Wednesday 27 March 2013


The little book was discovered sitting in the second-hand bookshop amongst all of the other sundry items that refused to fit into the categories of Cooking, Biography, History, Travel, Humour, Art, and Fiction. The shelves in this section of the shop have no label - not even ‘Non-fiction.’ Here everything from philosophy and science, to theology and mathematics, along with other sundry singular subjects, was placed side by side in no particular order. It has always been a favourite place where little discoveries in the assembled chaos can be made, like this one:

Thomas Merton, Seeking Paradise, The Spirit of the Shakers, Orbis Books, New York, 2003.

It is a small publication with an innocuous pale grey green dust jacket with a darker grey green text, and a red ochre title on the spine: Seeking Paradise. The greenish colour reminds one of that being used on the new, anonymous cigarette packaging in Australia that replaces commercial brands and logos with a sickly olive green and an awful photo of a diseased lung or mouth, because research showed that this colour was the least attractive to consumers.

The book would have been described as ‘in fine condition’ if it had been listed in a catalogue. I had already flicked past the thin edge of its glossy cover on to other more eye-catching colours and titles. Because of these distractions and the difficulty of actually seeing what one is really looking at in the ad hoc arrangement of books, I usually go back over the shelves to check on what I might have missed - what I might not have seen. It was during this second perusal that the name caught my eye: Thomas Merton. The thought arose: this might be interesting. What is it about? Then the remainder of title appeared on the front of the book: The Spirit of the Shakers.

On opening this little book, I gained the impression that it was something of a coffee table publication. It was a general collection of Merton’s texts on the Shakers with other commentaries and some of his correspondence. It seemed forced - a very self-conscious effort to get a ‘Merton’ title out again. The book did have some fuzzy black and white photographic images of Pleasant Hill, a Shaker village in Kentucky. Umm, interesting; but was it merely a potboiler? I carried the book around while I looked at others, then put it back; then later picked it up again. I thought that at least it would be a nice reference for Shaker images - the photographs that Merton had taken himself. So I purchased it, took it home and put it aside to be read whenever.


Whenever came sooner than expected, what with the continuation of the heavy, flooding rain that the region, (southeast Queensland), has been receiving for many weeks (early 2013). Such days are always a good excuse to stay indoors and do ‘nothing.’ The book was a surprise. It was always Merton’s aim to publish something on the Shakers, but the ambition came to nothing. This publication gathered together his texts and letters on the subject and his photographs. It is a cryptic book, perhaps not one the Merton would have written - Merton died in Bangkok in 1968 - but it does contain the essence of his thinking. It is a beautiful little publication that needs more attention, not only in its reading, but also because of the potential impact it might hold today as an ideal, an inspiration: the spirit of the Shakers.

What are of interest in the appraisal of this text are the parallels with American modernism. The question has to be asked: what role did the Shakers play in the formulation of the theory of modernism. Notions like ‘every force evolves a form’ are very close to Sullivan’s ‘form follows function.’ Merton identifies the Shaker spirit as having truly American roots. So what is the role, if any, of the Shaker ‘spirit’ in the transformation of architectural thinking rising from Sullivan (Kindergarten Chats) and Frank Lloyd Wright? This needs to be revisited, reviewed. Was it just ‘something in the air’ of those times? Consider the idea of ‘honesty,’ ‘simplicity,’ ‘spiritual purity,’ of being ‘better adapted to the particular need for which it was required,’ and of how a building might ‘fit into its location.’

Beyond all of these concepts, there is the sense and value of work - that Zen quality of collecting wood and carrying water; and the importance of humility. This little book touches on such big subjects with such an ordinary authority and a real commitment that it is a surprise. It presents us with a challenge. We discard our past only too quickly as we rush into the promises of the ever new. Perhaps it is time to pause, to learn again from the past - from the roots of modernism? If we are ever to know more about where we are going, we need to know more about where we have come from.


Both ways of life, (that of the Shakers and the monastic life following the Rule of St. Benedict), stressed the virtue of humility. The chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict on humility is one of the longest and most structured chapters of his rule as he lays out the twelve steps of humility. Similarly, the Shakers were admonished about using superfluous decoration and encouraged to avoid things that were expensive and extravagant. The Shakers’ belief in humility is summed up succinctly in many of their songs, including their most famous one, “The Gift to Be Simple”:

When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

To turn, turn will be our delight

‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.

