Clay Building in the Lower Spey Valley

MFC Paper 5 by E Beaton 1975

“A dry pair of shoes and a good hat” — which being translated means a sound foundation and a good thatch — is the old Devonshire recipe for the longevity of clay walled dwellings, there known as cob houses. In Scotland there are clay walled dwellings too, in particular on the North East coast with a concentration along the lower reaches of the Spey. Here it it known, in various forms, as “clay and dab”, “clay and boole” or “Auchinhalrig Work” (named after a place in the parish of Bellie) and is the walling material for many cottages and steadings north of Fochabers to the coast. These cottages are for the most part in excellent condition — due, no doubt, to the dry pair of shoes of Spey boulders though the dry hat is no longer thatch but painted or pitched corrugated iron, Oran slates or tiles.

Historically an early source of 1586 refers to a dispute over the possession of mud holes in Forres, from which the homes of many common people were made, while in 1588 all neighbours in the Burgh were enjoined to build their yard dykes of mud or fail. In 1734 the Minister of Urquhart informed the Kirk Session that, the Manse being so far from the quarry, he did not mind his yard walls being built of mud and straw. In the event he had stone dykes, but later the little early nineteenth century doocot was built of clay and dab, with the nesting boxes Worked from the same material. The steading of the old Bogmuir Schoolhouse, circa 1870, is of clay construction With the added refinement of an Oran slate roof. Here the schoolhouse is of stone — but from this it must not be inferred that clay, in all its variants, was a secondary fabric. Socially, clay walled dwellings range from
humble cottages to manses and churches.

Mud as a mortar is found extensively from quite an early date in Moray, the sophisticated stone doocot at Pittendreich, dating from about 1600, being an exceptional example.
The composition of clay walls vary somewhat according to the immediate locality. In the Speymouth area the general term “clay” is used, but it covers three variants.

Clay and Dab” which is a mixture of clay, straw and smaller pebbles similar to “Auchinhalrig Work” which has a large proportion of bigger stones – known in the Spey estuary as “booles”. The size of the booles varies according to the location of the building and the sources of the stones — being large river or sea shore rounded ones if taken from the lower stretches of the River Spey or from the beach.

Clay and Boole” work can be defined as when the booles are in courses, packed in the centre with small stones and clay as hearting. These courses show a few years after construction when the external mud washes off and leaves the booles protruding an inch or so. Traditionally these three variants were lime washed annually, which kept the walling in good condition and watertight.

“The General View of Agriculture of Banffshire”, published in 1813, gives a precise direction as to the making of “Auchinhalrig Work” which is worth quoting in full:

“For a rood of 36 square yards, thirty cart loads of stones, ten of clay and mud, and twenty four stones of good fresh straw were required; heath,rushes, or bent could be used as an alternative for straw. Strong, tough clay required the addition of three cart loads of sharp water sand.

The lumps of clay were broken with a mallet, the sand mixed in, using water as a thinner, and the straw strewed over and trampled in till the consistency was right for mixing with the stones. The stones could be of various sizes but none bigger than a man could lift on to the wall, since anything larger prevented the mud from consolidating and weakened the walls. Smaller stones were perfectly adequate.

A 7 foot high wall was built 22″ wide; if higher, 24″. The width was thus the same as for walls of stone and lime. As with pure clay walls, only 2-3 foot was built in a day, and three or four days allowed between courses. A 40 ft. length was necessary to keep two men fully employed in building and in preparing the mud.

Where there was joisting for a grain loft, a 1%” wall plate of wood underlay the joists, the ends of which were brought within 6″ of the outside of the wall. A similar plate was set below the couple feet. Such walls could bear any roof, of slate, heath, mud and straw, though if mud or stob thatch was used a good heath brush was laid on the wall head to bear up the straw and carry the rain over the walls.

After two or three years the outside mud fell off the stones, which were quite covered at first and they were then harled with lime and rough river or sea sand. The insides of barns and grain lofts got a coat of plaster lime to make them close and smooth.

This kind of walling was good for farm offices and also served for two stony houses. It was cheap at £1. 3s. 0d per rood, and was durable and warm. It was also recommended for threshing mills and walks for horses driving mill machinery because it stood vibration better than ordinary mason work”.

Pure clay with chopped straw was also used. There is at least one cottage of this near Nilltown Airfield, together with the walls of a ruined one clearly slowing the constituents.

Most of the houses in the area under discussion originally had a thatched roof, frequently a local type known as a clay thatch, when the straw was washed over with a clay slurry. On the Banffshire coast pantiles are found, and Oran slates, Until early this year (1975) there was a cottage and steading of Auchinhalrig work with a pantile roof and tile skews on the A98 close to the Buckie turning.

These clay dwellings and steadings date for the most part from the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries and reflect, in part, the agricultural improvements of the period and better living conditions for those involved in farming and fishing,

A count has recently been made of dwellings in the Speymouth area, Urquhart, Garmouth, Kingston, Bogmuir, Nether and Upper Dallachy and Tugnet and the tally at present stands at one hundred and fifty three domestic buildings, all but a few in excellent condition and serving as cosy homes. The exteriors for the most part remain lime washed, but shell finishes, pebble dash and harling are all evident.

Extensions for modern kitchens and bathrooms have been added at the back, some window widening has taken place and in at least one case a second storey has been added within the last thirty years.

This count covers the largest concentration of clay walled dwellings in Morayshire ~ however they occur along the coast and in the neighbouring hinterland where there is no immediate quarry. Mosstowie, Longmorn and probably Clackmarras have their examples, farms between Lossiemouth and Garmouth have clay cottages and steadings and there are certainly some along the Banffshire coast.

When ascertaining whether a building is of clay construction one cannot obviously approach a house armed with pick and hammer and take a sample! Conclusions must be drawn from a variety of observations. Are the corners of the houses quite vertical or do they have a slightly irregular appearance? If so then it might be clay. Is the surface texture “pebbly” under the lime wash or harling? If so then Auchinhalrig work can be suspected“ If the skews are concrete (and this seems a characteristic of Kingston) then the original roofing was thatch, and ipso facto the house may be of clay. There may be a chip in the exterior finish slowing the walling fabric, and, of course, the owner might know.

These clay houses and steadings form part of the local vernacular architecture. If any member knows of examples, would they let me know?


  • GeneralView of Agriculture of the Counties of Nairn and Moray ~ Leslies pub» 1812
  • Gen. View of Agriculture of the County of Banff. Soutar pub. 1813
  • The Church and Priory of Urquhart ~ Wm Cramond
  • Clay Building and Clay Thatch in Scotland, Ulster Folk Life – A. Fentont pub. 1970
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