East Neuk Pantiles

Clay pantiles are the east of Scotland’s most iconic roof covering but little is known about the early use and extent of these clay roof tiles.

Crowstep Gable and Pantiles, Cellardyke

Crowstep Gable and Pantiles, Cellardyke

Clay pantiles are the east of Scotland’s most iconic roof covering but little is known about the early use and extent of these clay roof tiles; so few assemblages have been excavated they are still an understudied aspect of our architectural history. Evidence of early use of ceramic roof tiles is scant and it is other forms of hard roof covering such as slate or stone that survive more prolifically in the archaeological record.

The use of ceramic roof tiles starts to appear in Scotland in the late 12thC with early glazed examples having been found at St Andrews and on the Isle of May, but these were flat tiles of indigenous manufacture, what we identify today as pantiles are a relatively recent alternative. The first reference we have to these plain terracotta tiles is from1669, although they were in use long before this, and their distinct curved contour appears to be the result of combining the main features of the flat and semi-cylindrical tiles, that formed overlocking Roman roofs, into a single tile profile. Indeed pantiles are quite often erroneously referred to as ‘Roman’ tiles.

With a pantile roof only requiring a single overlap it correspondingly only weighed two thirds of an equivalent flat tile roof, and a fraction of a stone roof. Also being able to be laid at a lower pitch this new durable roof covering soon started replacing thatch and turf and was used as a cheaper alternative to slate or stone roofs. Clay pantile roofs are historically, and still are, very much concentrated on the east coast of Scotland, particularly in the East Neuk of Fife where they are an iconic part of the vernacular architecture clustered around the harbours of fishing and maritime trading towns and villages. These coastal settlements had traded so successfully with the continent since the 11thC they were granted licence from the Crown for their mercantile commerce to become Royal Burghs. Records from the late 16th and 17th centuries show their harbours were Fife’s epicentres for continental import and export of goods.

Skynfast Haven, Cellardyke, by Peter AnsonSkynfast Haven, Cellardyke, by Peter Anson

Merchant’s vessels from Anstruther, Crail, Pittenweem, and St Monans took industrial quantities of coal, salt and herring to Denmark, Flanders, and the Baltic ports to return with cargoes of timber, hides, wines, ceramics, bricks, and “holle dakpan”, or ‘roof tiles with hollows’, as the concave pantiles were described. The production of these clay roof tiles, then often referred to as Flemish tiles, appear to have originated from the Low Countries when the government had ordered the use of fireproof building materials where houses of wood with straw roofs made urban fires frequent and very destructive. Large numbers of Fife’s coaling vessels would, after discharging their cargo of “Scots coals” and herring, instead of returning light and in ballast would embark cargoes of mixed merchandise, including quantities of these “Flemish” tiles and bricks. On these particular items there was no excise duty payable so profit was maximised, making them a popular commodity to import – which discouraged home manufacture.

There is oft repeated East Fife folklore which perpetuates the myth that the early Flemish tiles were brought back as opportunist ballast by fishing boats. Although the truth is that like all the other goods loaded into merchant’s vessels at overseas ports for the return voyage, these tiles were simply another item of paying cargo deliberately imported as goods for the home market. Another folklore mainstay is that the name ‘pantile’ was latterly attributed to the Flemish tiles because “they were moulded in a wooden pan”, whereas the origin of the name is even simpler. ‘Dakpan’, in Dutch, is ‘rooftile’ and with the English language’s gift for assimilating and corrupting foreign words into its own lexicon ‘holle dakpan’ has become contracted and debased to ‘pan’-tile.

Initially imported Flemish tiles only appeared on significant buildings as they were a relatively expensive item, but when their production started in Scotland their cost reduced and availability increased.

There is no evidence yet known which says that pantiles were actually produced in Fife before the beginning of the 18thC but it is claimed that in 1714 William Adam “introduced the making of ‘Dutch’ pantiles in Scotland”at his works in Kirkcaldy. Although it is worth noting that this claim was made by one John Clark, who just happened to be Adam’s son-in-law. This is patently an example of classic 18thC self-aggrandisement, though with possibly some validity regarding the mass production of pantiles. Even though the first documentary record of clay roof tile manufacture in the Forth area only dates to 1709, they would have undoubtedly been produced long before that. As soon as a market opportunity was identified for this type of tile, kiln owners would have copied them and started manufacturing them all over east Scotland.

Whether Adam’s Kirkcaldy tile works was the first, or not, can be argued but it is from around this time that most places in eastern Scotland rapidly developed their own works to produce quantities of this simple tile as and when needed. Quite quickly the trade in tiles from Holland became uneconomic and unnecessary as Scottish pantiles could be produced in greater quantities, cheaper, on demand and available from a tile and brick works just down the road.

And as the number of tile producing works increased the use of pantiles grew to become more widespread until they became the most common roof covering in the 19thC.

Steve Liscoe,
Professional Assistant, Planning Services, Fife Council

East Neuk pantiles stacked

East Neuk pantiles