Rural Buildings

Highland rural building traditions are diverse, as shown by the research and then reconstructed dwellings at Baile Gean, Highland Folk Museum. This work, and its experimental nature, has provided useful insights into rural building construction (Noble 2003). Virtually no evidence survives for the 16th or 17th century, however. Functions changed over time, where an old dwelling might be adapted for animals when it became more ruinous (eg at Easter Raitts; Lelong and Wood 2000), and many structures show additions or adaptations which are often difficult to date. In some cases such changes have been tied to changes in the fortunes of individual families. Cruck slots can often be seen in ruins in the landscape, together with byre drains.

The remains of a rural house with a drain and cruck slot at Dun Lagaidh. ©Susan Kruse

Despite so many dwellings in the landscape, few have been excavated, and most relate to the same period, just before clearances. The sites of Rosal and Easter Raitts have been discussed in chapter 10.3.1. At Lairg, Sutherland, while excavations of the landscape generally focussed on the prehistoric evidence, a Post-Medieval house was also excavated. The Lairg longhouse fits into the tradition identified at Rosal and Easter Raitts with a central hearth and byre end. It had gable walls of stone but long walls of turf, with external drains. The finds included 19th century pottery and glass from the 18th and 19th centuries. The central hearth showed peat was used as a fuel, not surprising considering the landscape. Like so many dwellings, it showed adaptations over time. As at Rosal, the site was cleared in the 19th century, providing an end date of use (McCullagh and Tipping 1998; McCullagh 2000).

Other Post-Medieval buildings which have seen limited excavation include trenching at a longhouse at Berriedale, Caithness (Williamson 2018), two multi-phase longhouses and ancillary building at Torbreck, Sutherland (MHG61685; Engl 2013), a building at Glenleraig, northwest Sutherland (MHG12259; Hindmarch 2011) and trial trenching of structures at Kinakyle, Badenoch and Strathspey (MHG25003; Francoz and Atkinson 2008). Unpublished excavations include Caen, Sutherland (https://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/archaeology-institute/our-research/research-projects/translocation-excavating-the-highland-clearances/ accessed November 2020), trial trenching of several buildings at Ceannabeinne, north Sutherland (MHG17937), excavations by the NTS at Achtriachtan, Glen Coe combined with survey and documentary research (Case Study Archaeological Work by the NTS) and work by Ardnamurchan Transitions Project, Lochaber (Phil Richardson pers comm).

Survey and limited investigation by the Tarradale Through Time project at the site of an abandoned township at Tarradale, Easter Ross, provided evidence of the houses of the poorest tenants (mailers), with the houses probably made of layers of clay and turf interspersed with field gathered stones. There were also remains of kail yards and irregular plots of rig and furrow. An estate map of 1788 provides some dating context, as well as names of the tenants. These houses were probably where poorer people were resettled on marginal land during early improvements on the estate (http://www.tarradalethroughtime.co.uk/tarradaleabandonedsettlement.asp, accessed December 2020). The final report is awaited.

Occasional rare survivals of rural housing exist with no piped water or electricity. For example, Groam Cottage, Kirkhill, Inverness-shire (MHG3076) is the focus of a community project to record and conserve this rare survive of a cruck-framed traditional dwelling which may date to the 18th century. Brotchie’s Steading in Caithness (MHG46260) was in a derelict state, but when excavated the latest phases were revealed to be an earlier dwelling house which incorporated whalebone crucks; the excavations also provided environmental analysis and historical research (Holden et al 2008; Case Study Brotchie’s Steading). Other examples in various degrees of preservation exist, though the information needs to be pulled together, and there is scope for mapping and recording upstanding remains.

More heed needs to be taken of wider regional distributions. This applies not only to questions such as how ubiquitous was the byre-dwelling, but also particular features such as outshots which are particularly marked in east Sutherland but which also occur to the north in Caithness and can be tracked further south.

