We’ve just returned from a very relaxing break in Berneray and North Uist, staying in lamraig cottage – a beautiful Hebridean blackhouse: carefully restored, formerly occupied, and now run as a holiday rental by our friend Meg (of Birlinn Yarn fame). If you’ve read the Shieling section of my West Highland Way book, you’ll know I have a thing for highland and island vernacular architecture.
(blackhouse near lamraig cottage)
I just love old shielings and thatched crofthouses. I love the resourcefulness that is written through each of their carefully placed stones; I love the contrast between their huge sturdy walls and their tiny environmental footprint (nothing is wasted; building materials are frequently renewed); I love the way they quietly melt and fold into the landscapes of which they are a part. And I’m interested in the important stories such buildings have to tell about the distinctive nature of the Scottish highland and island landscape, in how these simple, ingenious, domestic structures shaped (and continue to shape) human lives, human spaces, human communities.
We might regard such buildings as picturesque, but we must remember that we are looking at them through twenty-first century eyes: eyes that are much more used to seeing domestic architecture as a series of differently-dimensioned boxes: all squared-off corners, clean lines and angles. Straight walls and roofs just look “modern”, while walls of irregularly-shaped stone that seem to curve and breathe, or a roof of thatched marram grass, culled from the local machair can seem, to contemporary eyes “quaint” or “primitive.”
(John Frederick Miller’s watercolour of “a weaver’s cottage in Islay” later used to illustrate the 1774 edition of Thomas Pennant’s Scottish Tour)
Contemporary perceptions of thatched buildings as “picturesque” can be quite similar to those of eighteenth-century observer-travellers, whose determined categorising of Scottish vernacular architecture as “uncultivated” became integral to the “civilising” discourse which fed the control – and later clearance – of the highland and island landscape.
In 1772, having already travelled extensively around the South Pacific and the Americas, Joseph Banks concluded after visiting the isle of Islay that: “The Hebrideans live but very poorly. Their huts are poor to admiration. I have seen few Indians live in so uncomfortable manners.”
Similarly, in 1774, Thomas Pennant described (and artist Moses Griffith depicted) shieling huts on the island of Jura as “Indian teepees” with a “grotesque” appearance. Such comparisons between Hebrideans and other, more far-flung “natives” were, during the eighteenth century, completely routine, betraying a prejudice, and lack of understanding certainly as profound as that which the metropolitan elite of the “enlightenment” directed at the other peoples they colonised and controlled.
Few eighteenth-century commentators remarked upon how such buildings displayed, in their materials and construction, an ingenious and subtle comprehension of their local environment and resources. Few remarked upon just how well a sturdy blackhouse might withstand all whims of Hebridean weather; few noted how so many quintessentially “modern” enterprises – involving anything from the production of woven textiles to kelp – were being conducted inside these ostensibly “primitive” spaces.
The brutal clearance of the highland and island landscape meant that many blackhouses were forcibly abandoned, and swiftly fell into decline. There are countless standing in various states of ruin all over the islands, and they are notoriously difficult to restore. Their roofs of marram thatch require careful maintenance and regular renewal – tough, labour-intensive work. Often, too, these traditional dwellings are (like the group of which lamraig cottage is a part) A or B listed and their listed status – together with the hands-on and unrelenting nature of their maintenance – means that their return to the living Hebridean landscape requires genuine vision and dedication. Happily, Meg and her husband Andrew have these qualities in spades: restoring lamraig cottage from bare walls and dirt floor to the cosy nook (complete with underfloor heating, box bed, and wood stove) in which we had the pleasure to spend last week.
Lamraig cottage was Meg and Andrew’s family home for a decade: they lived here with their young sons, before they all outgrew the space, and moved to nearby Sunhill croft, where they now breed and raise Hebridean sheep. It’s a really inspiring place to stay – a great space for a couple, and a couple of dogs to relax for a week- and if you are interested in doing so I highly recommend it!
PS just for clarity: Meg did not ask me to write this post (and indeed has no idea I’m doing so). I just like to write about the things I like!