Sunday, December 4, 2016


Arnol blackhouse No. 42

It was in Alastair Macintosh's book Soil and Soul that the mention of the Lewis blackhouse was first found: the name was mesmerising - blackhouse. What might this be? Macintosh was born on the Isle of Lewis in the village of Leurbost just south of Stornaway, a linear village that stretches along an inlet, Loch Liurboist. Soil and Soul is part autobiography, and part history of the fight against the proposed monster quarry in Harris and the purchase of the island of Eigg from its laird, by the local residents, the tenants. It is a book that comes highly recommended, not only for the history of these two struggles, but also because it reveals the concerns one must have with academia and politics. Alastair Macintosh played a part in a successful environmental department in Edinburgh University that got closed down by political pressure.

Alastair Macintosh

The blackhouse is mentioned as the traditional dwelling of the Isle of Lewis residents who suffered greatly under various island owners over very many years. The island is Harris and Lewis, one land mass with two names. Oddly, the division has no clear geographical or structural logic to it. The one owner who stands out above all is the Sunlight soap proprietor, Lord Leverhulme. There is a legacy left in the very north of Lewis, a large, concrete bridge that goes nowhere. It was the beginning of a failed project to build the east-west road across the northern portion of the island. In the very south, in Harris, Leverhulme constructed a new port facility for the island at the village of An t-Ob to encourage trade, and re-named it after himself: Leverburgh. The local workers' recreation hall was named Hulme Hall. His visions for the industrial development of the island were predicated on his success with his soap factory where he provided everything for his employees. The folk on Lewis/Harris were strong-willed and independent, proving to be less of a pushover than he had anticipated. The history of the island is filled with astonishing, repeated protests. The locals were not illiterate, simple peasants, even though they might have lived in blackhouses, but articulate, determined, proud, hard-working human beings.

No. 42
It seems incomprehensible to us today that one man might have owned the whole island and had control over so many lives, his tenants. Over the years, each island owner seemed to have a new plan for the place, managed from afar. The crofters were progressively all cleared from their traditional homelands to make way for sheep. They were relocated to the poorer land of the coastal areas, onto small blocks of land that could not support them. In order to survive, the crofters were forced to fish and burn kelp for the laird, only to be burdened with further clearances and the added problems of more crofters moving into over-crowded settlements with increasing densities and demands. When sheep became unprofitable because of the cheaper Australian imports, the lairds looked more and more to the crofters to provide them with an income.

Under the truck system, crofters were always in debt to the laird who had total control over the crofts and their inhabitants. The laird ran the local shop and could move folk out and on just as easily as he could move them in to his selected settlements. Those who caused trouble or complained were forced to go. The crofters had to build their own houses, but never had any legal claim to their efforts. It took years of struggle to get some fairness into the arrangement. The readings on these times are interesting; one can see the intelligence and stamina of the crofters who continued the battle until they had achieved their aims. The history has some marvellous speeches recorded in its drama.

Macintosh describes the blackhouse as a sad shambles, squalid. He records that sometimes the shabby houses looked like a pile of rocks with grass stacked on top. Because the lairds made no acknowledgement of their work, only a minimal effort was put into building and maintenance. The blackhouse had a living area at one end, a byre for animals at the other and a store alongside. Each spring the byre was mucked out when the animals had returned to the fields. A peat fire was always kept burning in the middle of the living area for cooking and warmth. The blackhouse had no chimney. The smoke was allowed to permeate through the oats thatch, keeping the vermin in control. The croft animals helped warm the space in winter too. One needed to see these places to understand.

Plan of Arnol blackhouse

Section of typical blackhouse

Arnol Blackhouse No. 42
The blackhouse was a rudimentary building made from local stones stacked to form a thick wall, faced with stone and filled with rammed earth. Driftwood, sundry timbers and odd pieces, like oars and posts, formed the roof framing. Earth sods were placed as the primary layer over open battens. This was covered with oats straw that was held down by rocks suspended on heather ropes. The end ridge rafters were allowed to project through the thatch so as to provide an anchor for the radial ropes and rocks at each end of the blackhouse roofs.