Merton writes of the humility practiced by the Shakers saying:

The Shakers remain as witnesses to the fact that only humility keeps a man in communion with truth, and first of all with his own inner truth. This one must know without knowing it, as they did. For as soon as a man becomes aware of “his truth” he lets go of it and embraces the illusion.

In the Rule of St. Benedict the craftsmen of the monastery were instructed to practice their crafts “with all humility,” and if a monk gets a “swollen head because of his skill in his craft,” the Abbot was not to allow him to practice that craft again until “his pride has been humbled.” Similarly, a Shaker could be moved from a particular craft if there was evidence of “unseemly pride.”


Within many traditions one can identify the concept that work, manual labor, helps to purify the soul and bring it closer to God. Any chore in either the monastic or Shaker life could become an opportunity to serve both God and the community. Within the Buddhist tradition this is called “mindfulness”; in business circles managers would call it “focus”; for the Shakers it is summed up in their motto “put your hands to work and your hearts to God,” or again in another saying, “a man can show his religion as much in measuring onions as he can in saying hallelujah.”

Merton was a strong advocate of manual labor in the monastic life, but he best witnesses to the holiness of work in his descriptions of the regular round of chores in his life at the hermitage. His essay “Day of a Stranger” clearly describes the rhythm of his hermit life, the daily chores of the hermitage all embraced with mindfulness and given as much importance as his prayer and his work of writing. In a letter of this time Merton writes of his work:

Cutting wood, clearing ground, cutting grass, cooking soup, drinking fruit juice, sweating, washing, making fire, smelling smoke, sweeping, etc. This is religion. The further one gets away from this, the more one sinks in the mind of words and gestures. The flies gather.

Merton was emphasizing here, as St. Benedict does in his rule, the sacredness of work. St. Benedict compares the workman’s tools to the chalice and other tools of the altar, instructing the cellarer of the monastery that “the monastery utensils and all its belongings he is to regard as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.” Similarly, for the Shakers, work equaled prayer and one could achieve a meditative state of worship in whatever task one was doing because all work was undertaken for God.

p. 36 –37

For example, he (Merton) writes in The Waters of Siloe:

Forest and field, sun and wind and sky, earth and water, all speak the same silent language, reminding the monk that he is here to develop like the things that grow all around him . . . even the site of a Cistercian monastery is, or ought to be, a lesson in contemplation.

He also writes:

When the monks had found their homes, they not only settled there, for better or for worse, but they sank their roots into the ground and fell in love with their woods. Indeed, this love of one’s monastery and its surrounding is something integral to the Cistercian life. It forms the object of a special vow: stability.


The Shakers, like the early Cistercians, appreciated the importance of place. They carefully chose sits for their communities, and often the place and their religious aspirations were reflected in the names they gave their communities – Pleasant Hill, New Lebanon, and Sabbathday Lake, for example.

The sense of place in both the Shakers and the Cistercians embraced the architecture of their buildings, an architecture characterized by its simplicity. . . . Merton touched on the qualities of Cistercian architecture in The Waters of Siloe:

Cistercian architecture is famous for its energy and simplicity and purity, for its originality and technical brilliance. It was the Cistercians who effected the transition from the massive, ponderous Norman style to the thirteenth-century Gothic, with its genius for poising masses of stone in mid-air, and making masonry fly and hover over the low earth with the self-assurance of an angel.

The typical Cistercian church, with its low elevation, its plain, bare walls, lighted by few windows and without stained glass, achieved its effect by the balance of masses and austere, powerful, round or pointed arches and mighty vaulting. These buildings filled anyone who entered them with peace and restfulness and disposed the soul for contemplation in an atmosphere of simplicity and poverty.

These descriptions could be applied equally well to a great deal of Shaker architecture. Merton’s words in those quotations remind me specifically of the great round stone barn at the Shaker Village of Hancock in Massachusetts. This barn, built in 1826, has the feel of a cathedral. While there visiting the village I was struck with wonder upon entering the barn, a sense of awe at the harmonious effect of light, scent, architecture and wood, experienced as a deep sense of peace.


