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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
THE CONSTRUCTION OF AN EARLY BLACK HOUSE
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.
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.
HOW DAYLIGHT WAS ADMITTED
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.
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".
ROUND THE PEAT FIRE
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?