1 Environmental and Research Background | 2 Post-medieval Buildings | 3 Earlier Vernacular Buildings | 4 Conclusions and Discussion

1.4. Previous research

It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the Outer Hebrides were to some extent 'pre-historic' in their nature up until the 18th century; Roman sources had earlier castigated the Caledonian tribes of the north as 'barbarians' (Webster 1999, 24). In fact, the first detailed published account of the Hebrides and their people appeared in print in 1703 – Martin Martin's Description of the Western Isles of Scotland. Over the next two to three hundred years, scholars and travellers would 'discover' the Hebrides and pass their experiences and judgements on to the public of Scotland and Britain as a whole. These early reflections on the local population, their contemporary and ancient culture and monuments, profoundly affected the background of knowledge and research well into the later part of the 20th century.

The Dutch Mariners Mirror, the standard 17th-century route-finder, warned 'briefly of the "dangerous islands" urging sailors to sail well-clear of the rock-bound coasts and to avoid their barbarous inhabitants' (Bray 1996, 12, citing Waghenaer 1588). Martin explains how this attitude pervaded early 18th-century society.

'Foreigners, sailing thro the Western Isles, have been tempted, from the sight of so many wild Hills, that seem to be cover'd all over with Heath, and fac'd with high rocks, to imagin the inhabitants, as well as the places of their residence, are barbarous; and to this opinion, their Habit [the kilted plaid], as well as their Language [Gaelic], have contributed. The like is suppos'd by many that live in the South of Scotland, who know no more of the Western Isles than the Natives of Italy...' (Martin 1976 (and 1716 edition], also Bray 1996, 13)

As a native of Skye and a Gaelic speaker, Martin wrote a complimentary account detailing the peculiar qualities of the local people for hospitality, romantic poetry and song. In contrast, Thomas Pennant, author of Voyage to the Hebrides (Simmons 1998), advocated a view that was to become commonplace;

'Worn down with poverty: their habitations scenes of misery, made of loose stones; without chimneys, without doors, excepting the faggot opposed to the wind at one or other of the apertures, permitting the smoke to escape through the other, in order to prevent the pains of suffocation.' (Pennant 1772 cited in Bray 1996, 75 and Simmons 1998, 217)

This view of the vernacular buildings of the Hebrides was reinforced by other writers. For example, the Barra houses were described as being 'a disgrace to a civilised country' (MacDonald 1811, 793, cited in Buxton 1995, 85), and those in Lewis as 'primitive and filthy' (Leverhulme cited in Grimble 1985, 135). Described as 'so primitive that we appear to reach back to the stone age at once' (Thomas 1868, 154), these buildings were to a large extent seen as examples of the 'past living in the present' (Mitchell 1880; Gomme 1890), and subsequently, in the post-Enlightenment period, where 'progress' was seen as vital and inevitable, as examples of a retarded culture (Fenton and Walker 1981, 32).

What emerged from these analyses was an explicit correlation between the undoubted material poverty and the culture of 19th-century Hebridean people. Specifically, a distinction was made between the habits of daily living such as building, preparing food and fishing, and what might be described as arts – such as singing, storytelling and dancing. The former were seen as impoverished and ill-adapted, while the latter were seen as a final glimpse into a once magnificent, yet savage, Gaelic past. In parallel, ancient structures such as brochs and stone circles tended to be seen as products of a 'golden age', evidence of a great people of whom little was left, while contemporary buildings were seen as 'hovels' – a product of poverty and ignorance. This attitude set the scene for the study of contemporary Hebridean people for the next hundred years.

Early antiquarians in Scotland quickly became aware of the profusion and quality of many of the archaeological remains of the Outer Hebrides. The early editions of Archaeologia Scotica and the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland include multiple references to the more obvious antiquities of the Long island (such as McKenzie 1792; Thomas and Muir 1890) while early travellers, such as Martin (1703; 1716) and Johnson (1774), also visited and recorded archaeological sites. The first detailed recording can be attributed to Captain F.W.L. Thomas, a naval officer, who surveyed a number of sites in the late 19th century, including both Iron Age and post-medieval buildings (1868; 1890; Thomas and Muir 1890), and therefore began the parallel investigation of prehistoric and post-medieval monuments.

