Grassing over Smailholm roof problem

Historic Scotland workers putting a clay block based roof on Smailholm Tower.
Historic Scotland workers putting a clay block based roof on Smailholm Tower.

GRASS is being used to provide a watertight roof for historic Smailholm Tower, writes Bob Burgess.

Leaks at the 15th century stone-built former stronghold were threatening exhibits housed in the tower which is a major tourist attraction – especially for fans of the writer Sir Walter Scott.

Historic Scotland workers putting a clay block based roof on Smailholm Tower.

Historic Scotland workers putting a clay block based roof on Smailholm Tower.

Scott spent his early years battling illness in Sandyknowe Farm next to the tower which was owned by the Scott family.

Scott’s later writings were said to have been inspired by Smailholm and the surrounding Borderland.

The tower now houses an exhibition of tapestries and dolls drawing on the works of the novelist and poet.

But the leaking roof threatened to damage the exhibits and two years ago experts began testing two types of “living roofs” to prevent water seaping through the stone flag roof.

Sir Henry Raeburn. Portrait of Sir Walter Scott 1771 - 1832. Novelist and Poet. 1822.

Sir Henry Raeburn. Portrait of Sir Walter Scott 1771 - 1832. Novelist and Poet. 1822.

On Monday, workers moved in to begin the protection process. A layer of clay is being applied and grass and sedum seeds planted.

In about four weeks, the roof will have a complete protective covering of grass which bosses at Historic Scotland – who administer the tower – hope will solve the problem.

Peter Ranson, district architect with Historic Scotland said: “This will considerably reduce the amount of water penetrating the roof and is also energy efficient. We have also seen old photographs which show that a thin covering of vegetation once grew naturally on the masonry top of the tower.

“Over recent years, heavy rain has caused water to get into the roof. This is a problem because of the effect on its timber structural elements and the potential damage to the exhibition.”

Historic Scotland says the clay and grass roof can be removed if it does not solve the problem.

§ Smailholm Tower was built by the Pringles in the first half of the 15th century. This prominent Border family were squires of the Earl of Douglas and this cosiness secured the family the money-making job as Warden of Ettrick Forest.

§ The family’s prominence was not enough to protect them from reiving. Northumberland knaves made off with 700 cattle and 100 horses in 1544 alone.

§ Continued bother persuaded the Pringles to flit to Galashiels and in 1645 the tower and surrounding lads were bought by the Scotts of Harden. It was leased to Sir Walter Scott’s great-grand father, Walter – known as Beardie

§ The tower house stands 65 feet (20m) high atop a rocky crag and its walls are nine feet (2.5m) thick. Its barmkin (courtyard) defensive wall is seven feet (2m) thick. Excavations between 1979 and 1981 uncovered foundations of a kitchen and outer hall.

§ The tower house consists of cellars, a first floor hall, second floor bedroom and extra chambers on the top floor. On a clear day, Bamburgh Castle can been seen, 33 miles away on the Northumberland coast

§ The infant who was to become writer, sheriff of Selkirkshire and probably Scotland’s first tourism promoter, was a sickly child. He was born in 1771 in Edinburgh and was sent to Sandyknowe Farm – which lay below the tower and which had replaced it as the Border Scott’s family home – when he was 18 months

§ Historians say it was here that the young Scott was enthralled by tales of the Borderland that fired his imagination and inspired his later writings – including his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders published in 1802

§ Scott described Smailholm Tower as “standing start and upright like a warden”. He paid what is said to have been emotional visit to Smailholm in 1831 – the year before he died at Abbotsford House

§ Smailholm Tower is administered by Historic Scotland and is open every day, 9.30am-5.30pm April 1 toSeptember 30, but only at weekends between October and March (9.30am-4.30pm).