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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Bits about Building
By Tom Geddes

My first recollection of the building trade took place in 1934 when I went to meet my father as he cycled home from work. He must have been harling that particular day as he was well-splattered in cement. I felt that he would get a terrible row from mother for getting in such a mess - I knew I would! Charles Geddes was the estate mason, but supplemented this income by taking on private contracts and during the thirties a 100 grant became available giving a much-needed boost to the building economy. A typical renovation of the three bed roomed cottage would entail a new roof with asbestos slate, new windows and doors, probably new partitions and wall coverings, with the exterior roughcast on completion. Sometimes the wall heads had to be raised to give a 6ft plus doorway. The incumbent helped with the alterations by supplying labour and probably stone and sand as required.

Most of the crofter's cottages were built in the early 19th century in the era of clay mortar, and locally quarried stone. Scaffolding was in short supply and sometimes the foundation excavations were piled up against the outside of the wall under construction to give the builders that extra reach required to reach the wall head, usually a mere 7ft or so in those days. On completion the earth was spread around the house to form the back garden. Labour was cheap and plentiful in those days! No concrete foundations in these times, but the traditional system used stood the test of time very well. The specification for a standard 2ft stone wall would be a 3ft wide excavation with huge flat stones (locally called steethe stones) laid on the clay foundation given an 8in scarcement to the wall. Masons made sure that the heaviest stones on the site were built into the first 4ft of the wall or as an old mason once said - "never lift any o' that beeg yins abeen yir breath!" (Above mouth level).

The first widely accepted cement was patented by British engineer Joseph Aspdin in 1864, but it was about 100 years later before it was extensively used locally. It may come as some surprise that some of the 2 storey housing schemes in Wick and Thurso do not have concrete footings and still stand as living testament to a bygone era.

The introduction of cement enabled the production of concrete as we know it today, but it is interesting to know that during the construction of the Coliseum in Rome a type of concrete was used by mixing sand from the Bay of Naples with lime and aggregates. Indigenous products were used wherever possible i.e. flagstone floors, Caithness slate roofs, stone-walling, shelving and sometimes flagstone partitions. The partition flags were of a very rough texture in order to give a good keying effect to the lime plaster later applied. Some houses had 4ft framed partition with hessian stretched over and papered. After several applications of wallpaper over the years it's surprising how rigid they became. Early Caithness roofs could he dated by their fixings, in the early 19th century slates were fixed with wooden pegs, followed by four sided pewter clout nails and later the galvanised nails of the early 20th century. Roofing felt came on the scene in the late twenties. Before that the tops of slates were pointed around with a lime mortar which went some way in preventing the ingress of wind and snowdrift. No lead flashing in this era, but raggles were inbuilt in chimneys and abutments, then the slates inserted with a pronounced tilt away from the masonry.

Stone and lime houses were built throughout the county up to about 1950 when cavity wall construction took over. Most houses had 2ft thick front and back walls with 2ft 6in - 3ft walls in the gables to accommodate the built in flues and later fire clay vent linings. I was surprised to find vent lining in Thurso Castle (built in 1872) but I suspect it was much later than this when they reached to vents of more humble properties.

When workmen arrived on site in this period the first job was to dig a considerable pit into which was thrown enough lime to complete the proposed building. The lime would arrive on site unslaked and great quantities of water were required to turn it into manageable putty. Later on cheap "Thistle" cement came on the scene and sold to some subsidised contracts as cheap 2/4 (12p) per cwt.

Portland cement was considerably more expensive and cost around the 4/- (20p) mark. Cement first arrived in Caithness in barrels, this was superseded in the thirties and early forties with sacks, and you can imagine the dust raised during handling. The multi layer brown paper bag appeared first before the war and is still with us, and very sensibly and conveniently is now available in half hundredweight bags.

The late twenties saw the introduction of asbestos sheeting, a great boon in providing a relatively cheap light and easily constructed roof to outbuildings. Later on the "Big Six" sheets appeared, a much stronger sheet, which would bear your weight with impunity.

About this time gypsum was discovered and this led to the manufacture of plasterboard, surely the greatest advance the building trade has ever known. Adverts at that time always made it clear that "wooden lathe and plaster were no longer required when this product was used". From that day the numbers in the plastering trade in Caithness gradually shrunk from about 80 to about 10 this present day.

