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Issue 53 - In Praise of Pantiles

Scotland Magazine Issue 53
October 2010


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In Praise of Pantiles

John Hannavy looks at one of the enduring legacies of Scotland's industrial past.

With all the reverence that we quite rightly show to Scotland’s outstandingly beautiful scenery, it is sometimes easy to forget that the country also provided a living for its population – often hard and demanding, but just as often vitally important and hugely successful. And some of the spin-offs from that industry have had a pivotal impact on the appearance of the Scotland we know today.

In the midst of some of the finest farmlands in East Lothian, at the edge of the village of East Linton, stands an eccentric group of mill buildings – a testament not only to the ingenuity of 18th century millers, but also to the commercial acumen of the master-mariners and ship-owners who developed Scotland’s trading links with mainland Europe.

An empty ship is an unstable ship – mariners learned that fact very early on in the history of seafaring, and sought ways of dealing with it. The trouble was that sailing ships usually carried loose cargo, and their vessels were ill-suited to carrying anything else on the return journey!

Coal ships exporting the produce of the Fife coalfields to the ports of northern Europe were notoriously filthy, and anything they brought back to Scotland would have reflected that fact, so finding a suitable return cargo was almost impossible. To avoid the risks to both ship and crew, which would otherwise be a part of any return journey empty, sailing ships took on ballast to weigh the vessel down, and counter the top-heavy effect of masts and sails.

So, many ships returned to Scotland’s ports carrying nothing more than crushed stone or sand to maintain their stability at sea, and that ballast was dumped before they returned to port – ballast banks can still be identified off a number of Scottish ports, marking where thousands of tons of this valueless cargo was jettisoned over several centuries.

Some time in the late 16th century, some enterprising merchant hit upon an ideal return cargo. It was relatively cheap, plentiful, and satisfied a growing need in Scotland was a cheap roofing material. It was the humble red clay pantile.

In a number of the plates in John Slezer’s late 17th century Theatricum Scotiae published in 1693, the little stone houses along the waterfront in the Fife village of Culross are drawn in such perfect details that it is easy to realise that, more than four centuries later, they have changed very little.

What makes such early illustrations so interesting and valuable is the detail they show of the roofing materials. Some are covered in stone slabs, but the majority are roofed with pantiles.

While pantiles were only just beginning to be used elsewhere in Britain in Slezer’s day, many of the cottages and houses of Culross were already a century old when the illustrations were made.

Culross grew up on the industrial exploitation of two commodities which were both available in considerable local abundance – coal and salt. Extracting salt from the waters of the Forth estuary, and mining coal from beneath those same waters had been the mainstay of Culross Abbey since the early 15th century, but the large scale commercial exploitation of both commodities owed their success to Sir George Bruce who expanded and developed both industries after the Scottish Reformation in the second half of the 16th century.

Bruce established a European trade for the coal he could not use on the salt pans or sell locally. It is believed that he was by that time exporting over a hundred tons of Fife coal a week to Hamburg from his deep-water moorings in the Firth, and an unspecified additional amount to Holland and the other Low Countries. It is that ‘other’ export tonnage which made its mark on Scottish coastal housing.

On their return journeys, the Dutch coal ships carried as ballast, the cheapest commodity Holland could sell – fired clay pantiles – and the popularity of the tiles was immediate and considerable.

When demand outstripped the carrying capacity of the returning coal ships – returning to Granton, Leith, Berwick and other east coast ports as well as Culross – local industry quickly turned its hand to making the materials itself. By the 18th century, Kincardine-on-Forth, Kirkcaldy, Cupar and Leven where amongst the towns which had thriving tile-making industries.

Both the import of pantiles, and the later local manufacture of them, is largely restricted to the east coast from Fife south, as the more severe weather experienced further north made the lightweight pantile a less satisfactory roofing material than heavier and thicker slate or stone.

The attractions of the pantile were numerous. Firstly, as just one step up from disposable ballast, it was relatively cheap, and secondly because it greatly speeded up the roofing process. Despite being handmade – usually the clay was pressed against a former which gave it the characteristic edge profile of an extended letter ‘S’ – there was a high degree of uniformity in the tile shape, and thirdly, they were relatively lightweight.

This meant that they could be ‘hung’ on to much lighter roofing structures than would be needed to support stone slabs, and because they interlocked, they gave maximum coverage for minimum weight.

They could also be hung on to the same sort of roofing structure which had hitherto been used for thatch – each tile having a ‘nib’ which allowed it to be hung on to the crossbattens of the roof.

As the tiles were often kept in place simply by their weight, it was, however, apparently not unknown in heavy winds for a complete roof to lift off!

The pantile is still manufactured today in some quantity – particularly in Yorkshire – but being machine made, it is of a more uniform shape. The curve of the ‘S’ is also rather lower profile today than it was three centuries ago, but the warm orange-red colour has been retained – although brown and grey tiles are also widely found in England, the Scottish preference was always for the red.

Traditionally it was a large tile, each pantile measuring 13”x9” and weighing in at five and a half pounds – it would seem to be heresy to use metric values to describe such a traditional material.

The combination of white harled walls and deep red pantiled roofs has become synonymous with Scotland’s east coast.

It continues to be used in the sensitive restoration of buildings, blending perfectly in with the rugged beauty of the originals.

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