Keep an eye out as you travel

Pearsie Kirk, the Tin Tabernacle in the glen.
Pearsie Kirk, the Tin Tabernacle in the glen.

The colour and pattern of corrugated iron is a familiar aspect of the landscape of rural Scotland.

The rusty sheets of the shed roof, the village hall, or church may be considered temporary, cheap and insubstantial but these buildings have fulfilled an important role over the years.

But there is a rich history of corrugated iron buildings in the Scottish countryside and they have a greater cultural significance than is generally appreciated.

By the late 1820s the process of corrugating sheets of iron was known, and the first patent to take advantage of the additional strength of these plates was granted to Henry Robinson Palmer in June 1829.

Palmer, an engineer working at the London Docks, devised a system for a self-supporting roof which involved riveting corrugated sheets to a cast iron ridge and gutter plate.

He wrote: “My improvement in the construction of the roofs and other parts of sheds, warehouses and other buildings consists in the application of metallic plates or sheets, in a fluted or corrugated form”.

One of the pioneers of this type of construction was the Glasgow firm of Robertson and Lister.

By the early 1850s they had developed a reputation for exporting to Australia and before sending a large warehouse to Melbourne in 1853, they held a ball inside the structure.

The novelty was such that a journalist reported “large crowds and lines of civic force guarding the living avenues of approach to the corrugated iron structure which was the scene of the most gay and gorgeous festivities”.

At one time 15 large structures stood in the grounds of their works as they produced churches and warehouses for display.

However by the mid 1850s they had been taken over by the Edinburgh firm of C. D. Young and Co. Charles Young was an Edinburgh ironmonger who started in business making iron fencing.

He founded a company which developed a reputation for fine cast iron buildings, but also produced a range of corrugated iron structures.

The invention of the Nissen hut by Lt. Col. P.N. Nissen (a mining engineer from Canada), in 1915 demonstrated its suitability to provide a quickly erected and demountable, flexible, general purpose building which proved so invaluable in both world wars and since.

I believe that in Scotland there are approximately 43,000 listed buildings.

Of these there are just 12 which are corrugated iron structures in the rural areas. Only one is the famous Grade A listed “Italian Chapel”, on Orkney, which is a World War Two Nissen hut, transformed by Italian prisoners of war into a highly decorated chapel.

Some efforts at conservation have been made and there are three corrugated iron buildings in the collection of the Highland Folk Museum at Newtonmore.

We are fortunate in having many surviving Nissen huts and other corrugated iron buildings in various states of repair and decay, around Angus and we even have one of the “tin tabernacles” such as the one at Pearsie, which is now used as a shooting lunch hut.

Keep an eye out for more ‘wrinkly tin’ as you travel around and wonder just how old some of these structures actually are. Maybe we should try and conserve a corrugated iron shed or two here in Angus?

Yours aye,