Roping Down; fixing thatch in a world without wood.
The vast majority of thatching, on multilayered roofs, is held in position by the humble spar. Or if hazel or willow are not to be found; by crook and caber. But in some parts of Britain, the raw materials that make these useful items, were once either non-existent or too valuable, to use for thatching. Thus the craft here has evolved, to take account of these conditions; in several ways.
Solving the problem faced by this 1930’s family; in the treeless Hebrides. How to live under thatch, in the windiest spot in Europe…
In the north of England and many parts of Scotland, strips of turf were laid across the top of each competed course, of standard thatching. Extending down to where a sway would normally sit. The odd spar was occasionally used, but the weight of turf was sufficient to keep the course in place. A clay mixture or a weak lime mortar was also used in a similar manner. This also had the advantage of holding the succeeding course in place, as it bedded into the mix. A ridge of turf or mortar often finished these roofs. No liggers or spars, being needed to complete either. As will be seen, in the craft’s history; this method is one the earliest recorded, in any detail. Being carefully described, by one Henry Best, in the East Riding of Yorkshire; in 1641.
As mentioned in the page on fixing single layer thatch, straw rope was often used to tie on the first coat of thatch, to the roof timbers. But it also had other uses in the craft; on the outside of the roof. Where only a little suitable spar wood was available, straw rope was used as a substitute for wooden liggers. Thatchers in South West Wales, used this technique on many cottages. Where wood was really in short supply, straw rope often also substituted for the smaller roof timbers.
Straw ropes used to reinforce the eaves and gables of a Carmarthenshire cottage in c 1890, on the left, and the same type of fixings at Cenarth, in Cardiganshire…
Where the directional method of thatching is used, the coatwork is fixed entirely from the outside. Traditionally, if suitable wood was unavailable, the roof was roped down, with ropes made of straw or heather and later, hemp. These held thatched roofs firmly in place; all along the northern and western fringes of Britain, from Shetland to the Isles of Scilly. Each area had its thatch roped, in a local, traditional design. Those roofs that remain are now mostly held firm by weighted wire netting. Untold numbers of ricks and stacks, throughout Britain; also had their thatch roped into position.
Isles of Scilly… Roped thatch at Silver Street, on St Mary’s, in late Victorian times. This method of fixing hereabouts, was noted as early as 1669. Photo; copyright Gibsons of Scilly.
Straw rope was always twisted; several devices being used to help with this process. The Whimble or Thraw Crook, being the most common… Twisting was usually carried out by two people. With one turning the handle of the whimble and twisting the straw; the other person fed the material into the ever lengthening rope. Ropes of heather were plaited, making a rope that lasted much longer, than the couple of years provided by a rope of straw. (A detailed look at heather rope making follows at the bottom of this page.) Both these types of rope were eventually superseded, by more banal materials. Twine for ricks; and from the 1930’s, by wire netting, on cottage thatch.
Well roped thatch at Port St Mary… On the Isle of Man; around 1900. Although larger than many islands, any wood here was obviously too valuable, for the thatcher’s use.. Here the ropes the are known as ‘Sugganes’ and are fixed into the cottage wall. Other areas used weighted roping…
1930, changes… This long distance view of Loch Aitort ,in Inverness-shire; shows a thatcher, finishing off a directional thatch. A careful look sees our man fixing wire netting… The zig zag wire ties, joining each strip can just be seen, to his left. One other cottage has already been covered thus. The other neighbouring thatches, still have their attractive roping.
This rare picture, shows an almost completed thatch on Orkney… These islands have a tradition, of using a great deal of straw and heather rope, in thatching. These being known locally as ‘Simmens’. This ‘Needled’ thatching method, unique to Orkney; can use a mile or two, of rope, to cover a roof… Photo; courtesy C. Grivas
Roping down… A new roof on the croft at Easthouse on Shetland. The local flagstone, making ideal weights, or ‘Linksten‘. Holding the ‘Links’ of rope firmly down. Note the roped chimney or ‘Lum’. These features are examined, along with the more common masonry types in the Technical pages. Photo; courtesy Burra History Group.
The above images all show how roping is used, but what of making the ropes…
From the earliest times much rope was made from heather and other similar plants, tougher material by far than straw; but how were these useful fixings made; from sinewy intractable plants. The images and information below will hopefully explain.
This shows the results of a course, held on Orkney in the early 1990’s. Attended by four hardy volunteers, one of whom, Sandy Beer kept a detailed record. As noted above, these islands have a strong tradion of roping.
The ‘Simmens’, as thatching rope is known hereabouts, was intended to cover and protect a roof at Corrigall Farm Museum; the roofing part of this project can be found in the page on Orkney. (Link at the bottom of this page.)
A local farmer Peter Leith gave the group a master class, on the correct techniques involved in simmens making; as shown to him by his father… Peter no doubt explained that the material should be no shorter than 18inches (450mm) in length, the longer the better. And the best time for harvesting is from June to September, as the sap is rising.
But, after finding suitable material, it has to be pulled up; preferably by the roots…
Pulling & Lugging… As ever with thatching, a lot of hard work goes into the preparation. From heaving up a stubborn heather plant, to carrying the tied bundles away; these need to be kept damp and supple. It is also of note that even the modern landscape is treeless…
Making a Heather Simmens… As explained by Sandy.
‘’The strands of heather are twisted and doubled unequally on itself and twisting is started with the right hand.’’
‘’More heather is added to the right strand with extra overlapping onto the left and held in place by the first finger of the left hand before turning.’’
‘’Both strands are then twisted, taking the left strand over the right and swopping them over in the hands. More heather strands can then be added to the right hand and it continues in this way.’’
‘’The rope as it grows is passed over the left shoulder and around the waist, this acts not only to straighten it out but to test the strength as it is made.”
Ready to roll…The group were able to individually make over 80ft (24m) of rope, in a three hour session. Creating a total length of some one and a half miles (2.4km)… The lengths were then rolled tightly into balls for transport; these are locally known as ‘Clews’.
Ready to unroll… Over one and a quarter tonnes of heather simmens. The group then went on to thatch the building…
Images etc., copyright & courtesy of Sandy Beer; thanks Sandy…