Heritage

 

The Blackhouse of the Highlands

 

The Longhouse
The blackhouses of the Highlands of Scotland were byre dwellings in the tradition of ‘long houses’ which have existed in Northern Europe for over a thousand years. Originally blackhouses had no chimneys or windows and were built with locally-found materials - stone, turf, thatch of reeds, oats, barley or marram grass.- usually on the worst arable land.

 

Settlement Patterns
Before the introduction of crofting at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the ‘farms’ on the Highland estates were run by tacksmen who paid a rent to the clan chief. On each farm there would be a small settlement whose inhabitants would pay their rents to the tacksman. The system of farming used was known as ‘run-rig.’ This was when the fields were worked communally and in rotation. Because of this collective method of farming, blackhouses were clustered together into small ‘clachan’, normally close to the freshwater source. Crofting saw the disappearance of the tacksmen and the division of the ‘farms’ into apportionments where each tenant had their own piece of land. The blackhouses were rebuilt on each croft - usually on the worst arable land.

 

The Name 'Blackhouse'
The name ‘blackhouse’ dates back to the middle of the last century when more modern buildings were introduced into the Western Highlands and Islands as rural housing and land use underwent huge changes. Predominantly standard one-and-a-half storey and slated, these new houses were called ‘taighean geala’ - white houses in the Gaelic speaking areas. To create a distinction, the old thatched cottages with their drystone walls, were called ‘taighean dubha’ - blackhouses.

 

 

 

Environmental Architecture

 

Siting
The form and siting of the blackhouse, low and sunk into the contours of the land, reduced wind exposure and heat loss.

 

The Fire
In the old blackhouse the fire was built in the centre of the floor and there was no chimney. This was extremely energy efficient. The fire was the centre of family life and was never allowed to go out - it was smoored in the evening.

 

The Walls and Roof
The thick stone walls and earthen floor would absorb the heat of the fire during the night. The earth core of the walls was good insulation and kept out draughts through the drystone wall. The turf and thick thatch, heavy with soot, were also good insulants.

 

Livestock
The cow or cattle were often under the same roof as the humans during the winter. This was for the sake of the animal - it was essential to the family that the cow was in good health and gave a good yield of milk. The cow benefited from the warmth of the fire but also gave out large quantities of heat itself, from its body and manure.

 

The Manure
The byre was at the lower end of the house so that the urine would drain into the arable land. The ammonia from the urine also helped to sterilise the house. Each spring the byre would be cleaned out of the accumulated manure which would be placed on the crops as fertiliser. Human waste would also be gathered for this purpose with the urine being used for treating fabrics such as tweed.

 

The Smoke
The peat smoke from the open fire would fill the house and act as a steriliser - killing bugs and germs. It would escape by seeping through the thatch, enriching it with soot. The soot-saturated thatch was removed periodically and used as a fertiliser for the crops.

 

Materials
Good timber was precious. When moving, or building a new house, the couples and good roof timbers were often removed and re-used. This also applied to any windows, and good stones used as lintels.

 

 

Response to the Environment

 

 

The Form
The form and siting of the blackhouses was influenced by the fear of storms. The house was low and contour hugging, often being built into the slope or embankments. The roof was rounded, leaving no sharp edges for the wind to catch.

 

The Plan
openings were almost universally on the east side of the building, the south westerly prevailing winds hitting nothing but blank walls. When people rose in the morning they were met (occasionally) with the sun in their faces. This was important. The siting of the blackhouses conformed to the old Gaelic proverb 'An iar's an ear, an dachaigh as' fhéarr - cùl ri gaoith,'s aghaidh ri gréin.' (East to west, the house that's best - back to the wind and face to the sun).

 

Materials
The materials used were those that were available. This depended on where a person lived, the rules of the estate, and a person's wealth. As a result, the houses were built of entirely local material. When people could afford to buy in better materials, however, they did so.

 

Lessons Applied to the Modern Longhouse

 

Dualchas wanted to develop a modern longhouse with a simple objective; to offer an affordable alternative to the brochure kit-house. The kit-house is the most common form of building in the Highlands, yet its alien form is despoiling the Highland landscape - thus threatening an economy which is highly dependent on tourism. We therefore wanted a house which was unmistakably Highland, yet modern; a house that could be seen as part of the cultural regeneration of the Highlands. To do this we sought inspiration from the true vernacular of the Highlands - the blackhouse.

 

Architecture is as important to the culture of a community as language and music. Great strides have been made in recent years to invigorate the Gaelic language and song - however, very little has been done for the culture of the built-form. The use of the American-inspired kit-house demonstrates that Highlanders, as well as Highland architects, still lack confidence in their own architectural heritage. The blackhouse is still seen by many as a symbol of backwardness and poverty - little more than a shelter. To us it is a marvel of purpose building in appalling economic and social conditions and an inspiration for a modern Highland house design.

 

Learning from the blackhouse meant discarding old materials for new, and bringing in the modern. It meant retaining some of the basic principles of the old design - but not the sentimentalities of the old construction such as thatch and stone. It meant affordability was paramount.

 

Our most challenging houses had to be able to qualify for the Scottish Rural Home Ownership grant. This meant they could be no bigger than 70m2, and have a construction cost in keeping with grant parameters. However, this did not mean building the cheapest house available. It meant maximising the grant and building the most spacious houses we could, within the budget and size limits.

 

It was decided that timber frame was the most suitable form of construction, as it is cheap, simple to build and can be erected quickly - essential in the Highland's capricious weather. The linear form of the blackhouse can be applied to today's buildings, meaning that the walls of the house can be easily spanned, cutting down on the timber required in the trusses. A concrete-slab floor ties the house into the ground and allows them to be built on site, with no factory involvement, thus ensuring more work and money for local joiners - not the kit-house companies.

 

The form also allows the house to slot into the hillside effectively with the main glazing orientated to make use of passive solar gain. The siting of the house in the landscape also shields the house from the prevailing south westerly winds, greatly reducing heat loss from wind action.

 

Energy efficiency is addressed not only in the siting and orientation of the house, but also through the use of a 150mm stud wall, allowing for the insertion of additional insulation. Combined with a 100mm-wide cavity, this design permits a wall to be thicker than that used in standard timber frame detailing. The design also gives a solidity that is essential - and traditional - in Scottish architecture.

 

Internally the house can reflect the spacious, open-plan nature of the blackhouse. Superfluous spaces to Highland living, such as a formal reception hall and a separate dining room, can be eliminated. The kitchen becomes central - the heart of the Highland home; and a central fire can act as the focal point to the living area. As with the blackhouse, the main space can be open to the apex of the roof, which adds drama, something usually sadly lacking in a kit-house. A house should also be planned so that it can is readily adapted, for example by converting the loft space, or adding an extension.

 

While this may be simple architecture, at Dualchas we feel that this simplicity could well be the answer to the scourge of the alien kit-house. The Highlands needs more affordable housing if its young people are to remain here and the economy and culture of this superb locale are to develop. The challenge is, how can we acheive this without ruining the majestic beauty of the area in the process.

 

 

 

 

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