Timber cladding in Scotland

The study outlines the development of timber cladding in Scotland, describes timber clad buildings in Scotland, and provides practical information on the use of timber cladding in Scotland.

Timber Cladding in Scotland


Towards the end of the 18th century a series of technical and social changes began which, in the coming decades entirely transformed the lives of most people in Britain. The Industrial Revolution introduced a period unlike any other in the history of the British Isles and, by the mid-19th century, 80 years of industrialisation and agricultural change had seen Scotland's population double. The impact was immense:

  • Agricultural reform and improvement transformed much of rural Scotland;
  • New trade with the colonies brought unprecedented affluence and new raw materials;
  • Urbanisation grew rapidly as the population expanded. Glasgow, as one of the great engines of the Industrial Revolution, increased its population twelvefold during this period, with Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee also experiencing dramatic growth;
  • Technological change and improvements in transportation reduced costs, displaced handcraft production and gave birth to industries inconceivable a few decades previously;
  • The new availability of books and pamphlets facilitated a growing interchange of ideas.
The industrial revolution created new markets for timber cladding, and new types of cladding to supply those markets. Scottish building would never be the same again.
Swiss Cottage, Fochabers, c1820 is probably clad in homegrown Scots pine from Strathspey.


Evidence from the post-Industrial Revolution period is less circumstantial than from previous centuries, with information on various types of construction appearing in books, official reports, patent records, newspaper advertisements, trade catalogues, textbooks and contemporary photographs. There are also a large number of extant timber-clad buildings, although most of the 19th century survivors in Scotland date from the latter half of the century and have yet to be fully studied or recorded.

Historical photographs taken by some of the pioneer photographers show timber buildings, sometimes in unlikely situations. A photograph of Scalloway Castle, Shetland taken c.1900 shows a row of timber-fronted herring gutters' bothies within the confines of the castle. Similarly the George Washington Wilson photographic collection (held at Aberdeen University), shows numerous timber-clad buildings in the foreground of Kishmul Castle, Barra.

Descriptions are usually linked to a particular industrial process. A typical description - backed by a series of George Washington Wilson photographs - is of the smoking chimney brace (the large timber structure in which the fish are hung) used in the production of 'finnan' haddocks in Aberdeen.

Herring gutters huts stand in front of Scalloway Castle, Shetland.



Scotland underwent progressive transformation from the late 18th century. The 'great rebuilding' of rural England had taken place in the 17th century but Scottish law had prevented a similar movement in Scotland. Some Scottish landed estates, particularly in the Lothians, began to 'improve' their buildings in the early 18th century but it was not until the 1770s that the law was changed to allow 'improvements' on a grand scale. In the countryside new towns were established in the Highlands and new estate villages were created. During the early 19th century this movement spread throughout central Scotland and up the east coast and by the mid to late 19th century most of the Highlands had been transformed. The stone cottages and farm buildings that are now so characteristic of rural Scotland are the inheritance of this period.


In the 18th century the growth of trade with England re-oriented the commercial outlook of the country away from the North Sea and Baltic trade towards the Atlantic and the Caribbean. New timber species began to be imported and this increased during the 19th century as rapid trans-Atlantic shipping became possible.

In 1800, only 20% of Scots lived in towns of 5000 or more people, but by 1861 this had risen to 40% and by 1901 was almost 60%. Although many small towns were affected by this growth, it was the cities which were most transformed. By 1911 Scotland was the second most urbanised country in the world, exceeded only by England.

In the 19th century the legislative building control process initiated seven hundred years earlier by King David 1 reached its conclusion with new Scotland-wide regulations prohibiting the use of timber for external walls. This was supplemented by improvements in town planning which provided ample opportunity to force demolition. As a result, timber buildings in Scottish towns were demolished in a systematic way throughout the 19th century and advertisements regularly appeared in the local press offering timber from old houses or asking for tenders for demolition contracts. The royal burghs, formerly clad in timber, were now being completely reworked and, as the urban areas expanded, the character of Scotland's built environment switched to masonry.


