A blackhouse is a traditional type of house which used to be common in the
Highlands of Scotland, The Hebrides and Ireland.
Scotland has a very changeable climate. One minute the sun could
be splitting the stones, the next minute it could be lashing rain.
Throughout the day, there are often wide variations in the climate.
There are also wide variations over small distances.
Although Scotland just touches on the Arctic Circle, the Gulf Stream
winds manage to keep the temperatures relatively mild.
In the Highlands, the weather can turn extreme at any time - and
very quickly too.
Scotland’s East Coast tends to be cool and dry. In winter the
temperature rarely drops below freezing. On the West Coast, it is a
lot milder and wetter with average highest summer temperatures of
around 19°C (66°F), in summer. Scotland’s driest months are May
and June; the warmest are July and August. In northern Scotland
the summer sun barely sets while during the winter months it hardly
rises at all.
THE BLACKHOUSE OF THE HIGHLANDS
The blackhouses of the Highlands of Scotland were byre
dwellings in the tradition of ‘long houses’ which have existed
Northern Europe for over a thousand years. Originally
blackhouses had no chimneys or windows and were built with
locally-found materials - stone, turf, thatch of reeds, oats, barley
or marram grass. - usually on the worst arable land.
• The buildings were generally built with double
wall dry-stone walls packed with earth and wooden
rafters covered with a thatch of turf with cereal straw
or reed. The floor was generally flagstones or
packed earth and there was a central hearth for the
fire. There was no chimney for the smoke to escape
though. Instead the smoke made its way through the
• The black house was used to accommodate
livestock as well as people. People lived at one end
and the animals lived at the other with a partition
• Before the introduction of crofting at the beginning
of the nineteenth century, the ‘farms’ on the
Highland estates were run by tacks men who paid a
rent to the clan chief. On each farm there would be a
small settlement whose inhabitants would pay their
rents to the tacks man. The system of farming used
was known as ‘run-rig.’ This was when the fields
were worked communally and in rotation. Because
of this collective method of farming, blackhouses
were clustered together into small ‘clachan’,
normally close to the freshwater source. Crofting
saw the disappearance of the tacks men and the
division of the ‘farms’ into apportionments where
each tenant had their own piece of land. The
blackhouses were rebuilt on each croft - usually on
the worst arable land.
THE NAME ‘BLACKHOUSE’
• It is tempting to think that the name "Blackhouse"
had something to do with the largely windowless
darkness in which people would have lived, or the
• In fact it stems from the introduction of more
modern housing from the end of the 1800s in
response to legal and other pressures, especially to
separate housing for people from housing for
animals. These new cottages became known as
"white houses", and the more traditional dwellings
they started to replace became know as blackhouses
simply to distinguish the two styles.
The form and siting of the Blackhouse, low and sunk into the contours of the
land, reduced wind exposure and heat loss.
In the old Blackhouse the fire was built in the centre of the floor and there was no
chimney. This was extremely energy efficient. The fire was the centre of family life
and was never allowed to go out - it was smoored in the evening.
THE WALLS AND ROOF
The thick stone walls and earthen floor would absorb the heat of
the fire during the night. The earth core of the walls was good
insulation and kept out draughts through the dry stone wall. The
turf and thick thatch, heavy with soot, were also good insulants.
The cow or cattle were often under the same roof as the humans
during the winter. This was for the sake of the animal - it was
essential to the family that the cow was in good health and gave a
good yield of milk. The livestock not only benefited from the
warmth of the fire but also gave out large quantities of heat itself,
from its body and manure.
The byre was at the lower end of the house so that the urine
would drain into the arable land. The ammonia from the urine
also helped to sterilize the house. Each spring the byre would be
cleaned out of the accumulated manure which would be placed
on the crops as fertilizer. Human waste would also be gathered
for this purpose with the urine being used for treating fabrics
such as tweed.
The peat smoke from the open fire would fill the house and act
as a sterilizer - killing bugs and germs. It would escape by
seeping through the thatch, enriching it with soot. The sootsaturated thatch was removed periodically and used as a
fertilizer for the crops.
Good timber was precious. When moving, or building a new
house, the couples and good roof timbers were often removed
and re-used. This also applied to any windows, and good stones
used as lintels.
RESPONSE TO THE ENVIRONMENT
The form and siting of the blackhouses was influenced by the
fear of storms. The house was low and contour hugging, often
being built into the slope or embankments. The roof was
rounded, leaving no sharp edges for the wind to catch.
openings were almost universally on the east side of the building,
the south westerly prevailing winds hitting nothing but blank
walls. When people rose in the morning they were met
(occasionally) with the sun in their faces. This was important. The
siting of the blackhouses conformed to the old Gaelic proverb 'An
iar's an ear, an dachaigh as' fhéarr - cùl ri gaoith,'s aghaidh ri
gréin.' (East to west, the house that's best - back to the wind and
face to the sun).
