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Housing in Bernera
Housing in Bernera
An account of housing developments in Bernera
Most of the houses are on crofts, and the majority are near the sea. Before any roads were made, the means of carrying any kind of goods was by boat.
A croft is a piece of land - the crofts in Bernera range from 5 to 49 acres - rented in most cases from the landowner, and on which the house is built. Some of the crofts are 'Free Gift' properties, so called because in the 1920's when the then owner, Lord Leverhulme decided to sell the island, he offered his tenants throughout Lewis the opportunity to become owner occupiers at no charge. Very few crofters took up his offer, as they felt that there must be hidden conditions and penalties; a sad indictment on previous landlords. However 15 Bernera tenants did become free-gifters, and it has proved to be a mixed blessing as they are ineligible for crofting grants towards housing and agricultural improvement. These 15 crofters were the largest percentage of any area in Lewis to avail themselves of this opportunity.
There are two local authority schemes, two manses and other houses that were built for public use e.g. the nurse's cottage and the schoolhouse, now owned as private dwellings.
Many visitors are surprised at the high quality of the houses. For many reasons much is invested in housing. There is little history of buying and selling property. The family home is passed from generation to generation, and the practice of starting with a small house and gradually moving 'up' the housing ladder does not operate here. A well-built home able to withstand the worst that an Atlantic storm can produce is essential.
The vernacular black houses that remain are now used as byres or barns, and can be seen next to their modern replacements. The thatch was of marram grass or heather but has been replaced by felt or corrugated asbestos.
These black houses went through several developments. The first houses that we know of in Bernera are exemplified by the Iron Age Village at Bostadh. There is a reconstruction of one of the complex of houses discovered during excavations in 1996. These apparently primitive dwellings were in fact a sophisticated solution to the eternal problem of the local climate, providing safe and secure shelter. It can be blowing a Force 10 gale outside and within only a slight murmur will be heard. The rough stone work in the original houses could be repaired as necessary from within, and the thatch and roof timbers could be easily transported should the site become unviable for any reason.
Before the crofts were lotted, runrig was the system of agriculture. The housing was clustered and the good arable ground was rotated annually between the tenants. The major lotting was done in the early 1850's, but two villages in Bernera were among the earliest in 1807. Kirkibost is a good example of the runrig system. There were two areas of clustered housing - near the harbour and on crofts 15 & 16. The ruins on crofts 15 & 16 can still be seen although much of the stone was 'robbed' to build blackhouses when the people were resettled in 1878, and to make dykes for stack yards.