While the 18th and 19th century building booms were sweeping away evidence for earlier timber building traditions, technology was introducing new opportunities for timber construction. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, only muscle power (or in exceptional cases, waterpower) was available for converting trees into timber. Consequently trees had either to be split or hewn to shape or slowly sawn with large two-person pit saws or water-powered frame saws. All this changed when English naval shipyards invented the circular saw in the 1780s, and mechanised planers were developed around the same time. Almost overnight, new processing technology - combined with the introduction of steam power - transformed timber construction, the best known development (initially in north America) being that of timber frame buildings using relatively small section sawn timbers fixed together with mass-produced nails.

In common with many other building materials, mechanisation resulted in the lower cost and greater availability of sawn softwood cladding boards. These newly available timber claddings were used in the production of temporary buildings, or permanent ones where the speed of erection of a prefabricated structure had distinct advantages. The London Evening News carried illustrations of prefabricated buildings being used in the Crimean War and the patent records of the early 19th century contained many examples of prefabricated timber-clad buildings designed for export to the colonies. These products were, however, quickly challenged by the introduction of metal claddings such as corrugated iron which came into use soon after the introduction of rolling mills for the production of iron and steel plate and sheet.



During the 18th century, the cost of producing printed books dropped dramatically. This was seized upon by architects and others wishing to exploit the potential offered by the 'great rebuilding' of the Scottish landed estates and the opportunities offered by colonists establishing themselves in the developing British Empire. Improvements in the printing process in the 19th century made it possible to produce elaborate publications and this, combined with a growing interest in Scotland in agricultural improvements, resulted in a further increase in books of building designs. Some of these 'pattern books' were small pamphlets dealing with a particular aspect of planning or construction, while others were collections of design drawings ranging in size and complexity from the factor or estate manager's house down to labourers cottages and bothies. Many included designs for half-timbered or timber-boarded dwellings and steadings. Possibly the most influential pattern books were produced by horticulturists and estate managers working with architects - the Scot, John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) for example produced his Encyclopedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture in 1833 on the back of a series of other encyclopaedias on farming, gardening and horticulture.
The introduction of new wood processing technology enabled the rapid growth of timber framed and timber clad buildings such as this mid 19th century railway station at Nairn.


A large number of timber-clad buildings survive in Scotland from the 19th and early 20th centuries and while mostly unrecorded, include examples serving almost every purpose:


The demand for shooting lodges increased in the mid-late 19th century, and several were constructed with timber frames and cladding. Fires caused most of these buildings to be lost and Forest Lodge at Abernethy in Strathspey is perhaps the most impressive of those that remain. Interestingly, this building was originally insulated with sawdust.

Forest Lodge, Abernethy, 1880 is the largest remaining 19th century timber-clad shooting lodge in Scotland.


The late 19th and early 20th century herring boom saw a large number of timber-clad buildings constructed for work and for accommodation. A number of these survive in Caithness at Puctneytown, Wick and Thurso; whilst on the islands former herring gutting huts exist at Gremista and Lerwick on Shetland, and Sanday on Orkney. On the Western Isles, the large whaling station at Tarbert on Harris retained both timber-clad factory buildings and workers' accommodation until the 1950's.

In addition to the buildings created to service the mainstream fishing industries, small utilitarian timber buildings were constructed in many of the fishing communities around the Scottish coast. Surviving examples include several distinctive high-gabled sheds in Avoch; black tar-coated storage sheds at Buckie and Redpoint, and a fine painted store in Stomness.


Originally developed in America, industrial timber frame construction lent itself to prefabrication and rapid erection and so was well suited to the needs of the railway companies in locations remote from major towns. Oban Station (demolished in the 1970's) was perhaps the most elaborate of these buildings, although many other fine examples still exist, particularly on the Highland line. The coming of the railways in the mid 19th century probably helped to popularise timber-framed and -clad housing in rural Scotland. The chimneys of many of the surviving timber-clad buildings in the Scottish countryside date them to the period when railways carried bricks to areas remote from any brickworks.



In the late 19th century, ancillary buildings to the rear of a large house were often constructed in timber frame with vertical timber cladding. These buildings survive throughout rural Scotland with numerous examples in Strathspey and Deeside dating from the mid 19th century to around 1910. The largest collection is probably on Balmoral Estate. Generally built to a high standard in a style broadly similar to the railway stations, virtually all these ancillary buildings have been painted with light coloured paint.