Writing many years later about Shakers, after having visited Pleasant Hill, Merton commented on the “extraordinary, unforgettable beauty” of their buildings and furniture brought about, like the Cistercians, through their attempts to “build honest buildings and to make honest sturdy pieces of furniture.” Merton also refers to this in some of his unfinished notes describing examples of work sensitive to logoi, to the true Word spoken by God:

Shaker handicrafts, and furniture. Deeply impregnated by the communal mystique of the Shaker community. The simplicity and austerity demanded by their way of life enabled an unconscious spiritual purity to manifest itself in full clarity. Shaker handicrafts are then a real epiphany of logoi.

Charactized by spiritual light.

See also their buildings. Barns especially. Highly mystical quality: Capaciousness, dignity, solidity, permanence. Logos of a barn? “But my wheat, gather ye into my barn.”

Note: It is never a question of a “barn” in the abstract and in on definite place: the Shaker farm building always fits right into its location, manifests the logos of the place where it is built, grasps and expresses the hidden logos of the valley, or hillside, etc. which forms its site. Logos of the site. Important in Cistercian monasteries of twelfth century.

Merton picks up this same theme in relation to Shaker furniture in his introduction to Religion in Wood, writing that “neither the Shakers nor Blake would be disturbed at the thought that a work-a-day bench, cupboard, or table might also and at the same time be furniture in and for heaven.”


where ordinary objects could portray an extraordinary, unexpected beauty


In Shaker work there is a certain Edenic innocence as each item that the craftsman makes is a participation in God’s work of creation and the craftsman’s ideal was to make each object to best fulfil its vocation. This gave their work “an inimitable honesty,” as Merton famously says, “the peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.” In both their work and worship the Shakers attempted to be “attuned to the music intoned in each being by God the Creator and by the Lord Jesus.”


There is at times in Merton an almost Luddite attitude to technology and technological progress. Although the Shakers were great inventors and were happy to embrace the latest technology, their motives for doing so remained pure, and this must have been attractive for Merton. Merton write of their work’s inimitable honesty which one “cannot find in the slick new model of the latest car, tailored to some unearthly reptilian fowl and flashing with pointless gadgetry, marketed to replace other models designed for obsolescence, and to be replaced itself without delay.” He asks whether it is still possible in our own time for the Shaker spirit to exist when our “lives are in full technological, sociological, and spiritual upheaval” - can Shaker craftsmanship and its spirit “find a way to direct and inform machine production?” These are questions as valid today as they were when Merton posed them.

For Merton, the Shakers “exemplified the simplicity, the practicality, the earnestness, and the hope that have been associated with the United States,” and they acted out their conviction with a full awareness of the world around them, aware that the serpent had already entered into the paradise of the New World, that

already the irresponsible waste of mine and forest, of water and land, the destruction of bison and elk, were there to show that Paradise was not indefinitely self-sustaining.


the Shaker “gift of simplicity” was a “true American charism.”

(NOTE: charism - In Christian theology, a charism (in Greek: χαρίσμα; plural: charismata) in general denotes any good gift that flows from God's love to man. The word can also mean any of the spiritual graces and qualifications granted to every Christian to perform his or her task in the Church. In the narrowest sense, it is a theological term for the extraordinary graces given to individual Christians for the good of others.[1] Wikipedia)

p.60 - 62

The most eloquent witness to the Shaker spirit is the fruit of their labor. Anyone who knows anything about furniture realizes that today a mere stool, a coat hangar, a simple box made by the Shakers, is likely to be worth a good sum: and this is not because an artificial market for such things has been created, but because of their consummate perfection, their extraordinary unselfconscious beauty and simplicity. There is, in the work of the Shakers, a beauty that is unrivalled because of its genuine spiritual purity - a quality for which there is no adequate explanation, but which can be accounted for in part by the doctrine of the Shakers themselves and their monastic view of manual work as an essential part of Christian life.

