A photograph of a thatched roof building on a sunny day.

The Blackhouse in Arnol, Lewis is a traditional thatched house, inhabited until the mid-twentieth centurd by generations of crofting families and their livestock.

Even though it now stands abandoned, the Blackhouse (or taigh-dubh in Gaelic) still requires regular care and attention. Peat fires are burned daily inside to ensure the thatching remains watertight and insects are kept at bay. The smell of the peat still pervades the Blackhouse and means modern visitors to the Monument are left with an idea of what life would have been like for those who lived in these houses fewer than 100 years ago.

A peat fire burning inside Arnol blackhouse

Roughly every ten years the roof of the Blackhouse needs a complete re-thatching – a job which traditionally would have been completed by the whole family – with top-up thatching occurring annually.

Earlier this year our Conservation Unit worked on a full removal and reinstating of the thatch on the Blackhouse. They used both traditional skills and materials (including searching the beach for driftwood to replace any rotting timbers) to build up the new roof. The work was carried out outwith the summer months to lessen the impact on the main visitor season.

Scaffolding surrounding Arnol Blackhouse

Scaffolding was erected to protect the works from the blustery Western Isles weather, and the team worked hard to complete the job before the new season began.

As is often the case in Scotland, the climate was not in our favour. During particular stormy weather work to the thatching was delayed, with strong winds having a big impact, and the team had to pull together to get the project back on track.

The wooden roof of Arnol Blackhouse with the thatch removed

Keen to keep the task running as closely to schedule as possible, some willing stewards at the Blackhouse volunteered to support the thatching work. New staff member Peter Macphail, who (along with his son, Barney) was involved in this work said that his own relatives used to live in the traditional Lewis Blackhouses!

This was a fantastic opportunity to ensure traditional thatching skills were not lost, and to appreciate the work that my own family would have been involved in when thatching their Blackhouses.

See the thatching process first hand in this short video:

The thatching was completed earlier this year and the artefacts have been returned to the monument (after having their own bit of spring cleaning!). The Blackhouse is open to visitors all year and the team are keen to show off the new roof and discuss their own experiences of working on this project.

A man placing a stone on the thatched roof of Arnol blackhouse

If you ever find yourself on the beautiful island of Lewis make sure you save time for a visit to this unique time-capsule of a site, where you can really appreciate what life in a Blackhouse would have been like, and see in person the work that goes into preserving one of our fascinating monuments.

 

If this has kindled your interest, we’ve just completed a survey of all 305 historic, traditional thatched buildings in Scotland. You can read and download the results for free on our website.


Share

About Author

Sian Evans

Sian is the Islands and World Heritage Visitor Services Manager, based at Skara Brae, and whose role includes supporting site teams at our staffed properties on Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles which includes sites spanning Neolithic to Modern.