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Croft Housing in Calbost I
Croft Housing in Calbost I
by Angus "Ease" Macleod, Calbost; from the Angus Macleod Archive.
A crofter is a tenant of his croft land, not the owner, and therefore until the passing of the Crofters Act in 1886 giving crofters security of tenure, the crofter population of the highlands of Scotland were people without rights. They were completely at the mercy of inconsiderate Landlords at whose whim they might be, and often were, moved from place to place and very often shipped overseas against their will. In that way they were unable to build substantial permanent houses but had to be content with homes of simple construction built by their own hands from local materials. For obvious reasons as little as possible was imported.
In the circumstances the house of the Gael was not an object of domestic luxury and embellishment. Its primary function was to provide shelter from the cold, the wind and the rain and it served that purpose well. It was a warm comfortable home that reflected the character of the social life of the family, the community and the environment. Also, the technology and architecture of the old Hebridean House was quite remarkable.
Once the first Crofters Act was on the statute book and the crofter population gradually realised that they enjoyed security of tenure, housing improvements began to take place. Domestic architecture, which is never static, began to adapt to the changed situation and new ideas came in and continue to come in to this day.
Even the architecture of the old Hebridean thatched houses show a progression, as may be seen from the various ruins that are fortunately still with us, not yet vandalised. Several of these old types may be seen at Calbost, the oldest of which do not have any gable-end or chimney because the only fireplace was the one in the middle of the living compartment. The walls being at the same level of height right round the house. The corners of the walls on the very oldest houses were rounded at both ends of the house and later on at the top end the culaist (best room) was built with right angle corners.
The next stage was a house with a fireplace in the best room as well as the living room, with not yet a gable-end, but a small square chimney head, like a flask. That was followed by houses with one full gable end in the best room and later still by two gable ends, one at each end of the house or sometimes the byre part extended past the second gable-end which just protruded through the thatch. By that time the rounded corners were constructed with stone and clay like a white-house, whereas the walls of the house were constructed in the traditional way with a thick sandwich of earth in between the inner and outer stone walls.
A distinguishing feature of an old Lewis thatched house was the way the roof rafters rested on the inner wall, leaving a broad ledge of wall-top or sufficient space to enable one to walk right round the house on the wall-top tobhta. Probably that feature of the architecture of a Hebridean House is unique to the Hebrides. On the mainland the rafters rest on the outer wall and the thatch overhangs the edges of the wall at the eves.
The walls of the old thatched houses were constructed in a scientific manner and it may be claimed that the principle was the forerunner of the modern cavity wall principle. The walls were about five feet thick and comprised of an inner and outer stone wall with the two foot or so space in between in inner and outer walls filed with earth packed firm and referred to as "hearting". The water from the roof percolated down through the earth in the cavity and formed a damp blanket of earth which created an effective insulating barrier that prevented the heat inside the house from escaping through the wall and the cold and wind from the outside from penetrating through the walls. Also the stones in the inner wall was set with a slight slope outwards towards the cavity in order to prevent the passage of moisture from penetrating into the interior.
Usually these old thatched houses were built on a declivity to ensure that any water or dampness flowed easily away downhill. The floor of these houses are often referred to in a derogatory way as beaten earth. The truth is that the floor was also constructed scientifically and with due care. First of all, all the earth was removed from the inside of the house down to the hard and then the area was filled with small clean stones in order to allow any water to percolate away at the bottom level of the stones. Then a quantity of good pliable clay was mixed into a mortar and a liberal covering was applied to the surface of the floor. When the clay was dry it was pressed down by trampling. Sometimes a dance was held in the new house to ensure that the floor was pressed down well. The last of these household dances in Calbost was held in 1946 in "Peter's" new house, but the floor on that occasion was a wooden floor and the occasion was the wedding dance of Angus "Samsom" Macfarlane and Churstag "Galdy" Mackenzie, 12 Calbost. A properly constructed clay floor was warm and comfortable, where as a modern cement floor is cold and uncomfortable.
Thatched houses are now a days referred to in a derogatory manner a Black House (Tighean Dubh). Probably that came about by unthinking people due to the phonetic similarity between the Gaelic words, Tighean Tughaidh and Tighean Dubh. The writer remembers many happy hours spent in various comfortable and clean thatched houses as a carefree youngster at Calbost. Also, it goes without saying that many fine men and women were reared in thatched houses and many of them made their mark in the world in various departments of life, including the church, both at home and abroad.
The pitch or slope of the thatched roof was fairly low for several reasons. To minimise the effect of the wind on the house and avoid the thatch being stripped off the roof by the force of the wine. To avoid the tendency of the thatch to slide down if the pitch was too steep. To blend into the natural environment. They avoided using iron nails and used wooden pins instead and rope, usually heather rope. The thatch in Lochs was normally of barley straw and the barley was harvested with a view to using part of the sheaf for thatch. Whereas the oat crop was harvested by cutting with a sickle, the barley crop was harvested, not by cutting the stalks but by pulling the root out of the ground. Thereafter the sheaves were cut in two by the sickle just below the band (sgathach). The bottom part of the sheaf with the roots was set aside for thatching. Thatching was done in tiers starting at the bottom and working upwards. The root ends were placed uppermost and were covered by the overlap of the subsequent tier.
The thatch was secured by looping heather rope seomain-fraoich back and fore over the roof and attaching fairly heavy stones, acraichean to each loop about one foot apart and about one foot above the top of the wall tobhta. An interesting feature of these thatched roofs was the maide-staraig or raven stick which protruded out through the roof at the ends of the ridge in order to provide a means of attaching the ropes which secure the thatch to the end of the house. Seomain-fraoich was eventually replaced by seomain-Tharlaich, coil rope from Charles Morrison's shop on Bank Street, hence the Gaelic name.. The roof was regarded as a moveable thing and therefore belonged to the tenant. Normally, but not always, the tenant was allowed to take his own roof timbers with him if he was moved or evicted. The walls belonged to the Tacksmen or Landlord as the case may be.
We see therefore that the old thatched houses were not thrown together in any old way but evolved over a long period of time and the architecture embraced various features that were designed to ensure that the houses afforded the maximum protection from the elements. For instance "Cul-ri-gaoidh, agaidh re grein" (back to the wind, face the sun) and "An iar s'an dachaidh is fhear" (east and west the beat homestead).
Angus Macleod Archive