(NOTE: one of the greatest of ironies is that the British artist, Damien Hurst, one of most cynical practitioners of his profession, collects Shaker furniture. It seems clear that he has learned nothing from its qualities when, for example, he gleefully promotes his spin art that has been done by, well, anyone, Mandy, Will or otherwise, all to be sold for ‘millions,’ like his diamond skull, which actually did reach the multi-million figure asked for it. Here he, Hurst, the artist, was a member of the group that paid these millions of dollars for this piece that was crafted by others. The strategy seemed to be that Hurst wanted to make sure that the sale of the skull achieved the massive sum that he asked for it. Hurst appears to be interested in manipulating the market of art with his work. His interest in Shaker furniture is a puzzle. Perhaps he knows its future market value? Sadly it seems that nothing of its spirit and idealism has rubbed of into his attitude or his work.)

Like the earliest monastic documents, they spoke of the “work of God” which they were called upon to do: the work of building God’s “Millennial Church.”


Sometimes the simple Shaker maxims remind one of William Blake. This one, for instance: “Order is the creation of beauty. It is heaven’s first law, and the protection of souls.” Or especially this other: “Every force evolves a form.”


Work was to be perfect, and a certain relative perfection was by all means within reach: the thing made had to be precisely what it was supposed to be. It has, so to speak, to fulfil its own vocation. The Shaker cabinetmaker enabled wood to respond to the “call” to become a chest, a table, a chair, a desk. “All things ought to be made according to their order and use,” said Joseph Meacham. The work of the craftsman’s hands had to be an embodiment of ‘form.’ The form had to be an expression of spiritual force.

(Consider Louis Kahn: “What a things wants to be.”)

. . .

Nothing was done by rote or by slavish imitation. The workman also had a vocation: he dad to respond to the call of God pointing out to him the opportunity to make a new chest of drawers like the ones that has been made before, only better. Not necessarily better in an ideal and absolute sense, but better adapted to the particular need for which it was required. Thus the craftsman began each new chair as if it were the first chair ever to be made in the world!

One can imagine, then, the Edenic innocence which the special glory and mystery of Shaker work. Here we admire, not the Titanic creativity of the self-conscious genius, aware of a possible mission to disturb and to awaken the world (and perhaps infuriated by his promethean calling). Shakers were not supposed to sign their work, or flaunt trade marks. Their only advertisement was thew work itself, and the honesty with which the product was set before the buyer.

(Compare Wight’s refusal to put a name on the Johnson Wax Building.)


“spirit,” “form,” and “actualization” are all one and the same.

Shakers believed their furniture was designed by angels - and Blake believed his ideas for poems and engraving came from heavenly spirits.

Saturday 23 March 2013


The advertisement in The Shetland Times of 30 November 2012, was headed 'DA KILN Restaurant,' and told about a special deal. Strangely, there was no mention of the location of this restaurant, so a telephone call was made to ask the question.

"Da Kiln."

"Hello. There was no mention of the location of the restaurant in your advertisement in The Shetland Times. Can you please tell me where Da Kiln Restaurant is?"

"It's a cafe next to Da Kiln Bar."

"Where is the bar?"

"In Scalloway."

Not wanting to continue with the next question that might only get a similar, clipped response requiring ever more follow-up questions to achieve the desired result, I thanked the voice and hung up.

Surely I could find this bar in little Scalloway?

Scalloway, Shetland

It was clear that this person had no understanding of the circumstance of one's not knowing where this cafe/bar might be. Any question seeking some clarification on this location appeared strange, unnecessary. This must have been why no address was given in the newspaper too. It was just irrelevant. Local knowledge knew what it knew. There was no need for any further statement.

It reminded me of the time at a petrol station in country New South Wales in Australia. We had stopped for fuel. A young man came over to serve the petrol, an unusual occasion in our self-service world. As he was filling the tank, I thought I should chat to him. Sacks of potatoes were piled beside the browser with a price scribbled on a nearby card.

"Are these potatoes local?" I asked.

"No," he answered, "they're from over there."

He raised his arm and pointed to the other side of the road.

How local can one get?

The barman at Da Kiln seemed to hold a similar scale of operation and context, and an inability comprehend space and place beyond the local need not to have to explain such things.


This reminds me of the time a young boy was playing on the scaffold we were working on while cleaning slates. He gabbled on and on, unstoppable. He started talking about his visits to his grandfather's place in England. To show some interest in his constant chat, the question was asked:

"Where about in England does your grandfather live?"

"Near Tescos," was the response.