The demise of the plasterer was accelerated by the roughcasting element of building being taken over by the mason trade. In the late Thirties the concrete/mortar mixers came on the scene, this was to cause a revolution in the mason element of the trade equal to the introduction of plasterboard to the joiner trade. I would reckon that a mason to labourer ratio would have been about 1-1 in the supply of mortar alone, whereas one man and his mixer would keep about 10 masons supplied. From the mid forties onwards the cavity wall construction method was almost exclusively used. This walling consisted of a 105mm (later 100mm) outer leaf, a 60mm gap then a 100mm inner leaf. Bitumen impregnated hessian, and later plastic sheet were used to prevent rising damp and prevent ingress of water where the cavities were bridged, such as the doors, windows and openings, leaving a completely dry inner leaf to accept interior finishes. The two leaves were tied at regular intervals with galvanised wall ties, greatly strengthening the structure. The ties had a special twist in the middle preventing the water from passing from the outer to inner leaves. Though some of the higher-class buildings had two layers of Caithness slate forming a dampcourse in stone walls, many were left without leaving a legacy of rising damp to haunt future owners of these properties.

The next big step forward in the masonry line, indeed I still consider it the greatest breakthrough in my building career was the introduction of plasticisers in mortar and plasters. Why it took to the mid fifties for this product to come on stream beats me as it appeared to be a by-product of the soap industry. Some of these products had a waterproofing element added which proved invaluable in rendering structures impervious to water ingress.

The labour intensive excavations of foundations and drains etc. were alleviated when back hoes were fitted to tractors with hydraulic systems (1950's). Later this gave birth to the famous JCB excavator/loader which soon came to be so synonymous with the building trade. These machines cost 3300 in 1955.

Loading scaffolds used to be a backbreaking job, especially if you were building two storeys or more high. Feeder scaffolds were built alongside the working scaffold and building materials were handed up 4ft at a time. Ramps were also used and the materials would be delivered by means of a handbarrow - a stretcher type device much hated by workmen. Mortar was often brought up the ladder with a hod, a three side box affair with a 4ft handle. All of the above devices became obsolete when hoists and forklifts superseded in the late fifties early sixties.

At going to press, 1999, I have counted thirteen different types of building erected in Caithness, listed in alphabetical order, these are:

Block/brick Cornish units (George Crescent)
Crudens (Scrabster, now bricked around)
Dorrans (various sites)
Granite (47 Princes Street)
Iron (near Wick High School)
Concrete "no fines" (Wimpey's - Springpark)
Prefabs (Wick, now demolished)
Sandstone (various)
Stone (various)
Timber (mainly atomic housing, Pennyland)
Wood framed and brick surround (various)

As a matter of interest the first bungalow we ever built (1962) cost 2079.19.11. The price was for all trades in the construction of a three bed roomed building.

Wages over the years (masons):- (1935) 6p, (1948) 12p, (1960) 26p, (1965) 27p, (1998) 5.50.

In the early fifties a 500 grant came on stream to improve existing houses, coinciding with the arrival of water and electricity in rural areas. This combination was a godsend to rural Caithness with kitchens and bathrooms sprouting up all over the place and causing a welcome boom in the building trade that lasted many years. Great emphasis is now given to erection time in housing, and many claims and arguments have arisen (mainly in licensed premises!) over this issue. In bygone days a year construction time would be quite acceptable, bearing in mind the client with some help would have to quarry the stone, flagstone and slates, dig the founds and find time to work the croft. In Aberdeen in the 1920's a traditional bungalow was completed in six days.

In America (where else!) they have the erection time down to hours, but conveniently forget to tell us the factory man hours on the fabrication of the units.

I can't recollect Geddes Bros. ever setting out to achieve a record, but I can recall completing a traditional bungalow in Bettyhill in 30 working days. Had this house been built in the Thurso area it would have taken about 26 days. On a smaller scale we completed the mason element ready to accept the roof of a bedroom and bathroom back lobby extension in 1 working day of 9 hours.

It should be noted that the client had excavated the foundations before we arrived on site.

It's time now to wash out the mixer, clean my trowel and leave you - hopefully - with a little insight on the construction industry during the past 150 years.

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