A year ago I was talking to a man who used to run a clay materials business in Scotland. The received wisdom seemed to be that there was no clay to be had in the Western Isles. This was not the land of marl and terracotta (like the West Midlands), or ball clays (like Devon and Dorset) or China clays (as with Cornwall)…….
But despite a bit of amateur sleuthing, I couldn’t find much to contradict this view. Until earlier this year. In my research into finding possible clay sources on the Island of Islay, with my interest in making connections with whiskey distilling and culture, I had first discovered the presence of a brick and tile works that existed at Foreland Estate between c. 1840 and 1860, and then, more recently I found references to ‘craggan ware’ in the reports of archaeological excavations across the island, including sites close to my explorations for clay on the Rhinns and Ardnave peninsulars.
The term craggan comes from the Scots Gaelic word crogan or crog, referring to small cups or jars – linked to the word crock in English. Craggan ware is simple, functional and often quite crude in its design and manufacture, fired in peat bonfires and therefore only just ceramic. Simple milk ‘glaze’ was applied when the craggan were hot, helping make them less porous. The same shapes and simple technology can be found dating back to the Neolithic, and Alan Lane has argued that there was a continuous “ceramic zone” identifiable across the outer Hebridean Islands, including Coll and Tiree, that existed up until the late nineteenth and even early twentieth centuries. On the island of Tiree, craggan jars were still made in the 1920s because of the belief that milk heated in these vessels would help stave off tuberculosis, but it is Barvas on Lewis that is the site most commonly associated with the last survival of Craggan ware.
In addition to this, on my last visit to the island in September, I visited the Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte and saw a Neolithic cup from the excavation of a nearby burial chamber. This site lies a few fields away from the site of my recent clay digging on Octomore Farm (with kind permission from the farmer James Brown and assistance from Danny Mather). All these threads have come together to inform my latest work, and I wish to explore the idea of making crogan linked to the local traditions of whiskey distilling and drinking, and linked potentially to the other key aspects of pastoral economies and milk production and consumption on the islands. This will take both a very functional line, making whiskey crogan / craggans for some of the distilleries focusing on their connection to the local land – or terroir as Bruichladdich (now owned by Remy-Martin) term it, but would ideally also lead to workshops with the communities on the island(s), to explore this aspect of a material culture that is now invisible to both local and visitor alike.
View to the Paps of Jura from the road to Ardnave
Neolithic cup from Port Charlotte burial chamber (Museum of Islay Life)
Possible site of workable clay….
River sands and gravels – but no clay… Laggan Bridge
Clay from Octomore Farm
Test tumblers and thumb pot crogan, Octomore clay
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
I recently received a new challenge; a commission to make two friends a pair of breakfast bowls using my Clee Hill clay that would fit with their beautiful kitchen in their home in West Yorkshire. I was delighted to be able to respond as they had been particularly supportive during my MA work.
Here are the two versions I made for them to choose between. They both use Clee Hill hand-dug clay, with my Clee Hill glaze (a mix of dhustone rock dust from the hill-top quarry, wood ash, local clay and a small quantity of quartz) inside and out – the rims being wiped clean and then dipped in two different blue / grey glazes, giving very different effects. These blue glazes both had a tendency to run on this clay body (pretty disastrously), and I found that by using the Clee Hill glaze below, I could achieve a successful transition and colour banding, rather than dribbles or rolling folds of blue glaze.
The third picture shows two of the bowls with some of the test pieces in the background. This small test bowls are vital in ensuring that I get the right glaze effects – even beyond using test tiles, as the glaze behaves differently on different curved surfaces of a bowl.
I’m down to the last few bags of my hand-dug Clee Hill clay…. although I’m still hoping I’ll find someone else in the village who’ll let me did some more, or perhaps someone will decide to dig a new set foundations for an extension, or a septic tank and I’ll be able to get a small lorry load….. fingers crossed.
In 2016 I carried out glaze experiments with the dhustone rock dust from the quarry on the hill, wood ash and the clay, working through a very simplified triaxial approach to glaze testing – with some beautiful results. I also have a few bags of samples taken from the soil heaps from the coal workings and some lime rich deposits from the limestone outcropping further down the hill, and so I want to push the experiments a little further over the next few weeks.
Here is a small test bowl with a 75% / 25% mix of wood ash and clay, and the picture I now use as my logo, which has the full set of test bowls and a pancheon with the rare blue chun glaze outcome that I achieved for a few firings…… I find it almost impossible to recreate that effect (the more recent chunning has been more grey than blue). I’m guessing it must have been something to do with the type of timber that I burned in my stove – because nothing else changed? Or did it?
More posts will follow.
Clee Hill clay and glaze – 75% wood ash / 25% clay
Glaze ingredients drying (dhustone, wood ash and local clay)
Grey chun bowl
Triaxial glaze experiment and blue chun pancheon…
A central theme in my work is the focus on place; on the landscape, the environment, the economy and culture and from this – the connections between people, locally available materials and function (for example, tools / buildings / fuel etc.). All human activity has an impact, and yet over the centuries, it seems as if there were occasionally systems that established some kind of balance between the natural world and our actions. Take the countryside of the British Isles for example, where until the development of more industrial approaches to farming following the second world war, the fields were characterised by species diversity – of plants, invertebrates, birds etc. I’m not suggesting this was a panacea – something usually has to give. Some kind of balance also seems to have been established in the management of woodlands for coppicing, creating fuel for firewood and early industrial activity. The coppiced woods created opportunities for a wide range of flowering plants such as bluebells and wood anemones and particular butterfly and bird species – whilst also creating a carbon neutral source of fuel.
Whilst it may seem almost impossible to re-create these systems to serve a world with a growing population of 7 billion people, it does inspire me – and the whole concept of sustainability deeply underlies my work. How could these more balanced systems inform our future actions and innovation? It also means that as I explore landscapes, with ceramic materials in mind, I know that I need to think carefully about the relationships that I will have with both people and place, if I am to stay true to my own values and commitments.
Looking south-east over the “dhustone” quarry
The site of Isaac Button’s workshop, just after the flattening of his old kiln
Palimpsest Landscape – Soil Hill, 2015
Cross section through clay from Shay quarry, Soil Hill, August 2015
Titterstone incline, Clee Hill
Foam on Newport beach.
Clee Hil: flooded quarry
The quarry North West of Clee Hill village
Stormy beaches – exposing clay….