Roof framing of Arnol blackhouse

Macintosh’s book had a couple of small, old, fuzzed, black and white images of the blackhouse, just enough to intrigue the reader; not enough to be explicit. The blackhouse remained a vague, verbal description and a dark smudge. One sensed that one had to see a blackhouse to truly understand it, to feel its spaces and qualities. But why was it called ‘blackhouse’? Was this form of housing really so grim a shelter as to be named ‘black’? Was it so dark an interior? Macintosh describes succinctly how times were tough for the Lewis folk: maybe these were dark, ‘black’ days? One’s curiosity was stimulated. How did this home compare with the Shetland crofters’ cottage? The Shetland folk had gone through similar experiences with their lairds, and used similar materials for their shelters – see: What was the difference that made Lewis ‘black’? (see also P.P.S. below).

Shetland croft house, Dunrossness

Interior of croft house with roof light

Interior of blackhouse showing roof light

Shetland croft house interior

Shetland thatched roof

Traditional Shetland interior

It was serendipitous that Soil and Soul was picked up and read. One had time to read a couple of books before leaving too travel overseas to Shetland, Norway, and then across to the Outer Herbrides. The bookings for the journey had been made. Macintosh had been heard interviewed one morning on Radio 4 some time ago when in Shetland. He had an interesting background, so intriguing that the titles of his publications were jotted down: Soil and Soul and Hell and High Water. The books were ordered once back in Australia, and put on the shelves with the many others in the ‘to be read later’ category: later was now. Soil and Soul was such a good book that Hell and High Water followed soon after.

The radio interview made it clear that Macintosh was a Quaker, but it was only once the book had been started, that it became clear that he was from Lewis, the very island we were travelling to after our Shetland sojourn, on the way home. Macintosh tells his stories about growing up on Lewis in Leurbost; the history fascinated. One had to see this place, his village; to get the feel of this land whose people had suffered so greatly, a land that had a grand spirit of Gaelic heritage. Soil and Soul, as most good books do, opened up other leads, to other publications on other associated subjects. One that kept getting referred to was Hunter’s The Making of the Crofting Community. This, along with four other books were ordered and sent to Shetland to be read there. One of these was Kenneth White’s beautiful Open World: Collected Poems 1960 – 2000: see -  The quiet response to these ponderings was - we'll find out more when we get to Lewis. We must see the blackhouse in its context, and the village of Leurbost – to get a sense of place: one just had to wait.

Time goes quickly, even in Shetland. The journey to Lewis took the route flying from Sumburgh, via Kirkwall, into Inverness. From here the drive was to Ullapool. It was from this small, coastal village that the booked ferry took us across to Stornaway on a two-and-a-half hour journey. Lewis was distant. On the map, the very top of the Lewis/Harris island - it is strangely one land mass, a fact that always nags - aligns with the top of the Scottish mainland. We were well north.

Arnol, Lewis
After settling into our accommodation for the week, we began exploring the island, driving west to Barvas where the quilting workshop was to take place. We were visiting Lewis just for this event. It was on these days that one would be free to meander and explore. Driving north after discovering Barvas, we saw the pattern of fringe villages stretched out along the coastline as strings draped over the hills marked by the ancient runrig system of land division.  One assumed these were the settlements the laird had moved the crofters to. Each place had its own name; its own form; its own history; its own churches. There had been an historic split with the Church of Scotland to create the Free Church of Scotland, and each institution still maintained a presence.

Atlantic Ocean

Approach to Arnol blackhouse No. 42
Eventually returning to travel south beyond Barvas, the road passed through a series, a sequence of small collections of houses: more villages. These homes looked fairly normal modern cottages and larger; but where were the blackhouses? Then the sign appeared - Arnol blackhouse. Turning west we drove along a narrow, twisting road and eventually arrived at what must have been the blackhouse. Yes, the sign confirmed it: there is was. It was late in the afternoon; the blackhouse form was clear - it was much like the Shetland croft house at Dunrossness, low rock walls twin thatched roofs. Historic Scotland: it was closed. One would return, soon. What was it like inside? It looked very tidy outside.

Door to store
Driving out to the main road along the narrow lane, it became clear that the remains of many backhouses fringed the narrow track: “There’s one! Oh! And another; and again!” This must have been a village, the village of Arnol. Number 42 suggested there were once many black houses here. Most were now walls used as storage yards; a couple had been built into the new homes, the 'white' houses. Two at the far end that we had seen had become part of the Scottish Heritage display: one restored in tact; the other left as walls in their context of open space. Each blackhouse was subtly different, but of a type.

