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
It’s been a while, far too long since I have updated this blog. I’m probably only slightly better at posting pictures on Instagram ( @brakspearceramics ), and need to be more regular in my postings here. I become very obsessed by what’s going on in the workshop; all the different clays I am working with (across several projects – Islay, Leamington Spa, Clee Hill again), and glaze ingredients. Apologies for this. But now there is important news to share – which will follow over the next few posts.
In previous posts, I was tending towards naming my whisky tumblers craggan – following my archaeological investigations on-line. However, I have been reliably informed that this is not really an appropriate term to use – craggan generally being larger and more jar like. And so….. as I prepared for the next, important stage in following up this project, and the enthusiasm coming from the wonderful team at Bruichladdich Distillery, I decided to pursue which Scots Gaelic word(s) would be right for these tumblers.
I would like to thanks the staff at Islay Gaelic Centre, who helped me here. They informed me that a small cup, would be a cuach (cuachan in the plural). And from that day forth – that’s what we have calling the whisky tumblers I have been making. I feel that is very important to choose the right word for these pieces, given how much attention I like to put on building a sense of place. And on this point – I have another apology to make…. In many previous posts, I have been using the spelling – whiskey – the Irish / US spelling for the mercurial dram…. I should, of course have been using the correct Scottish spelling – whisky, for the water-of-life or Uisce Beatha. I’ll be sure to get this right henceforth.
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 whisky 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 whisky 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
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