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

4.2 Discussion

Dodghson has argued (1993, 419; 1994, 53; 1996; 1998, 4) that the idea of the West Highland pre-crofting community as a static ideal, reflective of traditions extending back centuries or even millennia, is uncorroborated. He has suggested that in the period between 1493 and 1820 there was significant and constant change (1998, 4), although, a few pages later, he argues that:

'Chiefly systems of socio-political control and landholding were once widespread throughout Britain. What distinguished those in the Highlands and Islands is the way in which they survived as active social forms down into the early modern period.' (Dodghson 1998, 10, my emphasis)

Other scholars (Smith 1977 cited Fojut 1982, 40; Carter 1998, 99; Dickson 1998, 105; Parker Pearson et al. 1999, 23; Dixon 2000, 69) have referred to the longevity of specific local traditions. Therefore, I would suggest that my proposition, that traits of architecture can be traced over the longue durée, has not previously been adopted primarily because a culture that does not adapt and 'progress' rapidly has been seen as somehow a failure. The inevitable and welcome 20th-century rejection of the idea that the Western Isles are culturally backward has instead prompted a view, more politically correct than evidence-based, where they must be seen as dynamic, vigorous and central. In truth, however, a visit to the Western Isles, even now, is a snapshot of, as Iain Crichton Smith has called it, 'a different country' (cited Russell 2002, 1).

In an attempt to trace 'traditions' through millennia, I expose my work to criticism, particularly as overly environmentally deterministic, functionalist or structuralist, and it is certainly true that I have not, partly due to the limitations of this work, attempted to analyse why there is a degree of conservatism nor why the changes in design and use occurred between the forms summarised. Further, part of this hypothesis rests on a desire to see the vernacular architecture of the past as a conservative and well-adapted form of culture, in an equilibrium punctuated by changes in style and design, but one that was essentially continuous right up until the 20th century, and one that can be distinctly contrasted with 20th-century architecture. In the author's experience, the buildings of the 20th century have ruthlessly ignored well-established tradition, and their widespread adoption has resulted in an almost complete loss of skills and adaptations with long pedigrees, leading a friend from Sorisdale, Coll, to suggest that 'the culture of the Highlands and Islands is dead' (Graham McGirk pers. comm. July 2004). Further, their adoption has covered the Western Isles, a relatively unspoilt landscape of profound beauty, with monotonous buildings, more representative of Curwen's (1938) 'cultural poverty' than any before.

This standpoint does not, however, simply resurrect the suggestions of Thomas (1868; 1890); that visiting a shieling in 19th-century Lewis was akin to entering prehistory. Rather, through detailed examination of the evidence outlined above, it is possible to discern traces of aspects of materials, design and use of space which may be long-standing. By drawing together aspects of evidence from archaeology, ethnography, folklore studies and photography, it is possible to present a more balanced view of the long-term vernacular heritage in the Western Isles. Thus, I have incorporated distinctive approaches which have been described by Chris Dalgleish (2002, 475-76), in his paper discussing the theoretical underpinning of rural settlement studies through time, as ethnography, folk-life and historical archaeology. Jane Grenville (1997, 17) has suggested that we 'must never dismiss the work of earlier writers as atheoretical simply because they did not use the same vocabulary as later scholars'. Following on from this, I have accepted that the work of some scholars of the late 19th and 20th century was as intellectually vigorous and meticulous as our own, and should neither be discounted because of its date, nor because of the undoubted temporal bias and romanticism it imbues. This wider and more holistic approach has resulted in conclusions that, I hope, do something to disperse the mists of time from the enigmatic architectural history of an island chain whose people have consistently built well-adapted, sensitive and intelligent architecture across millennia.


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