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
As with most of my work, mugs are often made of the clays I dig (earthenware and stoneware) and glazed with materials from these localities. Handles are all hand pulled.
“Brick” clay coffee mugs with chun effect dolerite glaze.
Coffee cup with copper glaze and chun blue speckle.
Rich’s wonderful, versatile tenmoku…
White zirconium glaze over cobalt / manganese dioxide
Stack of Clee Hill clay coffee mugs.
My connection with pancheons starts with a visit to the Piece Hall in Halifax, in 1985. There was a stall selling these beautiful, functional bowls for a few quid a piece, and I came away with two – one for my parents and one for me. I have treasured this bowl ever since. During my meanderings and exploration of Isaac Button’s old workshop site north of Halifax, I found rim shards from broken pancheons identical to mine, scattered around the area and along the bridleway that led down from the site (which was then being converted into apartments – or so I was told). The classic still photograph taken from John Anderson’s 1966 film, Isaac Button Country Potter, shows Isaac carrying a ware board with five medium pancheons – again identical to the one I bought all those years ago. Given that these forms were not stamped with a makers mark – I can only guess – or hope that, mine is one from this iconic workshop.
My pancheons are made primary from locally sourced, hand-dug clay (earthenware and stoneware), and echo the traditional forms associated with bread making, dairying and general home use (washing etc.) that were made in the centuries before plastics, pressed steel and other cheaper, more durable alternatives became widely available. They come in a variety of sizes, most commonly with a diameter of 35 cm and a height of around 15 cm.
Large Clee Hill pancheon – chun glaze
Large 35cm pancheon with chun speckling.
Pancheon. October 2015. Valentines clay with china clay slip and lead sesquisilicate glaze.