Comann Eachdraichd Uig

Blackhouse Model for Green Homes

 An article by Mary Beith, first published in the Scotsman in July 1990.  Thanks to Mary for the opportunity to republish it.

A group of architects and others at Manchester University who had been devoting a great deal of time and thought to devising the environmentally ideal house of the future were understandably well pleased with the outcome of their researches.

That home would be long, narrow and rectangular, easy to span – thus cutting down on timber – highly insulated and with minimal windows; it would be a single volume house, not a series of separate rooms to ceiling level but divided by two-metre high partitions where the air could circulate freely above; and there would be a centralised heating source.

When one of the group contacted Bruce Walker, a lecture in architecture at the Duncan of Jordanston College and Dundee University, now on secondment to Historic Buildings and Monuments, the latter listened with not a little quiet amusement to the list of specifications for the ultimate in green homes.

“What you have just described,” he told his informant, “is a Western Isles black house – without the peat smoke.”

They have tremendous advantages, says Dr Walker: “Especially in that they were so much easier to heat with 100 per cent energy efficiency from the central fire which could generate the equivalent of 7 kilowatts. Later island houses had gable hearths with only 18 to 20 per cent efficiency with the bulk of the heat going out the chimney and even a modern stove is only 65 per cent efficient.”

Careful experiments with plastic models, incense and lightbulbs have proved not only the energy conservation qualities of the blackhouses but also the ingenious methods of their builders. That very peat smoke had its uses and there were ways of avoiding its disadvantages.  The uneven-looking roofs and somewhat ill-fitting doors were not, Dr Walker had found, the results of haphazard and shoddy workmanship but a clever way of setting up convection currents caused by the heat given off by the cattle in the integral byre.

Wild Murdoch of Mealista Island

Mealista Island

Mealista Island (on the right) from above Molinish, with Scarp in the distance.

From “Various Superstitions in the North-West Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Especially in Relation to Lunacy” by Arthur Mitchell AM MD, Deputy Commissioner for Lunacy in Scotland, Corresponding Member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.  From the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol IV, published in Edinburgh in 1862.  Excuse the non-pc approach:

There is a little island called Mealista, separated by a narrow seaway from the coast of Uig, without any permanent population, but to which, in former times, people resorted for the two or three summer months, to look after cows which they transported to it for the sake of pasturage.  Tradition says of this island that no one was every born on it who was not from birth insane, or who did not become so before death.  In the last generation, three persons had the misfortune for the first time to see the light of day on this unlucky spot, and all three were mad.¹  Of one of them, who is remembered by the name of Wild Murdoch, many strange stories are told.  It is said that his friends used to tie a rope around his body, make it fast to the stern of the boat, and then pull out to sea, taking the wretched man in tow.²

The story goes that he was so buoyant that he could not sink; that they “tried to press him down in the water”; that he could swim with a stone fastened to him; that when carried to the rocky holms of Mealista or Grianan, round which the open Atlantic surges, and left there alone, he took to the water, and swam ashore; and that, when bound hand and foot and left in a kiln, by a miracle of strength he broke his bonds and escaped.  It was thus they are said to have treated him during his fits of maniacal excitement; and there are many still alive [in 1862] who saw it all, and gave a helping hand. 

Seonnaidh Mòr on the Subject of Milk

The Dewar Commission, charged with investigating the state of medical provision in the Highlands and Islands, interviewed, amongst others, John Macrae (Seonnaidh Mòr), the farmer at Timsgarry, on 12 October 1912 at Garynahine.  The questions are put by the chairman, Sir John Dewar MP.

You have three nurses in the parish, and the nuring is very satisfactory?– Yes, very satisfactory indeed.

Have you room for more nurses?– Yes.  We would certainly require another nurse.  It is a very wide district.  It extends from here away up to the other end – it is something like thirty miles – and there is only one nurse [in West Uig].  I think we require two.

Could you tell us in your own way in what way the nurses benefit the people?– Well, the greatest benefit they are to the sick people is in the way of dieting; again, in maternity cases they are a great benefit.

You think they have considerable effect on the habits of the people in teaching them how to live properly?– Yes.

Can you give us any indication of how a crofter lives?  Can you tell us what sort of diet they live on?– Yes.

What have they for breakfast?– As a rule they have oatmeal porridge and milk.