Iceland 2016: Turf Building in Skagafjörður – Eve Boyle

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This course in Icelandic traditional building methods, part of the NET Managing our Natural and Cultural Resources programme funded by the European Union through Erasmus+, and managed from Scotland by ARCH (Archnetwork), was held in the week 5th-12th June 2016. The course was based in Skagafjörður, North-west Iceland, and run by Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga (the Skagafjörður Heritage Museum) and Fornverkaskólinn (the Heritage Craft School), our welcoming host being Bryndís Zoëga, Project Manager with the Museum.

 

There were ten participants on our course. A diverse group, we were (more or less) evenly split between the public and private sectors, and our fields of expertise ranged from architecture and traditional building to art and heritage education. The week was divided into three parts: introductory lectures; a three-day practical course in turf-building; and a series of visits to museums, historic buildings and other places of interest.

 

Introductory lectures

 

 

We began in Sauðárkrókur with three introductory talks on the day after our arrival.

Þór Hjaltalín of the Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland (CHAI) offered an overview of the settlement history of Iceland and the development of the Icelandic farmhouse, and outlined some of the issues and challenges faced by CHAI. The Agency is responsible for many of the same aspects of heritage management that are covered in Scotland by Historic Environment Scotland, such as preservation, planning, rescue excavations and tourist facilities, with the additional control of issuing licences for all archaeological excavations.

 

Þór also discussed two developments in recent decades which place particular burdens on his office and on heritage management in general. In the first place, since 1989 legal protection is automatically extended to every built structure over 100 years old, from farm buildings to field boundary dykes. Before 1989 there were about 700 protected sites, now there are between 250,000 and 300,000, resulting, inevitably in a serious backlog in registering them. By contrast, Scotland has about 290,000 recorded archaeological sites or buildings of architectural or historic interest, but less than a fifth have formal protection (8,000 scheduled ancient monuments and 47,000 listed buildings). Secondly, historic sites (and indeed much of Iceland’s infrastructure) are facing considerable pressure from a dramatic growth in tourism; 308,000 visitors in 2003 have become 1.26 million in 2015, with 1.7 million expected in 2016. As we were to see later in the week, the latter issue particularly affects sites like the turf farm buildings at Glaumbaer, where tourist numbers can threaten to erode the very fabric of the museum.

 

Sigríður Sigurðardóttir, Director of the Skagafjörður Heritage Museum, then offered an overview of the techniques of turf building, the different cuts of turf employed, and the specialist tools required. We learned that a turf wall can last for between 25 and 85 years, before eventually breaking down and collapsing. Humidity (causing rot) and repeated freezing/thawing may hasten this process. The last turf houses to be used as homes were abandoned in the 1980s though some continue in occasional use. Their abandonment coincides with a decline in the knowledge of turf as a construction medium – how to identify good turf, how to cut it, and how to build with it. Discussions later in the week suggested that there were only a very few people left with the required skills. Fornverkaskólinn, the Heritage Craft School, was set up to keep this knowledge alive, and our participation here was part of this rearguard action.

 

Guðný Zoëga, Head of Archaeology at the Heritage Museum, offered the third talk, outlining the progress of various archaeological projects, including the Skagafjörður Church and Settlement Survey, a project run in partnership with the University of Massachusetts. One excavation was of particular interest, the 11th-century cemetery at Keldudalur, from which 53 well-preserved skeletons were recovered – our particular interest being that some of us were staying in accommodation built right on top of the site.

 

Practical turf-building

 

 

The practical side of the course was held at Tyrfingsstaðir, a farm deep into the hinterland of Skagafjörður, some 50km south of Sauðárkrókur. There has been a farm here since at least the 13th century, though the extant buildings were mostly constructed in the 1890s and early 1900s. The farmer now lives in a modern house on the site, and the Heritage Museum has taken on the task of repairing and maintaining the older structures, using them for courses run by Fornverkaskólinn.

 

Tyrfingsstaðir

The farmhouse itself is a complex of turf buildings linked by internal passageways, with a timber façade at the front, a style of house, Þór had explained to us, that became common from about 1850. Dispersed across the slopes in front of the house there were stables and several sheephouses (a traditional arrangement intended to reduce the need to transport hay by housing flocks amongst the hayfields). Several of these turf buildings had been renovated by previous groups from Scotland. We would be working on a former stable at the southern edge of the farm.

