The blackhouse originates from several thousand years ago and the design made it strong and able to stand up to the brutal weather of the Outer Hebrides. Blackhouses were always built facing east so that the prevailing weather hit the back of the house. The method of construction has hardly changed and the buildings consisted of two parallel dry stone walls with the gap between being filled with earth or peat for insulation.
The roof was either thatched or turfed. The roof frame would be supported on the outer wall which gave the houses a distinctive “shelf” around the outside of the building. The thatch would be secured with netting held down with large stones to stop the roof blowing off. The windows were small to keep the walls strong and keep out the worst of the weather. The floor was usually made of flagstones or packed earth and there was a central area for the fire.
Although Blackhouses were designed in a similar style, the method of construction varied slightly between islands. The Lewis and Harris Blackhouses were built with the roof sitting on the inner wall and the gap between the walls was filled with peat which needed to be kept damp. The water would run off the roof and drain into the wall which kept the peat from cracking.
In contrast to this, the Uist style sees the roof sitting on the outer wall and the thatch going over the edge. The insulating material used here is loose rubble which needs to be kept dry hence the overhanging thatch draining water away from the house.
Berneray marks the boundary where the building style begins to change and consequently there are buildings of both styles here.
Traditionally, blackhouses had three rooms. A living area with an open fire for heating and cooking, a bedroom and an area for livestock. The living area was the heart of the house where the family members would gather in the evenings, hold ceilidhs and relax after a long day crofting and fishing.
It is a common belief that blackhouses were so called because in the early days, the open peat fire would fill the house with smoke and blacken the walls, as there were no chimneys. However, the reason was to distinguish them from the new style of houses built from the late 1800s which were known as white houses. The design of these new houses allowed much better separation between people and their livestock. Some blackhouses on the islands were inhabited right up to the 1970s, but most people had moved on to the white house design by this time.