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Croft Housing in Calbost II
Croft Housing in Calbost II
by Angus "Ease" Macleod, Calbost; from the Angus Macleod Archive.
An efficient system of central heating was achieved by placing the peat fire on heat absorbing stone slabs set in the middle of the floor of the living apartment, cagailte. In that way there was no loss of heat as the family gathered round the fire. An opening in the thatch at the ridge for the escape of the smoke, a little to one side of the fire was called farleus. A chain was hung from the cross-spar, sparra-gaoidhe directly above the fire, slabhruidh, on which hooks could be fastened in order to hang the three legged cooking pots. The cooking heat was adjusted by means of lowering or raising the hooks in the links of the chain.
Once the crofters got security of tenure some of them began to convert their thatched houses into white houses by removing the thatch and replacing it by clean timbers covered with sarking boards and felt, or almost always old canvas sails which were treated annually by a liberal coat of coal tar. Even long before then the timber for the roof of the fisherman's house were usually taken home with them on their fishing boats from the Caithness fishing at the end of the season. The first white-house to be erected at Calbost was a conversion from a thatch house in the early 1890's to a felt roof. Subsequently it was slated with asbestos slates. Although it was not used since Kenneth's daughter Christy, who was married to Alexander Mackenzie 12 Calbost, died in 1917, it is still roofed and used as a barn 100 years later.
New purpose built white-houses began to be built in Calbost in the 1890's beginning with John Macleod, 8 Calbost, "Iain Ruadh", and then Donald Mackenzie, "Domhnuill Beag" 12 Calbost, both of these houses are still standing although the canvas and coal tar roof was replaced by corrugated iron on the no.12 house. The no.8 house is now covered with green mineral felt which is the nearest to the traditional sail canvas and coal tar. The stone mason work for John Macleod's house at 8 Calbost only cost 8- at that time.
There were no new traditional thatched houses with earth filled walls built in Calbost in the 20th century. The only two thatched houses that were built in Calbost in the first quarter of the 20th century were houses with walls of stone and clay similar to the white-house walls. Thatched houses with walls of stone and clay and the roof resting on the inner wall was not successful because the clay did not absorb the rainwater from the roof the way the earth did. The old technology was a proven technology.
Much of what was excellent in our way of life was lost with the passing of the thatched houses as the Lewis bard Kenneth Macdonald, Sandwick so ably and nostalgically expresses in song;
A charaid's mor bha ceangailte
Ri druim a' chabar suith;
A thuilleadh air na cailleachan dubha
Bha seoladh anns a smiud;
Bha caoimhneas air na cabair ud
Cho geal ri mirean fhlur,
Ach sgapar sios gu h-ealamh e
Nuair dh'fhalbh an cabar suith.
A chairdean dh'fhalbh an chula rud
Nuair dh'fhalbh an cabar suith,
Dh'fhalbh an aiteas is am baidh
Ro bhuilleadh as ar duthich
Dh'fhalbh am blaths 'san cridhealas
An carthannas 'sam muirn
Feir leapaichean a'chairdeis
Nuair dh'fhalbh an cabar suith.
The Hydro-Electric supply came to Calbost about 1950 and two of the oldest thatched houses in the village were joined to the electricity supply. The house of Murdo Finlayson no.10, which was built by his father and the house of Calum Morrison no.9, thought to have been built by his grandfather, "Murchadh Breabadair" one of the original crofters at Calbost. Both of these houses were lit in turn by the cruisie lamp which used fish oil and the paraffin lamp using a wick as well as the paraffin pressure lamp known as the tilly-lamp, and then the electric bulb.
Because of the nature of crofting tenure the government introduced a crofter housing scheme about 1912 with provision for grants and low interest loans to Crofters. The scheme is operated by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries - DAFS. The purpose of the scheme was to assist the crofters to raise the standard of housing in the seven crofting counties. It was a very successful scheme because it certainly helped to raise the standard of crofter housing and it was cost effective both to crofters and the taxpayers.
The Scottish Crofters Union commissioned Mr Mark Shucksmith of Aberdeen University, a recognised expert on rural housing to undertake an independent assessment of the workings of the crofter housing scheme in 1985. Following Mr Shucksmith's report the crofters union issued a booklet, "Crofter-Housing The Way Forward". It is stated in that booklet that a new council house in Barra at that time cost the taxpayer some 41,000 over a period of 60 years plus the cost to the local authority of acquiring the land. A similar new house on a Barra croft with the crofter receiving the maximum grant and loan from DAFS costs the taxpayer only 12,300 over 40 years.
Only one family in Calbost ever took advantage of the department grant and loan system of financial assistance to build a house. That of John Macleod no.3 "Iain-an-Chionneach" who built a dept. house in the early 1920s when building materials were very expensive after the First World War. The people of Lochs were not keen to undertake the responsibility of servicing a loan in the depressed economic conditions of the 1920's and 30's. After the Second World War in the 1940s several Calbost families decided to build dept houses but withdrew when they discovered that the herring fishing was even more depressed than when they left for the Second World War. Weaving also went down at that time and they all abandoned their plans to build in Calbost and they moved to the towns and cities. The supply of stones for the walls of at least one of the new houses were gathered to start building and the heap of stones may be seen on the proposed site on croft no.9.
In retrospect it was a pity that the crofters of Lochs did not take greater advantage of the excellent grant and loan facilities on offer by the Dept of Agriculture before the Second World War when building material was cheap. However money was scarce because the herring fishing never recovered after the loss of the European markets during the First World War.
The standard of crofter housing in rural Lewis now a days is very high. All thatched houses have disappeared many years ago. Water, sewerage, electricity, telephones etc are all available in the rural areas.
Angus Macleod Archive