 

Scythes and spades – tools of the trade.

First cuts

Our tutor was Helgi Sigurðsson. He first introduced us to the turf, and to some of the plants whose presence indicates that the turf below will make good building material. Discussions began almost immediately about the quality of soil required, and on the extent to which a clay soil was necessary to make good building turves, a question that was revisited several times over the next few days. We looked then at scythes and spades, discussed their uses, before turning to the different cuts of turf. The most important for our purposes were klambra, a tapered block cut at an angle to produce the herring-bone pattern characteristic of the walls of the farm buildings; hornhnaus, a square cut ‘corner block’; strengur, a metre-long thin strip of turf with a wedge-shaped profile, tapering to one edge; and torfa, essentially a double strengur, tapering to both edges. Just words at first, these four cuts would be giving shape to our working days for the rest of the course. After some demonstrations (which made it all look so easy), we were each encouraged to try the various cuts for ourselves, overseen by Helgi with plenty of encouragement, a lot of patience and some gentle teasing.

 

Trampled Underfoot – levelling the surface

The first layer of strengur

 

And so to our stable. The original building had collapsed, and new footings of turf and stone had been prepared. Our task was to rebuild two walls, one of which would be furnished with an archway. First, we created a level surface with soil and turf offcuts, well trampled down to the rhythms of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song coming from a smartphone: ‘We come from the land of the ice and snow, From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow …. Indeed. Next, strengur were laid along the wall faces, followed by a layer of klambra. Torfa were laid between the faces and the whole was levelled up and compacted ready for the next layer, the heavy hornhnaus securing the corners. All the while, we trimmed and buffed the faces to keep them straight, vertical and neat.

 

Straight and neat

Building the arch

The building of the turf arch over the doorway was particularly dramatic, particularly for the way its frame was put together. As one of us commented, in Scotland the construction of such a feature would have awaited the installation of a specially-commissioned formwork into the doorway. But not here. Instead, three pallets were stacked on end into the doorway, and secured by wedging klambra between them. A plastic barrel was balanced on top, followed by rotten timber posts salvaged from the debris of the original stable, and onto this improvisation we placed our arch. Vernacular architecture, if ever I saw it.

 

The finished arch

 

Museums and archaeology

 

Besides the three days we spent building the arch, we visited a number of historic buildings, archaeological sites and museums, mostly in the Skagafjörður area, but also on the return journey south at the end of the week. I shall touch on just two sites here: the earthworks at Hegranesþing, the medieval assembly (or Thing) for North Iceland, and Reykjavík 871±2: The Settlement Exhibition. Both visits reminded me how far archaeology here has advanced since I studied Norse Settlement in the North Atlantic as a student (some decades ago), when the available evidence came from just a tiny handful of excavated sites.

 

Guðný guiding at Hegranesþing

Visiting Hegranesþing felt a bit like a pilgrimage: once I read just about everything written (in English) on the thing – an institution that anchored Norse settlers into their communities, and now here I was standing on my own undergraduate essay! Back then there were no archaeological surveys or readily available aerial images to give shape to these places – they could only be studied as legal and historical entities. Now we have a display board with an impressive LIDAR image, and a web search tells me that the University of Massachusetts have produced a geophysical survey of the site, though I have failed to track down a report on this. It is good to hear of such high-tech studies but, walking across the earthworks, my years of interpreting and surveying archaeological sites as an Investigator with RCAHMS leave me wondering what details could be teased out of the surface of this place with a sharp eye, a plane table and a simple alidade. Technology can sometimes dazzle us, but the skills of on-the-ground interpretation will not be easily replaced if we neglect to pass them on to younger generations.

A sharp LIDAR image of Hegranesþing

The Settlement Exhibition is extraordinary. To be honest (and this may sound strange coming from an archaeologist) I find many museums tedious. There is a trend to over-explain exhibits in wordy information boards which themselves often distract from (and sometimes become) the exhibits. Part of me longs for the days when one was simply presented with a row of pots labelled ‘Beakers. Bronze Age’ – we were just expected to know! But this exhibition is different. We are presented with the foundations, preserved in situ, of an entire longhouse from the early years of Viking settlement. Clever lighting and imaginative high-tech presentations draw us into discovering the story at our own pace. Then, right next to the longhouse, there is the tantalising fragment of a turf wall, which, because it has been sealed by a layer of tefra dated to 871, must be at least three years older than the traditional date for the settlement of Iceland. In one room, the birth of a nation is both celebrated and challenged. Brilliant!