The road to no. 42

Blackhouse ruins

Blackhouse ruins

The stack yard, no. 42 with visitors' centre and 'white' house adjacent to No. 39 (on left)
Day one of the workshop gave the opportunity to return. It was morning. The centre was just stirring as it was approached. Another vehicle arrived. The ruin, the low walls opposite were walked through first, to get a feel for the house. Surprisingly the layered plan of parallel spaces had the openings aligned on a cross axis: low openings, some lower. Display signs identified various functions and named the areas to both the left and right, but it was difficult to sense how the spaces could have been occupied. Were the conditions so rudimentary? The rooms were small, functionally arranged around the cross axis: byre one end; living the other; store beyond; yard beyond that. The experience was strange. One should have felt something about these walls, but there was little to sense or understand. It was like walking in a maze open to the sky, ducking down from time to time to get through the openings. There was one window, empty: the wall space framed a view across to No 42. This house was No 39. The remains enclosed voids that lacked any feeling of habitation; lapsed.# The significance of the roof, enclosure, was highlighted. What was an area open to the sky if not a yard? A room had its own centre, its own qualities of place, of being there, somewhere inside to contain life: shelter it.

'White' house on right next to No. 39

The alignment of the doorways in No. 39

Stable area, No. 39

Living area, No. 39

Window in No. 42
When the main visitors’ centre opened, one walked across, paid the entry fee and strolled over the open grass space by the stack yard, down to the blackhouse door opening, stooped very low and entered. The surprise was the roof with its openings, and the small window. The similarity the Shetland croft house was noted – each had light panels in the thatch, but the difference was in the thickness of the walls. These were so thick in the blackhouse that there was a ledge around the roof growing grass. The walls were faced with rock both inside and out, but filled with rammed earth to a thickness of about 1800mm. It seemed that the grassy ledge had been used to maintain the thatch. The peat stack was nearby. It, like the hay stacks in the adjacent yard, took the same form as the roofs.

Hay stacks

Peat stack

Peat stack detail

Entrance to store
Entering the low opening was awkward, but once inside there was height, but low light. Sunlight streamed in, in strips through the roof openings, now glass, but perhaps once translucent animal skins. The first space was like a foyer that opened into the store. There was an unexpected sophistication here. The roof structure and spatial division was all carefully arranged. It was a surprise to see, given what had been read about these places. Was this the supreme example? It looked like a very good store room, cosy, safe and spacious. Had it been done up just too much for the visitors?

Looking into store from rear entry

Roof over store

Looking back to rear entry from store

Storage area for heather ropes
There was another opening just off the foyer area. One stooped lower and waddled through into yet another foyer space. Ahead was a doorway that led to the outside. To the left was the byre; to the right, the living area. There were timber divisions framing each space, giving the house a sense of being well organised, cared for, like the byre itself. Everything was there, in its place, like every other byre; and likewise in the living area. One could now see the framework of a comfortable habitation. Storage cupboards and table on the right; bench seat on the left; peat fire in the middle, with another timber separation beyond. This was the box bed that opened up into a smaller sleeping area that had another two box beds, and a writing table and a chair, both placed beautifully under the sunlight streaming in through the window. One was reminded of a Vermeer painting.

Passage through from store into main foyer and main entry

Looking into living area from entry foyer

Box bed facing living area

Table under window

Box beds in bedroom space
There was a wonderful sense of having been lived in, loved. The box beds were the same as those in Shetland. They were held up off the floor and had their own roof and permanent enclosure as a box with a curtain across the opening into the sleeping area. They looked cosy. These beds would have kept the damp away, protected the sleepers from the vermin and the dust and dirt from the unlined roof. That one box bed had been used as a partition was ingenious. It was all of these timber details and furnishings that were missing from No. 39, that had made it a simple void.

Entry foyer showing doorway into store (living area partition on left)



Bench seat in living area
Turning as one moved back to the foyer, one could see the full length of the blackhouse along the byre over the half door that kept the animals out of the living area, apart perhaps from the chickens that were kept in the foyer area between the living and the byre. The stories were that the fowls lived in the rafters overhead. The fire gathered everything lined up around the walls together; it was the centre. One could envisage chairs pulled up closer on colder nights for the residents, and for friends who might have called in too. Shoes and boots were on their rack as though just worn yesterday. The blackhouse was seen as a home.

