The Outer Hebrides islands have been inhabited since Mesolithic times, some 9,000 years ago. Historical attractions and prehistoric relics dot the landscape, giving visitors an insight into how islanders used to live.
A traditional Hebridean ‘blackhouse’ stands at Arnol, on the west coast of Lewis. The Arnol Blackhouse was built between 1852 and 1895 and is now under the care of Historic Scotland. Arnol has been a settlement for more than 2,000 years; the original site was by the seashore, just above a rocky beach called Mol a’ Chladaich, where the ruins of small, oval-ended houses are still visible. In 1795 the settlement was driven inland and three ‘new’ Arnols were established. The move to the present township, Baile an Truiseil, took place in 1853.
The blackhouse at number 42 closely resembles domestic buildings from the Norse times or earlier. They were often built from turf with timber lining and stone foundations, although materials depended on local availability. The walls were about 1.8 metres (5.9 feet) high at most and the gap between the inner and outer stone skins was filled with earth, peat and ashes. As a development of much more ancient houses, people and their livestock all lived under the same roof.
Some blackhouses, known as taighean (houses), were used right up until the 1960s and this particular one was last occupied in 1965. Having animals ‘living in’ had its advantages. It made the house warmer and meant fewer buildings were needed. A stone wall would mark the line between the croft land for crops and the inbye for grazing animals. The dung that built up over the year would be cleared out once a year after the cattle had been put outside and was used, along with seaweed and sooty turf from the roof, as manure on the land.
The peat fire was the centre of the living area and was never allowed to go out. The smoke rising from the peat fire into the roof had hidden benefits. It killed bugs, and the smoke-laden thatch made excellent fertiliser for the fields. During winter, many neighbours would form a circle around the fire and talk, sing or enjoy other forms of entertainment. The byre roof is lower than the domestic end and the open hole to the midden allowed fresh air in, ventilating the house.
Across the road from number 42, at number 39, is a whitehouse, which was built in the 1920s and is furnished in the style of the 1950s. Up until the 1900s all houses that were built were blackhouses, however when new health regulations required byre and dwelling to be separated by a wall, a new type of house appeared. Whitehouses were single-walled dwellings cemented with lime mortar. The contrast of this house against the existing buildings gave it the name whitehouse and it was then that the older building became known as blackhouses. Whitehouses were built in a style more familiar to us today with solid walls, windows that opened, a pitched roof and a chimney.
- Peter May Hebrides
- Explore: The Outer Hebrides
- The Outer Hebrides Guide Book