The Settlement Exhibition

This exhibition was the last formal visit of our course, so it seemed appropriate that we finished up by looking at the oldest turf wall in the country. The longhouse, we learned, was built of strengur on a stone base; the labour involved was something we could certainly relate to…

 

Nýibær

 

More Turf

Returning to turf, our visits included several buildings that offered interesting comparisons with Tyrfingsstaðir, including two churches, Víðimýrarkirkja and Grafarkirkja, and three farmhouses: Nýibær at Hólar, built in 1860; Stóru Akrar, once the home of the Governor of Skagafjörður; and the museum at Glaumbær. All of these buildings had turf walls on three sides with timber gable façades. The details of their construction, though, showed great variety. Stóru Akrar, comprising two conjoined buildings, is built entirely of strengur on stone footings. Nýibær, built using klambra, is a much larger construction, with two rooms and a central passageway presenting their gables to the front, and two further rooms at right angles behind those. Glaumbær, an important tourist attraction, is more complex still. It has thirteen buildings in all, most of them linked by an impressive passageway, their turf walls displaying a variety of techniques.

Stóru Akrar

Glaumbær

 

Our week was very much focused on turf, but equally interesting were the timber frames that supported the roofs of these houses. The quality of the joinery varied greatly, from the fine panelling at Glaumbær or Grafarkirkja to the sometimes ‘make-do-and-mend’ work at Tyrfingsstaðir, but they all appeared to be variants of the same basic approach – vertical studs standing proud of the turf walls, supporting wall plates, beams and rafters. The studs were sometimes set directly on the ground, and sometimes on single stones, though in one of the rooms at Stóru Akrar the studs were fitted onto sill-beams. An interesting arrangement was found in the baðstofa (living room) at Glaumbær, where the bedposts also served as supports for the tie beams joining the rafters. Again at Glaumbær, the main passageway showed a simpler construction; here a single ridge-beam rested directly on timbers that bridged the width of the passage and rested upon the vertical studs.

Nýibær

Stóru Akrar

 

The baðstofa at Glaumbær

 

Turf and timber in Iceland and Scotland: some thoughts

 

My particular interest in joining this course was to see whether the Icelandic evidence offered useful parallels for rural farmhouses in the Highlands of 18th-century Scotland where, until the end of the 18th century, turf and timber were the principal building materials for vernacular housing. Our understanding of the turf component, though, relies largely on the close reading of contemporary descriptions, supplemented with early photographs showing late survivals in the Western Isles. We have an abundance of knee-high footings of what we understand to have been turf buildings, but there are very few standing walls, and none are remotely as well-preserved as the Icelandic examples. When Ross Noble was reconstructing a township for the Highland Folk Park at Newtonmore in the 1990s, all he had to go on were these meagre sources – and some intuition. Does Iceland have the answers? Werner Kissling’s photography of 1930s South Uist shows turf walls with a herring-bone pattern that might not be out of place in Iceland. Conversely, a turf gable (albeit of uncertain date) near Huntly, Aberdeenshire, renovated by Becky Little in the 1990s, still perhaps the most closely-studied turf wall in the Highlands, suggests a very different (though roughly contemporary) tradition to Kissling’s subject. Ten years ago the late Bruce Walker mused that ‘it is not anticipated that Scottish turf types will match exactly those found in Iceland although this is possible’. However, after our too-brief study of Icelandic buildings, I am not at all sure that any ‘exact match’ is to be found in Skagafjörður.

