Scottish fact of the day: Pantile roofing

Pantiled roofs in Culross, as seen from Culross Palace's garden. Picture: TSPL

Pantiled roofs in Culross, as seen from Culross Palace's garden. Picture: TSPL

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Most of the roofs on Scotland’s houses are made of slate, but in some parts of the country, such as Culross in Fife, pantiles are the norm.

A single-lapped clay tile, roughly ‘S-shaped’ in appearance, pantile roofs are mostly found in areas of the country where the weather is less severe, such as East central Scotland, the Lothians and parts of Fife.

History

Merchant ships carrying coal from Fife to ports across northern Europe at the time needed ballast for the return journey that wouldn’t be ruined by the filthy residue in the hold. As a result, many ships returned to Scotland carrying crushed stone or similar, dumping the ballast before returning to port.

In the late 16th century, pantiles were suggested as an alternative ballast, being relatively cheap, plentiful and at the same time fulfilling a need for cheap roofing material in Scotland.

Military engineer and artist John Slezer arrived in Scotland in 1669 from Germany or Holland, and was appointed Surveyor of his Majesties Stores and Magazines. He was charged with producing detailed surveys of the country’s fortifications.

Slezer produced a number of engravings in 1693, as part of his ‘Theatricum Scotiae’ project, in which he included plates of castles, abbeys and towns he’d visited in his capacity as Captain of the Artillery Company.

Some of his engravings depicting the stone houses in the Fife village of Culross show that, over four hundred years later, they have changed very little - including some with pantile roofs.

What is even more eye-opening is that, although pantiles were being used elsewhere in Britain at the time of Slezer’s travels, many of the homes in Culross were already 100 years old at the time of the engravings.

Culross industry

The small coastal town of Culross thrived on the coal and salt industries, with the latter being extracted from the Forth estuary and the former being mined from beneath the same waters.

Culross Abbey had, since the early 15th century, been involved with both industries, but it was Sir George Bruce - who expanded both industries after the Scottish Reformation - who was ultimately responsible for both industries taking off.

Sir George set up a European trade agreement for the coal he couldn’t use or sell locally. He was reportedly sending over 100 tons of Fife coal to Hamburg each week, along with an unspecified amount to Holland and other low countries.

It was the Dutch trips that had such a profound effect on Scottish housing.

Vessels returning to Scotland carried the cheapest ballast possible - pantiles - and the popularity of the material took off.

Demand eventually outstripped supply from ships returning to Granton, Leith, Berwick and other eastern ports as well as Culross, leading to local industry churning out the materials themselves.

By the 1700s, Kincardine-on-Forth, Cupar, Leven and Kirkcaldy were home to tile-making industries.

Benefits

Although pantiles are suited more to areas that experience generally mild weather (and such a thing does exist in Scotland, dear reader), the material was cheap, lightweight, and speeded up the roofing process. They could be used on top of much lighter roofing structures than would be needed to support stone slabs, and their interlocking ability allowed for maximum coverage for minimum weight.

Today

Pantiles are still made today, particularly in Yorkshire, in England, but are machine-produced, allowing for a much more uniform shape.

Brown and grey pantiles are more widely found in England but Scotland maintained a preference for the orange-red colour of the original tiles.

Scotland’s east coast is home to a number of houses with white harled walls and red pantiled roofs, with the material still used in building restoration, allowing buildings to be kept as close to the original design as possible.

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