This photograph is of Mrs Mary Gilrea spinning outside her sod house on the East Nappin in Jurby on the Isle of Man in 1897.
In the northern parishes where building stone was scarce, crofts and other small houses were built either of sods or of puddled clay mixed with chopped straw or chaff – the ‘thie voaid’ (sod house) and ‘thie laagh’ (mud house) respectively. Feltham in his work ‘A Tour Through the Isle of Man’ in 1797 provides a glimpse of Jurby parish when houses such as this were thick on the ground and scarcely to be distinguished from it.
“Thick as the cottages are, they do not strike the eye: the walls of the huts are seldom above seven feet high, composed generally of sods of earth and the roof thatched with straw which soon becomes a murky hue.”
When crofts became uneconomic as agricultural units, many were taken over to increase the acreage of larger farms and the sod and mud houses in the fields were levelled to the ground, “put to the field” as was said locally.
These houses were literally dug out of the ground and when completed were not raised far above it. The late Mr John Kneen of Ballaugh who used to visit the Gilreas has said that their house was built of sods dug out of the site itself so that the ground sloped down to it and the house stood in a hollow. It appears to have no windows in the front wall; Mr Kneen mentions one bedroom window but whether in back or gable wall he does not say. He describes the ‘scaa’ (screen/guard/fence) of gorse which served as a door, and the moveable windshield similarly constructed. The scaa was a bundle of gorse branches tired together with suggane (twisted straw rope) and supported on a wooden framework.
In districts where sod houses are found the only available building stones were the rounded stones from the shore and these were sometimes used to strengthen the more vulnerable parts of the walls either as a foundation or as an outer facing. In Mary Gilrea’s house shore stones were used in the ‘chiollagh’ (hearth/fireplace), and the low chimney appears also to be stone built. No other details of the construction of the chiollagh are known but it is probable that it had a basketwork hood or “scoop” of plastered lath or suggane, in which case the chiollagh wall mentioned would be the interior gable wall behind the open fire. The house was thatched with bent (a grass) and with suggane, and it may be seen that the thatch and roping were carried almost to the chimney top. The curve of the hipped roof seen on the left has become straightened out on the chimney side into an almost vertical line.
Leaning against the front wall is a three pronged smithy-made ‘grep’, a digging fork. Mrs Gilrea’s sunbonnet and the luxuriant growth sprouting on the sod walls would seem to indicate that she had come outside to do her spinning in the spring or early summer.
(source: The Journal of the Manx Museum Vol VI, 1965, No.81; photograph by Rev. FW Stubbs, Vicar of Jurby courtesy of the imuseum)