The barman at Da Kiln might have appreciated this answer, but it meant very little to me.

Not only is a broad understanding of relationships needed to be able to explain directions and locations precisely, but one also needs to think beyond things local. Envisaging things local in so limited a scope only makes one unable to understand the needs of others. Everything becomes parochially introverted. The stranger and his needs are just never understood.

On the larger scale of cultures and religions, it is this lazy and careless limitation in understanding that causes so much strife. It is not only polite to show some interest in another being, it is also essential to get a true understanding and appreciation of others if we are going to live together co-operatively and peacefully. The place to begin this strategy is at home - ironically locally, intimately. It requires the ability to respond appropriately. It is our responsibility.

Empathy - it is a quality that architects must have, and a subject that should to become a part of the architectural debate, because buildings, too, need to understand people: how they 'speak to them.' Too many buldings today are 'local' like the barman, indulging in their own interests, blind to the needs of others.The question is: what must we do to imporve the empathy of buildings?

Thursday 21 March 2013


In his book, Medieval Architectural Drawing, in the first chapter titled Stone-carvers: Identities and Drawings, Arnold Pacey ponders the possibilities of the impacts drawings might have had on the stone carvings in the cathedrals, and uses these ideas to interpret that various works comparatively. The extract included here shows an interesting analysis of the subject. The position is different in that it uses lived experience to assess the changes in the appearance of things, identifying how one might think, feel, see and act can change outcomes. The text acknowledges the presence of flesh and blood in the production of things rather than merely rely on ordinary abstract notions of intellectualism and academia: like Pevsner’s point on sketchbooks, as if these were simply so. Without ever knowing, he poetically and somewhat fancifully establishes the notion of stone-carvers: ‘returning with their sketchbooks full of . . . careful drawings of realistic French capitals, which they reproduced when they came back’ (p.17) - as if this was necessarily so (as Wittgenstein said of the often repeated scientific predictive boast of the new discovery in five or ten years’ time). The Pacey text describes how a hand drawing can inform the eye and vice versa; and how the process is selective. It is an important piece that needs thoughtful reverie.

The relevance for architects needs to be noted. Our era has discarded drawing in favour of the pushing of buttons and the touching of surfaces rather than involving a hand delineating what the eye sees and what the body feels, with the use of some substance that can leave a mark on a surface as guided by the body. What are we missing by this change? Did the substance and surface, and the body, have an impact on outcomes? Does this change start to explain why our architecture has become cold and intellectual, rational in its limited approach to references and outcomes, even when extreme and quirky? I am thinking of O. Gehry’s inspirational crumpled paper. Are we burdened with the limitations of a copying-like process that extracts more and more from the origins to become schematic versions of a schematic version of some vague original concept? Pacey’s perceptions that use Givens’ inspired subtle observations need to be reviewed in the context of how the architect works today. Is drawing an essential part of the process - visual thinking? What are the implications of this change? How can feeling best be incorporated in this process and product?

Does Pacey’s analysis explain why copies of other architect’s works, or buildings inspired by another’s idea, say, for an easy example, the ‘Masters,’ Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, are always so poor, weak, a shell or fragment of the original source - hollow? Does the copy problem - entropy - explain the demise of the International style that became more and more copies of copies - shallow, thin, without any feeling for person or place? Is this the problem that we have returned to today? The text needs consideration and review. We must become aware of what our technologies are doing to us, indeed, have done to us, if we are to produce work that embodies substance and quality, depth and life, or else we are just walking, working, in the dark.

Pacey has shown us something else too: our feeling and our response to things can be used to gauge outcomes of other eras; can help us understand other times and processes because we are no different to these folk. Our manipulations, the sense and feeling for and of chalk, stone and chisel give the same response to the question, ‘what must I do?’ as others experienced some hundreds of years ago. While we like to gloss over things with our world view that sees our time as the most progressive, the best ever, the cleverest ever, the smartest ever - that sees ourselves as uniquely different - we fail to ever contemplate that in their unique context, other times may have been richer and more complicated and advanced than ours - without any qualifications or ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. We may be less; worse off. Just look at the work of the mediaeval carvers and masons and ask the question: could we do this today? Look at Chartres. Does our work hold such depth, relevance and substance? It is not a matter of reconstructing or reproducing these things of other eras. It is not about copying these things. It has to do with finer, more delicate issues of art: feeling and form. Our arrogance, like that expressed most blatantly by our politicians, seems to know no bounds or shame. It knows no limits: we are the greatest ever: I am. We stride out blindly as we trample on others and on other times with our total, bold, digital disregard: with the finger in the air.

