A Food & Travel Blog

Historic Housing on Lewis – The Uniquely Preserved Arnol Blackhouse

06/11/2017 | By

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.

arnol blackhouse

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.

Arnol Blackhouse, ruined blackhouse

The ruins of an old blackhouse – which once housed livestock, and still does!

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.

arnol blackhouse outside view

The long, low, Arnol Blackhouse – note the rocks and ropes holding the roofing thatch down.

This way of living was eventually superseded in the early 20th century by what were known as ‘white houses’, smaller homes with solid roofs – and no accommodation for the animals.

whitehouse near arnol blackhouse

The neighbouring white house

arnol blackhouse, kitchen of white house

The modern kitchen of the white house

white house bedroom, arnol blackhouse

The traditional sleeping arrangements in both the white houses and the black houses – a cosy nook in the wall.

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.

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, arnol blackhouse

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

arnol blackhouse, bedroom at Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

Bedroom at the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

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.

arnol blackhouse, living area

The simple furnishings in the living area.

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.

arnol blackhouse hearth

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.

The Arnol Blackhouse is located just out of Stornaway and is open Monday through to Saturday.

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  1. FIONA

    I loved your writing from the outer hebrides, and this article about the blackhouse. You’re right about the smell of peat in the blackhouse, I miss it from the houses around the islands, not too many still keep the fires burning 🙁 I recently did up a little bothy, (it had been gutted completely so all original features are gone) and I let this out for people to be able to come to Lewis and enjoy a holiday without breaking the bank. I’ve geared it up so that it’s an affordable and central holiday cottage. I do hope you don’t mind me contacting you like this, but the little white bothy enables people to go to Lewis – you will have noticed that some cottages in Harris and Lewis charge a king’s ransom to stay a week!! I’m trying to ensure that I offer people the chance to go there, without sweating the cost in their minds!! perhaps you’ll have a look at the FB page, and consider sharing? I’m delighted that you enjoyed the islands so much, they are a joy, and totally inspire people who come over, writers, photographers, artists, so many set up base and end up staying for ever!! 🙂 all the best. FB page @littlewhitebothy I understand if you find this comment unsuitable and decide not to keep it – totally get that!!

  2. Liz (Good Things)

    Oh Amanda, you are taking my breath away, and whetting my appetite to visit this part of the world! So interesting. And beautiful photographs as always. x

  3. Krista Bjorn

    What a fascinating way to live! I really enjoyed this tour of yours. 🙂 The blackhouse reminds me of how many medieval people would live, making the most of each other’s heat through the terribly dark and damp winters. Brrr.

  4. Amanda

    My understanding is that they didn’t ‘do’ anything – this is pretty much how it was when the McLeods lived there!

  5. Hotly Spiced

    How interesting. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be living in the same space as animals right through the winter. But very kind to bring the animals in from the cold. And the Blacksmith’s house is intriguing but I couldn’t help noticing the lack of windows! What about all that smoke! xx