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Thatch was once the primary material for the roofs of Ulster. Learn about the heritage skill of thatching through the objects and stories of the Ulster Folk Museum.

A thatched roof with wooden pegs resting on the thatch. The wooden pegs hold the bundles of thatch in place.
Thatching is the process of creating a roof from natural plant-based materials, including marram grass, rushes, and straw.
Traditional thatching skills were passed down from generation to generation. Today, the availability of cheaper and lower maintenance roofing materials has made thatching an endangered skill.

Methods and Material

Thatch was a suitable roofing material for the homes of Ulster. Unlike other roofing materials such as corrugated iron, thatch kept a steady temperature inside the home, keeping the house cool in summer and warm in the winter. Thatching materials were abundant in the landscape. While all roofs regardless of materials need to be maintained and eventually replaced, thatching with locally-gathered materials could be easier and cheaper than sourcing metal or tiles. A well-thatched roof that was properly maintained could last for many, many years.

The local environment was a large influence on the materials and methods used to thatch houses. Thatching was undertaken with locally available materials. The way in which thatch was held in place depended on the weather. A house in a windy coastal or mountain area usually had a thatched roof covered in rope, while a house nestled inland more commonly had thatch held in place with wooden pegs - also known as 'scollops'. Often there were unique regional names for tools and materials.


The tools for thatching were locally made, not mass-produced, leading to some amount of variation in style. 

The tools used to thatch a roof included a rake, to smooth the material into a neat bunch; a mallet, to hammer in the pegs; and a knife, to trim the length of material. A spurtle, or fork, was used for patching thatch.


The process of thatching began with cultivating and gathering material. This could be marram grass, flax, or another locally-grown source. The material was then dried out and prepared for thatching.

If a house was in need of a completely fresh layer, as opposed to a simple patch, then the topmost layer was removed. If the thatch was to be held down by ropes, then the thatch - commonly for this method, marram grass - was laid on the roof until it formed a thick enough layer. Rope was then laid over the thatch in horizontal and vertical rows and tied to the walls of the house, or occasionally, weighed down with stones. A fishing net could also be used in place of ropes.

Another method of thatching consisted of the use of wooden pegs to hold down the thatch. These pegs were commonly known as 'scollops' or 'spars' - lengths of flexible wood, such as hazel, twisted once in the middle and folded in half. Working in sections, the thatch was tightly laid and then held in place with scollops. The topmost layer of thatch hid the scollops from view, resulting in a polished look. Thatching needles, like metal pins, could do the same job as wooden pegs.