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Caithness Field Club 

Caithness Field Club Bulletin 1988

J. K. Butler

The icehouse is located at ND123687 attached to Seaside Cottage which was for many years the home of the Thurso East estate fishings staff. It is on the East shore at the mouth of the Thurso river. The icehouse, the ground around and the cottage have each been modified several times so there is an interesting historic sequence to follow.

The estate of Thurso East is based on a mansion house built around 1660 and improved after 1719 by the Sinclairs of Ulbster. As explained by Walker (1976), from the mid-seventeenth century onwards an icehouse was often constructed in the vicinity of a mansion house to preserve natural ice from one year to the next for the keeping of fresh meat. Later they were also used to provide a steady supply of ice for white fishing and salmon fishing. All these possibilities exist for the Thurso East icehouse because there was a busy white fishing based on Thurso Bay in the late seventeenth century and there has always been plentiful salmon fishing in the river Thurso. It is known from the first Statistical Account that salmon were carted over-land for boiling until 1788 when a boiler was built next to the Thurso East icehouse.

The structure of the building as it was in 1980 is shown in the cutaway diagram. It is built on a rocky shore which slopes to the river mouth. Overall it is 9.6m long and 6m wide externally; 5.5m high internally. The walls are of flagstone rubble mortared with shell sand and lime mortar standing 4.2 metres above the rock base. The floor is of sand infill covered with flagstones around 0.8 metres square and 3Omm thick. There are two substantial drains running under the flagstones to carry away the melt water. High in the NE wall is a small doorway (1) only 1.3 metres high and 1.3 metres wide. The earth is piled up to this level on the outside to make this a convenient point to load the ice. There is no sign of modification to the wall around it so it is perhaps an original feature. A cart could readily be taken up the artificial hill to this point. There is a doorway of normal size on the SW wall 1.9 metres above the floor (2) which would have been the most convenient point to load meat or fish in the deep ice, or to remove ice if needed. The soil level is raised artificially to the height of this door. However immediately below this door there is another built-up opening (3) which was presumably an earlier door. Your author has dug down behind it to check for buried treasure, but in vain.

The roof is supported by a cylindrical vault of bricks on end (4). The detail reveals that it was built on a wooden former, presumably on a temporary scaffold. The bricks are similar in quality and colour to the bricks used to construct a fish boiling hearth in 1778 in the adjacent cottage. On top of the brick vault were placed stacks of stones at intervals (5) to support a hardwood ridge purlin (6) and two side purlins (7). Large thin (10mm) flagstones (8) were then laid over the purlins to cover the roof. The space between the vault and the flagstones was completely filled with fine rubble - some 15 tonnes of it. The roof flagstones were closed at the top by ridge tiles of late 19th century type and then completely covered with a 15Omm layer of turf.

In 1980 the roof was on the point of collapse and repairs were undertaken. The turf and flags were removed and the rubble cleared from the centre part to expose the brick vault whose mortar was crumbling. A heavy scaffold of old telegraph poles was erected and a substantial platform built on top to support a former curved to the shape of the roof. Four hydraulic jacks were interposed between scaffold and former and a 2 metre section of the vault was lifted gradually about 10Omm pausing frequently to hammer wooden wedges between the bricks (from above) to keep the hoop compression which holds a vault together. The mortar gaps were then all cleaned out and refilled with modern cement mortar. When set the jacks were released and the scaffold moved along to the next section. When the vault was restored 6 bands of concrete reinforcing were laid over it and a brick pillar built on each band to support the ridge purlin. The original ridge purlin was good enough to replace but the upper side purlins were rotten and were replaced with the halves of a longitudinally split telegraph pole. Before replacing the flagstones the roof was entirely covered in builders polythene sheet to make it watertight. The rubble was not replaced. The ridge tiles were replaced and the layer of turf.

Walker distinguishes between two types of icehouse. One for storing meats, fish, confections and wines has the main entrance door level above the floor as is the case with the Thurso East icehouse. A second type, which is for storing ice for use on fish has the access door at the icehouse floor level; on our icehouse there is the old closed up doorway at this level also. To add to the puzzle these doors in the opposite state to that suggested. The icehouse may have been used for meats in its early days and almost certainly ended its service life supplying ice to the fishery. So the upper door should be closed off and the lower one open but it is in fact the other way round.

The building probably began life in the second part of the 17th or early part of the 18th century standing on the rocky shore with soil piled against Its sides, a low door on the South side and a high door on the North side. The North side door was presumably for loading the ice and it is estimated the 400 cartloads would be a reasonable annual filling. The ice could be collected from the river or from an inland loch. In 1778 it was probably renovated at the same time as the fish boilers were installed alongside and the similarity of brick-work suggests that the vaulted roof was put on at the same time. The shape of the wall at its juncture with the roof suggests a former roof of a different type existed. Also, since the fish boilers were built at a higher level on made-up ground the new higher door 1.9 metres above the former level was installed. In 1888 further renovations took place including the cannery for fish and fruit from the castle gardens built at the icehouse entrance, these improvements being recorded in the Caithness Courier at the time. Roof renovations were the main improvements to the icehouse at that time since the purlins, flagstone

nails and ridge tiles are of that era. Thus the structure has been altered at one hundred year intervals including those to preserve it in 1980. This note will serve to record the modern alterations.

What the icehouse was used for is still not very clear. Taking Walker's concept of a high-door preserving house it is rather a long step from the mansion house (300 metres) and probably had a low door at the time when preserving was popular. Later, when it is more obvious that it was an ice preserver for the fishery the door was set in high because the rocky ground sloped and the other buildings added to the site had to be at the higher level. Therefore it is concluded that its use purely for the white fishery and salmon fishery is the most likely explanation.

Walker, B. Keeping it Cool The Scots Magazine September 1976