The materials used were those that were available. This depended
on where a person lived, the rules of the estate, and a person's
wealth. As a result, the houses were built of entirely local material.
When people could afford to buy in better materials, however,
they did so.
METHOD OF CONSTRUCTION
A Blackhouse usually comprised a long narrow building, often
with one or more additional buildings laid parallel to it and
sharing a common wall. The walls were made from an inner
and outer layer of unmortared stones, the gap between them
filled with peat and earth. The roof would be based on a
wooden frame, resting on the inner stone walls, giving the very
characteristic wall-ledge. Over the frame would be laid an
overlapping layer of heathery turves, and over this would be
laid a layer of thatch. The thatch would be secured by an old
fishing net or by twine, attached to large rocks whose weight
held everything down. More rocks would be laid around the
bottom of the roof, where it met the inner wall.
The roof traditionally had no chimney, the smoke from the peat
fire in the central hearth simply finding its own way out as it
could. The smoked thatch was considered an excellent
fertilizer and it was normal to strip it off for this purpose and
rethatch the roof each year.
The floor of the living area of the Blackhouse would usually be
flagged. The animals would be at one end of the house, and in the
byre area there would be earth flooring, usually with a drain for
some of the animal waste. Part of the Blackhouse would also be
used as a barn for storage and processing of grain and other
While the underlying design of the blackhouses may seem to have
a direct lineage dating back to Orkney's Skara Brae, 5,000 years
ago, most were not as old as you might think. The Blackhouse
used as the museum was built as recently as 1875. And in 1960
there were still nine blackhouses in use in Arnol: while the group
now restored as the Blackhouse village at Gearrannan, further
along the coast, was only abandoned in 1974.
Completing the complex is an excellent visitor centre in another
nearby converted cottage. This provides background information
and has a very helpful cutaway model of the Blackhouse. The
Blackhouse Museum is open all year round: but is closed on
Reconstruction of the Blackhouse exterior in 3ds Max showing
the thatch roof and twine structure weighted down with stones.
Reconstruction of the Blackhouse exterior in 3ds Max showing the
layer of peat slabs below the thatch, with gaps to allow smoke to
Reconstruction of the Blackhouse exterior in 3ds Max with the
entire peat layer removed, showing the structure of the lower
Reconstruction of the Blackhouse exterior in 3ds Max with all
upper layers removed showing only the internal A-frame structure
A cleit with a Blackhouse-style thatched roof, note the curved ends
(Fleming 2005, 93 - Although this is a cleit, the Blackhouse roofs
looked exactly the same.
The addition of chimneys.
• The building housing the museum, No. 42 Arnol, is generally
authentic, though now roofed to a much higher standard,
especially at the byre end, than would have been typical at the
time. It also spares visitors the experience of sharing a roof
with the animals, and some of the 1900s additions like lino
floors and roughly hung wallpaper extending into the roof have
also been removed.
But even if what you see today is a slightly sanitized version of
life in a Blackhouse, the atmosphere is still remarkable:
literally. With a peat fire smoldering away in the central hearth,
you might emerge free of the smell of animals, but you will
certainly emerge wondering how the residents survived the all
pervasive peat smoke
A general view down the Street around
1930, note the blackhouses have had their
AN EXAMPLE: THE LEWIS
Although the Lewis blackhouses have a look of real antiquity,
most of the upstanding ruins were built less than 150 years
ago. Many were still roofed until the 1970s but without the
necessary annual repairs deteriorated rapidly; as people
moved into more modern dwellings with indoor plumbing and
better heating, most have fallen into ruin. However, black
houses are increasingly being restored, especially for use as
The blackhouses on the Isle of Lewis have roofs thatched with
cereal straw over turf and thick, stone-lined walls with an
earthen core. Roof timbers rise from the inner face of the walls
providing a characteristic ledge at the wall head (tobhta). This
gives access to the roof for thatching. Both the animals and
occupants shared the same door, living at different ends of the
same space. Several long ranges, or rooms, were usually built
alongside each other, each one having its own ridgeline giving
them the very distinctive look of the Lewis blackhouse.
The immediate origins of the
blackhouse are unclear as few
examples have ever been
excavated. One reason for this
is that, unlike their later
counterparts, the early
examples may have been made
of turf and thatch and quickly
returned to the earth once
abandoned. As one of the most
primitive forms of the North
Atlantic longhouse tradition it is
very probable that the roots of
the blackhouse, in which cattle
and humans shared the same
roof, is well over 1000 years old.
The Lewis examples have
clearly been modified to survive
in the tough environment of the
Outer Hebrides. Low rounded
roofs, elaborately roped were
developed to resist the strong
Atlantic winds and thick walls
to provide insulation and to
support the sideways forces of
the short driftwood roof