Sandside Kiln Barn

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Elizabeth Beaton

Sandside, Reay, was the home of the Innes', the Caithness branch of a family originating from Moray and Banffshire, from at least the sixteenth century, though Celtic symbol stones incorporated in the house walls indicate an earlier and long history of settlement there. In 1507 the property belonged to Innes of Innes, passing for a short time from 1529 to the Sinclair's of Dunbeath(1). The Innes' were back again in 1616 when 'William Innes, a native of Morayshire was appointed Chamberlain or Factor over the property..... (taking).... his residence at Sandside'(2); he seems to have acquired the property as his own by 1625(3) and it remained in Innes hands until the late nineteenth century. Another William Innes gained local notoriety by killing Sinclair of Olrig in a duel in 1712, after which he wisely disappeared abroad for a time(4). This same William Innes died without an heir in 1747, leaving Sandside to his cousin, Harry Innes of neighbouring Borlum(5).

In a letter written in 1756 to the Dowager Lady (Mackay) of Bighouse, Harry Innes assured his correspondent that he would repay the money he loaned his mother to pay for his 'college' education(6). It must have been this 'college' educated Innes who was responsible for the mid-eighteenth century development of the Sandside estate. There is a neat two-storey, five-bay symmetrically fronted house dated 1751, with crowsteps, shaped centre gablet and internal 'scale and plat' staircase; the house resembles other built at this time by local 'bonnet lairds' such as Sweney and Watten Mains (1762). Harry must have been responsible for, or at least initiated the construction of, the magnificent series of high rubble walls enclosing gardens to the south and north-west, and the retaining walls of the garden stretching eastwards in front of the 1751 house. Either he or his successor, another William, built the good drystone dykes enclosing the surrounding fields(7), which, were enriched by exploiting the lime bed on the property(8). Other farm buildings of note are the linear dairy, bothy and implement shed dating from around 1800 and the later nineteenth century dovecote designed to accommodate pigeons shot for sport by being released from the mural 'traps' in the direction of the marksmen in the neighbouring field(9). Last but not least is the two-seater 'necessary-house' conveniently sited at the end of the garden path.

Major William Innes contributed on farming matters in the "General Review of Agriculture of the County of Caithness" published in 1812(10) and it was he who built the harbour at Sandside bay in about 1830. Here he not only provided facilities for the burgeoning fishing industry but he also ensured the means of export for his surplus grain to the expanding urban markets in the south, exploiting marine communication and transport, the sea being the main highway until the development of the Highland roads commenced by Thomas Telford and the Commission for Highland Roads and Bridges in the early part of the century and expanded thereafter. Sandside House faced east and seaward until it was altered and enlarged in 1889, when it was engulfed in a mansion orientated to the south and the new driveway linking it with the coast road, complete with gatelodge and stylish carriage gates(11).

Paramount in this remarkable complex of buildings is the kiln barn (Fig. 21) which appears to be of mid-eighteenth century construction and attributable to the lairdship of Harry Innes. Kilns, in which to dry grain for storage and processing in the damp climate of the north and west, were common in one form or another throughout the Highlands. One of the earliest known examples in Scotland was found in the corner of a late thirteenth century barn in the Viking settlement of Freswick(12). At Sibster and Hillhead(l3), both Wick Parish, there are good examples of the eighteenth century circular 'bottle kiln' type abutting the gable ends of the threshing/storage barns on those farms, a type traditionally associated with Caithness.

However, at Sandside the kiln is incorporated within the rectangular barn, as a structural part of the complex, resembling more closely two Banffshire examples, at Rothiemay (circa 1140)(14) (Fig. 22) and at Ballindalloch (circa 1800)(15). The overall external measurements of these three buildings are similar, but at Sandside the barn is of three instead of two-storey height, an indication of the quality of land and the quantity of grain produced.

Sandside is sited on a slight eminence, the barn orientated with the long elevations east and west to exploit the prevailing winds for winnowing. The crowstepped rectangular, three-storey building is constructed of impeccably worked rubble with tooled dressings and local stone slate roof. It combines kiln, work space, threshing floor besides storage in the upper lofts, while the long additional barn range at right angles provides further storage. One third of the space in the south end of the main barn is taken up by the kiln which rises through two storeys (it is now gutted. See section X-X, Fig. 21). Access to the kiln floor at first floor level is by a curved cantilevered staircase housed in a demi-octagonal external stair turret abutting the south gable (Fig. 21, Section Z-Z).

The kiln has a rounded ceiling pierced centrally by a neat flue rising through a small loft before terminating as the ridge chimney stack. It would have been shaped something like an inverted pear, with the narrow bottomed bowl expanding in circumference to a scarcement at first floor level, on which the kiln sticks rested, and domed above. This dome is pierced in its east and west sides by single small deeply splayed mural vents. A flooring of cross-bars of wood would have been placed across the kiln at first floor level, resting on the ledge of the scarcement and overlaid with a layer of straw to serve as a bed for the grain. This bed was warmed by the heat of the peat fire rising through the mural flue at the base of the kiln, opening into the ground floor of the stair outshot which also served as the firehouse, sheltering the farm servant tending the kiln. Dried peats for immediate use could have been stored under the stair(Fig. 21, Z-Z)(16).

