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!

29 thoughts on “at lamraig cottage

  1. These blackhouses are beautiful. I am drawn to all things historical, especially the earlier and time tested ways of living. Thank you for sharing this with all of us. And thank you also for highlighting the the same racist, ignorant and superior thinking that lies behind the labels “primitive” “grotesque” and bringing “enlightenment” to mostly indigeneous people by these brutal colomizers. We are all still suffering from the effects of this, the First Nations People of the both the Americas, the Aboriginees in Australia are the people that come to mind first as the assualts are relentless and ongoing.
    Love your posts and your designs. I look forward to enjoying many more.

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  2. I follow Birlinn yarns and have been considering booking a week at this gorgeous cottage for a while – then I read this post! Think I really am going to have to visit there now. Really enjoyed reading this.

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  3. Hi Kate- this question is a bit off topic, but I couldn’t figure out where else to ask it. I absolutely love my 2018 postcard calendar, and I am wondering if you’ll be doing a 2019 version. If you are, I’d love it if you’d put me at the top of the list for one. Thank you for this lovely post, and for sharing your life with us.
    Cheers,
    Meredith

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you so much for this beautifully evocative piece of writing. I grew up in Glasgow, never really considered myself Scottish until recent years when I decided to get in touch with my i”nner Scott”, Reading pieces like yours , written with genuine respect and regard for the ingenuity of the my anscesters, fills my heart with pride.

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  5. I’m an architect, and always love to see vernacular architecture. It is one of the enduring cultural legacies of any place. These cottages, which I have not had the privilege of seeing, are just spectacular. Thank you for sharing them with us.

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  6. We spent a wonderful week there last Spring; it was absolutely fabulous, the restoration is incredible, we felt at home the moment we stepped inside, Meg was lovely & so helpful. It’s kind that you put this post on and highlighted this gorgeous place. We,would love to return.

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  7. Kate, I absolutely love reading your Scottish stories. Someday, with luck and perseverance, I will visit Scotland, the home of my paternal ancestors.

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  8. Lovely post, Kate. Brought back memories for me. I love it there and feel a deep connection. My grandmother was born and raised in a blackhouse on Heisker, a group of small islands just off the coast of North Uist. My grandfather and all my cousins were born on Grimsay, North Uist. My grandparents immigrated to Vancouver BC Canada around 1910. I have been there on two occasions and the family continues to embrace me. Outer Hebridian people are as warm and cozy as their blackhouses. A wonderful place to spend vacation time. Also have some of the wonderful Birlinn Yarn and also Uist wool yarn, from the lovely little mill on Grimsay. I’ll go back again.

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  9. I have just bought some of Meg’s yarn after seeing her in Fruity Knitting podcast. I have been to Berneray and think it is the most beautiful Hebridean island . So I felt I had to support this lovely lady and the yarn us gorgeous. So I webt on her mailing list and heard about the cottage. I was very taken with it. Then you write about it in your blog!! Coincidence. So now I have your review on it too!! Must book. Just finishing long sleeved version of Scatness. I was just there during Shetland Wool week too. Another coincidence.

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  10. I agree totally with Bridget Danby’s cooments. I always appreciate your clear rethinking of history. As always, thank you to Kate, Tom, Bruce & Bobbie 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

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  11. It’s hard not to sound condescending but, damn it if they aren’t as cute as a little hedgehog! They look cosy and able to withstand any high winds and lashing rain. Once Meg has seen your write up, do you have any internal shots to share?

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  12. What a beautiful, thought-provoking piece, Kate! This Is what I really like about your site and your publications – along with the patterns and yarns, we get the whole picture, the provenance and your own opinions and musings, not to mention Tom’s stunning photography. It’s like a tonic – does me no end of good!! Very pleased you both had a good break!

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  13. I took a day’s course recently on weaving a wampum based on a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) wampum that was a treaty between the nations that they would share common hunting grounds. While the instructor spoke, he referred to all those from Great Britain as British, Irish or Scottish but painted them all as perpetrators of the harm done to the First Nations here. I spoke with him afterwards and asked if he had ever read into the history of Scotland or Ireland and the role England played there? I pointed out that much of what they had done in North America, they had already done in Scotland and Ireland. At that moment in time he had a very difficult time believing it. I hope in the future the historian in him (he is a Ph.D. student in history) will urge him to look further. In the meantime, I hope I can find a way to get him to read this. Thanks.

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  14. What a beautiful place. A great place for peace and quiet and recuperation from all you have done this year. I hope you both feel the benefit and continue to do so into the future.

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