Mid 19th century ancillary buildings such as these Balmoral Estate examples typify a building type found throughout much of rural Scotland.
These brightly painted pre-fabricated houses were erected in many parts of the Highlands in the mid to late 19th century.
Swiss Cottage, Fochabers, c1820 was built to the pattern book designs of John Claudius Loudon and is one of the oldest surviving timber-clad buildings in Scotland.


Millworkers, hutters, cotters, and agricultural workers all required low cost dwellings and these were frequently constructed of timber. The structure of these buildings varied considerably and included cruck frame, timber frame and other types of construction. Like many other vernacular buildings, the construction method was often determined by the availability of low-cost materials. The cladding of many of these buildings was made from sawmill offcuts or 'mill backs' (the low value outer boards first cut from a log). Although no longer standing, photographs of the mid 19th century gold-mining village at Kildonan on the River Helmsdale show typical examples of this type of building which, unlike the higher status servant' dwellings already mentioned, were coated with tar oil instead of paint.

Prefabricated timber-clad dwellings were also imported into the Highlands and the Western Isles as shepherds' accommodation. Corrugated metal or timber-clad examples can still be seen around the Highlands and similar types of buildings are still used around the Scottish coast as beach huts and holiday accommodation


Many social buildings (e.g. village halls, huts for youth organisations, yacht clubs, sports pavilions, etc.) were clad with timber. This was not uncommon in cities either and the Empress Ballroom in Dundee and the Chalet Ballroom in Broughty Ferry were good examples. The Drill Hall at Golspie is perhaps the largest surviving example, but others include the recently refurbished village hall at Arisaig, the pavilion in Strathpeffer, and the fine servants hall behind Haddow House.


Timber-framed and -clad constructions were ideal for boat houses, and these distinctive little buildings are still relatively commonplace throughout rural Scotland. A particularly fine example was the two storey boat house at Loch Brora (sadly destroyed in the 1980's).


A wide range of commercial structures from village stores, post offices and other small scale enterprises, to large granaries and warehouses were timber clad. In the 1950's, a large timber granary existed near the lifeboat shed in Arbroath, and small timber-clad shops still exist in villages throughout rural Scotland, Ardersier in Nairnshire having several examples.


Occasionally hotels and guesthouses were constructed in timber frame with timber cladding. Robert Lorimer designed the Clousta Hotel on the east Mainland of Shetland in 1894 as an anglers hotel (unfortunately later destroyed by fire). The St Magnus Bay Hotel on Busta Island, Shetland was erected in 1900 for cruise passengers from Leith. This building was imported as a prefabricated structure from Norway. Other examples exist in north-west Scotland.


Sometimes pattern books or collections of drawings can be linked to buildings that still survive, but not all were constructed in strict accordance with the designs. A set of early 19th century drawings for half-timbered farmhouses and steadings are held at Rossie Priory Estate in Perthshire, and some small scale examples - usually in the form of half-timbered gables or dormers - survive in the estate village of Knapp. The majority of the buildings erected from these drawings followed the plan and section but changed the external walls to a vertical boarding finish. One of the oldest timber-clad buildings in Scotland is the Swiss Cottage near Fochabers, built c.1820 for the Duke of Gordon to a Loudon pattern book design. It appears to be clad in relatively fast-grown Scots pine and, since it is known that Loudon advocated the use of Strathspey pine for other buildings in this area, it is quite likely that the cladding is of homegrown timber.


Picturesque landscaping works from the late 18th to the early 20th century included small ornamental timber buildings, and the now sadly-neglected boating house at Rosehaugh Estate on the Black Isle is a fine example. Quite a number of rusticated timber cottages still survive on the Taymouth Estate at Kenmore, on Altyre Estate near Forres and at Balmoral. Similar rustic aesthetics are employed on buildings in the villages of Birnam, Kingussie, and Golspie.


