The art of Making Rope

Everyone who works with museum collections has an area of interest that they’re particularly geeky about, and for our Assistant Curator, it’s rope made of natural materials. You can imagine her delight when she discovered that one of our archaeological finds from Auchindrain is this rather sad looking thrawcock, or rope twister.



Rope may be something that in the modern world we take for granted, but when Auchindrain was a township and working farm it wouldn’t have been easy to just go and buy some strong rope from a shop in town. Used for everything from tying bundles of firewood together to holding down thatched roofs, our ingenious rural ancestors made rope from the materials they found within the landscape around them. Much as with thatch and basketry, the materials used would depend on what was abundant and easy to source locally. For people living inland it could have been heather or reed, and for those living on the coast it might have been marram grass. Even horsehair was used in places like St Kilda where vegetation was scarce.


To give these materials strength, several strands of them needed to be twisted together. The more strands twisted, the tougher the rope would be, and that’s where the thrawcock comes in. Looping your material around the hook, with one hand on the end and one hand on the central piece of wood which sits loose, you can twist two bits of something together to make 2-ply rope. Twisting this 2-ply rope on the thrawcrook again would give you 4-ply rope which would be even stronger and thicker.


One of the main uses for rope at Auchindrain would have been to run across and secure thatched roofs. We know from a photo ytaken in the 1890s that almost every house on site was thatched before they were covered with corrugated iron, and the rope used to tie the thatch down might have been made from rush like the thatch itself, or the heather we know grew nearby. Hundreds of metres of this would have been needed across the site, which would definitely have kept two men and a thrawcock busy for quite some while!


If you’re interested in basket and rope making within the Highlands of Scotland, the ongoing Woven Communities website has lots more information here.