Dalmore Daytime

Dalmore Daytime
Sandy Beach

Monday, 16 February 2009

The "Taigh Dubh" (Black House). # 2.

In an earlier post(Clann'ic Iain,"Long","Glass"),I described how, with my mother,I visited the home of my great-uncle,"Long" as he lay on his death bed. This was one of the early blackhouses,with none of the partitions you find in later versions(Gearrannan 1860),or it may have been that,since "Long" and his wife had no family,the "open plan" of the "sean taigh dubh" would serve them just as well as their forebears. "Taigh Shoudie"(my father's house,No.4 Dalmore),had in fact been occupied by a family, before Dalmore was cleared around 1852 to make way for a sheep farm. This would mean that the house was possibly built around 1830,an early "taigh dubh",we may assume.I was told that the walls of this house were in good shape when "Shoudie",my grandfather came across from Garenin to take over the croft at No.4. Walls, traditionally built nearly 100 years before,had weathered all the storms the Atlantic had thrown at them,and yet there they stood,waiting for a roof, absent for over 60 years. In 1920,some new design features were incorporated in the "conversion" of the older 1830's house. But first,let us try to describe how the old style black house would have looked inside - the house itself, we "built" in the previous article.
In the old "taigh dubh",there was just one entrance, which was used by people and animals alike. On entering,the animals(we mean mainly cattle)took their place down in the "todhar",while the people occupied the greater part of the building at the upper end. The cow dung("todhar") accumulated there until it was removed in spring to be spread on the "feannagan"(rig/strip field). The slurry from the "todhar" issued from a purpose-built hole at the bottom of the building. The whole "taigh dubh" was built on a gentle incline,sloping down towards the "todhar". In heavy rain,any water which came through the thatch,formed little rivulets that joined the slurry. Keep in mind that the standard of thatching bore little resemblance to what we see in the typical English country cottage,where thick bundles of reeds and wooden pegs were employed(or in the Gearannan houses,which had eventually to be thatched in the "English style"). Harking back to "taigh Long",you will remember how little there was in the way of furniture.There was a spring well inside the entrance door(unusual)and the peat fire was located in the middle of the earthen floor,with only a small hole in the thatch to allow the smoke to escape. It was not an efficient air conditioner,as the interior of the "taigh dubh" would often be thick with smoke. Modern theorists say that the smoke was a powerful disinfectant,and maybe that's just what was needed! Chain and "striolla" hung from a roof timber and were located above the "teine"(fire)for cooking. In early spring,all of the thatch(but not the timbers)were stripped from the roof,but this was not a spring clean,as we know it. The thatch, laden with a year's build-up of peat soot and tars, was an exceptionally rich source of fertiliser. Bales of corn straw were at hand,that same day, to thatch the roof anew,as the rain is never far away in these parts. This old thatch was used in conjunction with the cow dung as a very rich fertiliser on the croft. In some places,seaweed,mainly sea wracks was also used. It was stored in circular walled enclosures known as "torran poll". (See the post "An Ghearraid.Dalmore's Little Jewel"). It has been said that when the fire was in the middle of the old black house floor,many at a ceilidh could find a seat round the "teine". When the fireplace made its appearance in the "modern" black house,only a semicircle of people could ceilidh,unless you were prepared to contribute a song or story from the byre. The long roof beam, covered in fingers of soot and tar,was known as the "cabar suiche"(soot covered beam). There is a song of yester years which laments the gradual decline in the ceilidh, and the intimacy and warmth of the old "taigh dubh"
"A'Charaid ghalabh a h-uile rud,bho ghalabh an cabar suiche" which said that "Everything went,my friend,when the "cabar suiche" vanished". Yet,in my opinion,nothing destroyed the ceilidh more than the arrival of television in Lewis. "Ghalabh a'cheilidh mar bha sinn eolach." (The ceilidh which we were used to,has gone forever).
Over at No.5 Dalmore,we lived in what I coined a "taigh dubh-geal" a 1923 version of a black house,which now had two entrances(the cows now had their own),fireplaces,separate rooms,barn and stable. There later followed the "taigh a'bhord",the bungalow and later the T.V. I would have to echo the sentiments of the song in repeating that line:- "A'Charaid,ghalabh a'h-uile rud". The Dalmore I remember has changed forever. Every single thing I knew and loved has gone,and the clock can not be put back for me.
N.B.(a) The timbers used in building the roof at No.5 Dalmore in the 1920s were all transported from the previous house in Garenin.
(b) The main beam of the old Dalmore Church was reused in the roof of the mission hall in Tolsta a' Chaolais in 1848,and it is there until this day.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Building a "Taigh Dubh." ( A Black House.) # 1.

