The joy of bricks – Scotland’s hidden heritage
Traditional Buildings Health Check inspector Mitchell Fotheringham finds Scottish heritage in the humblest of places – Scotland’s red bricks.
The humble brick is not a material we generally associate with Scottish traditional buildings. The brick is more readily associated with the rows and rows of terraced houses in the industrial heartlands of northern England or the more elegant London townhouses.
What I love about bricks, is that unlike stone, where you need to have petrographic analysis carried out to determine where it was originally quarried, bricks tell you exactly who made them and where they were made. They wear it as a badge of honour across their chest. They can proudly tell you what family they belong to, their hometown and, with a little more investigation, they can tell you their age.
The Humble Brick
These small rectangles of fired clay have been in Scotland since the Romans brought their (then modern) methods of construction to the UK. Whilst their expansion into Scotland was more limited, a common misunderstanding is that they were abruptly halted at Hadrian’s Wall. In truth, the lesser-known but equally important Antonine Wall was the northern frontier. It stretched 37 miles from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde across central Scotland and is one of Scotland’s six UNESCO World Heritage. In 2013, a Roman road running through , demonstrating that even Stirling was graced with their presence if only for a mere 20-year period.
This fleeting visit from our Mediterranean friends may account for the lack of brick structures in Scotland. The Romans were likely not here long enough to make as much of an impression on our vernacular architecture as they did south of the border. Alternatively, it may be that our weather was not as suited to brick manufacture and construction as our Southern neighbours. To find out more read this great article on Roman bricks in Scotland, especially if you also have an interest in archaeology.
After a long absence from Scotland’s building stock, bricks experienced something of a revival in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was mainly due to landowners utilising clay deposits on their property, building small brickworks to supply bricks for the maintenance on their estate and subsequently to build workers’ cottages. The use of brick steadily increased throughout the 18th century as areas which had traditionally used earth or clay in their vernacular buildings embraced brick construction. However, it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that bricks became an integral part of Scotland’s construction industry.
Timber Moulds and Clay
Traditionally bricks were hand-made using timber moulds which were packed full of clay. They were then trimmed off with a thin wire and fired in an intermittent kiln. This process was slow and the bricks produced varied in quality due to the ‘hand-made’ aspect of the production. This all changed in the 1800s with the introduction of a broader range of clays, mouldings, and techniques for drying and firing which made production more consistent. The real game-changer, however, was automation. The 1840s saw the introduction of the first mechanised tile and brick machine and the continuous kiln. These developments along with the wider availability of raw materials such as shale, led to bricks becoming more widely used throughout Scotland.
It’s around this time when the bricks that I love come into existence. They are distinguished by their unique branded stamp which makes them something that I love to look at, find, and document (on my phone). I also have a small collection of bricks in my garage. Unfortunately, there is some opposition to all the building materials and tools I collect in my garage, so I have to keep it to a minimum.
My interest in bricks started when I was 14 years old, and we were removing a section of a wall in our family home to create more space in the entrance hall. Up until this point I hadn’t considered bricks as anything more than a characterless block that the home I grew up in was built from. That all changed as we peeled back the 100-year-old lime plaster skin of the wall which was to be removed. There, beneath the homogenous finish was the rugged ancestor of the modern bricks now widely used in housing. There was something more natural about this brick; the edges weren’t crisp and straight. The predecessors of these bricks gave up one final secret as they were being removed from the wall. They had a name: GILBERTFEILD. As a 14-year-old it was interesting to find something like this hidden in the wall of our house – I felt like Indiana Jones! However, it was a short-lived moment as the excitement of swinging a sledgehammer took over and one brick was placed in the garage and forgotten.
That was until I walked onto the site of a building in Glasgow in my first job after graduating from university. The building had been severely fire-damaged and there were parts of the building strewn across the site. I left with two bricks – one external and one internal (for further analysis of course) and I searched the name branded on my new bricks; ‘Allan & Mann Patent Glasgow’. The search results came up with the Scotland’s Brick Manufacturing Industry website. I was no longer alone! There was a whole community of people interested in bricks and, not only were they interested but thanks to the founder of the website, Mark Cranston, there were pictures, information about the manufacturer and where they had all been found.
From that point on it became a personal quest to find a brick that wasn’t mentioned on the website, or see a version of the stamp that hadn’t yet been documented. So now, whenever I see a brick I check it for makers marks and cross-check it with the brick database.
So, my challenge to you is this: the next time you see a mossy overgrown mound that has a sharp corner poking out of it, give it a scrape back with your boot and see what you uncover. You never know it may just be a long lost brick that could add to the history of Scotland’s built heritage.r