The Blackhouse, Arnol, Isle of Lewis

The Blackhouse site at Arnol, on the West coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, consists of the houses and immediate surrounds of two crofts. At number 42, there is a conserved thatched ‘blackhouse’, originally constructed around 1875, and the 1960s bungalow that replaced it; and at number 39, there is a ruined blackhouse, tentatively dated to the 1870s, and the ‘whitehouse’ that replaced it in 1920s. These are all ‘properties in care of the state’, managed by Historic Environment Scotland.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, people across the Western Isles lived in houses like the blackhouse, constructed from local materials, with stone walls, driftwood roof timbers and a thatched roof. Following different forms (the parallel units seen at Arnol are thought to be unique to Lewis), they incorporated a byre, dwelling and barn. In Lewis, the move out of blackhouses only really began in the inter-war years, but by the mid 20th century most people were living in the newer whitehouses.

The house at number 42 was one of the last blackhouses to be built without windows or a chimney. It has been conserved as far as possible as it was when it was vacated in 1965, including its contents. The 1960s bungalow at number 42 now serves as the visitor centre and steward’s office. The contents of the whitehouse at number 39 are not original but it has been restored and furnished much as it would have been in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The croft land around the houses is still partly worked.

The surrounding landscape contains many examples of ruined blackhouses alongside more recent housing. Some of these ruins are reused for modern day purposes, such as storage, a testament to the ability of blackhouse construction to withstand the West coast weather. The assemblage of buildings at Arnol tells a story of vernacular structures and rural life over two centuries of change in Lewis and attempts to make understandable the many ruined settlements.

An overview of the history and physical development of the properties in care and of the crofting township of Arnol as a whole, is given in the Historic Environment Scotland Statement of Cultural Significance for the site.

An Tac an Teine (Beside the Fire) is a short film by the students of Sgoil an Taobh Siar, the local Primary School. It was produced to help viewers understand what life in a blackhouse was like. Available to view online in Gaelic and English.

View the Arnol Blackhouse on googlemaps.