Abandoning Old Modes: Hebridean Blackhouse

Written for Folly Newsletter, edited by Rosie Ellison-Balaam

Abandoning Old Modes is an appraisal of the effect landscape takes on architectural form and respectively, the effect of this union on everyday action. Perhaps something important lies is subdued means of living and making.

Founded on the use of surrounding material, the Blackhouse was a means of shelter for inhabitants of the outer Scottish Isles as late as the Victorian era on Lewis. Shown to be in use as early as 3200BC (using carbon-dating) on the Orkney Isles at Skara-Brae, the traditional and relatively unchanged method of making is inherently connected to the reuse of common, local material.

Constructed with a rafter, occasionally truss, framed roof for structural certainty, the use of timber is kept to a minimum as anything imported becomes an uncertain variable. Stormy seas and changing weather prevented regular trade so foreign materials were treated as scarce, and on occasion driftwood and whalebones would have been used instead. Covered with turf and peat, the combination provided thermal efficiency and structural strength, for joints under load are more stable.

The walls were insulated with compacted peat, placed between two walls of native limestone. The conception of an interior floorplan, instead of a hall, was enabled by the use of lintels built into the walls above doorways. Oat straw used for thatch, replaced annually after the harvest with the old thatch being reused for fertiliser. The thatch was held by either an old fishing net or rope made from heather fibres.

The Blackhouse when considered as an entity embraces an idea that one can thrive when an intimate understanding of place is used, not simply understood. The structure is able to house aspects of cultivation, maintenance, food storage and waste material, so tied to the proximity of the sea, one is able to responsibly maintain their existence as an individual. The building also acts as a source generating a sense of community. Aside from maintaining a collective tradition, a Blackhouse is a nucleus. Able to withstand high wind and foul conditions, the buildings and inhabitants are warmer and better protected together. This sentiment is carried right from the start for the buildings and forms at Skara-Brae are interconnected is a maze-like arrangement. The nature of the structure also allows for it to be changed and added to, to accommodate a larger number of buildings and peoples.

Perhaps it is that potential for adaptation that could be carried forward, or perhaps the collective ideas surrounding indigenous action that could be made relevant again. Although the availability of land of which it is possible to claim rights is no longer contextually applicable, the ability to draft and create structures with lesser permanence and a greater ease of reformation would enable people to react with greater ease to a more rapidly changing social milieu and the ever-increasing malaise of modernity.

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