Today, like most days, Neil Nicholson is thinking about the wind. “The weather decides everything I do here,” the thatcher tells me as we drive through the loch-riddled landscape of North Uist, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. This morning the omens are good: the wind speed arrows on Neil’s weather app are modest, the Atlantic has relaxed into an expanse of gently dimpled ink — it is a perfect day for thatching marram grass.
For as long as people have lived on the Western Isles, they have probably roofed their homes with this tough, spiky plant that grows on the edge of the sea. Marram — muran in Gaelic — was once used in coastal areas from Wales to the Isle of Man and Ireland to Scandinavia but today, marram roofs survive only in the Hebrides. Neil is among a tiny handful of people who still know how to thatch with the grass, and the only person in the Western Isles to make a living from doing so.
The windiest corner of the British Isles may not seem a natural home for grass roofs, but these islands hold a quarter of Scotland’s 306 remaining thatched buildings, more than any other region. (England, in comparison, has around 60,000 thatched roofs.)
The remoteness of the Hebrides meant that modern roofing materials such as tile and tin were, in every sense, slow to arrive, and the survival of crofting culture here also preserved traditional building and farming practices long after they vanished elsewhere. But after the second world war, cramped, darkly lit thatched cottages were steadily abandoned in favour of more spacious homes, assisted by government building grants.
The traditional grass roofs could easily have vanished from the Western Isles but the growth of tourism in recent years has kept the craft alive. Thatched cottages that were seen as old-fashioned and inconvenient have found a second life as charmingly rustic holiday homes, thus generating steady demand for repairs, and now some new-build rental houses are even specifying thatch.
I am here to help re-thatch a holiday cottage on the tiny island of Berneray, just north of Uist, but first comes a crash course in marram grass. I have worked as a thatcher in Devon, in south west England, for eight years, but this is a different technique entirely. For one, the grass is not even fixed to the roof. Instead, it is pushed into the existing thatch coat, either by hand or with a pronged tool Neil calls a “stig”. None of the old thatch is removed — it settles and compresses over time, and the outside surface breaks down, so at the end of each seven-year thatching cycle it is ready for a new coat. The whole thing is held in place with a system of netting and stone weights, strong enough to withstand the worst gales the Atlantic can muster.
As we get to work, the owner of the house stoops through the front door in a woolly hat and wellies, and greets Neil in Gaelic. Switching to English for my benefit, Allan Turner explains that his family have owned the cottage since the 19th century, and he now rents it out to tourists in between visits from his home near Inverness. Allan believes the old marram roofs have their advantages. “It’s wonderfully quiet inside,” he says, “last night I couldn’t hear the wind at all.” (Staying at Neil’s modern home on North Uist, I had been kept awake by creaks and groans as a gale battered the slate roof). A soft material like marram dampens the roar of the wind, and though the buildings look primitive, they have distinct aerodynamic advantages. The wind is thrown upwards and deflected over the roof by walls that are thickest at the bottom and slope inwards, buttress-like, as they rise. With no overhanging eaves, the gently curved roofs are actually pressed down by strong winds rather than being prised off.
We work until darkness settles over the bay, and a cloud of barnacle geese wheel and honk their way onto a field below us for the night. With the first stack of grass finished, tomorrow I will have the chance to take part in one of Britain’s rarest and least known harvests — heading to the dunes to cut marram.
Hard winter sun floods the hills the next morning as we drive past peat cuttings and lochans of Prussian blue. We are on our way to Kirkibost Island, a three mile-long crescent of sand dune off the west coast of North Uist. It is only reachable by boat, and only at the right stage of the tide, but it is Neil’s preferred cutting spot, its remoteness offset by the quality of grass that grows there. Neil, the son of a lobster fisherman, and an enthusiastic salvager and restorer of water craft, relishes the excuse for a boat trip, too.
We are joined today by his partner Marion Eichler, originally from Heidelberg in Germany. We hunker down in the 1950s military assault boat, and keep our backs to the wind as spray arcs off the metal bows — the sun may be out, but the westerlies are back and the channel is alive with chop. We drop anchor and retrieve a quad bike from a fibreglass storage tank sunk like some Hebridean Bond-villain lair among the dunes.
Neil gets to work with a strimmer, while Marion and I follow behind, gathering the grass into piles and tightly tying it into bundles with twine. It is exhausting work, clambering up and down the soft sand dunes in a permanent stoop. Speed is the priority: we need to gather enough grass to finish the roof and return to the main island before the tide drops and the narrow channel becomes impassable.
We are careful to leave swaths of grass uncut and not to disturb the edges of the dunes, as harvesting the grass there could damage this fragile coastal habitat. In the past excessive and careless marram cutting led to erosion, as the grass roots are vital in stabilising the dunes, which in turn act as a natural rampart against storms and tidal surges. Damage to the sand dunes is a particular concern in the Hebrides, explains Professor Stewart Angus, coastal ecology manager at NatureScot, the Scottish government’s natural heritage agency. “Much of the dune ridge of Uist is narrow and vulnerable to breaching,” he tells me via email. Large areas of grazing on South Uist and Benbecula were created by draining lochs, and these fields now lie as much as a metre below the level of spring tides.
