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Behold the Hebrides
A Typical Hebridean Home
The Construction of a 'Black House'

I HAVE told you a good deal about the Isles one way or another; but as yet I have not introduced you to a typical Hebridean home. It is my desire, therefore, to give you some impression of home life in the wilder and more outlandish parts of the Western Isles, where progress in housing conditions has been almost stationary for centuries.

In the olden days the actual site of a house was selected with a view to economising the best cultivable land; while other considerations, such as drainage and general suitability, were liable to be neglected. The primitive ‘black house’ has been appositely referred to as a product of the physical geography of the Hebrides. It is built of undressed stones, which are gathered from every available source. As you may quite imagine, the collecting of suitable stones must at times entail a great deal of labour, especially if the vicinity in which the house is being built should be a peat-moss, where the underlying strata are often covered to a depth of several feet. Stones may have to be conveyed tong distances, therefore. Some, no doubt, are to be found near at hand; but others may require to be carried from a stream nearby or from the seashore, in which case they are rounded and water-worn, and very often fit better into the structure than do the odd boulders collected on the moors and hillsides. When a new house is to be put up, the gathering of suitable stones is really the most important consideration; and, when a young man intends marrying, he is sometimes obliged to devote two or three years beforehand to the collecting of stones on the site on which he ultimately means to erect his home.

The walls of a crofter’s house are built without cement, and are usually of great thickness. Very often they consist of two drystane dykes, which are placed a little apart at the base, but which converge and lean against one another at the top, so as to strengthen the structure. As the walls must be wind-proof, the spaces between the dykes, as well as the interstices between the stones, are filled in with rubble and pebbles and earth, or with sand, when the last-mentioned is conveniently available.

The portion of a Hebridean house, which is the most difficult and perplexing to construct, is the roof, partly because it is expected to withstand the great strength of the gales that blow continually over our islands during the winter months, and partly because of the extreme scarcity of timber. As I have aforetime told you, there are very few trees in the Western Isles: with the exception of those planted round Stornoway Castle in the time of the Mathesons, and the odd, stunted trees that one occasionally comes upon, the Long Island, with an area of more than half a million acres, is treeless. Wood, of course, is shipped regularly to the port of Stornoway; but the crofter in the outlying parts, who is eager to renew his roof or make a window-frame, is frequently compelled to resort to the peat-bog, where he may discover the embedded trunks and stumps of fir-trees.

In ancient times the chief source of timber was the seashore, where, after a storm, odd planks of wood and pieces of wrecked ships were washed up by the tides. There is an old Hebridean incantation which entreats that, since shipwrecks are a necessary evil, they ought to occur on, or near, the shores of the islands, so that the people may be supplied with abundant wood for building purposes. But the advent of the iron-clad vessel has sorely diminished in these days the supply of timber from this source.

Old oars, as one can readily believe, are an invaluable possession in a treeless island, and, as a rule, are carefully earmarked for the construction or renewal of a roof.

One or two layers of turf are usually placed on the tops of the walls, so as to make them more or less water-tight, and to keep the materials between the interstices from being washed out. This turf further produces a regular surface on which the ends of the rafters or cabers rest, and into which they are inserted. There are neither gables nor eaves in a regular ‘black house,’ so that the wind is given a minimum of purchase. Over the rafters are placed large sods, which in turn are covered with thatch of barley straws.

One may rightly inquire how daylight is admitted to the interior of such a quaint structure. Well, since a window-frame requires wood, and that commodity is so scarce, most of the more primitive dwellings possess no real windows; and, so, the light is admitted by one or more panes of glass that are let into the thatch of the roof, In consequence of this, the interior of a ‘black house’ is often very dark, particularly if the entrance be closed. When a window-frame is placed in a wall, other architectural difficulties emerge, because, if the wall be four or five feet in thickness just where it is intended to place the window, the actual glass is often sunk back three or more feet into the wall. Outside, therefore, the sill is very broad, and is bounded on either side by the walls in cross-section, and at right angles to it. It will easily be seen that a window set so far back from the outer face of the wall of the house has certain disadvantages too, and that much of the light is excluded by the fact that it is flanked on both sides by the gray, weather-beaten stones of the wall.

The interior of the typical home is divided into three apartments. The first apartment, which you enter directly by the door, is styled the bathach, or byre. The division in the centre is the living-room; and it is partitioned off from the byre, though not necessarily up to the roof. (You must bear in mind that there are no ceilings in these primitive dwellings.) In Gaelic the living-room is called aig an teine, meaning, literally ‘at the fire.’ The last apartment leads off the living-room, and consists of a row of box beds. It is termed the culaist; and its floor, instead of being of hardened soil, is always of timber, when that precious commodity is procurable in sufficient quantities to warrant its being put to this use. The floor of the byre is invariably excavated so that it may lie about a couple of feet below the level of the floors of the other two apartments. This arrangement is followed in order that the manure may accumulate there, and may not lose its nitrogenous properties, which it would certainly do, were it left outside in the continual rains.

There are no real chimneys in a ‘black house’; and the smoke finds an exit either by the door, when it is left open, or by a hole in the roof, over which a box or a bottomless barrel may, or may not, be placed.

As the peat-fire is seldom permitted to go out, the turf-covered rafters and the thatch become black and saturated with smoke; and all the gases given off by the fire are absorbed by them. This is why the thatch, which is stripped off at regular intervals, is looked upon as so important an addition to the supply of manure, because ammonia is a great plant stimulant.

Closely associated with the circular fireplace of the old Hebridean home are the ceilidhs or gatherings in the winter evenings for the telling of legends and stories, and the singing of songs. Round the peat fire a large number of people can be seated. But, through the building in recent years of houses with gables, in which fireplaces and chimneys may conveniently be placed, the old social circle has had an arc taken out of it, so to speak; and, since fewer can be comfortably accommodated round the fire, the average number attending the ceilidh is unavoidably smaller.

Gradually, with the widening of views, and the dispersal, through the influence of enlightened religious teaching, of many old and persistent superstitions, the old fashioned ceilidh except in the remoter parts is dying out to some extent. And, as a result of this and other changes, many tales are now untold, and many songs unsung.

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