Is this the last straw for Scotland’s thatched cottages?

Thatchers at work in the 1950s. Picture: Getty
Thatchers at work in the 1950s. Picture: Getty
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THE thatched cottage has been part of the Scottish landscape for centuries, providing humble accommodation under a skilfully constructed roof.

Fears have been raised, however, that they could become extinct within a generation – along with all the skills needed to ­repair them.

The thatched roof is intact at Burns Cottage in Alloway. Picture: Robert Perry

The thatched roof is intact at Burns Cottage in Alloway. Picture: Robert Perry

According to a survey by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Building Scotland (Spab), the number of traditionally thatched buildings in Scotland has plummeted to just 308, with many derelict or altered beyond recognition.

“Quite simply we are looking at the risk of extinction of a vernacular building type,” said Spab director Matthew Slocombe­. “These buildings are quintessentially Scottish and their historic value is immense.

“Yet perhaps because they are humble working structures or perhaps because of the very way they were built – lying low to protect and shield their former occupants – we have allowed them to slowly vanish from the radar.”

Over the past 18 months Spab Scotland’s Zoe Herbert has travelled the country to photograph the buildings, document their condition and identify other historic thatched buildings not previously listed.

Neil Oliver is supporting National Maintenance Week. Picture: Ralph Hodgson

Neil Oliver is supporting National Maintenance Week. Picture: Ralph Hodgson

She found that while many were still notionally thatched, using various materials including marram, water reed, oat and wheat straw and heather, their poor state of repair suggested that they would be gone within a generation.

The situation is particularly bleak in the islands – traditionally associated with crofters’ thatched cottages. On Mull and Jura, most were ruined shells and on Tiree just half of the 14 listed sites had any thatch remaining. Against that, the Uists turned out to have more thatched buildings than had been estimated.

Jessica Hunnisett Snow, of Historic Environment Scotland, which funded the survey and runs a thatched buildings grant maintenance scheme, said it aims to show how grants and training can be provided “to ensure that the remaining thatched buildings are not lost to future generations”.

The next stage in the process is to analyse the data, publish the survey and create a record of the findings in the Canmore database run by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. This contains information on more than 300,000 historic sites throughout Scotland.

The loss of vernacular buildings and the skills needed to repair and maintain them is particularly worrying for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Each year it runs National Maintenance Week – this year it falls on 20-27 November – to remind anyone who cares for a property (regardless of its age) of the simple, economical steps that can be taken to ready a building for the worst that winter can bring.

This year broadcaster, historian and author Neil Oliver is public face of National Maintenance Week. “When I travelled round the country for BBC’s Coast series, the importance of protecting a building against the ravages of the wind and the weather was very apparent,” he said. “I could see it was a constant battle. Maintenance makes a difference – never put it off.

“As an archaeologist I’m very familiar with the care challenges faced by significant, historic buildings which don’t conform to a standard pattern. Planned, regular maintenance is vital to ensure that they have a future as well as a past.

“What Spab’s founder William Morris wrote nearly 140 years ago – ‘Put protection in place of restoration’ – is still sound, practical advice.

“Faulty gutters and blocked drains don’t repair themselves – the longer you ignore a problem the more costly and difficult it becomes.

“That’s true if the place you care for is an ancient ruined broch, a medieval church in a village, a Victorian terraced house or a modern apartment in a town or city.”