Re-thatching a Hebridean blackhouse
|Left: Neil Nicholson thatching the Highland Folk Museum’s Hebridean blackhouse in marram grass. Right: The completed thatch.|
The Highland Folk Museum in Badenoch in the central Highlands of Scotland is one of the country’s most evocative and well-loved cultural institutions. The museum, nicknamed Am Fasgadh (Gaelic for ‘The Shelter’), opened originally on the island of Iona in 1935, where its founder Isabel Grant (1887–1983) appropriated a former United Free Church building ‘to shelter homely ancient Highland things from destruction’. Grant’s collections at that time consisted mostly of handmade household items and vernacular crafts, but she was able to broaden her ambitions from 1944 onwards after moving the museum to Pitmain Lodge, a large Georgian former inn building near the railway station at Kingussie, the capital of Badenoch, in the heart of the Scottish Highlands.
The site included three acres of land, enabling Grant to develop a pioneering and highly influential suite of three replica buildings, designed to illustrate three distinct geographical types of traditional domestic construction: an Invernessshire cottage, a Hebridean blackhouse and a Highland ‘but and ben’. The buildings and the use of live demonstrations by costumed interpreters to explain these settings for visitors helped to establish the Highland Folk Museum’s popular reputation as the first open-air museum on mainland Britain.
The museum today is located in the village of Newtonmore, a few miles south of its former home at Kingussie, in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park. The 80-acre site was first acquired in the 1980s by Highland Council – the museum’s current owners – and operations moved there permanently in 2014 at the behest of High Life Highland, the arm’s-length charitable organisation that runs the museum on behalf of the local authority. The Highland Folk Museum attracts about 70,000 visitors a year, with audiences enjoying a taste of how life was lived in the Scottish Highlands between 1700 and the middle of the 20th century. The site provides a home for Isabel Grant’s unique collection of Highland material culture, formally recognised by Museums Galleries Scotland and the Scottish Government as being of national significance.
The collection boasts a wide array of household and crofting artefacts, furniture, farming implements and machinery, horse rigging, carriages and other vehicles, cooking and dining utensils, vessels and general kitchen equipment, pottery, glass, musical instruments, sporting items, weapons and fishing tackle, clothing and textiles, spinning and weaving apparatus, books, photographs and archive papers with accounts of superstitions, stories and songs, and hand-crafted items of every shape and description, including basketry, Barvas ware (a type of pottery) and treen (small domestic wooden objects). The collection also includes more than 30 historical buildings – commercial and domestic, authentic and replica.
The Hebridean blackhouse is one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. It was first built under the supervision of ‘an oldish man from Back in Lewis’, brought to Kingussie to oversee the construction of a replica blackhouse in a style typical of that island in the 1890s. Marram grass has been the traditional thatching material for vernacular buildings in the Hebrides for generations, but Isabel Grant was content to employ local heather for her blackhouse in Kingussie. She was painstaking in other details, however, and produced a replica that was as faithful as possible to its Hebridean sources ‘with their low roofs and double walls adapted to the climate. This cottage had a hearth in the middle of the floor and we furnished it so far as we could with things that would have belonged to an earlier period.
‘By the kindness of a benefactor in Harris, who took infinite trouble in going through the complicated procedure necessary in a crofter township, I was given the grindstone and wooden working parts of a ‘clackmill’. This is a very old form of grain mill... I put it up close to the Lewis house where there was a slight slope and I hoped that one day I would be able to make a reservoir and on special occasions allow a rivulet to run under the mill but I never got round to this.’ 
The roof of the blackhouse had fallen into disrepair by the time the Highland Folk Museum moved from Kingussie to Newtonmore in 2014, and the intricate, stone-by-stone relocation put paid to most of what remained of the original roof. Even after careful reconstruction, the building was unsafe for people to enter, and the exhibit remained closed to the public for four years. The intention initially had been to re-thatch the blackhouse using locally-sourced heather, but this plan was abandoned when the technical abilities and specific knowledge of museum staff were found wanting. Another solution was needed.
An opportunity presented itself in May 2017 when Liz English, the curator responsible for the Highland Folk Museum’s historic structures, attended the Historic Environment Scotland (HES) seminar on Scotland’s Thatched Buildings: developing a plan for the future at the National Trust for Scotland’s Culloden Battlefield museum near Inverness. The seminar, hosted with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in Scotland (SPAB Scotland) and the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working Group, brought together many people working in the field today, and provided useful interludes for networking and discussion. Among the attendees was Lucy Vaughan, Historic Environment Scotland’s head of conservation for the north of Scotland, who kindly agreed to visit the Highland Folk Museum to discuss joint-working models, and the opportunities afforded by HES’s buildings conservation training and research facility at the Engine Shed in Stirling.
The outcome of this conversation was a plan, funded by HES, to contract a time-served craftsperson to re-thatch the Hebridean blackhouse in marram grass, while simultaneously training a total of six permanent staff from the Highland Folk Museum and the Engine Shed in the traditional methods employed. Enquiries quickly established that Neil Nicholson of North Uist was the only thatcher in Britain working in marram grass at that time; he was duly commissioned to carry out the work.
This began at the Highland Folk Museum in September 2017, with the basic process of re-thatching the blackhouse in marram grass taking about two weeks. Before this could be done, though, materials had to be prepared and assembled. In July 2017 the museum’s craftworking team, Hannes Schnell and Sarah Lawther, removed what remained of the building’s former roof, replacing this with a new structure of pre-prepared timbers. Turf for the roof was sourced locally, cut to specific sizes and laid across the structural timbers in accordance with Neil Nicholson’s instructions. The thatcher, meanwhile, set to work gathering the marram grass.
Sourcing and harvesting this often-overlooked building material are skills in themselves, and Neil Nicholson has accumulated a profound understanding over time of the windswept North Atlantic coasts where it thrives. The tiny islands off North Uist where he gathers most of his grass are accessible only to small boats a couple of times a month, and it takes considerable knowledge and skill to judge the local tides and weather conditions, and safely navigate the waters.
The thatching of the blackhouse at the Highland Folk Museum was carried out using traditional tools – supplied by Neil Nicholson himself. As part of the project, reproductions of the tools were made by a local blacksmith, Davie Cameron. The museum organised engagement activities around the work, with schedules of public demonstrations for visitors, and information panels and other exhibits in a gazebo alongside the blackhouse. Maureen Hammond, the museum’s collaborative PhD research placement from the University of the Highlands and Islands, contributed to the activities, and assisted with TV news coverage by BBC Alba as the work was approaching its conclusion – both Maureen and Neil are capable Gaelic speakers.
The aims of the project were to re-thatch the Hebridean blackhouse and bring it back into public circulation for the Highland Folk Museum’s many visitors, lending extra authenticity to the structure through the employment of marram grass, while simultaneously supporting a critically endangered specialist craft skill. The thatching processes demonstrated by Neil Nicholson were filmed for posterity by Jessica Hunnisett, senior technical officer at Historic Environment Scotland.
The Highland Folk Museum has been able to supply the Engine Shed with much valuable data on the performance of the thatch in response to the heavy snows of the ‘Beast from the East’ in early 2018, and the unseasonably hot weather that followed later that year.
-  Grant, Isabel Frances (2007) The Making of ‘Am Fasgadh’: an account of the origins of the Highland Folk Museum by its founder, edited by Alexander Fenton, NMS Enterprises Ltd – Publishing, Edinburgh.
This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 158 (Page 29), published in March 2019. It was written by Matthew Withey, curatorial manager at High Life Highland.
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