Grain was carried up the stairs to the first floor doorway leading to the kiln floor (now blocked) and laid on the kiln bed; once dry it was removed to the grain lofts for storage. If there was a mural chute between the kiln floor and ground floor to facilitate the loading of sacks (as at Rothiemay) no evidence survives.

The remaining two-thirds of the ground floor area of the barn is taken up by the threshing area, with poosing winnowing doors east and west, each with single first and second floor loft windows symmetrically placed above. The east elevation entrance is flanked by later enlarged windows; originally these may have been narrow, splayed internally to provide light and ventilation to this dusty space. The ground floor is 3m high, allowing for the upward arm stretch of the thresher and his

flail, while the ceiling heights of the lofts above are lower. From the threshing floor a passage, lit by a small window in the west wall, passes behind the external staircase against the north gable, leading to the large storage barn at right angles, enabling unthreshed straw to be carried to the floor as needed without being exposed out of doors. Access to the first and second floor lofts is by the external stone stair, leading to a first floor entrance the door of which is furnished with a 'cat hole'. First and second floors are connected internally by a wooden stair, and from the upper storey there is a doorway to the small area in the roof space above the kiln, through which the kiln chimney rises. This roof space is remarkable for the quality of its masonry,its neatly constructed chimney and slab flooring, work that must be indicative of the quality of the now removed kiln. This loft is lit by two small windows in the south gable. No doubt it was a warm and cosy area when the kiln was in use!

With the advent of mechanical threshing and subsequently of combine harvesters and grain drying plants, the kiln barn has been superseded though at Sandside the name is still in use. The kiln floor has been removed and a large entrance slapped to it in the east wall, the area finding a new use as a bull pen. Enlarged windows flank the doorway to the winnowing floor, while that opposite in the west wall, together with the windows above, have been blocked. Otherwise the building stands virtually as when first constructed and the alterations, except to the kiln itself, have not greatly obscured the functional nature of the barn and its planning connected with the various operations of storing, threshing, winnowing and drying grain in mid-eighteenth century and later. Designed and built at the beginning of the 'agricultural improvement' age, it must, in its day, have been the most sophisticated agricultural building of its kind in the locality, an area long accustomed to kilns and the need to dry grain which the fertile lands of Caithness produced in abundance and shipped elsewhere in Scotland and overseas from harbours and sheltered landing sites.

Aberdeen University was probably Harry Innes' college,(17) and if there, it is reasonable to assume that he visited his Banffshire relatives and their neighbouring land-owners. The north-east was, and still is, a grain growing land in which sufficient eighteenth century steading complexes survive to indicate the widespread construction of 'improved' and planned farm buildings during that period. It seems likely, therefore, that the kiln barn at Rothiemay, or one similar but now disappeared, was the model for that at Sandside. Both are of major importance amongst agricultural buildings in Scotland.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Taylor of Sandside for enabling me to visit their estate and to Harry Gordon Slade and the Editor, Vernacular Building for permission to reproduce drawings of the Rothiemay kiln barn. This paper would never have been written had not Geoff Leet drawn up the plans of the Sandside barn for which I owe him particular thanks.


1 . J. Henderson, General View of Agriculture in the County of Caithness (1812), ppp. 245-252
2. James Calder. Civil and Traditional History of Caithness (1887), pp. 153-4
3. J. Henderson, op. cit., pp. 245-252
4. James Calder. op. cit., pp. 195-8
5. Ibid., pp. 195
6. Scottish Record Office, GD87/2/12/11
7. J. Henderson, op. cit., appendix p. 126
8. New Statistical Account xv (1840), p.15
9. Elizabeth Beaton 'Notes on three nineteen century Caithness dovecots', Caithness Field Club Bulletin (Oct. 1983), p. 168
10. J. Henderson, op cit., Appendix contributed by William Innes.
11. Enlarged and remodelled for the Pilkington family; architect James Matthews, Aberdeen. Information by courtesy, Mr. D. M. Walker
12. Alexander Fenton, Scottish Country Life (1976), p 95
13. ibid., P. 98, illustrated
14. Harry Gordon Slade, 'Rothiemay: an 18th century kiln barn', Vernacular Building 4 (1978), pp. 21-7
15. Now Bow Cottage, Ballindalloch. The upper portion of the kiln survives.
16. Alexander Fenton, op. cit. For an illustrated description on the working of corn drying kilns, See PP. 94-9
17. Harry Innes' names does not appear in Fasti Aberdonenses 1494-1854 (Spalding Club, 1854) but names from Caithness are listed, including Innes' from 'Sandsyde'. It is reasonable to suppose that Aberdeen University was his 'college'.

This article first appeared in the Caithness Field Club Bulletin  - April 1988

Elizabeth Beaton is the author of  "Caithness" An illustrated Architectural Guide published by Rutland Press ISBN 1 873190 27 1
It is available in Caithness book shops.