In ‘A Life’, the long autobiographical poem by Iain Crichton-Smith, who grew up on the Isle of Lewis, thatch serves as a metonym for the vanished landscape of the poet’s youth. “The thatched roofs, woven by dead hands, / are sunk among the superannuated school buses, / in a field of daisies and lush grasses,” and: “these houses, new / And big with grants and loans, replace the old / thatched walls that straggled in a tall lush field”. On the Isle of Harris, north of Uist and Berneray, one man hopes to show that thatched roofs can be part of the Hebrides’ future, too.
It all started with sunburn. When Paul Honeywell and his wife Helen spent their honeymoon on Harris in 1977 they were treated to a fortnight of unbroken sunshine. “It was just paradise,” Paul, the director of technology firm Zedsen, tells me by phone from his home in Northamptonshire. “We’ve been going back ever since trying to replicate that experience.” While they may never better the weather of that golden fortnight, they always dreamt of one day building a home on Harris. When the chance arose to buy a plot of land overlooking a fingernail of the palest Hebridean sand, Paul marshalled the best craftsmen on the Hebrides to construct one. The result is Oran na Mara (“the song of the sea”), a building whose curved, organic design is a modern echo of a Hebridean blackhouse. It is let out to paying guests when not in use by Paul and his family.
Marram grass was chosen for the roof, and Neil contracted to lay it. Thatch fitted the ethos of the place. “We wanted to create a completely different experience to when you’re at home, or staying in a hotel,” explains Paul, “more organic, almost like a sanctuary — and the thatch is part of it.”
In spite of Neil’s two-and-a-half decades of experience working with marram grass, the roof of Oran na Mara tested the limits of the material. “Traditionally people build their houses in the sheltered part of the island,” Neil explains. This often meant on the east coast, in a sheltered inlet, or in the heathery hollow of a hill. Oran na Mara’s dramatic position and beautiful views come at a price — it is brutally exposed to some of the strongest winds in the British Isles. The walls were also built to a different design from the traditional, buttress-like cottages. In the five years since Neil thatched it, he has been called back frequently for repairs.
The rethatching of most marram roofs is subsidised by a government grant — Historic Environment Scotland, the public body responsible for preserving Scotland’s built heritage, provides around 40% of the maintenance costs. But Oran na Mara, being a new-build, did not qualify for this. Facing the ongoing prospect of expensive repairs, Paul regretfully decided to replace the marram with a more durable, but less local alternative: water reed from the Danube Delta in Romania.
Back across the Sound of Harris on Berneray, it is time to finish our marram grass roof. The final stage is to cover it with netting, and hang the weighting stones to keep the grass in place. Just as Neil and I apply the finishing touches, work on the neighbouring marram thatched house is getting under way.
Owners Meg and Andrew Rodger didn’t set out to buy a thatched house. “Most locals thought it was a backwards step,” remembers Andrew, a marine scientist whose mother’s side of the family is from Berneray. “But at the time [18 years ago] it was one of the only places available on the island.” With Neil’s guidance they learned to thatch and the maintenance has now become a regular part of their lives. “We set aside about one month for the whole thatching process and our young sons help as they can,” explains Andrew. In doing so they are continuing an ancient Highland tradition, where roofs were maintained not by a master thatcher, as in England, but by crofters themselves.
The couple lived in the cottage for a decade and now let it out, giving priority to those who want to make a life for themselves on the island. “We are conscious of how difficult it is for young people to set up a life in these islands,” says Meg, adding that there is a need to “manage the number of holiday houses and second homes so this place doesn’t only exist as a seasonal holiday resort”.
For Meg, a fine artist, the connection between materials, people and place has a deep significance. “In an environment as extreme as the Hebrides,” she says, “it is not just nature but also the culture of the people that is shaped by the surrounding conditions.” Her own art explores this relationship. In her latest project, Auður the Deep Minded, wool from across northern Scotland and Scandinavia was woven together to create a vararfeldur, a traditional Viking “fur piled” cloak.
The cloak celebrates a web of cultural connections that once extended across the northern coast of Europe. Marram is part of that story, too. A few months before my visit to Uist, I showed a Danish thatcher a photo of a cottage in the Hebrides. “Ah yes, sandhjælme,” he smiled, using the Danish word for marram, “this could be a little cottage on the west coast of Jutland.” Or rather, could have been — the craft of marram thatching has now vanished from Denmark; the grass on its roofs having been replaced by imported water reed. Long may their Hebridean cousins thrive.
The Western Isles are currently categorised as “Protection Level 1” under Scotland’s four tier system of coronavirus restrictions, meaning pubs, restaurants, hotels and other holiday accommodation can remain open. However there are extensive travel restrictions in Scotland and the UK: those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are not currently allowed to travel to Scotland for tourism, and those in Scottish areas under Protection Level 3 or 4 (which includes Edinburgh and Glasgow) are not allowed to visit other parts of the country. International arrivals may be subject to quarantine. For details and updates see gov.scot
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