Rural Buildings

Highland rural building traditions are diverse, as shown by the research and the work to construct dwellings at Baile Gean (a fictional township) within the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore. This work, and its experimental nature, has provided useful insights into rural building construction (Noble 2003). Virtually no evidence survives for rural buildings in the 16th or 17th century. Functions changed over time, so an old dwelling might be adapted for animals when it became more ruinous, such as at Easter Raitts (Lelong and Wood 2000; Case Study Easter Raitts Township), 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.

Photograph taken from inside a collapsed rectangular, drystone house, overgrown with heather and weeds. The stone walls are grey, contrasting the green and orange landscape. Hills and a body of water can be seen in the background.
The remains of a rural house with a drain and cruck slot at Dun Lagaidh. ©Susan Kruse

Despite so many dwellings being visible 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 a 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). Cruck slots can often be seen in ruins in the landscape, together with byre drains.

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 those in Caen, Sutherland (Translocation: Excavating the Highland Clearances), 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 for the houses of the poorest tenants (known as mailers), where their houses were probably made of layers of clay and turf interspersed with field gathered stones. There were also the remains of kail yards and irregular plots of rig and furrow. An estate map of 1788 provides some dating context along with the names of the tenants. These houses were probably where poorer people were resettled on marginal land during early improvements on the estate. The final report is awaited.

Occasional survivals of rural housing with no piped water or electricity can still be found. 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, a ruined croft house in Caithness (MHG46260) was in a derelict state, but when excavated the latest phases were revealed to be of an earlier dwelling 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; there is scope for mapping and recording upstanding remains.

More heed needs to be taken when considering wider regional distributions. This applies not only to questions such as how ubiquitous the byre-dwelling was, but also to the prevalence of features such as outshots which are particularly visible 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 the possible remains of hurdles and a turf seat and 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).

Photograph from inside a derelict houses, facing a box bed, which is made by building a wooden bed platform within an alcove.  The bed and floor are covered in wallpaper, dust and debris. The ceiling has partially collapsed and the rafters are exposed at the top of the image.
A box bed at the early to mid 19th-century Stamford Cottage, Camemorie. ©The Highland Council

There is, good potential for discovering and investigating abandoned crofthouses such as those found at Tarvie in Ross-shire or Gartymore in Sutherland. These sites may assist researchers in addressing the very difficult question of how the majority of the population was housed, whether in crofting townships, fishing villages 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 researchers have taken an interest in farm steadings. This can be seen in the work of the RCAHMS (1999b; Glendinning and Wade Martins 2009). The industrial scale that such farm buildings could take and the fact that most were architect designed might place them outwith the strictly vernacular category. 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, other specialised rural buildings survive, for example creel barns in Wester Ross (eg Kirkton, Lochalsh; MHG31392), the bank barns on Canna, and model dairies and bull’s houses on Skye (MHG55548). The earliest surviving dated barn in the Highlands, perhaps in Scotland, is from Flowerdale, Wester Ross, and is dated to 1730 (Beaton 1994, 183).

Kirkton creel barn ©HES
Elevation angle photograph of a stone built barn within a wooded area. The pointed roof is moss covered. The building has a raised entrance on the near side, and a barn door entrance on the right hand side.
Flowerdale barn, Wester Ross. ©Anne MacInnes

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

Panoramic image of a large stone monument, which includes three connected archways with two, smaller lone pillars on either side. The monument is backlit, offering a clear image of the outline of the structure against a bright beach and water background. A man stands within the left archway, showing the scale of this huge monument.
The Fyrish monument. ©Susan Kruse

Although they have a long use in the Highlands, many surviving remains of shielings undoubtedly date to this period, (see Chapter 3.3). Surveys of specific shieling sites and a focus on individual huts or indeed hut groups, will only take researchers so far (National Case Study: Transhumance and Shielings). More attention needs to be paid to the relationship between the shieling grounds and the 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 boundaries of the estate?

As noted in earlier periods (Chapters 3.3; 9.3), better dating is needed for these sites. Were all in use at the same time, or are archaeologists recording relics of different periods? Few shielings have been excavated or test pitted and sites are rarely radiocarbon dated. Examples of excavated sites include Allt Mòraig, Inverness-shire (Maciver &  Williamson 2016) and Glen Feshie (Marshall 2006; Case Study Glen Feshie Survey and Shieling Excavation) and there has been some test pitting at a site on Skye (Wildgoose 2016). Good dating is needed to see how shielings adapted to environmental and economic changes. Pollen cores have potential to identify and date shieling sites and cultivation activity. Where cultivation occurred, it can call into question the 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 for example see Loch Hourn (Case Study Loch Hourn Survey; Beaton 1994, 186). These include the building at Kiltearn (MHG30278) which has gained the reputation of originally being a medieval chapel building but may well be no more than a ‘designed’ fishing station of the early 19th century. Other fishing bothies on the banks of rivers relate to sporting estates; little attention has been paid to these in the past, and some have been destroyed without being record. Artificial fishing stances also survive in some cases, many like routeways requiring local memories to identify.

Elevation photograph of roofless stone building on a grassy area in between a stream and a river. The building is square, with its end walls reaching points. The other walls are collapsed. The sky is blue and cloudy in the background.
The fishing bothy at Balconie Point. ©Katrina Gallacher

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