Internal fittings rarely survive, although excavations at Easter Raitts found possible remains of hurdles and a turf seat, as well as a door key (Lelong and Wood 2000; Case Study Easter Raitts Township). Hurdles are likely to have been used in a number of ways. Box beds became increasingly common in Scotland from the end of the 18th century, and were often used to create internal divisions (Fenton 1997, 193). The Easter Raitts longhouses had floors of beaten earth (Lelong and Wood 2000).

A box bed at early-mid 19th century Stamford Cottage, Camemorie. ©The Highland Council

There is, as yet, good potential for discovering and investigating abandoned crofthouses such as may be seen at Tarvie in Ross-shire or Gartymore in Sutherland. These may assist in addressing the very difficult question of how the majority of the population were housed, whether in crofting township, fishing village or even burghs. ‘Improved’ house types with the classic layout of two rooms and closet were being built in the early 19th century. However, these were in many areas few and far between. At any one point there seems to have been a range of house types. There is a question as to whether the ubiquity of the typical croft house was a product of the 20th rather than the 19th century. The excavation evidence needs to be pulled together, with future targeted work to address some of these questions.

Over the years interest has been taken in farm steadings, for example by the work of the RCAHMS (RCAHMS 1999b; Glendinning and Wade Martin 2009). The industrial scale which such buildings could take and the fact that most were architect-designed might place them outwith the strictly vernacular. They have, however, been included within most broadly-based vernacular studies, are of considerable interest and are under threat (Gifford 1992, 72).

In addition to dwellings and steadings, specialised rural buildings survive, for example creel barns in Wester Ross (eg Kirkton[AH3] , Lochalsh; MHG31392), bank barns on Canna (Canmore 76507), model dairies, and bull’s houses on Skye (MHG55548). The earliest surviving dated barn in the Highlands, perhaps Scotland, is from Flowerdale, Wester Ross, dated to 1730 (Beaton 1994, 183).

Kirkton creel barn
Flowerdale barn, Wester Ross. ©Anne MacInnes

A number of follies are dotted across the Highlands, including mock ruined castles (eg near Dingwall, MHG7465), three Indian hillfort structures at Fyrish, Easter Ross (MHG8109), and towers (eg MHG48922; MHG24018); most of these relate to landlord aspirations, but some, such as Fyrish, were also destitution projects to provide work for tenants at times of famine.

The Fyrish monument. ©Susan Kruse

Many surviving remains of shielings undoubtedly date to this period, although they have a long use in the Highlands (see Chapter 3.3). These surveys of shieling sites, a focus on individual huts or indeed hut groups, will only take us so far (National Case Study: Transhumance and Shielings). More attention needs to be paid to the relationship between the shieling ground and parent settlement or farm. What was the purpose of the shieling? Was it for milking and non-milking stock? Was it on or near the march to the estate?

Were all in use at the same time, or are we recording relics of different periods? As noted in earlier chapters (3.3; 9.3), better dating is needed for these sites. Few shielings have been excavated (eg Allt Mòraig, Inverness-shire (Maciver &  Williamson 2016) and Glen Feshie (Marshall 2006; Case Study Glen Feshie Survey and Shieling Excavation) or test pitted (eg on Skye; Wildgoose 2016), and rarely radiocarbon dated. Good dating is needed to see how shielings adapted to environmental and economic changes. Pollen cores have potential to identify and date shieling sites, as well as identify cultivation activity, which in turn calls into question definitions of shielings versus upland crofts (Davies 2016).

Along the coast isolated fishing bothies/stations can also be seen, some recorded on maps, others ruinous (see eg Loch Hourn; Case Study Loch Hourn Survey; Beaton 1994, 186). These include the building at Kiltearn (MHG30278) which has gained the reputation of being originally a medieval chapel but may well be no more than a ‘designed’ fishing station of the early 19th century. Other fishing bothies on banks of rivers relate to sporting estates; little attention has been paid to these in the past, and some have been destroyed without recording. Artificial fishing stances also survive in some cases, many like routeways requiring local memories to identify.

The fishing bothy at Balconie Point. ©Katrina Gallacher

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