The Old Lewis House: A View from 1902

The Report on the Social Conditions of the People of Lewis (1902) by the Crofters Commission gives a detailed account of the traditional Lewis blackhouse, which agitated the minds of reformers from Sir James Matheson onward, and the measures taken from about 1880 to improve it, particularly with regard to sanitation.

The Report on the Social Conditions of the People of Lewis (1902) by the Crofters Commission gives a detailed account of the traditional Lewis blackhouse, which agitated the minds of reformers from Sir James Matheson onward, and the measures taken from about 1880 to improve it, particularly with regard to sanitation.

The old Lewis house, was, as a rule, an oblong structure, varying in length according to the means and requirements of the occupier. It had one door, but frequently it had no windows. Chimneys did not find favour, as any opening for the escape of  smoke tended to reduce the quantity of soot, which was regarded as a valuable manurial product. Accordingly, if there was a hole in the roof to admit light, a pane of glass was fixed into it. It soon had a coating of soot, and admitted little light. All the sunlight in the dwelling was admitted through it and by the doorway when the door happened to be open. The family and the cattle entered by the same door; and the cows’ dung was removed only once a year – in the spring time. If one entered such a house in the month of May, after the crops had been sown and the manure cleared out, he would have to descend a foot of more from the level of the door-step to the floor, thence onward towards the portion occupied by the family, when he would have to step up a foot or so to reach the level of that floor. Later on in the season, the visitor would find that the cow-dung, to which a considerable quantity of sea-ware and earth had been added, was on a level with the door-step. Towards the beginning of spring the manure heap rose considerable above that level, and the visitor would have to get to the top of a plateau, and thereafter descend into the family circle.

When the spring tillage began, the manure was carried away in creels to the arable land, or, if the tenant had a horse and cart, the gable of the house was pulled down, and the cart backed in, loaded and driven away. These operations liberated noxious and poisonous gases from the decomposing mass, which only those accustomed to them from their youth could bear. Even the residents to whom they did not appear offensive sometimes succumbed to the pestilence spread around, for after the spring work was over, “dung fever” not infrequently manifested itself, and claimed its victims.

The walls of this primitive dwelling were generally about five feet thick. They consisted of an outer and an inner wall after the fashion of the old northern brochs; but instead of having an intervening passage as in the case of the brochs, the cavity was filled up with earth. This earth served the purpose of mortar, and prevented the wind from blowing through the open rubble work. The couples and cabers of the roof started from the inner wall, and these in turn were covered with layers of divots and straw. The roof was by no means impervious to rain, which, as it oozed through, became thickened and blackened with soot, and often fell in heavy drops on the inmates. Such of the rain as did not find its way through the roof ran down to the earth forming the centre of the wall and percolated through it to the foundation. The walls were thus kept perpetually damp. The smoke through the open stonework of the inner wall on the one hand, and the rain from the roof on the other, fertilised the earth forming the centre, with the result that it produced a luxuriant crop of green grass. This afforded a tempting bit to a hungry cow or sheep; and it was no uncommon thing to see a quadruped climb up to the sort of balcony at the base of the roof of the older houses and walk along the same, greedily devouring the grass before it.

The roof with all the soot adhering was stripped to the cabers, and the whole mass used as manure, or as a form of top-dressing. Its fertilising properties were considered valuable, and certainly the land to which this material was applied yielded good crops for the soil of Lewis. The process, however, had its disadvantages, for on every occasion on which the old divots forming part of the thatch were used for manure, a new supply had to be got from the hillside. This was highly detrimental to the grazing, large strips of the surface being annually filched, and requiring several years before a new crop of grass or heather appeared. The earth added to the manure during the season was also taken from hillside. In this case all the earth was frequently removed and nothing but the bare stones left. Grass did not grow there again. this is the Lewis equivalent to the Shetland “scalping” – a process which has proved highly injurious to Shetland grazings and which most Shetland landowners have endeavoured to suppress.

