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June 1994 Index

Bulletin Index Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
June 1994

Gordon Wilson

The walls, the Roof, how daylight was admitted, the Interior, Round the Peat fire.

These primitive houses existed in the wilder and most remote of the West Coast and Islands, where progress in housing conditions had been stationary for centuries - these were the first real crofts.

First, find a suitable area of cultivatable ground. The site of the house was selected with a view to economy of labour. Unfortunately, this often neglected conditions such as drainage, or the suitability of community life, only to be discovered too late. No roads were necessary as no wheeled carts etc. existed. In remote locations, stones often had to be conveyed long distances; some may have been found locally but others were carried from nearby streams or the sea-shore. These stones were rounded or waterworn and often fitted better into the structure than odd boulders found locally. In such remote areas or locations, a young man (possibly intending to marry) may have taken two or three years to collect such stones.

These were built without cement or mortar and were usually of great thickness. They consisted of two drystone dykes which were placed apart at the base but which converged against one another at the top so as to strengthen the structure. The walls had to be made windproof so the gaps were filled with stones, pebbles, sand and mud to seal the holes. A basic four rectangular walls with one doorway was all that was required (second doors and windows came later).

This was the portion of an early Black House most difficult to construct, mainly because it was expected to withstand the great strength of the westerly gales, particularly in the winter months. Added to this, in the north and west, timber was very rare, very few forests were left and these were usually on private estates, hence unavailable. The most profitable source of wood was the sea-shore: wood cargoes shipped round the coast were often washed overboard and ended up on the beach. This being the case, shipwrecks or cargo washed ashore were a blessing to the locals and truly seasoned wood was a prize find. An interesting point is whether the wreckers or pirates of the west coast did exist as early as this. If access to the beach was limited, you resorted to the peat bogs where embedded trunks and stumps of fir trees were obtained.

The support rafters of an early Black House were crossed from wall to wall; these stakes could sometimes be whole tree trunks, as often these were all that were available. It also necessitated why the walls had to be so strong - it was presumed that one wall was higher than the other to allow water to run off the roof which was of turf - often two layers of turf would be laid to ensure the roof was watertight. One advantage in using turf or peat was that it fitted into all recesses, joints and holes to windproof the house; a very few early settlers managed to thatch with early barley straws.


One might enquire how daylight was admitted to the structure since "windows" (small square holes approximately 18 inches square) with a shutter required seasoned wood - that scarcest of commodity. Most primitive dwellings did not have any windows. This left only two sources - some light was admitted by a hole in the roof, but this was often covered by a box or barrel end - the other was the door, usually open all day. When the door was closed the dwelling filled with smoke from the ongoing peat fire, thus the Black House got its name.

The typical interior of an early Black House was sectioned into three apartments

Area 1 - Direct entry by the door was into the byre. This area was invariably on a lower base because it had to hold the build-up of manure during the winter - kept inside so the phosphate values were not washed away by the winter rains (also a source of early central heating) .

The Central Area - was the living room, the eating room and the sitting room. It was portioned off from the byre, though not usually up to the roof as these primitive dwellings had no ceilings. This area contained the on-going centre of the floor fire as used for cooking, heating and lighting.

Area 3 - Partitioned off were the sleeping quarters which consisted of a row of box beds with heather mattresses. The unusual thing about this area was that the floor was covered with timber where all the other areas were of hardened earth. With such a scarce commodity, one is surprised at this luxury. There is a special name for this floor - it is termed "culaist".

An added benefit of the central peat fire - seldom allowed to go out - was that it saturated the interior with its smoke and its gases and these were absorbed into the under-thatch. Each spring, it was a regular practice to strip this under layer so that the ammonia deposits could be used as a plant growth stimulant.

In finishing - some suggestions are that the "Ceilidhs" started with the Black Houses. Closely associated with the central fireplaces was the gathering of the family - or the community - because around the central peat fire a large number of people could be seated. This was the time of the telling of legends or stories and the singing of songs.

But suddenly, a change. Gables were built with chimneys and this broke the round circle. Fewer could be accommodated round the fire and thus number attending the ceilidhs began to drop. Today, the "Ceilidh", except for special occasions has died out. Now, many tales will remain untold and many songs unsung. Did the invention of the chimney in the gable mean the end of the original Ceilidh?