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The Blackhouse at 42 Arnol (Isle of Lewis)

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Attraction in Isle of Lewis

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      11.10.2009 09:41
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      A traditional dwelling on the Isle of Lewis

      Arnol is a small village on the remote northern coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Today the village comprises of a number small crofts scattered across a large area but if you look closer you will see the remains of many Black Houses interspersed between the more modern houses. Black Houses are as far as I know unique to the North West Highlands of Scotland and represent a way of life for the people that have lived here, virtually in isolation from the mainland for thousands of years. The last of the Arnol Black Houses was abandoned in 1974 but thankfully the Black House at No. 42 within the village has been preserved and turned into a museum for future generations to see how these people lived.

      It is a common assumption that the Black Houses derived their name because they had no chimney and very tiny windows so the interior of these buildings were very dark and the walls were black from the smoke of the peat fires that burned day and night. In fact they most likely received the name during the latter half of the 19th century when the locals constructed more modern stone crofts that they whitewashed. These became referred to as the White Houses whilst the old dwellings that were left to ruin were referred to as the old Black Houses.

      The Arnol Black House Museum is sign posted from the main coastal road and access is via a narrow single-track road through the village. Follow this road right to its end, almost to where it meets the sea and here you will find a small car parking area and immediately next to this you will see the rather bizarre sight of the Black House. This was my first encounter with a Black House although I would later find several other examples during my tour of the island and even discover an entire village of them.

      From the outside the Black House is very long and narrow but its most distinguishing feature is a thatched roof constructed of twigs and heather and overlaid with straw. The building itself is constructed from local stones, there is no cement between these stones and I can only liken this method to the dry stone walls that one often finds in the countryside. The straw roof is tied down with ropes that are each attached to a large rock to weight them down.

      Adjacent to the Black House there is a small visitor centre where an admission fee is payable to enter the Black House at No. 42. The cost is £2.50 per adult and £1.25 per child. Inside the visitor centre there is a small gift shop and a display of exhibits relating to the Arnol Black Houses including quite a few photographs.

      A narrow footpath leads from the visitor centre to the entrance of the house but this wouldn't be suitable for disabled visitors since the entrance door is very small and narrow. Furthermore there is a step down into the house and as it's very dark inside care should be taken and children will need to be supervised. Looking at the entrance from the outside the building is very low but once inside you will realise that a part of it is actually sunk into the ground. This low height together with its orientation at a 90 degree angle to the shore provided shelter from the onshore winds. This method of construction was very like the old croft houses I had seen at the Skye Island Museum of Life but there the buildings were much smaller and more cottage like. The Arnol Black House is huge and once inside you discover that this is because it was not only a home to the family that lived here but also a home for their cattle, pigs and even a horse.

      A couple of torches at the entrance were provided to assist the internal tour and without this it would have been very dark. The whole building had only two tiny narrow windows on either side so virtually no natural daylight penetrated the rooms yet despite this it still felt remarkably warm and cosy. To the right of the doorway was a room that had a peat fire burning in the middle of it and beyond this there were two bedrooms. The first room turned out to be the kitchen/dining area but was very sparse with just a crude table and no chairs, presumably the family that lived here sat on the hard floor around the fire. The bedrooms were however a little more elaborate with a chest of drawers and box beds built into the walls with curtains draped across them. Again these were not unlike the box beds that I had seen on the Isle of Skye and the curtains would have been dyed using natural dyes from plants, lichens or seaweed. The box beds being built into the wall not only saved space but also provided extra warmth. The bedroom and kitchen areas are both furnished as they would have looked during the 1920's and it is notable that there is neither running water nor electricity. In fact even when the last of these Black Houses were abandoned in the 1970's they still didn't have such luxuries.

      To the left of the entrance is a small room where a horse would have been kept and at the side of this was a pile of straw. Through a narrow gap in the wall there was a further room for animals that would have held pigs and sheep and even the odd cow. The animals didn't live here permanently but instead were only brought inside when the weather was bad.

      Beyond the Black House there are actually two further buildings, neither of which are visible from the road. These buildings are without a thatched roof but the outer walls are still intact and with no roof they are fully illuminated by daylight so these buildings give a better insight into how the buildings were constructed. Surrounding these building are the original gardens, which would have been used to grow crops, mainly potatoes.

