Thatching on the Orkney Islands

70aThis group of islands, had three differing Highland thatching traditions. The normal directional method; of straw, on a turf base; as used on Shetland, is known. But two other types of roped and weighted thatch also existed.

The first made use, of Orkney’ s abundance of large flagstones. These have one drawback, in that they weather badly. Here a directional thatch was used to protect these stone roofs. The primary job, of the thatch, was to shelter the stones from frost. Shedding water was of lesser importance.

thatch on orkney

Protection… This old cottage near Stromness, relied on a flagstone roof, to shed the rain. The rough covering of heather, simply protected the stones.


The second method is quite different. This uses a great deal, of what seems to be a local speciality. Ropes of straw or heather. Known here as Simmens.

This method is known as a Needled roof. A type of thatching that seems to have ceased in the 1960’s. However, a roof on the island of Hoy, has been thatched with this method. Oat straw; the main thatching material, found on Orkney, was used.

thatch orkney

Needled, in 1905… Another cottage, near Stromness. With a totally different thatch. A rare old image, of a needled roof. Complete with thatched lum.

The method consists of covering the roof timbers with straw ropes. From eaves to eaves; over the ridge. Flagstones are then placed at the bottom; covering the wall. (Below left). A random coat, usually of oat straw, is then thatched over the whole roof. A further covering of ropes, either of heather or straw, is finally fixed over this thatch. Each loop is weighted with a stone; or bendlin stane. (Below right) New coatwork and more top rope, are added every few years.

Needled, in the twenty first century…  The left image, showing the undercoat of ropes, and a neat hole, to eventually take a window. The right image shows the completed, untrimmed, roof. Photos; courtesy Catherine Grivas

Ropes, of around 5000 feet (1500metres) in length were needed; for each layer; of this roof. That’s around two miles of rope altogether…

thatch on orkney

An older Hoy thatch, showing a worn needled roof. Today it seems thatch is almost as rare as a bullock cart, on these islands…