The Hebridean black house (Gael."taigh dubh"),one might suppose,gets its name from "the darkness and the thick smoke" within the walls and beneath the thatch. Some have suggested that thatch ("tughaid")has been mistaken for"dubh". It is possible(ie. dubh <--> tugh )but unlikely. Like Gearranan,I think that the name "taigh tughaid" is a more apt name for these old Hebridean houses. When,in the middle of the 19th century,many of the black houses were being built,doctors,ministers,estate factors etc.were already being housed in modern two storey houses that boasted glass-paned windows all round,slate roofs and a couple of chimney stacks.It was cement/mortar built and might be pointed in white lime. It was, to all intents,a modern house,which would not be out of place today. This modern edifice was understandably known as a "taigh geal" (a white house),and I think that it's at this juncture,the old house,by comparison,would have been dubbed "dubh" (black).
Because the prevailing winds in Lewis are westerly/southwesterly, and can often be gale force, dwellings were necessarily of a low build and positioned to afford maximum shelter from the strong winds. When the Hebridean sought to build a "taigh dubh",he would have in mind the maxim "Cul ri gaoth,aghaidh gu ghrian" (Back to the wind,face towards the sun). Of all the black houses which I knew in Dalmore,all obeyed this maxim (ie. long axis of each house was perpendicular to that of the glen,with the back of the houses facing towards the shore). Two exceptions were Taigh Shoudie and Taigh Murchadh Sgiobair,built high up the crofts under the hill, which afforded protection from the constant westerlies. If a young man intended marriage,it might take him 2 or 3 years to assemble a quantity of suitable stone to build the marital home. Roof timbers, and what little wood was required for "furniture"(eg. beds), was always a problem in an island with no trees. They would have to depend on what was thrown up by the sea,lost or jettisoned by passing ships - timbers,planks or even oars. Being at the "receiving end" of the Gulf Stream/North Atlantic Drift,at times they might salvage some logs from the Caribbean or the Labrador coast. If one had to,then there were always the old fir stumps in the peat bogs(from the days when the whole island was covered by trees).
Even when the building materials were assembled,you had to be au fait with the considerable skills that went into building a "taigh dubh",but failing that, there would always be a "clachair" (stonemason) in the district,probably a relation of the wife-to-be. The walls of a black house consisted of a double drystone dyke,broad at the base and narrowing towards the top,where it was capped by "closing stones". There was a cavity of several inches between the walls,where the infill could be turf,pebble,rubble or sand, according to their availability. You now had walls which were extremely well insulated (warm in winter,cool in summer) and sound proofed ("an gaoth agus an cuan-t-siar" ie.the wind and the Western(Atlantic)Ocean). The house's outer wall was tapered in such a way which allowed rainwater to drip off,and not permeate the interior. Any little gaps that caused draughts within the house were dealt with using a plug of wool,what else? The walls were as broad as they were high(5 or 6 feet),strong,low lying and durable. The end walls were rounded(as was the thatched roof) which allowed the prevailing wind a "streamlined flow" over the "taigh dubh". It has been said that the black house resembles an upturned Viking longboat or its cousin, the Celtic birlinn. I think they may be right! The roof of the house would pose a lot more problems,not least the paucity of wood on the island. The roof timbers rose from the inner wall line to support the roof of turf or thatch. Because of this,there was a grass covered "path" all around the house,between the outer wall and the roof. Sheep could often be seen grazing up there,the better climbers,that is. Often,flat "stepping" stones were incorporated in the outer wall in the form of an outside staircase,which gave easy access to the roof(eg.for thatching). I think some of the sheep knew this trick! The roof covering would probably be two layers of turf overlain with cereal straw. To prevent damage by wind, the thatch might be covered here and there with old portions of fishing nets found on the shore. For double insurance,heather ropes weighed down by large stones,were draped over the thatch on the roof. Because of the shortage of wood,and the toil involved in collecting stone,houses were often built back-to-back,sharing a common wall(eg.father/son or brother/sister). The house described here is of the 1860 vintage but there were versions of the "taigh dubh" long before this period and certainly after 1860. The Gearrannan thatched houses belong to this time(my mother born in No.4 and father born in No.9). The house at No. 5 Dalmore,where I was born, was really a "new build" black house, finished in 1923,and possibly the final version ever to be built - a sort of "taigh dubh-geal". Even then, the black house was slowly morphing into a white house,with all mod cons,but with walls 6 feet thick,cattle down in the toilet and rats "in the belfry".
There's the inside of the house still to do,and much,much more. To be continued....