Looking through living area into bedroom space from foyer

Living area detail

But the name? Apparently the blackhouse was named to differentiate it from the 'white' houses that got built to replace them – the classic white masonry Scottish croft house with bookend flues and slate roofs. While there is a suggestion that the name might be a misinterpretation of Gaelic, the term emerged in the late nineteenth century to define houses built without mortar and having a central fire without a chimney. Some blackhouses had chimneys installed. The story of the Arnol blackhouse is that the old lady who lived in it until 1966 was moved out into the ‘more comfortable’ nearby 'white' house. It was not long after that she moved back into the blackhouse. With its mortared, rendered stone walls located adjacent to a drain, the 'white' house proved to be 'too damp' for her. It was rented out to others and was vacated in 1997. The blackhouse, No. 42, built a little before 1880, had been a residence for over 80 years. The story is told clearly in Alexander Fenton’s guide book.

Alexander Fenton's guide book

Living area (sleeping area to left)

View from living area into sleeping area
Moving out of the living area into the entry space, and through the low door on the right, one found oneself outside, on the road leading into the settlement. Ah! This was the entry into the house. The other approach was the rear, or service door that led directly into the store and out to the fields and stack yard. But why were the doorways in this plan not aligned as they were in No. 39? The guide text told: beside the service door, in line with the main entry and the inner door that did align, was a removable panel that would be opened up for winnowing. The breeze would blow the husks away from the seeds: the alignment of the doors was no error or stylistic device; it was purely practical.

Main entry on street frontage

Cupboards in living area

Returning through the house again to look at it once more, the service exit was taken. One moved out stooped, in order to clear the low lintel. It was an awkward stance that left one staring down at a fresh patch of fresh daisies, a stark array of pure white and yellow. After the dim, smokey interior of the house, the delight of the daisies in full, brilliant sunlight startled. They were simply astonishingly beautiful and surprised one as the body relaxed to its vertical position in the freshness of the day. This would have been the ordinary experience of the occupants, constantly having the world of nature revealed to them in all of its amazing wonder – bright light on grass and flowers under a brilliant blue sky. And on the bleak, windy and wet days, the experience would have been reversed with the comfort of the hearth providing a cosy shelter away from the raw roar of the elements. Little wonder that the lady wanted to return to her blackhouse home. The experience made the equivalent exit from the white house drab and mundane. Perhaps the living experience in this two-up-two-down white box was likewise?

Style on No. 42

Style on No. 39
Strolling over to the walls showed the slightly different proportions of No. 39; then, moving along back up the road to the far end of the blackhouse, there was a surprise: the end wall had a style built into the stonework. So the ledge was accessible; it was used as a platform to maintain the roof and the edges themselves.

The 'white' house

Interior of 'white' house

Walking back into the other 'white' house display centre to return the briefing page and to purchase the guide, the full length of the blackhouse became evident. One never reads guides prior to experiencing place as it is too easy just to see what the guide tells rather than sense the native presence of space and meaning. In the visitors' centre, the neatly dressed young man standing at the cash register asked if I had enjoyed the blackhouse. I told him that I had truly enjoyed it, noting that it was good to see the peat fire burning. One had always wondered how the fire, that had the same location in the old Shetland houses, worked in a fully enclosed space with no flue. “The place has a lovely lived-in feel,” I said. “Yes,” he agreed, “The house is exactly as she left it. Only the roof has been repaired and replaced, and a few pieces of furniture from the local area have been added. The old Bible is still in the drawer.”

While the blackhouse might have some degree of rudimentary habitation about it, it certainly seemed to house folk who had a certain degree of contentment: but it was not always like this. The Crofters Act was only passed in 1886. There was something organic here; something knitted into place.

Blackhouse ruins

The road out from blackhouse No. 42
This was the blackhouse. True to Jung’s theory of synchronicity, more and more relics were soon seen everywhere, even in places we had been to previously. It was an experience worth waiting for. One could understand the real sense of being home.

For a good pictorial history of the Outer Hebrides, see Guthrie Hutton's book, The Old Outer Hebrides From Barra Head to the Butt of Lewis.

The old Norse mill on Lewis has the exact form and detailing of the blackhouse:

24 December 2016
For the impact of the removal of the roof and walls on a building, see:

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