      I found the Arnol Black House fascinating. It has been preserved in a way to represent how it would have actually looked rather than furnished with other extras like so many of these places often are. Its appeal is in its simplicity and the sparseness and lack of mod cons only serve to emphasise the harsh life that these people endured. This particular Black House only dates from the late 19th century and is therefore one of the later examples of such a dwelling, it was abandoned in 1966. It does however represent a way of life that dates back many centuries and probably to the time of the Vikings.

      The Arnol Black House Museum is open daily throughout the year (except Sunday) from 9.30am until 6.30pm between April and September and from 9.30am until 4.30pm between October and March. Historic Scotland looks after the property and their members can enter free.

      42 Arnol
      Isle of Lewis
      Arnol
      Isle of Lewis
      HS2 9DB

      Telephone -(01851) 710395

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      • More +
        20.09.2002 20:14
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        ~ ~ The ‘mad cabbie’ is a bit of a mongrel. My late father was a lowland Scot from the East Lothian district south of Edinburgh, and my late mother was a Highlander from the Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles. So I have spiritual roots in two communities; three, in fact, if you also include my adopted home of Dublin in Ireland. But it’s my connection with the Isle of Lewis, where I still have many relations, which I want to explore a little in this opinion. ~ ~ My late mother was born in 1913 in a small village called Caverstay, south of Stornoway. Her first language was Scot’s Gaelic, (very similar to Irish, as it happens) and she only began to learn English when she went to Secondary School at about the age of twelve. My grandfather was a crofter, weaver, and fisherman, and they lived a very simple, and self-sufficient, lifestyle without many of the luxuries that we simply take for granted nowadays. They had no electricity, and they cooked over an open fire. The house that they lived in had been in the family for generations, and was an old straw and heather thatched ‘Blackhouse’, with old flagstone floors and rough stone walls, exactly like the house I am going to describe in this opinion, the Black House at 42, Arnol. Sadly, the old family home is no more. It was located at the side of a loch, and surrounded by rolling hills, peat bog, and moors covered in heather. But the family all moved to Stornoway when my mother was a teenager, as my grandfather took up employment in one of the new Harris Tweed mills, and over the intervening years the old house became derelict. Today, all that remains are a few remnants of the ‘dry stane’ (dry stone) walls. So you can imagine my interest when I discovered on our trip to Lewis last year (2001) that a Blackhouse still remains, which has been restored to pristine condition by a group of people called ‘Historic Scotland’, who are
        intent on saving as much of the old Scottish way of life and heritage as possible. ~ ~ The Blackhouse at 42, Arnol is situated in the township of Arnol, just off the A858 road on the west side of the Isle of Lewis. My first impression on driving into the village was of entering a place where time has practically stood still for generations. The new modern bungalows stand alongside the older corrugated iron roofed dwellings, which in their turn stand beside the still older Black Houses. Most of the old Blackhouses are now in ruins, or are used for storage or as barns by their owners, but the Blackhouse at No. 42, Arnol is the exception. This has been fully restored by ‘Historic Scotland’, and is held in trust by the Department of the Environment since the early 1960’s. It’s a fascinating look back at what life was like for people as little as one or two generations ago. In fact, 42 Arnol was in use as a dwelling right up to 1964, less than forty years ago! I was interested to learn that the Blackhouses in this village are mostly only about a century old, as the original village was situated far nearer to the adjacent Loch Arnol. But it is reckoned that the Blackhouse at 42, Arnol was one of the first to be built, about the mid- 19th century. The tradition of Blackhouses goes much further back in history than this however. Some say that they were introduced to the Highlands and Islands by the invading Vikings! ~ ~ The walls of the building were all erected using the old ‘dry stane’ method, where stones and boulders are simply fitted together in much the same way as you fit together a jigsaw puzzle. There is an outer and an inner wall, and between the two is placed an inner core of peat-mould. (a very effective early form of cavity insulation!) The roof is made of heathery sods (“sgrathan” in the Gaelic) laid over timbers, which overlap each other much in the same way as the scales o