Academic research in the Hebrides did not continue apace until the 1930s when Sir Lindsay Scott instigated a programme of excavation and publication which had major ramifications for the study of the Hebridean Iron Age in particular (1947; 1948). Although still accepting the diffusionist theoretical models of the time, Scott saw the broch as part of a drystone building tradition rather than a unique class of building.

Research into the most recent post-medieval built heritage of Scotland was just beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, having been largely ignored since Thomas' first comments in the 1890s. Although the research of the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working Group (SVBWG) covered much of Scotland and resulted in an important national synthesis (Fenton and Walker 1981), it was not involved with the buildings archaeology of earlier periods, and instead was characteristic of architectural history, a distinct discipline. Indeed, this period saw an increasingly clear distinction between settlement studies as ethnology, folk-life and historical archaeology (Dalgleish 2002, 475-76), aspects which, in the 19th and 18th centuries, had been commonly combined.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, David Clarke suggested that archaeology was entering a period of critical self-awareness (1973). However, the majority of the work on all periods well into the 1970s, and in many cases beyond, tended to be culture historical; the primary aim was descriptive and the result tended to be a list of superimposed periods neatly separated by migrations or diffusion. Nevertheless, there were exceptions and the 'New Archaeology' of Clarke (1973) and Binford (1964) impacted on Hebridean studies from the 1960s onwards, although principally in the advent of scientific techniques such as radiocarbon dating, environmental analysis and mathematical and statistical modelling (Graham 194; MacKie 1965; Fojut 1981; 1982).

The first explicit research projects to have a wider remit than single excavation, and involving more and varied individuals than the personal studies of Scott (1947) or MacKie (1965), came in the 1980s. In 1985 Edinburgh University's Callanish Archaeological Research Project was set up in Lewis by Professor Dennis Harding. This included the research aims of clarifying the settlement sequence of one region of north-west Lewis – the Bhaltos peninsula, reinforcing and expounding the chronology of the Hebridean Iron Age, and integrating environmental studies into this programme.

Established slightly later, the Sheffield Environmental and Archaeological Research Campaign (SEARCH) has focused on survey and excavation on Barra and South Uist since the 1980s, including co-ordinated environmental research (Gilbertson et al. 1996), multi-period survey and excavation (Branigan and Foster 1995; 2000) and an extensive excavation of Dun Vulan broch, South Uist (Parker Pearson and Sharples 1999). It is in this project, and most specifically in the work of Mike Parker Pearson, that a more explicit attempt to explain culture and architecture has been sought, using structuralist criteria that had been ignored by more traditional scholars. The work of Parker Pearson has proved a rare exception to the previously mentioned unwillingness by scholars of Hebridean archaeology to adopt explicit theoretical standpoints. His structuralist approach is ultimately derived from linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure (Johnson 1999, 91), and particularly emphasises the underlying 'cognitive' rules or 'grammar' that may structure human culture in the long term. As such, it has introduced a static view of culture which has markedly enlightened the interpretation of specific buildings, but failed to explain change in form adequately over longer time periods.

Unfortunately, debates instigated by Parker Pearson have tended to become bogged down in specifics about contemporaneity and the accuracy of radiocarbon sampling (Parker Pearson et al. 1996; Gilmour and Cook 1998; Parker Pearson et al. 1999), rather than attempting to critique the structural Marxist approach, and put forward alternative hypotheses. However, the work of Parker Pearson, coupled with that of Armit, has produced the most valuable attempts to explain Hebridean prehistoric archaeology while expanding studies to cover multiple periods.

Recent specific investigations into post-medieval Hebridean culture have continued to focus on data gathering, although with a greater awareness of the need for an explanatory framework. Led by the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working Group (SVBWG) and the Medieval or Later Rural Settlement Working Group (MoLRS), syntheses have shown a considerably better understanding of vernacular buildings in later periods (SVBWG 1989; Hingley 1993; Atkinson et al. 2000). These have included the excavation and analysis of structures not built until the late 19th century (Burgess 1995; Holden et al. 2002); the folk studies or anthropology of Thomas's day have become the archaeology of today. However, continued ethnographic research by groups such as the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University has rarely been integrated with specific areas of cultural study in the Outer Hebrides such as architecture, and is seldom consulted by archaeologists.

