There’s a bit of received wisdom that was shared with me amongst the ceramic community – there’s no clay on the Scottish inner or outer isles. I have followed other ceramicists working in Scotland, mostly experimenting with hand collected glaze ingredients added to stoneware and porcelain clay bodies, but then something prompted me to push a line of investigation further…..
A conversation with some friends of my son drifted to my project with pints and my local pub, and then onto other possibilities and the subject of whiskey. I went on-line to investigate, and searched using Islay – the source of some of my favourite whiskeys and ‘clay’….. and hey presto, a site focusing on Scottish Back and Tile works over the centuries ( https://www.scottishbrickhistory.co.uk/foreland-brick-and-tile-works-isle-of-islay/ ) brought up a link to a site that produced bricks and tiles, mostly for agricultural drainage, in the 1840s. I was hooked.
I arranged to visit the site in April of this year, helped with advice from various phone calls and email exchanges – particularly from the Islay Natural Heritage Trust. I found the site using the grid references given on the site mentioned above, and the clay pits highlighted on the 1840s edition of the OS map. I took a few small bags as samples, and later that week came back to the workshop to experiment.
The clay is sandy, and silty. It’s like throwing mud. But taking it through a 30, 60 or 100 sieve makes in workable – just, and adding 20% of my hand dug Clee Hill clay helps. The real advantage is that it fires to stoneware temperatures – hence the glaze tests – which is very exciting.
A walk through the woods to the clay and tile works
The original 1840s blunger – for mixing clay, with Rowan tree
The ‘Standing Stones’ – which are the piers that would have supported the roof of the drying shed
Window – clay and tile works building
The clay – being dug at the site of the 1840s clay pit
Samples of clay for the first biscuit ware firing experiments
A tumbler fired to stoneware temperatures with draff ash and rock dusts
My latest project has been a further investigation of clay collected from my home county, specifically around the villages of Ockeridge and Sinton Green in Worcestershire. The line of investigation has been facilitated by my friends in this area, who have given me access to gardens and woodland, and permission to dig some clay.
I wanted to explore a different aspect of local function, moving beyond the pancheon work of the last few years. This project began after a discussion of the history of the pint glass one day in my local pub, The Plough on Deansway, Worcester. The pub is frequented by regulars, some of whom are either archaeologists, or who have a passion for this subject, and the conversation drifted to the fact that beer would have been drunk originally from, amongst other things, ceramic beakers – such as those found associated with the early Bronze Age Beaker Culture of c. 1000BC.
This led to a lengthy set of experiments with the Ockeridge (and other) clays, to arrive at the most satisfactory shape, size (to hold an exact pint), glaze, distinguishing features (makers marks / throwing rings) etc.
Prototype Plough beaker
What makes a pint? It’s what is inside that counts.
Ockeridge earthenware clay beaker with chun type glaze.
Pint beaker with Plough green glaze.
Mick’s clay fresh from the ground.
The clay pit.
My gift to return the favour.
My friend Mick has been more than generous in letting me dig some of the clay from his woodland near Ockeridge in west Worcestershire. Mick and his brother Tim manage the woodland for timber and firewood, mostly cutting single / selected trees, one at a time and avoiding clear felling. The clay runs in bands through the woodland, close to the surface, making it easy to extract. It’s a beautiful material, mostly quite fine and free of stones or grit, although the decades of organic material (leaf mould) on the surface seem to give the clay a strong smell once it has been left to sour.
I have made Mick a pancheon from this clay, but I am connecting this new work to my making of beer beakers. More on these in posts to follow.
Last Friday I revisited Clee Hill, for a quick walk with Dougie, and to drop off a couple of mugs that I had made from Neil and Karen’s clay (over in Oreton). It was good to see them and to discuss what future possibilities there may be for some clay sourcing linked to ditch digging, excavation of foundations etc. It would be great to help someone out with the removal of some extracted material – but the quantities available will be critical, as if I can get over a tonne or 2 – then it may be worth hiring a vehicle for transportation of the clay to a clay manufacturer up in Stoke for processing….. It’ll all need checking out again if the opportunity arrises – but fingers crossed…..
Titterston Clee Hill plateau
Looking south-east over the “dhustone” quarry
Clee Hill clay pulverised with a hammer
After slaking – I blunge the clay – mostly with a wooden paddle – but also, towards the end, by hand….
Dougie – perplexed as to what on earth is going on….