Crowsteps in Fife: The Flemish Connection, Part 2

Morvern French
Friday 13 December 2013

This guest blog is the second of two 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. This posting focuses in particular on the evolution of the use of pantiles in Fife. The two blog postings are based on a recent article published in the Institute of Historic Building Conservators’ journal Context, the full text of which can be found online:

Another factor that may have contributed to the prevalence of the distinctive Flemish style stepped gable in Fife was the increasing availability and use of pantiles for roofs that occurred at about the same time. Also known as Flemish tiles, this type of tile had developed in the Low Countries in the 15th and 16th centuries from the earlier Roman forms of roof tile. ‘Pan’ is Dutch for tile, although it is also suggested that the derivation may be from the Finnish ‘paan’ meaning shingle. At the beginning, in the 16th century, they were used only on high status buildings, but later, as the cost came down, assisted by better roads and larger scale local production, on ever more modest buildings, until they reached a peak in 19th century.

Thatched roofs may have already had roughly finished, slightly raised, gable walls, providing support for turf and thatch at the gables. The custom, however, was to take the thatch over the gable wall head. On changing to pantiles, which are particularly prone to being lifted by the wind, the established practice in the Low Countries of building up the gable wall to a level higher than the roof slope to provide added protection was adopted. So much so over time that Naismith in Buildings of the Scottish Countryside notes that “The stone skew is normal in Scotland…”

17th century house in Pittenweem
17th century house in Pittenweem

This vulnerability to wind lift even resulted in the Low Countries in the production of left-hand and right-hand versions to enable roofs to have the overlaps on the leeward side of the tile. Where fire or storm damage was not an issue, thatch remained the common roofing material well into 19th century. Pantiles have even on occasion been used as the sub-stratum to a thatched roof instead of turf. A raised skew would have provided similar added protection for a thatched roof as for a pantiled one. This produced a distinctive new architectural element, particularly prominent where buildings presented their gable wall to the street, ripe for embellishment. If the topography and plot dimensions resulted in a long elevation to the street a central curvilinear gablet or ‘Dutch’ tympan gable was sometimes added as well.

Mixture of red and grey pantiles
Mixture of red and grey pantiles

Pantiles were known in Scotland from 1669. Customs records and correspondence confirm that they were imported to this part of Scotland from Rotterdam in the last quarter of the 17th century. It is claimed they were imported as ballast in boats from the Low Countries, making the crossing to Fife for coal, salt and wool but there is no evidence of this. Conversely, there is evidence to suggest that pantiles were a valuable commodity, carefully stored on board.

As early as 1709 a consent was granted for digging clay for the manufacture of bricks and tiles, across the Forth from Fife, where the nearby town of Linlithgow was already importing pantiles. However, a significant event in the story of the development of this characteristic style of roof was when in 1714 William Adam, mason, entrepreneur and later of architect fame, started the first pantile works in Scotland, at Linktown of Abbotshall, Kirkcaldy, Fife. He had been forced to return home to Kirkcaldy from his studies at university in the Low Countries, to take over the family business on the death of his father. As well as his academic studies he had studied the manufacture of bricks and pantiles and no doubt been influenced by the houses he saw with shaped gables, built of brick and with pantiled roofs. He started the works in partnership with William Robertson of Gladney, his future father-in-law, and by 1716 was calling himself ‘Master of the Tyle Manufactory in the Links of Kirkcaldy’. Gladney House that he built in 1711 used imported pantiles and with its shaped gables would have had a consciously Dutch aspect.

At first pantiles were used mostly on prestige buildings. As the works became established and techniques improved, the price fell. An early building was nearby Aberdour Manse which was roofed in 1722. It was still a luxury item and most roofs remained thatch or turf. Tiles continued to be shipped from Holland and Flanders. Some of the affluent burgh towns could support their own brick and tile works. Cupar for example had a seam of suitable clay by its river even though it had to import coal. From its first brick and tile kiln in 1764, producing small quantities of tiles, it was by 1811 producing 150,000. Pantiles also need a relatively even surface to be laid on so must have sawn or evenly split timbers for at least the tile battens. At first it was only economic to lay them on prestige buildings. Even where there was a supply of suitable timber from water powered saw mills it was still expensive until the advent of steam mills.

Transport costs had also restricted the market. At first roads were poor or non-existent. It was easier to transport by sea and supply the east coast towns. To make pantiles, in addition to water, fuel was needed in relative proximity to the right alluvial clay, and this was present as coal along the south east coast of Fife. The clays produced the characteristic red pantile and also an unusual distinctive blue-grey variation.

Over time, aided by improvements in roads under the Turnpike Acts (1780-1800), the market grew steadily. The start of the 19th century saw the benefits of steam power, and the industrial and agricultural revolutions increased demand for roofing tiles and clay drainage tiles. The General View of the Agriculture of the County of Fife, drawn up by the Board of Agriculture & Improvement and published in 1800, noted that: “Brick and tyle are manufactured at Cupar, Kirkaldy, and Leven. About 750,000 are made annually; and the duty is about £300.” Incidentally, there is no recommendation in this document regarding the use clay ‘tiles’, as the pipes were known, as a method of improving the drainage of land. It was not until the mid-19th century when the extrusion method of machine-making clay pipes (using Thomas Scragg’s patented method) that they became cheap enough to be widely used. Similar technical improvements helped the manufacture of pantiles move away from the past laborious hand method of production. The east of Scotland, and particularly Fife, led the agricultural revolution. Their use in land drainage and for new buildings, as part of the farming improvements which replaced the former ‘runrig’ system, helped fuel a rapid growth in tile and brick production and availability. Climate also helped to concentrate the use of pantiles and create a recognisable regional style. On the western side of the country heavier rainfall and access to slates saw less used than on the drier east coast. Further helped by the removal of the Brick and Tile Tax of 1784, use peaked in the first decades of the 19th century.

Just as with the extensive re-introduction of the stepped gable in post WWI rebuilding in Belgium, pantiles have been re-introduced in Fife as elsewhere, sometimes not without, at least initially, controversy. Early projects were Sailors Walk, Kirkcaldy in the 1950s, Rossend Castle, Burntisland in 1975 and from the 1960s on the many other buildings re-roofed in Fife as part of the National Trust for Scotland Little Houses Scheme.

Matthew Price
December 2013

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.


J. Bell, Broomlees Tile Works (2005) Elie and Earlsferry History Society

G. L. Pride, Dictionary of Scottish Building (The Rutland Press, 1996)

The Journal of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland (1989)

D. Howard (ed.), William Adam: Architectural Heritage (Edinburgh University Press)

G. Emerton, The Pattern of Scottish Roofing (2000)

Historic Scotland Research Report, ISBN 1903570

Historic Scotland, Rural Buildings of the Lothians: Guide for Practitioners

Stuart Eydmann, ‘Pantiles’, in Moses Jenkins (ed.), Building Scotland:
Celebrating Scotland’s Traditional Building Materials
2010: John Donald), pp. 143-155.

F. Bennett F and A. Pinion, Roof Slating and Tiling (Donhead Publishing. 1935, rpt. 2000)