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8 May 2020

Re-creating a Glencoe turf house – the story so far

Crude black and white drawing showing the inside of a turf house, with animals and a byre at one end, and living quarters for people at the other.
The design of the Glencoe turf house was based on structures we found on our archaeological digs in the area
We’ve started work on reconstructing a 17th-century turf house at Glencoe. While we’ve had to pause the project because of the coronavirus pandemic, here’s what we’ve achieved so far.

In the last few years, Trust archaeologists and volunteers have undertaken a series of archaeological digs investigating long-lost historical townships in the heart of Glencoe at Achtriochtan and Achnacon. These excavations have given us a glimpse into the lives of the hardy people who once made their homes in this world-renowned natural landscape, prior to the event for which the glen is infamous, the Glencoe Massacre of 1692.

We wanted to share our findings in a way that helps our visitors see, hear, feel and breathe-in a way of life which is difficult to imagine today. This is where the idea of building a replica turf and creel dwelling came about, inspired by the archaeology and our research into vanishing vernacular construction materials and techniques.

A team effort

Thanks to our generous supporters and donors from all over the world, we’ve been able to begin work on the first stages of the project. We have gathered together a team of Scotland’s most experienced traditional building craftspeople to work with our archaeologists on the design.


Group of people in wet weather gear standing outdoors in bad weather, with snow-covered hills in the background.
The team

Sharing stories and keeping alive traditional skills is at the heart of the project. We’re passionate about giving volunteers, local people and visitors the chance to get involved in a hands-on way. Trainees will be led by our specialists, who are experts in turf-building, heather-thatching, green woodwork, carpentry, and wattle and daubing. This combined effort of expertise and participation will create a unique experiment in historical reconstruction.

Grand designs

Matching one of the sites we excavated at Achtriochtan, our building will have a 13m x 4m footprint with two rooms: a living area for people and a byre for animals (who would have helped generate heat to keep people warm in winter!).

It will have thick, protective turf exterior walls reinforced by a timber cruck frame and a creel- or wattle-work interior (a basket-like structure of woven stems of hazel, willow, birch and alder). The roof will be thatched with heather on top of a turf base layer.

This combination of turf exterior and wattle interior would have been commonplace in the West Highlands before landowners reduced communities’ access to woodland materials and grazing land in the 18th and 19th centuries.

No examples of historical turf and creel houses exist and there’s little detailed archaeological evidence as, not surprisingly, they don’t survive well!  But there are contemporary descriptions, etchings and old photos, which we’ve drawn on to create our design.

Black and white photo of a turf house with a basket-weave, creel wall.
Turf and creel house

Our turf house will be located in the grounds of Glencoe Visitor Centre. With a dramatic hillside backdrop, this site offers easy access for the glen’s many visitors, which wouldn’t have been practical in the building’s original location, beside the A82.

Group of people standing in a landscape with snow-covered hills behind them.
This is where our re-created turf house will be built.

A new timeline

We were really pleased to get confirmation of planning consent for our building design from Highland Council at the end of March. We began creating our works access route, reinforcing a woodland bridge across a burn, over which we will carry our materials, and building a new path towards the building site. We also started harvesting some of the timber and wattle ‘wands’ that we need for the cruck frame and creel-work interior.

This is where we got to when the coronavirus emergency happened. We’ve now reviewed our project timeline, which was due to complete this autumn, and have made the decision to restart work again in spring 2021.


A group of people on a wet day in a wood with a large pile of long, stripped branches in front of them.
Volunteers working on the wattle wands

We’d like to thank the many volunteers and trainees who had come forward to help us this year. This includes over 60 people who had booked on a Thistle Camp working holiday and over 100 people who applied for two traineeships, offered in partnership with Historic Environment Scotland.

Placing the project on hold until next year will ensure we’re still able to involve as many people as possible and give visitors from across the world the chance to watch as our turf house takes shape.

The building blocks

Cruck frame

After a careful search for suitably strong branches with the right natural curve, we have sourced timber for the building’s sturdy ‘cruck’ frame from our An Torr woodland at Glencoe and our Mar Lodge Estate in the Cairngorms.

Living hand to mouth, the glen’s 17th-century inhabitants would have had little choice but to use the natural materials that surrounded them – no journeys across Scotland from them! Good cruck timbers were probably never easy to come by in Glencoe and would have been a valuable possession. A family would often take theirs with them if ever they moved house. 

With our Thistle Camp being cancelled due to lockdown, our carpenter stripped and prepared the crucks himself, so they could be stored safely. They’re now ready to be finished off and raised onto the building’s foundations with the help of volunteers when the time comes.

A wooden cruck frame lying on the ground in front of a cottage.
One of the prepared crucks

Wattle walls 

Our house will need 2,000 wattle ‘wands’ to create the creel interior. These had to be harvested before the sap rose in stems and too many buds formed in late spring, so we got working on this in February. Our greenwood work expert, Pete, taught a group of volunteers how to coppice a young woodland plantation near the Glencoe Visitor Centre.

This centuries-old technique involves cutting the stems as close to the ground as possible, which encourages new shoots to grow vertically, creating a sustainable source for future rods. This harvesting can happen every 7–10 years. Another bonus for our conservation charity is that these traditional woodland management methods bring benefits for wildlife too.

After cutting the rods, we moved on to the art of snedding – stripping the knots and side shoots from the length of each branch, making them smoother and easier to weave.

Wattling at Glencoe (1)

Transcript

I’m snedding hazel that has been [indistinct] by the volunteers just now and we’re going to use it to weave into the creel house to make, well creel, with what is internal walls.

We’re also selecting the best material to make a door out of the hazel … it’ll be kind of an airy door to go in via. And what snedding is, is basically [off camera: ‘swing it’] getting your material that’s been cut already and just work along cutting any sort of hooks or knots and side branches off.

So, I’m running, I’m running the billhook along the wand or weaving … the rod is another word for it and anything that’s ... that’s too bendy. And I’m … actually … weIl, I would be if I wasn’t being filmed by you, I’d be grading them into piles. We’ve got the piles over there. So that’s finished.

Each rod will end up being selected for [indistinct] its quality and thickness. [indistinct] The end result of snedding is that you’ve got lots of bundles. But for the purposes of you filming me, I’m just going to give you a sort of sense of where I need to tidy up the side branches. Most of this … a bit knotty so I’m taking off the little knots and I’m running the billhook along without, hopefully without nicking the hazel. So, when we weave this any nick could turn into a snag. So, it takes a bit of practice to get reasonably accurate.

What’s next?

We’ll tell you more about the building’s turf walls and heather thatch when we begin sourcing these materials next spring. 

We can’t wait to get back to work on this project, as well as offering more opportunities for you to get involved. Watch this space and see you in 2021!

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