by Douglas MacKenzie | The Clearances
Thatched houses were common throughout the Highlands at the time of the Clearances. A few have been preserved, or purpose-built as museums such as the two in the picture from Colbost on Skye and in Argyll.
The earliest form of the building, the taigh dubh or black house, would have a fire in the centre without chimney, just a hole in the thatch to let the smoke out. In addition to the smoke swirling around inside, a thick black, liquid soot would form on the thatch and drip down on the people on one side and on the farm animals who would overwinter at the other end of the building in winter.
Boswell described one such building on Skye from his visit to the island with Dr Johnson in 1773
‘The cottages in Skye are frequently built by having two stone walls at several feet distance filled up with earth, by which a thick and very warm wall is formed. The roof is generally bad. The couples such as they are, do not reach to the extremity of the wall, but only rise from the inner side of it; so that the circumference of the roof is a good deal less than that of the walls of the house, which has an odd appearance to strangers; and the storm finds a passage between the roof and the walls, as the roof does not advance so as to project over the wall. They are thatched sometimes with straw, sometimes with heat, sometimes with ferns. The thatch is fixed on by ropes of straw or of heath, and to fix the ropes there is a stone tied in the end of each. These stones hang round the bottom of the roof and make it look like a lady’s head in papers; but I think that when there is wind they would come down and knock people on the head.’
Elizabeth Pennell’s description of Barra, at the end of the next century, is even gloomier,
‘the real Barra: a mass of black cottages – compared to which those of Mull were mansions, those of Kilchrennan palaces – running up and down the rocky hill-side. Only by a polite figure of speech can the stone pile in which the Hebridean crofter makes his home be called a cottage …. The long low walls are built of loose rock blackened by constant rain. The thatched roof, almost as black, is held in place without by a net-work of ropes, within by rafters of drift-wood. The crofter has no wood save that which the sea yields, and yet in some districts he must pay for picking up the beams and spars washed up on his wild shores, just as he must for the grass and the heather he cuts from the wilder moorland when he makes his roof. Not until you come close to the rough stone heap can you see that it is a house, with an opening for doorway, one tiny hole for window. From a distance there is but its smoke to distinguish it from the rocks strewn around it.’
For all the smoke, soot, dirt and poverty, Alexander Nicolson, Sheriff Substitute in Kirkcudbright but a Skye native and frequent return visitor to his home island, could still enthuse,
Reared in those dwellings have brave ones been
Brave ones are still there
Forth from their darkness on Sunday I’ve seen
Coming pure linen,
And, like the linen, the souls were clean
Of them that wore it