Crowsteps in Fife: The Flemish Connection, Part 1
The Kingdom of Fife is known to be a part of Scotland where the Flemish settled and where their footprint can be discerned, even today. This guest blog is the first of two authored by Matthew Price that examine the influence of the historic links between Fife, particularly the East Neuk, and the Low Countries, including Flanders, on its distinctive style of vernacular architecture. The following is based on a recent article published in the Institute of Historic Building Conservators’ journal Context, the full text of which can be found on-line at: http://www.ihbc.org.uk/context_rw/march13/index.html
A characteristic feature of many of Fife’s vernacular buildings is the corbie or ‘crow-stepped’ gable that is often seen combined with a clay pantile roof, particularly in the picturesque East Neuk fishing villages. Although seen elsewhere along the eastern coast and inland, these distinctive roofs contribute much to their special character and sense of place. It is likely few of the many visitors who now enjoy these buildings will have paused to wonder why they are so common in this part of Scotland.
Fife’s historic burgh ports have had a long tradition of contact and trade with the Low Countries. As is so often the case, this was accompanied by an exchange of ideas, skills and even building materials. Bruges in Flanders (now northern Belgium) was the first Scottish Staple port in the 15th century that gave it trading rights, importing Scottish skins and wool which had been traded between the countries since the 12th century. The Staple Contract granted the port a monopoly on importing, storing and trading Scottish goods in the Netherlands. Later in the 16th century coal and salt replaced wool. When Bruges harbour silted up, the Staple moved to Middleburg, Zeeland (1518) and then to nearby Veere (1541), aka Campvere, which became the main Staple port. By the end of 18th century it had declined and by 1799 Rotterdam had taken over. In 1680 there were already more than a thousand Scots in Rotterdam. Two of the houses remaining from that time, occupied by Scottish traders, are the so called ‘Scottish Houses’ (Het Lammeken, built in 1539, and De Stuys, built in 1561) both of which, although much altered, have stepped gables (‘trapgevel’).
A close relationship with the Netherlands also existed further south, in East Anglia, where ‘Dutch’ gables are commonly seen in combination with pantile roofs. One gable style was the simpler regular, though often exaggerated, stepped gable. In the Netherlands these trapgevel became extremely common. There are many surviving examples also to be seen in Belgium and the Dutch colonial settlements. The historic perspective can be distorted though by more modern re-building in this style, such as occurred in Belgium. There large-scale post WWI reconstruction in the Flemish style had a major impact, ‘correcting the architecture’ and sometimes introducing crow-stepped gables where they did not previously exist. Early examples of stepped gables survive from the 15th century in England, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden and from the 16th century in Scotland.
Unlike East Anglia and the Netherlands, Fife did not have a tradition of building in brick but had an abundance of building stone. Stone, being less easy to fashion into intricate gable shapes than brick and render, no doubt favoured the simpler stepped style of gable. The old, narrow form of stepped gable, which developed in Scotland, however, had its own distinctive character, different from that seen on the continent. Also known as ‘crawstep’ or ‘crowstep’ gables, the breadth is no more than between 150mm and 200mm. Steps are on average 250mm high and the depth will vary, according to the roof pitch, between 150mm and 180mm. A variation can be found in Orkney that has examples of gables with diminishing sized steps. The later Gothic and Baronial styles of stepped gable, in the last quarter of the 19th century, belong more to the continent than to Scotland.
The second of this two part blog—posted next week—will focus on the use of pantiles, also known as Flemish tiles, in Fife.
The author is a Chartered Surveyor and former post-graduate in European Urban Conservation at Dundee. He has wide experience of the conservation of traditional buildings over a career that includes periods with the Scottish Lime Centre, Scottish Civic Trust and City of Edinburgh. A passion for vernacular buildings and the rich built heritage of this part of Scotland has seen a number of related articles published. He is currently Conservation Officer for Fife Council.
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