East and West The House That’s Best

Unlike most of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, houses on the Isle of Tiree are a distinct feature of the landscape, The island is mainly low lying with few trees, so there are no glens or forests to give cover, therefore you are more conscious of the houses. Additionally, the island has numerous crofting townships and crofting is characterised by houses, unlike the Southern Uplands, which are farmed in a very different way and correspondingly few houses.

Visitors to the island are struck by the beauty of the architecture. Indeed, Tiree is famous for its vernacular architecture. It adopted readily available resources to address local construction needs, reflecting the environmental, cultural and historical aspects of its surroundings. There is a saying on the island ‘to east and west the house that’s best, back to the wind, face to the sun’.

Traditional houses have thick stone walls and thatch roofs. They were built from partly dressed stone without any mortar. There are two walls and between them is a layer of sand. Roof trusses are set onto the inside wall and water runs off the roof between the two stone walls. Windows are inset deep into walls that are commonly six foot thick. The windows and one doorway have their ‘face to the sun’. A later development was to retain the traditional roof line but to cover it with black felt rather than thatch.

Some more modern houses reflect the traditional style, but are built using current building materials which have to be imported by ferry.  Although sympathetically constructed with white walls and black felt, the roof pitch is steeper and the trusses rest on the outer wall.

A common mistake is to refer to the traditional house as a ‘black house’. A true black house (was often shared with the cattle) and had a central fire with no chimney. Although there are some advantages to a chimney-less house, on the down side both house and occupants are left grimy. By 1850, when coal started to be brought over to the island, such houses had more or less gone out of use. One commentator writing at the beginning of the 20th Century remarked, “The absence of peats should certainly be held, among other causes, to account for what we afterwards came to value as the very superior cleanliness of the inhabitants of Tiree, as compared with any other island of the Hebrides. The burning of coal has necessitated the use of a chimney, and this, in most cases, has led to putting the fireplace at the side instead of in the middle of the room, so that the skin and clothes and belongings of the inhabitants do not become stained with peat smoke as in the other islands. This encourages a degree of house pride which we never saw elsewhere, and the houses, though quaint enough, are often beautifully clean and orderly, both within and without.”

For a more detailed account of Tiree’s unique traditional thatched house visit An Iodhlann online.

But traditional houses are only part of the story, there are also Pudding Houses’ . . . but more of these unique properties to follow . . .