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
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….
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….