We really have much to learn, the most basic aspect of which is humility, honesty and a trust in our feelings, for we can use these to sense those of others, to be aware of their being, both in the present and past: to be responsible - able to respond. It will surely improve our architecture, and our wellbeing too.

Arnold Pacey, Medieval Architectural Drawing, Tempus Publishing, Gloucestershire, 2007.


It is certainly possible that English craftsmen had travelled and had sketched carvings at Reims (and perhaps at the Sainte Chapelle in Paris). However, Jean Givens makes the important point that no matter how much carvers copied work by colleagues, there is a considerable difference between a carver copying a sculpture and copying a living plant. Looking at a living plant, a sculptor starts with an immense amount of visual information from which to select details for making an image in stone. The leaves of the plant will be traversed by more veins than can be shown in stone, while the different textures of the top and underside of a leaf may have to be merely implied. Copying a sculpted plant, though, the carver is presented with pre-selected information. Somebody else has already made decisions about what can be represented in stone and what has to be ignored.

Thus, Givens concludes, the results of different craftsmen studying nature will be much more varied than if they were studying other craftsmen’s carvings. If carvers always copy other carvings (or drawings of carvings) there is a loss of accuracy and detail each time. Yet, as Givens observes, the Southwell carvings are often more accurate than those at Reims, and are ‘more descriptive’. This ‘suggest the observation of life rather than exclusively the copying of images.’ Plant species can more often be identified in the carvings at Southwell than at Reims or Westminster.

This conclusion can seem to imply that the Southwell carvers worked directly from plant specimens. However, ‘observation of life’ by artists is not a matter of one-off inspection. Repeated attempts are usually made to draw or model the object of interest, and in each attempt the detail of the object will be better understood and different decisions will be made about what to illustrate and what to ignore. Therefore, in addition to drawings made at other buildings where similar carving was done, the Southwell carvings definitely show evidence of drawing or carving from life.

Examples of masons’ drawings that survive on the continent are often drawn using a stylus or leadpoint, to be inked in later, and may be on poor quality parchment, much reused. But because parchment was expensive, it is possible that a stone-carver would go through the preliminary sketching phase using other media, perhaps working in chalk on a board or slate. Thus although drawings on parchment were certainly used at this time, there is a likelihood that other media also were used for rough sketches.

Despite such considerations, there have been several distinguished writers on medieval sculpture who have argued that the reason why no drawings seem to survive for carvings such as those at Southwell, is that sculptors made no drawings. They carved directly onto the stone. To anybody personally accustomed to making drawings themselves, this view is not really credible. A skilled carver working directly on stone could certainly produce impressive works of art, but the creative achievement would usually be a response to the material and we would not expect naturalism. This latter kind of art arises from an intimacy of observation that comes from repeated attempts tp sketch or model a particular subject, and from the visual thinking stimulated by drawing. It even seems possible that the outburst of naturalistic carving that arose in the thirteenth century was made possible because more drawing was being done than earlier in the Middle Ages.

NOTE: 29 October 2014
For more on drawing and photography see:

Monday 18 March 2013


The hypothesis that the timber construction of mediaeval roofs arose from the design of boats that were once inverted to be used for shelter, has always been an interesting theory that is difficult to prove. The unique intricacy of these roof structures makes the idea persuasive. There seems nothing more sensible than a boat being used for a roof: both boat and roof need to keep water at bay. This common function that accommodates two ideas in one object brings an Irish joke to mind: “Paddy, what is the height of that ladder lying there?” “I don’t know; but I can give you its length.” Here, one object becomes a boat or a roof. The idea is fascinating if only for the appropriateness of the inversion. There are no aplogies to any function or form; no guile; no manipulation; just the enrichment of a new integrity.

