Turf Building & Potential in Scotland

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Alexander Maxwell, John Muir Trust, Volunteer Work Parties Co-ordinator

I work for a wildland conservation charity organising and running work parties of volunteers on our own ten properties around Scotland as well as those of several partners such as the community owned estates of the Knoydart Foundation, Assynt Foundation and North & West Harris Trusts.

The John Muir Trusts principal interest is in the wild land but this crosses over with the architectural heritage of structures found on it and increasingly with the operation of wild land access points as wildlife tourism increases. On most of the properties that I work on the most prevalent building material currently present is stone often in drystone construction. This course has opened my eyes up to the potential of using turf as a building material as well as its historical importance in Scottish buildings and structures such as boundary dykes and fortifications.

Turf building offers many advantages for my work parties:-

  • Materials used are readily found on or close to most sites
  • Finished appearance sits readily in to the landscape
  • Tools needed are simple and many already used in other activities such as path work
  • Activity is very labour intensive so suited to utilising volunteer groups

Prior to this course I would have doubted the durability of turf structures but after seeing a turf wall in the Reykjavik Settlement exhibition dating back to 900 and the state of the turf buildings such as the farmhouse at Glaumbaer  built in the 1800’s I have to say that my eyes have been opened!  Another revaluation was the effectiveness of the combined use of stone and turf strips such as strengur or torfa.  I will consider using some of the techniques we learnt in Iceland in path work for revetments and possibly even in areas of light use pitching.

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Helgi teaches us how to cut turf

However easy Helgi make it seem I realise that there is a tremendous level of experience needed behind turf building especially in the choice of areas/conditions to excavate turf from and the design of the structure being built.  I will experiment with interested volunteers but greatly look forward to the opportunity of involvement with the turf building restoration planned for Glencoe and appreciate the links made by this course with other potential turf builders in Scotland.

It is unlikely the John Muir Trust would embark on a project such as the NTS Glencoe reconstruction but I can see an immediate possibility of using turf walls at some of our access points.  Several years ago I built with volunteers a drystone bin shelter for the car park on our Sandwood estate.  This involved bringing several tons of stone on to site from a redundant building and considerable pre planning.  At the Gaumbaer Old Turf Farm site I saw a similar construction from turf.  I intend too try making similar walls for interpretation panels, bin shelters and other landscaping on our own properties.

Bin shelter at drystone Sandwood estate, Scotland

Beyond the formal content of this week with turf I found that the exchange of experiences and ideas both with the other participants and our Icelandic hosts was very useful.  One example was the perceived problems around the increase in camper van tourism.  The John Muir Trust is affected in particular on our estates close to the North Coast 500 route as well as on Skye.  I also run regular work parties on the popular destination of Harris.  As we had representatives from NTS and LLT NP in the group we could have an informal debate on how the impact of campervans can be managed.  My own impression from sharing the driving around Iceland was that they are far behind the number of campervans that we currently have in Scotland.  However they have experienced the problems such as chemical toilet disposal and are taking a proactive response in providing advice on driving etiquette at entry points such as hire companies and in every tourist information point we visited I saw a comprehensive leaflet by the Icelandic Environment Agency on Camper lavatory disposal listing over 75 sites spread across the country

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Bin shelter at Gaumbaer,  Iceland
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