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

4 Conclusions and Discussion

4.1 Conclusions

In section 1, a summary of the environment and climate showed that this was particularly harsh in the Outer Hebrides and suggested that it has continued to be a major influence on architecture since the Iron Age. An overview of observations regarding the Western Isles suggested that an explicitly negative perception of the post-medieval architectural heritage of the area grew out of an association with early accounts of the 18th and 19th century. This has led recent scholars to under-estimate the importance of the post-medieval heritage of the islands, regarding it as an unreliable and simplistic analogy for earlier building materials, design and use. This attitude has been further bolstered by a tendency to study time periods in isolation, ignoring a longer time perspective that can provide useful insights. Exceptions to this, such as the more recent work of the Sheffield research programme, have initiated new theoretical approaches attempting to look at long-term change. They have, however, remained limited by an analysis that is largely period specific, restricted by the structuralist approach which struggles to explain change (Harold Mytum pers. comm. November 2003).

The present work has introduced a model of the post-medieval vernacular in the Western Isles, discussing aspects of materials, design and use. In this, utilising varying forms of evidence including photographs, folklore, archaeology and history, I have suggested a revised understanding of the design and function of the blackhouse. This includes a tentative understanding of the use of space, arguing that these buildings can be interpreted as having more complex aspects than their principal component of functionality. This initial study suggests that aspects such as gender, sunwise movement and the central importance of the hearth may have provided a crucial focus through which post-medieval buildings were used and understood. This analysis has also brought the agency of women further to the fore, undermining the simple concept of the crofter and 'his' family.

Thus, it is possible to summarise the evidence for the vernacular from the Middle Iron Age to the medieval period, in the light of the study of post-medieval buildings. This included a comparison of materials, design and use over time, and allows tentative answers to some of the questions posed in the discipline.

Brochs have been consistently interpreted as significant and impressive buildings, wasteful of resources, and badly suited to the environment. In a recent summary, Armit has suggested that:

'Timber was a key consideration on the construction of broch towers, and it is quite likely that timber would have been imported to the islands from areas richer in surviving woodland. The immodest consumption of large quantities of timber may have been as impressive a social statement as the height and massiveness of the broch towers themselves.' (2003, 76)

Further, it has become axiomatic in Iron Age studies to accept that a distinction exists between 'simple' Atlantic roundhouses, and 'complex' Atlantic roundhouses which integrate specific structural and architectural characteristics, as outlined above. However, comparison of 23 Atlantic roundhouses throughout the Western Isles suggests that there were significant differences in the quantity of materials and associated labour that cannot simply be linked to architectural complexity. Buildings such as Chàrlabhaigh, that display significant engineering skill and complexity of design, are actually relatively small and placed a demand on organic materials similar to a Lewisian blackhouse complex of the 19th century. The larger examples, such as Beirgh or Borve, in Lewis, placed a considerably more extensive strain upon resources such as timber, thatch and turf, and presumably also upon labour and procurement strategies (see Graph 2). This article suggests a new model, where the size and 'quality' of construction is taken as a more reliable indicator of social status than the existence of architectural complexity. In addition, it suggests that many of the most well-known brochs may not have been as badly adapted to the environment as previously thought.

When comparing the quantity of materials in brochs and wheelhouses, it is clear from original mathematical analysis that the broch will generally use considerably more. This was first suggested by Armit (1996, 143) as an apparent explanation for the move from broch architecture to wheelhouse architecture. The statistics from Table 4 and Table 5 show that timber roofs in the average wheelhouse used around five times less timber for sarking, and the rafters were perhaps around a third of the length. Incorporating the corbelled part of the wheelhouse allows us to compare the quantities of turf and thatch used, and this suggests the average broch would use approximately twice as much of these roof-covering materials. Given this supporting evidence, it can conclusively be stated that the wheelhouse form of architecture involves a major reduction in the use of organic materials, and subsequently labour, from that of the broch. Further, this analysis also shows a major distinction between different wheelhouses in terms of the quantity of materials and labour involved, and suggests that simplistic 'structuralist' models, where wheelhouses are seen as a homogeneous group in binary opposition to brochs (Parker Pearson and Sharples 1999), impose a theoretical bias on a group that is both varied and complex.

Finally, the intention was to look at the extent to which it was possible to trace similarities in design, materials and use through time. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the use of materials close to hand is ubiquitous in the vernacular through time. The materials of drystone, bent grass, straw, peat and turf are the essential components of all the buildings discussed above. How they were procured may well have altered over time, but their essential nature, in an environment that has not altered significantly, is quite probably similar. The use of driftwood may also have been common throughout the period of study and before; certainly, the 3000 to 4000 houses in Lewis in the 1880s were largely roofed using driftwood, and this suggests that there was a rich resource in that period.

Aspects of design are also found to continue over long periods. Hebridean buildings almost always had very thick walls, insulated from the wind and rain either by peat and turf or by extensive masonry. The characteristic Lewisian tobhta or wall-head walk certainly existed on the freestanding wheelhouses of the Iron Age, and the same effective arrangement existed on the 'jelly-baby' buildings of the later 1st millennium AD. Evidence from the 2nd millennium AD suggests that these buildings too may have incorporated this extremely functional and efficient design. The use of corbelling, found only in the wall-beds of 19th-century blackhouses and the cleitean of St Kilda is also common in the 1st millennium AD. However, it is extremely difficult to trace the use of corbelling back through the medieval and Norse period due to the dearth of excavated buildings. The position of buildings, either partially or wholly dug into the ground, or simply in a sheltered location, can also be traced in the archaeological record as a common response to the harsh environment.

In terms of the use of architectural space, the evidence is undoubtedly deficient. However, 19th-century scholars, without explicit structuralist theoretical motivation, noted that the use of space in the blackhouse was dominated by a reverence and respect for the hearth, the central importance of the accumulation of manure and thatch as fertiliser, and possibly an etiquette surrounding the occupation of space by specific genders and ranks, respecting sunwise movement. The post-medieval blackhouse is essentially a building with a bipartite division of space – manifested either by furniture, the position of the fire, or, later, by formal partitions. I would argue that the more complex Lewisian blackhouses, with up to four parallel spaces, still maintained a distinction between a core domestic and social space around the fire, and a periphery. These traits can, to some extent, be tentatively traced through the medieval and Norse periods in bipartite divisions and certainly appear similar in the Late Iron Age or Pictish period where each building had a central area with a hearth and one or more peripheral cells. In the case of the wheelhouse, it may be possible to suggest that the core central hearth area and the peripheral radial cells performed a similar distinction, which was further enhanced by additional spaces external to the main building. In the broch period in the Western Isles, evidence for the use of space is extremely scanty although it is still likely to have been governed by a central primary space, perhaps the first floor in some buildings, and a peripheral area for sleeping, storage, over-wintering animals or other specific tasks. Further, the association of buildings with symbols of fertility, either accumulated manure, so reviled by the 'gentlemen' of 18th- and 19th-century Britain, or the fertile machair into which they were built, is also an aspect that may have underpinned settlement through time. The most explicit examples of this are the Middle Iron Age midden at Dùn Vulan and the well-attested accumulation of muck in the post-medieval Hebridean blackhouse, and it is a concept worthy of further study.


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