Historic Housing on Lewis – The Uniquely Preserved Arnol Blackhouse
The Arnol Blackhouse is a carefully preserved example of a much-loved way of living that was once common in the Hebrides, but has now totally vanished.
For hundreds of years the people of Lewis lived under the same roof as their animals in the winter months, in what are known as blackhouses, the ruins of which dot the landscape of this windswept island.
The long, low houses were built with double dry-stone walls, packed with soil, and dense, thatched roofs, which were weighted down with nets and rocks to stop them from being blown off. The houses characteristically had no chimneys and were warm and cosy from the heat generated by the constant peat fire and the inhabitants – people and beasts alike. The peat smoke escaped in to the roofing material, killing bugs and soaking into the thatch, making it an excellent fertilizer for their fields.
This way of living was eventually superseded in the early 20th century by what were known as ‘white houses’, smaller homes with solid roofs – and no accommodation for the animals.
It’s possible to stay in a renovated, slightly modernized version of a blackhouse in the charming Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, near Carloway. Here you can get some indication of how life was lived in these buildings but they seemed to me to be a sanitised version of the real deal.
An authentic blackhouse, which was a genuine home, the Arnol Blackhouse, was given over to state care when the McLeod family vacated it in the 1960’s. The Arnol region has a settlement history going back over 2,000 years, with various forms of housing, and this blackhouse has been preserved very much as it was when the McLeods lived there.
It is dim and smoky, with the pleasing peat scent noticeable from the front door. The barn and byre are under the main roof at one end of the house, with a pitched floor in the latter to make cleaning it easier. The human living quarters are at the other end, separated by the threshold, which is where the chickens were kept.
The furnishings are basic and simple, much as they were when this was a much-loved home. The McLeod’s made only a few modest DIY alterations during their time here, including adding the skylights.
The hearth of the peat fire was literally the heart of the home and evenings here saw gatherings of neighbours and family. This was a communal time for spinning and knitting, rope winding and chatting and, frequently, a bit of a ceilidh – a joyous gathering with music, singing and storytelling.
When the Arnol blackhouse was taken over by the state, there were still a number of blackhouses used as homes, but today there are none. This unique preserved home is the now the sole representative of what was once a common way of life in the Hebrides and Scottish Highlands.