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Blackhouses - Isles of Lewis - Western Isles
Blackhouse - Arnol - Isle of Lewis - Western Isles - Outer Hebrides
The blackhouses tell us a lot about what island life was like in The Western Isles in the past. The blackouse were a residence for both animals and humans. There was no chimney and a peat fire was lit at all times in the centre of the kitchen and living area
Arnol Blackhouses

The Blackhouse at Arnol - Isle of Lewis

In the village of Arnol - Isle of Lewis blackhouses stand side by side with the more modern dwellings nicknamed "whitehouses".

The blackhouses were dwellings which had straw thatched roofs and included areas where the animals or livestock were housed. There were no chimneys - and a peat fire was kept burning in the central living and kitchen area

"Whitehouses" really only came into existence later when legal pressures and health regulations started to demand that the livestock should be housed in separate dwellings.

Arnol Village on The Move

The village or settlement of Arnol has "moved" several times - from the seashore where you can still see the oval ended stone houses. In 1795 the then landlord - quite an important man - McKenzie from Seaforth saw the need to move further inland. After this there were a few more moves until the move to the current ridge in 1853.

The Blackhouse Museum
This museum is run by Historic Scotland - you can walk round the blackhouse to see how the people lived - alongside the animals and without chimneys.

Then the Whitehouse
If you then wander opposite to a slightly more modern "whitehouse" which is furnished as it would have been in the 1950's. The whitehouses didn't have the animals housed inside - and had chimneys, fireplaces and many more modern features.

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I wonder if the residents who moved from the Blackhouse were excited at the thought of moving to the more modern dwelling?

Looking at the dwelling from the outside the Black House is long and narrow, its main feature is a thatched roof made of twigs and heather and overlaid with straw. The building is constructed from local stones with no cement between the stones.

Communal - Family Atmosphere
Although the design of blackhouses dates back a long way and there would have been blackhouses in existence for many hundreds of years - the Blackhouse here at Arnol was probably built as recently as 1875.

There have had to be a certain amount of "modernisation" - like for instance the roof - which in times gone by would have been re thatched every year - whereas the present blackhouse roof has clearly been more sturdily built to suit the tough weathers for at least a few years hence - however when you walk round the blackhouse you can still get a real sense of how the people lived in these dwellings. The smoky atmosphere and bedding and livestock arrangements really bring it home to you - just how "communal" these family houses were.

The Arnol Black House is huge inside you can see that this is because it wasn't only a home to the family that lived here but also a home for their cattle, pigs and even a horse.

Thick Stone Walls
The thick stone walls and earthen floor absorbed the heat of the fire. The earth core of the walls was good for insulation and also served to keep out the draughty chill winds. The turf and thick thatch, heavy with soot, were also good insulates.

Term - Blackhouses and Whitehouses

The blackhouse were only called as such when the more modern houses were built and as a means of identifying the two types of houses - the terms "Blackhouses" and "whitehouses" were borne

The Thatched Roof of The Blackhouse

Thatched Roof
The thatched roof has been restored. The blackhouses typically were constructed with a double dry stone wall. Wooden rafters were used - the floor was earth and the roof made with straw

As there wasn't a chimney, the smoke and soot from the peat fires just drifted upwards into the thatched roof. The roof was re thatched every year, the old thatch was used as fertiliser

Thatched Roof of The Blackhouse
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The thatch would have been kept secure by old fishing nets or twine attached to large rocks. The weight of these rocks held down the thatch. Where the bottom of the roof met the inner wall even more rocks would have been laid and attached.

The entrance to the blackhouse was used by both people and the animals - there is a "half stable like door which when you go through leads to the kitchen/living area - which even also contains a bed housed in a kind of box which is curtained off.

The Blackhouse Kitchen and Living Area

Kitchen and Living Area

The picture opposite shows just how smoky the atmosphere was in the blackhouses. you can see in the picture - at the left hand side is a long bench were some of the family would sit to chat or watch the cooking. Behind the sweet curtains is even a "bed"

In the living area there was most probably always a "weaving loom" as weaving was of great importance to the islanders.
the Blackhouse Kitchen & Living Area
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Peat Fire
In these older dwellings, the blackhouse the fire was built in the centre of the living/kitchen area. It would have been a peat fire and was kept alight at all times. It was the centre of the whole family life at that time.

Kettle - Pots
The large kettle and pots were hung from a chain to dangle above the fire. The chain is called a "slabhraidhand the dubhan" and is fastened to the strongest part of the roof timbers (as seen in the picture below left). The only lighting is the oil lamp hung from the ceiling.

Central Peat Fire
Central Peat Fire in THe Blackhouse Kitchen & Living Area
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Slabhraidhand the dubhan

Oil Lamp
Chain for the pots in The Blackhouse Kitchen & Living Area
Oil Lamp in the Blackhouse
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Breakfast Permanently Set

You can see from the picture opposite that perhaps the plates and jug and indeed the freshly laid eggs from the hens would always be a feature

Dressers and Sideboard
The dresser and the sideboard were absolutely beautiful - to be able to see the plates and utensils all displayed exactly as they would have been in those times was a real treat. The earthenware pots and the ornaments of that period looking splendid.

