Thatching on the Orkney Islands

70aThis group of islands is home to 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 were developed here.

One makes use, of Orkney’s abundance of large flagstones. These have one drawback, in that they weather badly. Here a directional thatch consisting mainly of heather ropes or ‘Simmens’; is used to protect these stone roofs. The primary job, of the thatch, is 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.

This technique was used to cover a roof at Corrigall Farm Museum; the result 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. The creation of the one and a half miles of heather simmens, used on this project, is found in the page on Roping. Click here to see this…

Delivered… On the left. Just some of the one and a quarter tonnes of heather simmens. Rolled neatly into balls or ‘Clews’. After making these the group then went on to thatch the building.
Uncovered.. The roof at Corrigall farm was firstly stripped back to the sandstone base, and brushed clean; ready for covering. Meanwhile at the Quarry… Suitable replacement ’Bendlin’ Stanes’, used to weight the heather simmens, are searched out. Ideally sized at around 4ft (1.2m) by 1ft (0.3m)

Unrolling… The rolled balls or ‘Clews’ of simmens are now opened and used to cover the sandstone.

Weighted… A detail of the simmens, looped around a bendlin stane. The stones form a continuous line; each simmens being passed around it and taken back over the roof to the stone’s opposite number. The simmens being joined as necessary, to form in this case, a single rope a mile and a half long…

Final touches… The simmens are baulked up with more heather and a horizontal simmens is threaded through, just above the weighted bendlin stanes…

Job done… a lost art revived.

Images & info., copyright & courtesy of Sandy Beer; thanks Sandy.

The second method is somewhat different. This uses even more, of what seems to be a local speciality…Simmens. The method produces what 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; a main thatching material, found on Orkney, was used on this project.

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…

More Hoy thatch… Burnmouth Cottage, located at spectacular Rackwick Bay. Restored and maintained by the Hoy Trust; most of the roof is still protected by a layer of weighted heather. Top image courtesy & © Colin Kinnear. Opposite photo courtesy & © Calum McRoberts, both under cc-by-sa/2.0