Timber cladding was used for many industrial purposes where large span buildings were required, but worries about fire resulted in the earlier timber cladding being replaced by corrugated iron or some other form of profiled metal. Timber-clad boat-building sheds survived at St Monans in Fife until the 1960s, and many sawmills were timber-clad structures, the best known surviving example being the bucket mill at Finzean in Aberdeenshire, built in the 19th century and still functioning, albeit as a woodworking museum. Other fine examples are the elm-clad estate buildings at Achfary, Sutherland.


Timber-clad permanent, temporary and portable structures played a major part in the housing, hospitalisation, recreation, education and spiritual needs of the armed forces as well as providing storage facilities for much of their equipment. From the Crimean War onwards, the military tended to use timber or metal-clad structures in preference to tents but, even earlier than this, massive ship-building sheds sheltered the constrcution of Men-of-War. This tradition continued to the newer branches of the armed forces, and timber aircraft hangers still survive at Montrose Aerodrome in Angus. On a smaller scale, the many temporary airfields of World WarII created a legacy of timber huts, many of which are still in use as scout huts, stores and workshops.

The hangers at Montrose Aerodrome built in 1917 remain the largest timber-clad structures in Scotland


In its early years the Forestry Commission built forest crofts in remote parts of Argyll and elsewhere in the Highlands, and it continued to build timber-clad forest workers accommodation and offices throughout Scotland, with many of these buildings still in service today.


The introduction of sheep farming to the north-west Highlands created a need for large well-ventilated barns. A few of these buildings with their characteristic louvred or wattle-filled panels can still be seen at Applecross and on the way to Kyle of Lochalsh. Other examples of this type of building were seen at tanneries and as drying sheds at potteries such as the Blackpots Brick and Tile Works at Whitehills, Banffshire. On a smaller scale timber was the perfect material for constructing the louvred walls of the deer larders and seed drying kilns still seen on some Scottish estates. Another surviving building is the recently restored ventilated oar house in Cromarty.


Roadworkers, foresters and showmen all required well-built mobile dwellings suitable for year-round accommodation. A few of these have been preserved by enthusiasts or museums and at least one - a forest worker's van - is still inhabited by its original occupant. Railway wagons were perhaps the most common mobile buildings with timber exteriors and many of these found a second life as temporary farm buildings when sold off by the railways.



With the expansion of urban centres during the Industrial Revolution, the Church turned to prefabricated timber buildings to serve its new congregations. Sometimes these became permanent, but were more often demoted to church halls when the congregation built a larger masonry or brick structure. Occasionally a permanent church was commissioned in timber and one surviving example is the late 19th century estate church at Altyre near Forres. A few rural schools were also constructed with timber cladding, perhaps the largest being the elm-clad school at Achfary, Sutherland.

An Arts and Crafts-style timber-clad church on Altyre Estate near Forres.


19th century stone-built estate cottages often incorporated timber-clad porches. The knotty pine columns supporting the roof of some of these are reputedly hollow (to prevent the log from splitting as it dried), and if so were probably a by-product of the boring mills which made wooden waterpipes. Many 19th century buildings have small timber clad details including carved barge boards; waney-edge elm weatherboarded gables; and timber clad panels on doocots and church steeples. These were often finely-made and illustrate that, with good design and regular maintenance, even quite intricate detail can perform well in many parts of Scotland.


Although the majority of 19th century house building was in masonry, timber-clad houses continued to be built in rural areas for specific purposes, including:

  • Pattern book housing;
  • Prefabricated dwellings for the fishing and agricultural industries;
  • Self-built housing for temporary workers;
  • Accommodation for servants;
  • Decorative panels and porches on masonry buildings;
  • Mobile homes.

These were of course the exceptions, and by the late 19th century, 'traditional' house construction in Scotland was mainly defined in terms of the masonry construction techniques introduced during the previous 150 years. These techniques are most characteristically expressed through:

  • The unified 'terrace' of identical dwellings as popularised by Robert Adam;
  • Ashlar-faced Glasgow tenements;
  • The improved farm buildings of the rural estates.

It took until the 1920's before the merits of the timber-framed, timber-clad house began to be reassessed.



