preserving heritage building techniques and skills.
Lack of raw materials: Some of the traditional materials, such as marram grass, have been overharvested in the past and caused the erosion of sand dunes. Cutting of marram grass is permitted in some areas under tightly controlled conditions but it can still be difficult to source.Coir replaced hand-twisted rope in the late 19 th century; the appropriate grade is no
longer available, and making rope by hand uneconomical. Cotton nets replaced hand-made netting in the 19 th century; this too is unavailable. Grain cultivation has markedly decreased, and when oats are grown they are varieties suitable for machine harvest; black oat has virtually vanished from farming.
Impermanence of materials: Highland and Islands thatching materials are less durable materials such as reed, which is now widely used for English thatch. It is a long term commitment and expense to manage a thatched roof and so they tend to be replaced with an alternative material.
Historic Environment Scotland
Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)
Shetland Museum and Archive
Craftspeople currently known
- Neil Nicholson, North Uist
- Scot AnSgeulaiche
- Brian Wilson
Thatching knowledge in a museum context:
- Hannes Schnell – Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore
- Ian Tait – Shetland Museum and Archive
- Auchindrain Township Museum have a trained thatcher who works on museum buildings
- Historic Environment Scotland provide grants for marram grass thatching and this has proved to be a catalyst for buildings being re-thatched.
- Training – a comprehensive N/SVQ (National/Scottish Vocational Qualification) in Heritage Skills has been developed specifically to train craft practitioners in building conservation skills.
Tait, Ian, (2012) ‘Shetland Vernacular Buildings 1600-1900’, Shetland Times
(26 November 2020) ‘The Last Thatcher of the Western Isles’, Financial Times,
Historic Environment Scotland – Thatching with marram grass on YouTube
Hunnisett-Snow, Jessica, (2018) ‘Thatch in Scotland’
Fenton, A, (1976) Thatch and Thatching’, Building Construction in Scotland: Some Historical and Regional Aspects (Dunbar: SVBWG)
Snow, J, (2010) ‘Scottish thatch – a vanishing tradition’, The Victorian, no 34
SPAB, (2016) A Survey of Thatched Buildings in Scotland, Edinburgh, 2016
Walker, B, McGregor, C, and Stark, G, (1996) Thatch and Thatching Techniques: A Guide to Conserving Scottish Thatching Traditions, Historic Scotland Technical Advice Note 4 (Edinburgh)
I Whyte, (1980) ‘The Lewis Blackhouse in 1980: the end of an old tradition’, Northern Studies, no 16
John Wilson Associates (1986) Thatched Buildings Survey of Tiree (Oban)