I’m so delighted that the project linking my investigations into local clay sources, place and local function to Bruichladdich’s commitment to the concept of terroir, has finally gone live – through their posts about the project on Instagram and Twitter, and on their web-site. I want to thank Jane, Ailsa and Kate for their incredible support and encouragement. It is always a strange process – coming up with a new idea, that might appear ‘bonkers’ to some (I think that’s what one person called it), and then pushing through that scepticism and continuing to share it with other people…. When someone actually gets what you are on about, and gives you encouragement – that is such a vital thing for any maker. It’s not so much permission, more keeping the flame lit inside your imagination, pushing you further, to ask more questions, to respond to your curiosity….
When I had to find another clay source, all my initial glaze making experiments with the Foreland Estate clay were redundant. I had to start again. The new clays from Octomore Farm all warp and pinhole at my usual stoneware firing temperatures (1260 degrees C), and so I had to experiment with earthenware firings and glazes, and lower temperature stoneware firings (at 1200 degrees C). And of course these required a completely new approach in terms of glaze making.
Originally, when I found that the Octomore Farm clays would not fire high enough for using the usual three key ingredients – a rock dust, ash (as a flux) and some clay, I thought I was flummoxed. However, after much research in many glaze books, I found that if I gave myself permission to use a small percentage of frit (a compound used by potters to lower the temperature for the fluxing of glazes), added to the three key ingredients above, then this unlocked new doors for me, and the experimentation could continue……
Thanks to Kate Hannett for use of her pictures here….
Kate Hannett’s tiled mosaic of photos
Aubergine glaze with Octomore Farm clay cuach – this glaze uses a metamorphic sandstone rock dust from Granny’s Rock, near Machir Bay, taken from dust excavated by rabbits at the bottom of the cliff face. Courtesy of Kate Hannett
Well of the True Water clay cuach, with home made earthenware glaze
In previous posts, I described the hunt for clay on Islay. I found clay on Foreland Estate, after finding information about the nineteenth century brick and tile works there, on the excellent Scottish Brick History website. However, sadly the Estate declined my request to dig anything more than the first sample there, and I was left with a challenge – to find more clay, or give up!
Here I have several key people to thank. Firstly, the wonderful Danny Mather, quarryman at Ballygrant Quarry and digger man extraordinaire. Danny had been incredibly helpful when I first went over to Islay, helping me source limestone dust, peat and wood (for ash in glaze making)… but had also said he might be able to help me find more clay. Second, Ailsa Hayes at Bruichladdich Distillery. Without her infectious enthusiasm for this project and all of her work, I would not have had the sense that this project was worth pursuing – worth going out on limb for…. and worth a second trip to find more clay. Both Danny and Ailsa led me to the final person I want to thank, the incredibly generous and inspiring James Brown, farmer at Octomore Farm, provider of well-water and barley for Bruichladdich and now, giving me permission to dig some clay from various locations on his land. Huge thanks to all of them!
The clay I am now using for the cuachan comes from three locations on James’s farm. Two sites on the hill, up above Port Charlotte, and one near the Well of the True Water….. At present, the digging sites are very small, with shavings of clay taken from ditch edges, foundations and one small test pit. If more clay is to be dug in any quantity, we are thinking we might create a small wildlife pond from this small excavation. The local landscape and wildlife are of paramount importance to all of us……
Octomore Farm – hillside near clay source
Well of the True Water, Octomore Farm
Rock strata at Granny’s Rock, Machir Bay… source of rock dust for glaze making
Danny’s hands – with peat and wood!
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 my father-in-law in Clydebank (who used to work at the Chivas Regal bonding warehouse in Dalmuir, Clydebank) and then later, 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 whisky. 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.