A revolution in Scottish house building began with the growing shift away from the free market towards the state during the period of crisis following World War I. As the public sector began to assume importance as a housing provider, the combined pressures of growing demand and a shortage of labour and materials encouraged city corporations to experiment with new 'non-traditional' methods and materials. Prefabricated timber-framed construction with masonry cladding was thus introduced to a generally sceptical building industry. Timber frame itself was not new in Scotland, nor was prefabrication - the novelty lay in the degree to which prefabrication could be applied to mainstream housing and in the use of masonry claddings. Prior to the early 20th century, timber-framed buildings had generally been clad with timber boarding, slate or corrugated metal, but in order to gain acceptance alongside 'traditional' construction, timber frame was now given a non-structural masonry cladding.

1970's social housing at Kyle of Lochalsh uses preservative treated western red cedar shingles.

Founded in 1937 as a 'Keynesian' state intervention to stimulate recovery from the depression, the Scottish Special Housing Association (SSHA) embarked on an ambitious building programme of 5000 new houses including solid-walled Canadian cedar houses in Lanarkshire designed by Basil Spence and William Kininmonth. At the same time, timber-clad Scandinavian kit houses were introduced into Scotland - between 1920-44 the SSHA built 350 timber-clad houses and bungalows, Dundee Corporation built 556 timber houses and Aberdeen Corporation constructed 76 timber-clad houses. These buildings were adjudged to be successful and, by the end of World War II, the SSHA had ordered several thousand prefabricated timber houses from Sweden for erection throughout Scotland and rural parts of northern England. In this way the SSHA reintroduced timber cladding into the Western Isles, Orkney, Shetland and many other areas where its use in housing had virtually ceased. The importation of these kits from Sweden was ordered by Robert Matthew, Chief Architect in the Department of Health for Scotland. Matthew had been stranded in Scandinavia until VE day, and while there designed the kits to conform with the recommendations of the 1944 UK government report 'Planning our New Homes':

Usually the lower storey walls consisted of 2 inch tongued-and-grooved vertical boards, lined externally with wind-proof paper. The external finishing consisted of vertical 5/8 inch boards and cover strips... the upper storey walls were of 4 x 2 inch studding clad externally with
2 inch diagonal boarding, wind-proof paper and horizontal weather boarding.

The official consensus in the post-war years was once again that 'non traditional' and prefabricated construction methods were essential to overcome severe labour and materials' shortages. Although these technologies had been commonplace until the masonry boom of the 19th century, they were resisted by many in the construction industry. Andrew Mickel, the owner of a leading Scottish building firm made his views clear:

Both the Scottish climate and the Scottish character are against prefabrication. Let us get our brick and concrete works going and our skilled men back from the Services. With organisation and continuity, I am sure that we can keep pace with the building programme - and provide the solid, long lasting homes which Scotsmen want.(2)

At the same time the firm was hedging its bets by patenting a timber frame system clad with roughcast concrete blocks. This was prudent because after World War II the timber frame market grew throughout Britain, albeit as a niche within the wider 'traditional' housing market. In the 1960's and '70's, however, the stagnation of the private housing market combined with the move towards tower blocks meant that very little timber-clad housing was built in Scotland. The exception to this was Shetland, where the mid '1970's oil boom had stimulated a large housing demand. This was met in part by the SSHA through the import of more Scandinavian kit houses such as the Norwegian timber clad kits at Brae (1973-4). Aberdeen County Council also imported nearly 1000 Norwegian and Swedish kits at around the same time, as did the SSHA and several private developers for sites in Ross-shire and around Inverness.

During the early 1990's the Building Research Establishment surveyed many of the timber-framed, and often timber-clad, housing systems built between 1920-75:

... the incidence of timber decay in timber frame dwellings built between 1920 and 1975 is slight. However, in a few dwellings decay has occurred in particular parts of the construction because of inadequate maintenance ... Provided that regular maintenance is carried out, and that repair or rehabilitation work meets accepted levels of good practice in design and construction, a performance comparable with traditionally constructed dwellings of the same period should be maintained ...(3)


1. The Ministry of Works Directorate of Post War Building, 1944, House Construction.
2. Quoted in: Glendinning, M., and Watters, D., Ed., 1999, Home Builders.
3. Building Research Establishment, 1995, Timber Framed Housing Systems Built in the UK 1920-1965


Email: Central Enquiries Unit ceu@gov.scot

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