The Heather Thatch of Leanach Farmhouse, Scotland

 
   
 

This is Leanach Farmhouse in Scotland built between 1721 and 1730 and completely restored by the National Trust in 1960. Just a few years ago a survey of the cottage was carried out by Addyman Archaeology so that future conservation work is in keeping with the original house and natural materials.

Even though it's a tiny cottage, its walls show ten phases of construction, the first of which was a single stone clay-bonded wall.

   
         
 

Over the years the cottage has changed shape but leaving signs of earlier construction like the single cruck frame which survives embedded in the western gable. The eastern gable is a heather turf wall

The roof may have originally been thatched with straw using a clay-thatching technique however straw may have been too valuable to be used for thatch.

Today the little cottage sports a wavy haircut in the distinctive colours of heather. The picture left shows the thatching in progress with bundles of heather, ready for the roof, lying on the ground below the window.

John Warner of Brandon Thatchers, a heather thatcher, says heather was once a status symbol amongst the rush thatch cottages of small communities and was often used for the priest's home.

 
   

more thatched natural buildings

 
           
           

Wind blows through heather so it must sit on two layers of turf underlay. The heather is a first line of defence shedding much, but not all of the rain. The heather stalk is tied down with brier and stuck with clay (mud).

Amongst the types of thatching material heather fares well lasting 20-30 years. The life of other thatching materials are:

   Rush 3-5 years
   Bracken Root 5-10 years
   Heather 20-30 years
   Reed 30-50 years
   Eelgrass 200-400 years

The heather used for thatching needs to be 3-4 feet in length. Heather of that length is found growing on the north facing slopes of the highlands. To harvest the plant you must peel the heather back from the direction it grows otherwise pulling it up is very difficult.

Finding heather of this length is not so easy because land owners burn the heather to keep it under control, when heather was a natural harvest for thatch, burning may not have been necessary.

 

There are over 10 million acres (400,000+ ha) of heather in Scotland. Other than thatch heather has many other uses that you may not know about including heather ale, baskets, brushes, pot scrubbers and doormats.



Scottish heather broom maker, circa 1900

 

A note on bracken thatching

Bracken thatch requires air to circulate from the home below. Even a standard breathable membrane is not enough ventilation to prevent the lower layers from rotting. When bracken is laid green the fronds weave themselves together creating an interesting texture. Bracken thatched cottages are few and far between but there is one at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmoor, Scotland and another at The Roundhouse Project in Wales.

Here's an excerpt from 'Tales from the Green Valley'. Six minutes into the video they start to use bracken for a thatch underlay.