I’ve been putting off writing this entry in the hopes that I would hear from Historic Scotland about using a couple of photos from their guide book to Arnol blackhouse but no news yet. Anyway, can’t wait for ever so here we go without their photos.
I went back to Arnol the next day to have a proper look at the blackhouse. When blackhouses were occupied – till 1970s in some cases – they were just called “houses”, and it wasn’t until the Regulations of the 1920s about health and hygiene came along that things changed much. New houses started to be built in the style of the mainland, and these looked so different and modern that they were given the name taigh-geal white house.It was only then that the old houses became known as blackhouses. Living in a blackhouse, you shared your four walls with your stock – humans at one end, animals at the other, though I daresay the hens came into the warmth of the fire at the human end from time to time! Divisions between the two ends were perhaps just thin wooden partitions. An addition to the house at the back, would be a storage space perhaps. In older blackhouses there was also another extension to the front which formed a porch and store room. There was only turf and flagstones for flooring and walls made of stone – double thickness filled with peat and earth for insulation. Not much wood was available on the basically treeless island so driftwood and old wooden cast-offs were used as roof props and rafters. I think it’s the Arnol house that has an oar in its roof! The roof timbers would then be covered with turf and then with straw, tied down by heather rope nets with stones as weights. In the photo on the left you can see (against the dark of the peat stack) three stones sticking out of the end of the house. These were steps to enable the men to climb up to the top of the walls to mend or replace the thatch.
The fireplace was usually in the middle of the floor with a chain hanging from the rafter above to attach the cooking pot or kettle to. The smoke from the peat fire would swirl round, rising into the roof space, sooting up the turf and straw which was renewed regularly. The old stuff was then spread on the fields as fertiliser.
Beds were made of wood and were like cupboards with doors or curtains over the opening. Sometimes these would be used to form the partition between living and sleeping rooms.
As time went on some of the blackhouses were improved with fireplaces built into the gable end of the house and chimneys erected, while some houses also had a window or two installed, but it was eventually decreed that barns and byres had to be separate from the living quarters, which was the beginning of the end for blackhouses. “White houses” sprang up next to the old houses and gradually the old fell down. There are many ruins to be seen even today, and of course now the whitehouse is seen as being old fashioned, though they too have gone through periods of change and modernisation and smarter even more modern houses are beginning to spring up! Old folk like the Macleods who built No.42 Arnol around 1875 would be astounded at how homes have developed since their day.
I can’t help but wonder how the family who lived in the blackhouse next door to this taigh geal, undergoing some repairs just now, would have felt the day they moved into their new home. It was light, there was a fireplace with a chimney so there was no smoke wafting round the rooms. Was it a wondrous experience, or did they miss having rafters where you could smoke meat or fish. Did they miss the sounds of the animals? This is how the living room looked when it was taken over by Historic Scotland in the 1970s but what did it look like on that first day around 1920 with the everyday possessions from the blackhouse set in place? Some folk didn’t like their taigh geal and moved back into their old home. It can be seen nowadays that the new houses were damp and probably not as cosy as the blackhouse that had been vacated. However eventually the move was enforced and so the blackhouse’s day passed into history. There are two rooms downstairs in this house, and a steep staircase up to the roof space where apparently two sleeping rooms had been planned.
Leaving Arnol behind I drove down past Carloway again and on to Callanish to see the prehistoric standing stone circles. There are three circles but the main one is second only to Stonehenge in the south of England. It’s pretty spectacular! You can read about it here, its history – it’s about 4000 years old - the excavation from 6 feet of peat that due to climate change had grown around the monument, what it is thought to mean……, and here are some of my photos.
This is the tallest stone which I would have said was taller than the Truiseal stone I saw at the weekend, but apparently it isn’t! It marks the centre of the ancient circle, and at its base are the remains of a later burial chamber, probably only 2000 years old. It was very boggy and wet that day as you will see from all the puddles, though the water in the background of the photo on the right is actually a loch!.
My favourite picture is the one below right!
As you can see the sun was pretty low in the sky and soon it was time to get back to the car, though not before watching a group of rabbits that were grazing near to the footpath down to the carpark. Some bounded into their burrows in the banking below the path while others were bolder, and due to me standing quite still I was able to get one or two photos.
By the time I got to Carloway the light was almost gone and the sky over the village a pretty combination of pinks and purpley grey, and a bit further on, almost back at Shawbost I got a glimpse in my mirror of the sun going down behind the hill. It had to be photographed!And so back to the croft to tell Jennifer what I had been up to! She had a choir practise that night so while she was out I spent a very pleasant evening with Ann next door, drinking cups of tea and watching the winners of the day’s Mod competitions on TV. Our turn to sing soon, though still a day or two off yet!
Talk again soon.