South Uist, 1936 (Werner Kissling)

In Scotland, we are on more confident ground when dealing with the timber component of traditional farmhouses. All the evidence (at least in mainland districts of the Highlands) points to the widespread use of cruck-couples to take the weight of the roof; that is, pairs of bent timbers (either in one piece or in jointed sections), set either on the ground, a stone pad, or on low stone footings, and yoked together at the top. This is a well-documented technique, and abundant survivals demonstrate that it continued into the 19th century, as stone walls replaced turf. The Icelandic houses described above, however, are not at all like this, invariably employing vertical posts to support the roof beams and trusses. We are often reminded that wood was scarce and expensive in Iceland, and so was used only sparingly, but all the frames we saw employed significant timbers of greater length and quality than one would expect to find in the average Highland farm cottage. Of course, we had only a brief glimpse of Iceland, and should be wary of drawing conclusions without a better knowledge of Icelandic architectural history. Yet there are cruck-couples known elsewhere in the Nordic region, for example in the Sami region of Northern Scandinavia, suggesting at least the possibility of some exchange of ideas across the North Atlantic. Perhaps rather than a shared building heritage (Walker saw across the region a ‘common origin to a range of turf building types’) we should be looking instead for different traditions developing independently but intertwined through occasional borrowings and reciprocal influences. Scotland has a lot to learn from Iceland on the use of turf as a building medium, but our vernacular architectures appear to be quite different.

Cruck-couples at Camserney, Perthshire

Cruck-framed house, West Finnmark, Norway, 1930s.

 

Looking ahead: community involvement?

 

As an archaeologist who spends most of her time working with community groups and volunteers, I found it disappointing how little hands-on engagement there appears to be between professional archaeology and the wider population, and I came away with the impression that the archaeological establishment does not actively encourage community participation. The situation in the UK was broadly similar twenty years ago, but in the last decade Scotland (apparently more so than the rest of the UK) has seen levels of community engagement grow exponentially. The traditional role of the archaeologist as a mediator (or gatekeeper) explaining our heritage to the public is rapidly being supplemented by a new role as facilitator, providing training and support to enable communities to explore that heritage for themselves. As a result we have a vibrant voluntary sector across the country, producing high quality work, and often challenging the perceptions and orthodoxies of professionals. Moreover, these volunteers raise the profile of archaeology within their communities, improving ‘heritage awareness’ and thus promoting conservation and preservation, as well as improving the public image of the archaeology profession.

 

Now, it was clear to all of us on this course that the maintenance of turf buildings is seriously under-resourced, and that Fornverkaskólinn and Skagafjörður Heritage Museum can only manage to do so much. We were told that turf houses held no interest for the general public – they are symbols of backwardness and poverty. That is an attitude that can still be found in the UK (indeed, in Northern Ireland, a government grant scheme funds the replacement of traditional houses with new homes, with the usual condition that the old dwelling is demolished), but communities across Scotland are increasingly realising that there are alternatives to demolition, and finding new roles for disused or neglected buildings. Value is now placed on buildings that just a generation ago would have been demolished without popular dissent. I wonder, perhaps, whether encouraging local communities in Iceland to become more directly involved with their own heritage might not prompt a similar change in attitude. I am wary of challenging our hospitable hosts on this, and perhaps Scottish demographics and social structures are particularly favourable to our culture of community involvement, but it seems to me that this represents a promising route to safeguarding and promoting the remarkable and irreplaceable heritage of turf buildings.

 

A Conclusion

 

This course really was a journey of discovery. The introduction to the techniques of building in turf was an inspiration; already, a few of us are planning to revisit Scottish reconstructions of turf houses, to study them more closely while Iceland is fresh in the memory. I also found myself being quite surprised at the ‘strangeness’ of Icelandic turf houses; I came expecting to see close parallels to Scottish examples, and insights into the character of Highland houses pre-1800, but instead I found difference, and left with more questions than I brought. But that is probably how it should be.

 

Our hosts were terrific throughout – Guðný, Sigríður, Helgi and (especially) Bryndís all made us very welcome, sharing their knowledge and skills and dealing patiently with our endless probing questions. I’m sure we all hope to have the opportunity to reciprocate before too long. New friendships were also made within our group – I for one made connections with people I had not encountered before, even though we work in related fields. Sometimes you have to travel a long way to see what is on your own doorstep.

 

Finally, a word of thanks to Libby Urquhart of the Firm of ARCH, who made all this possible, and of course to the Erasmus+ programme, which provided the funding. Ten days after we returned home, The United Kingdom voted to leave the EU. We can only hope that ways can be found to maintain important exchange programmes and courses such as this one as we move into that new world.

 

Eve.boyle@rcahms.gov.uk

 

 

 

 

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