From this summary of previous research, it is possible to show that, ever since a bias initiated in the 17th and 18th centuries, post-medieval material culture was seen as impoverished and not as a relevant source of information at more than a superficial level for other periods in the area. Further, there has been a consistent effort to avoid explicit theory, and to focus instead on the gathering of data, and students of the post-medieval period have been particularly unlikely to express theoretical leanings. It is only in the last two decades that attempts to integrate research in the Western Isles into a more coherent strategy have been attempted, resulting in projects that tackle specific research questions and have a more multi-disciplinary approach.

The aim in this piece of work is to focus research, not on a particular period or type of architecture, but rather on the similarities between architectural forms over millennia and the ways in which later periods, where there is a great deal of multi-media information, can inform the understanding of earlier periods. In this way, by breaking the tendency of Hebridean scholars to focus on specific periods and areas, a new understanding of the architectural heritage is possible.

The only similar works in a Hebridean context have been that of Armit (1997) and Helen Smith (1996). Armit drew on information from census records of Hebridean populations in the 18th century to look at the carrying capacity of the land and, accepting Fojut's argument (1982) that we have a representative sample of Iron Age settlements, has suggested the potential population associated with each site and made inroads into the possible status of Iron Age Atlantic roundhouse settlements (Armit 2002, 83-84). In particular, he has been able to suggest that in North Uist and Barra population figures vastly in excess of those known for 1755, generally accepted as being fairly high, would be needed to give all Atlantic roundhouses the importance of local centres. Smith (1996; has initiated an important project that aims to combine environmental and ethnographic information concerning 19th- and early 20th-century blackhouses to promote a greater understanding of the organisation of space and activities in the later prehistoric household.

The specific justification of this particular study, and the comparative analysis of Hebridean vernacular buildings, lies in their similar nature through time; each of the architectural traditions from 300 BC up until the late 19th century can be seen to be a local response to a difficult environment, which, although altered, has been essentially similar over that time period. Further, the archaeological and ethnographic evidence suggests that stone, timber, clay, heather, thatch and turf were sourced locally well into the 20th century in many cases, while specific examples, such as the aforementioned post-1860 cottages in St Kilda, show graphically the difference when materials, design and craftspeople were imported from elsewhere, in this case Dunvegan on Skye.

Diffusionist approaches of the 20th century have been largely laid aside and it is possible to see all the drystone buildings of the Hebrides as part of a long and venerable local tradition. Contra Crawford (2002, 128), who has resurrected a diffusionist explanation for the Iron Age wheelhouse architectural form, it is only perhaps in the Viking period that we can see the increased adoption, rather than imposition, of a markedly different building form.

Most importantly, the domestic buildings of the Outer Hebrides are of a similar type, and can be seen in contrast to specifically non-indigenous Hebridean buildings forms, such as domestic buildings of the 20th century, medieval castles, and planned-town architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries. The buildings that form the subject of this article are the buildings of the common folk and were likely designed and built by their occupiers. Although specific examples throughout my chosen period can be shown to be of a higher status than the norm, they also reflect architectural styles and building techniques that extend throughout the social spectrum and can be seen as definitively examples of what Rapoport (1990) has termed 'vernacular design'. Specific writers have differed in their definition of this classification but my own follows that of Mercer (1975, 1), Brunskill (1992, 21), Curl (1999, 706) and the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working Group: a form that draws on local architectural tradition and utilises local materials and local skills. Rapoport (1990, 82-83) has suggested that vernacular design cannot be simply characterised in opposition to 'polite', but must rather be seen as a multi-faceted concept reflecting social and temporal characteristics such as uniformity, pace of change and the intentions and profile of the builder. Further, the buildings that form the basis of my discussion are all principally domestic, although they may reflect 'religious' and 'industrial' themes. Finally, they are all definitively 'Atlantic Scottish' buildings, either exclusively or largely characteristic of north-west Scotland, of which the Outer Hebrides is a discrete area.

Research questions

Utilising an original scientific analysis of building form, coupled with a critique of the available periodic data, it is possible to show how research questions can be successfully addressed without recourse to the accepted methodology of the Hebrides – excavation. In particular, this article looks at the detail of similarities in architecture over time, and particularly the use of materials.


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