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thatched roofs in the Hebrides

Thatching the Hebrides

Once an integral part of the Hebridean landscape, thatched roofs,
and the skilled tradesmen who create them, are holding on.

BY PAUL STAFFORD

Either side of a gently curving gravel track, quaint little cottages peered out over a grey Atlantic Ocean. Occasionally, the sun wrestled through the clouds, illuminating the swirls and curves of the fresh, golden thatch of Gearrannan visitor centre. This latest rethatch had been completed just a few days before, but already the salt, wind and rain had given it a firm Outer Hebridean handshake.

These days in the U.K., the price of rethatching roofs makes them something of a vanity feature for homeowners. However, thatched roofs were born of necessity on Lewis and Harris, and were not merely an aesthetic choice. Instead, thatch was one of the best ways to stave off the wind and rain while remaining intact during the ferocious storms that the Atlantic is wont to conjure.

"People like to romanticize thatch," said Mairi Macritchie over a plate of shortbread. "But thatch is a nightmare to maintain in this part of the world," she added. Her shock of curly grey hair and brusque, yet polite, demeanor seemed to be every bit the product of an upbringing on the coarse shores of the North Atlantic. "There are very few buildings like this left now. Blackhouses, they're called."

Mairi is in charge of Gearrannan Blackhouse Village on the Isle of Lewis. The energy with which she runs the place makes it clear she's proud of Gearrannan. "This is the last group of blackhouses left on the island," she said. Although there are one or two individual thatched buildings dotted about, it was unique to see a cluster of nine traditional thatched cottages in good repair, as though the last century never happened.

Before long Mairi bustled off somewhere and left me to my own devices. Outside, the wind rarely abated, even during the summer. It whipped off the Atlantic, sprinkling the roofs in a constant fizz of salty spray.

I clambered up a grassy verge and gazed out over the tawny rooftops towards the ocean. There was, indeed, something undeniably romantic about the squat little buildings and their thick walls. It was more than just wistful nostalgia. There was a remarkable survivalist precision with which the people built and maintained the blackhouses, using only the scant resources of Lewis and Harris. The blackhouses seemed to exist in harmony with the landscape; in fact, they were molded to it. For example, the rounded fronts of the houses were designed to point into the prevailing winds, offering gusts a minimal surface area to torment.

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2017 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos © Doug Houghton / Scottish Viewpoint; Paul Stafford