Need to repair or replace a Scottish slate roof? This article looks at the challenge of sourcing natural slate for a traditional diminishing slate roof in Scotland, where local supplies are difficult or impossible to obtain.

As one of the world’s oldest roofing materials, natural slate sits proudly atop of many of Britain’s historic buildings and housing stock, including in Scotland. Due to the amazing durability of natural slate, which can often outlast the actual buildings themselves, many of these roofs have simply weathered with age over the years and require minimal repair and maintenance to restore them to their former glory.

SIGA 120 on Augustine United Church Edinburgh

SIGA 120 on Augustine United Church, Edinburgh

The Practical Reality of Scottish Slate Roofs

The charm of repairing or replacing a traditional slate roof can sometimes fade when one is faced with sourcing like-for-like slates. Specifiers and contractors alike encounter various dilemmas. For example:

  • The slate which adorns the roof is no longer available, or perhaps
  • The roof needs extending, and an exact match cannot be found. Alternatively,
  • The building may be listed – which means that its original character must be maintained – and this can prove challenging if the replacement slates don’t come anywhere near to matching the original slate.

Older buildings with Scottish slates laid in diminishing courses present one of the biggest predicaments for specifiers and contractors. Slate is one of Scotland’s oldest and most significant building materials, and during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, over 200 quarries produced a wide variety of types and colours. Today, Scottish slate graces many historic buildings and conservation areas, yet sadly, the last slate quarry in Scotland ceased production in 1955.

Scottish slate alternative SIGA 120 on Glasgow Kelvin College

New SIGA 120 slates on Glasgow Kelvin College showing the thick 9mm dressed edge and character of the slate

In general, Scottish slate is coarser-grained than other slates and, as a result, it is thicker and more irregular than its Welsh counterparts, for example. This distinctive appearance has resulted in random sized slates of differing thicknesses laid in diminishing courses, which gives Scottish roofs their distinctive and cherished look.

Using Reclaimed Scottish Slates is a False Economy

Such has been the eagerness to source slates that retain this Scottish look, that over the years, the same slates from old buildings were stripped in order that Listed buildings could be preserved. This is not a very satisfactory conservation equation and the wastage factor meant that two or three roofs were regularly required for every re-roofing project. Attempts to re-open a Scottish slate quarry have not, so far, been successful and future prospects deem it unlikely.

So, what are your options when repairing or replacing a Scottish slate roof?

Option 1. Reclaimed Scottish Slates

You could try to re-use the slates, although you may lose in excess of 50% in the process. To make up the difference, you will need to find a supply of matching second-hand slates. Not only is this becoming increasingly difficult, not to mention costly, the chances are that you will end up with a roof that looks somewhat second-rate. That’s because the smaller slates will be too small, and a proportion of the slates will be not quite up to the same standard.

When considering whether to use reclaimed Scottish Slates you should therefore consider:

  1. The difficulty in sourcing matching slates to those on the original roof,
  2. The expense incurred when “dressing down” and “resizing slates” due to the old nail hole becoming too large after years of movement on the roof,
  3. The likelihood that in the past other slates may have been used to make good or repair the roof, further decreasing the number of matching slates available, and
  4. That no guarantee is given on second hand slates.

Option 2. Non-Scottish Slates from Overseas

As time passes, supplies of good quality second hand slates are increasingly difficult to source, thus making it necessary to rely on non-Scottish slates. However, some slate, such as Spanish and Chinese, tend not to be suitable, both in terms of appearance and/or durability.

Option 3. New Slate from the UK: A genuine alternative to Scottish Slate

Lastly, you could consider a ‘new’ slate that matches as closely as possible the colour and dimensions of the original Scotch slate. Supplied by SIGA Slate, in conjunction with Welsh Slate, a new Welsh blue/grey slate – SIGA 120 – is being quarried to replicate the diminishing courses on the traditional Scottish roof.

Cwt y Bugail quarry is currently producing a range of sizes – varying in length from 400mm, down to 300mm at 25mm intervals, and in random widths. These are roughly equivalent to those produced in Scotland’s Ballachulish Quarry in the 19th century and still found on countless roofs today.

Scottish slate alternative SIGA 120 (right) with reclaimed Scottish slate (left)

On the left, brush “cleaned” reclaimed Scotch slate and on the right, new SIGA 120 slates. The slate thickness and dressed edge are very similar. Reclaimed slate on the roof often appears darker due to being blackened by soot deposits over the years. The back of the slates and the covered “lap” show the natural colour of the slate.

Although the new slates are not truly random, the change from one size to the next is not readily apparent. Likewise, although paler than the original Ballachulish slate, they will darken with age and blend in with the original material (see photograph and note on colouring). Their cost is, to an extent, mitigated by the reduction in time taken to sort through, trim and size second hand slates. For the building owner, the assurance that a re-slated roof will endure for generations to come is also invaluable; SIGA 120 comes with a 75 year Warranty.

SIGA 120 on Augustine United Church Edinburgh (close up)

New SIGA 120 new slates on Augustine United Church, Edinburgh.

The Beauty of Scottish Slate lives on

Fully traceable, and with a quality standard that second-hand slate could never hope to match, these new slates are fast becoming a popular alternative to the most commonly used Scottish slates. At last, the market has a viable solution for restoring and preserving the beauty of traditional Scotch slate roofs, and Scottish heritage is thankfully being reclaimed at last.