It should be added that generally the barn was built against the back wall of the dwelling-house; and frequently a member of the family on getting married hived off from the parental roof, erected a new dwelling against the old one, and settle down there. In this way there might be two or three dwelling-houses built close against each other, adding to the congestion in the township and making sanitation more and more difficult.

Despite – or because of – their ancient and primitive design, these blackhouses were remarkably efficient at keeping the heat in and the weather out; see Mary Beith’s article for a detailed discussion of the architectural merits. There is a latent affection for the blackhouse in the Hebrides, which seems to be based on memories of tidy, papered interiors and hearths whitewashed daily – the later, improved houses, with chimneys, and small deep-set windows offering just a little light, and with the cattle relegated to a separate byre – but these were some decades in coming.

About 1830 Seaforth sought to put an end to this state of matters, and ordered a partition to be erected between human beings and cattle, “and that more light should be admitted into the dark recesses of their habitations.” In several instances reformation then took place, “but sorely against the wishes of the people.”

However a beginning was made, and in course of time minor improvements were generally effected. It became a common thing to find a low stone wall, or partition, separating the part of the building occupied by the family from that occupied by the cattle. A further improvement which followed was the partitioning of a bed-chamber from the “central hall”. In this bed-chamber male and female slept, and so common had been the practice, that one of a series of rules issued by Sir James Matheson for the better management of the estate was specially designed to put an end to it. These rules are 53 in number, are all in Gaelic and bear no date. The 48th rule specified the type of house which the tenants were to build, and one clause ran thus:-

Bithidh mar an ceudna aitean cadail fa leth aig na firionaich o na boirionnaich. 
There shall likewise be sleeping apartments for the men separate from those occupied by the women.

Efforts to improve the state of housing in the islands continued throughout the century, particularly with the coming of officials – School Inspectors, Sanitary Inspectors and Medical Officers – who were particularly concerned with the unsanitary conditions caused by the proximity to livestock and lack of ventilation.

With the view of placing tenants in a better position, improving leases were offered in 1879 to such as were willing to enter into them. The offer was contained in a series of rules and regulations, printed in Gaelic and English. Under the first section of these rules, every tenant who, before Martinmas [November], 1881, should (1) execute improvements on his land by trenching, draining, and putting the same into a proper state of cultivation, etc., and (2) build a dwelling house according to the a specified type, was to get a lease for 12 years (1881-1893). The rule as to the dwellings provided that the improved class of house should consist of at least three apartments; and also stipulated that the that was not to be stripped off or removed for manure; that the byre was to be a separate building, and that the dung was to be regularly removed to the dung-heap.

Any tenant, whether possessing a lease or not, who built such a house as was prescribed, “to the satisfaction of the proprietor or his factor,” was in the event of a removal, or otherwise quitting the holding, to be allowed compensation for the same. (Report on the , 1902)

Changing relations between landowners and tenants, and the passing of the Crofters Holdings Act (1886) complicated the issue; such leases were not taken up in Lewis, and progress in housing was slow, despite the new attentions of a Sanitary Inspector. In 1893 the Lewis District Committee issued notices to the people that full-height, doorless walls must be built between human and cattle ends, with outside doors at both ends, under threat of prosecution. Some sample cases were brought before the Sheriff in the next years. In 1896 there was an appeal by the local authority to the Local Government Board for grants to improve the houses, but these were not forthcoming, and other difficulties, such as the shortage of suitable building sites on crofts, and the absence of tenure for cottars who therefore lacked the incentive, as well as the means, to invest in their houses, also hindered progress.  The Sanitary Inspector’s reports for the last years of the century indicate that while some new and acceptable houses were being erected, old-style ones were also still springing up, and unimproved cottars’ and squatters’ dwellings were still clustered in the townships.  

In October 1912, when evidence on medical matters was being taken in Stornoway by the Dewar Commission, there was still some concern – though not overwhelming – that smoky interiors were contributing to respiratory problems, that the houses were unsuitable places for convalescence, and that after an instance of typhoid, the disinfecting of houses where cattle and people were “all jumbled up” (to quote Lady Tullibardine) was virtually impossible, which contributed to epidemics.