The newly erected replica of a Viking long house at Haroldswick, Unst - the island that carries the cliché subtitle, Shetland’s 'most northerly isle’ - has been constructed out of dry stone walls around a log-framed roof. There is no indication here of any subtlety that might suggest nautical origins in this rudimentary structure that seems to have more in common with the post-beam-rafter model of the Japanese house than anything marine. Indeed, given the lack of trees on Shetland - all of the hundreds of logs for this build were imported from Norway - one is tempted to suggest that the archaeological research for this reconstruction is flawed: such is the credibility of the commonsense in the idea of using boats for shelter when materials and labour were scarce, and when there was a necessity to provide protection quickly. All that was needed for a roof was the upturning of the boat that the newcomers had arrived in.  

A quick review of early Viking settlements does indicate house forms similar to that reconstructed on Unst: a low earth-and-turf-covered gable/hip roof on top of dry stone walls. So what is this boat-roof idea? Where did it come from? Looking at the replica Viking longship standing next to this new building, (it was sailed across from Norway to prove a point), one could wonder if it was indeed possible to ever get this weighty mass turned upside down, necessity or not!

A small shed at Skaw, a place that is described by a variation of the cliché:Britain’s most northerly residence,’ does give some credence to the possibility that mediaeval timber roof structures did have a maritime origin. Such seafaring adaptations might have been a source of inspiration rather than a development or imporvement of an actual boat-roof example, even if only small scale exemplars of this phenomenon ever existed. The alternative is that the boat-roof relationship might simply come from a common technique introduced by the skills of timber workers involved in both boat building and general construction.

Located adjacent to the croft house a Skaw, a sixareen - a classic Shetland timber deep-sea fishing boat rowed by six men - has been inverted to become the roof of a shed. The beautiful swelling lines of this boat are on full display, as well as the simple rigour of the horizontal keel from which the whole boat is formed. The supporting dry stone walls that complete the enclosure have been carefully shaped to accommodate the three-dimensional form of this traditional boat that makes a marvellous roof. The celebrated lines are on full display. The curving transition from the vertical bow and stern balloons over the legendary broad beam. It is entrancing.

Whether this example proves anything is unknown, but it does add a poetically romantic, almost nostalgic touch to the possibility of a parallel between boat construction and mediaeval roof structures. It also provides a real example of the re-use of boats as roofs on Shetland and highlights the islanders' native ingenuity. Perhaps the building techniques for these and larger boats were the inspiration for those exotic, high delights of mediaeval times; but these spectacular structural wonders are not as subtly captivating as this simple Skaw boat-roof that is splendid: intriguing; mesmerising. It is a thing of wonder and beauty that remains such a basic and ordinary concept, unpretentious and transparent in its intent: innocently clever in its necessity. There is a living idea buzzing here, a vision that 'saw something as,' that is still reverberating - like Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit.

The talent involved in the completing of the enclosure can be clearly seen at Houlland in central Unst, where the stone walls remain without the boat-roof. Even with the timber boat shelter now gone, the ghost of its presence still remains in the clever forming of the walls: the boat-walls. It is this skill that one can see throughout the islands in the dykes - the dry stone walls that crisscross the naked hills to delineate fragmented fields. The astonishing scale, size and exactitude of these dividing walls never fail to amaze. They have all been assembled from a pile of rubble, just like the boat-walls. It is rustic masonry that can, at times, be seen to surpass that of some mediaeval stonework. Mousa broch comes to mind: see  The dykes are truly ageless; some may be mediaeval themselves.

 NOTE - 12 JUNE 2015
see also:

6 January 2019

NOTE - 15 JAN 2023


One of the more recent boat-roofs in Shetland has been constructed at Voe, a small village located at the end of Olna Firth, Mainland Shetland. It is a cute, compact shelter located at the pier adjacent to some traditional sheds.

But the traditional centre and most attractive part of Voe is around the pier that projects into Olna Firth from its south shore. The pier was at the heart of a herring station that was set up here in the 1800s. Olna Firth was also home to a whaling station operated by the Norwegian Whaling Company from 1904 until 1924. The pier has recently been extensively rebuilt to allow the development of a marina.

Today this part of the village retains its strong Scandinavian appearance. The pier now also services fish farming in Olna Firth. One side of its landward end is occupied by the workshops of the fish farming operation, while on the other is one of Shetland's camping bods.