Breakfast is Set
Breakfast is Set
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The Sideboard
Newly laid Eggs
Dresser - Pottery and Utensils
Sideboard in the Arnol Blackhouse
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Newly Laid Eggs
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Dresser - Pottery and Utensils in the Blackhouse
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The Living Room Table

The Living Room Area

The Weaving Loom
Living Room
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Arnol Blackhouse Living Room
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Weaving Loom in Blackhouse
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The Blackhouse Living Room/Kitchen Area
The picture opposite shows how this area seems to have been used for many things. It is the central area where everyone would meet - sit and chat - carry out the weaving - cook the meals using the central peat fire and also you can see the area that is curtained off is a bedroom.

Kitchen By Day
During the day the kitchen would be the centre for the chores of the womenfolk, mending clothes, cooking the meals and washing dishes.

Inside the Blackhouse
Inside The Blachouse

Kitchen Area at Night

In the evening the entire family gathered together in the kitchen area - friends would visit ad all would sit round the fire

The Loom would Spin
The loom would probably be being used -one of the womenfolk spinning away - whilst others were knitting or winding the wool

Inside The Living / Kitchen Area
Inside the Living Area of THe Blackhouse - Western Isles
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The Men Winding Ropes
In an evening the men wound either wind ropes or mend the creels. The fire would be kept quite high and it would be very smoky

The bedrooms were however a little more elaborate with a chest of drawers and box beds built into the walls with curtains draped across them. These box beds being built into the wall - saved space and also provided extra warmth.

The Blackhouse Main Bedroom

Functional Bedroom
The bedroom was not pretty - but rather functional. It has three openings to reveal the bedding compartments, one of which opens into the kitchen. These openings are curtained off and each had knitted covers

Opening - Window of sorts
The bedroom in The Blackhouse is the only room with an the opening for which has been cut through the top of the double wall. there are two rectangular panes in a wooden frame. The window does not open.
main Bedroom of The Arnol Blackhouse
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Hot Water Bottle

The photo opposite shows the "dummy" snuggled in under the bedding with the earthenware "bottle" warmer.

In actuality the thick stone walls and earthen floor would absorb the heat of the fire - so it really wouldn't have been that cold once in the "bedroom". The walls provided insulation and kept out draughts through the drystone wall. The turf and thick thatch, heavy with soot, were also good insulants.

Fast Asleep in the Bed
Asleeop in the Blackhouse
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Barn area

Barn and Byre
A further room for animals that would have held pigs and sheep and even the odd cow. The animals didn't live here permanently but instead were only brought inside when the weather was bad.

The cow etc were housed under the same roof as the humans - usually only during the winter months - particularly their "cow" as the milk was so important to the family - they tried to keep the animals really healthy - as well as the fact that the animals also created added "heat" for the house.
The Barn Area
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The Byre
The urine from the animals drained into the land and the ammonia assisted in sterilizing the house (what a thought!)


Each spring the byre was cleaned and the manure was placed on the crops as fertiliser. Human waste would also be gathered to use as fertiliser. The urine was used for treating fabrics such as tweed. There weren't any troughs at all - the cows being tied by ropes to a pole

The Byre

Byre of the Blackhouse
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Threshing - Sheaves

The barn floor is clayed at the point where threshing was done with the flail. - sheaves were laid, insulated from the damp of the floor. Sheaves were acquired from the yard outside at the end of the house and lifted to the thatch around the window-opening and just slung into the barn..

Tools - Farm Implements

Small hand tools - sickles, spades, rakes, scythes, peat cutting irons, and barrels and chests to hold food for the hens and animals were housed in the barn area - even the sheep fleeces in springtime would have been stored here before being sold

The White Houses - Western Isles

The White House at Arnol
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In the 1900's new health regulations were brought into force which stated that the animals and the humans should be housed completely separately


A new type of house therefore appeared. These were termed 'whitehouses' and the walls were single-thickness walls cemented with lime mortar. These houses were so light and different that the term whitehouse was used for them and the older houses were then called 'blackhouses. These whitehouses had many additional extras that the blackhouses dint have - they had lino floors and roughly hung wallpaper

Unlike the blackhouses which had just the peat fire in the middle of the room - these houses chimneys and several fireplaces in both kitchen areas and living rooms

Opposite the blackhouse - is no 39 Arnol - which is a whitehouse. When you walk around this house you see the modernisation that was brought into force in this type of dwelling. Here follow a few pictures of the interior of the whitehouse

Inside the Whitehouse
Pots - Pans - Utensils
Living Room with Fireplace
Inside the Whitehouse - Arnol
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Whitehouse - kitchen area
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iving Room of the Whitehouse
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Whitehouse Hearth

White house-showing the bed

Living Room
iving Room of the Whitehouse
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Thatched Roof Roped Down - Shawbost Mill
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iving Room of the Whitehouse
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