Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Hovel or Habitable Home?

The houses of Caithness crofter peasants were described by historian J T Calder in 1861 as ‘wretched hovels of turf and stone with a divot roof." But considering the dwellings had to be made completely from whatever resources were available on site and also had to be able to withstand extreme winter conditions plus house a large number of people it seems to me they were incredibly well adapted. William Sutherland and Christian Finlayson, setting up house at Badbea in 1770, get huge admiration from me for their survival skills and resourcefulness. What an achievement!  So what was their house like? 
The remains of a Badbea house

The houses at Badbea were made of the large stones that were scattered everywhere across the landscape. Some stones were also cut from a nearby quarry. The stone walls were built up to about head height and were cleverly constructed with two thick layers of stone packed in-between with dirt. This construction greatly added to both the warmth and strength of the dwelling.

The roofs were made of arched wooden ‘couples’ or rafters tied together then packed with other timbers. The wooden couples were highly valued as there was very little timber growing in the Caithness landscape. Any wood found on the beach from a boat wreck was also highly valued and used carefully. The outside roof was thatch secured with rope made of heather. 

This picture shows the interior and roof construction of a building at the Laidhay Museum in Caithness  not far from Badbea.

Detail of the interior of a building at the Laidhay Museum showing the careful use of a variety of found timbers to form the roof. 

Heather rope
House at Skye similar to a Badbea house except at the ends
Source: www.freefoto.com

The crofter's house was really just one room divided into areas - a butt and ben – the butt end was the fire and cooking room and the ben was the sleeping area away from the fire. William and Christian would have slept in a box bed filled with heather, with a door that closed at night. Children slept on heather on the floor.

At the Newtonmore Outdoor Museum

A peat fire, which generally never went out, was in the middle of the floor in the butt end. The 18th century croft houses had no chimneys and often no windows, so smoke escaped through a gap in the roof or out the door, leaving a canopy of smoke drifting round the interior of the dwelling. The ceiling rafters became black with soot and were often used to hang fish to dry.

There was one door into the house for both animals and people. Inside the door, and also part of the main dwelling, a partition of flagstones separated the byre for the animals.

Lower Badryrie
Source: David Glass Geograph

Here is a byre in the abandoned Caithness crofting township of Badryrie, with flagstone stall dividers known as 'hallans'. A cruck slot (for supporting the roof) can be seen on the left hand wall.

As Badbea was on such a sloping location the house was built with a midden (for animal and human waste) at the downhill end of the dwelling. From time to time, the midden heap was spread as fertiliser on the kale garden at the back of the house and in other areas to be cultivated.

Houses at the Newtonmore Outdoor Museum

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