        f a fish. Straw is then placed on top of the heather, and the roof is then held in place by fishing nets or by ropes (in olden times the ropes would have been made out of strands of heather) all lashed together. You enter the main living area, which doubled as a sitting room and kitchen, through an old wooden door, and straight away you are met by a blast of heat and smoke from the open peat fire that burns in the hearth, which is right in the middle of the room. There is no chimney to let out the smoke, which escapes through tiny rectangular holes, which are left in the thatch to let in some light. This allowed the thatch to become impregnated with soot, and when it was replaced, the old thatch was then used as fertiliser for the crops. (never known to waste anything us Scots, you know!) We visited on a very wet day in the middle of summer, and there wasn’t the slightest sign of a leak from the roof, but the heat (and smoke) inside the building was stifling. But I could well imagine how it would be very cosy in the middle of a cold, wet winter! There is a metal crook on a stout metal chain (dubhan in the gaelic) that hangs over the fire from which to hang the kettle and pots and pans when cooking, and all the cast iron utensils are strung up on the roof rafters. An old traditional dresser and plate rack holds all the plates and dishes, and a wooded cupboard on the opposite wall contains the crockery. Another interesting item was the coat hook, which was made from a dried out plant stem and leaf stalks of a type of thistle common in the area. An old pendulum clock hangs beside it to tell the time. Lighting was provided by what is called a tinker’s lamp, (lampa cheaird in the Gaelic) an old oil burning type of Tilly-lamp, before electricity was finally provided in the 1940’s. At one end of the room is a double box bed, where the parents usually slept. This is simply a large hole in the wall, traditionally filled with a
        straw mattress. Another door leads to a small bedroom, which contains more box beds for use by the family. It was traditional in Lewis for three and more generations to all stay together in the one house, with mother and father, children, and the grandparents all working and living together. ~ ~ Another doorway leads to the byre, where the cattle and animals were kept to provide the family with milk and meat. In older Blackhouses the manure from the animals was often only cleaned out about once a year (in the Spring) to provide fertiliser for the crops, but in 42 Arnol this doesn’t appear to have been the practice. (can you imagine living next door to a room full of sh*t!! Phewww!!) And the barn, where the crops were stored and threshed, and where the hens were kept, (meat and eggs) is simply an extension of the living area, with a wire mesh strung across to keep the chickens out of the living room! Food came from the crops, from the animals, and from the nearby loch, which supplied an abundant source of fish. (mostly salmon and trout.) And weaving was the method of supplying most of the clothes for the whole family. At the back of the house the peat is stacked for the fire. This is cut in the dry summer months when it is not so laden with moisture, and then stacked in a certain manner to allow it to dry out further. ~ ~ Here’s an exert from an old school essay by a young Lewis girl, describing her early life in a Blackhouse. “During winter, many neighbours come in each night. We form a circle round the fire and discuss many subjects. The fire can be built as high as you like because there is no risk of a chimney catching fire. Very often, after tea a ‘cailleach’ (old woman) comes in for a ceilidh. You know, just to gossip. I remember a few years ago, when my uncle was at home from Canada, people used to come every night. What times we had, singing…and many other sources of
        entertainment.” I can still recall my own mother waxing lyrical about the many ‘ceilidh’s’ she had as a young girl living in the old Blackhouse in Caverstay, and indeed, it was a tradition in my own home when I was growing up that her sisters would visit every Saturday evening. A plate of ‘salted herring’ and boiled potatoes would be placed in the middle of the kitchen table, and it was my job each week to go down to the local pub to purchase the bottle of Scotch Whisky that was used to wash down the meal and to lubricate the vocal chords for conversation! They used to sit for hours chatting away in the Gaelic, and singing and laughing together. As I said at the start of this opinion, the Blackhouse my late mother lived in at Caverstay in Lewis is no more. But I have visited the site where it once stood on many occasions, and taken my young daughter to see where her Granny was born and raised. If I were ever fortunate enough to win the Irish Lottery, then I would spend part of the money building a new house (NOT a Blackhouse though) on the site where it once stood. (the family still own the surrounding land) ~ ~ There is a small shop and bookstore that adjoins the site of the Blackhouse at 42, Arnol, where you can buy souvenirs of your visit. The tour is conducted by a VERY knowledgeable Guide, and if you ever find yourself in this heavenly part of Scotland, then it is well worth your while taking in this attraction. There is a small charge for admittance and for the tour. To be honest, I’ve actually forgotten how much, and I can’t find any details on the Web. But if memory serves, I think it was about the £5 mark for the three of us. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Copyright Ken J. September, 2002. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ FOOTNOTE I didn't want to post this opinion in this "Isles of Lewis in general" section, not least because (I think) it cannot qualify for a Cr
        own award under a "in general" Category. But as you are all aware, dooyoo seem to have stopped adding new (or suggested) Categories altogether for the past few months. It's a really enlightened policy, isn't it?? ~~~~~~~~~~~~

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