Romantic roofs

“It’s not the thickness; it’s the angle,” explains master thatcher Colin McGhee when asked how straw or reed roofs can last. Thatching, a term used to describe the use of indigenous materials for roofs, is as old as the need for shelter. It has been used all over the world from the Polynesian islands of the Pacific to the Highland berms of Scotland.  

At seven, McGhee toured Robert Burns’ thatched cottage in Ayreshire, Scotland, and decided then that he would become a professional thatcher.

Now 42, McGhee continues to pursue his craft with jobs ranging from Patricia Kluge’s six garden sheds to a 10-house contract in New York to creating every roof for the movie set of last year’s Black Knight.

For a dyslexic middle child growing up in northern England, employment opportunities were scarce. At 16, he left school to apprentice under a master thatcher in the south of England. Five years later he was licensed to work alone and quickly gained entry into England’s prestigious East Anglia Master Thatchers Association, an honorary society limited to 30 accomplished professionals.

His first American commission came in 1991 from a woman in Warrenton. He came, he thatched, and he stayed, eventually settling in Western Albemarle. Although his jobs tend to be for the well-heeled, McGhee points out that thatching is not only for houses of the rich. 

“A well-built roof can easily last 60 years,” he says, “although I have worked on some as old as 100 years.”

McGhee would like to see a much larger portion of the world under thatch and, one would think, so would Thomas Kinkade, the millionaire “painter of light.” 

“He’s the Osama bin Laden of thatch,” says McGhee, ranting about the romanticized and architecturally impossible thatched cottages that Kinkade paints. 

McGhee, like any craftsman who views his life’s work as art, puts straight any misconceptions about his trade with a directness that is mostly absent from today’s vocabulary: “I won’t hire American apprentices. You get a 24-year-old, college-educated kid who thinks he’s too good to push a broom, yet an 18-year-old from England will do that and more without even being asked.” 

McGhee lives to thatch and has the requisite knowledge and work ethic to put his livelihood on the cultural map. UVA’s department of architecture does not teach thatching, but McGhee single-handedly hopes to change the perception that thatching is not a viable roofing option.

Pulling himself up by his proverbial bootstraps, McGhee has many accomplishments. Slipping through the cracks of a north England education, he even managed to publish a book, Rustic Birdhouses and Feeders, although he freely admits that he’s never willingly read a book in his life. 

When asked to explain his choice of Crozet for home base, McGhee smiles broadly and wistfully replies, “because it feels like home.”

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