Tag Archives: thatched houses

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Large, scale model of the thatched house at Sandaig that was once a museum. Made by Ron Stirrat and Edward Rose in 2004, and now on display at An Iodhlann. Perspex cover and rotating stand.

Tiree in 100 Objects – 33 – Thatched House

Made by technical teacher Ron Stirrat with Edward Rose some years ago, this beautiful scale model of the Sandaig thatched house museum is probably our most talked-about exhibit.

Tiree’s thatched houses are a signature of the island’s landscape. Other islands have similar designs, but the low, curved profile of the Tiree version is instantly recognisable.

There are four reasons for this. The local stone, Lewisian gneiss, is virtually unworkable, so house builders had to make do with the glacial boulders lying on the hillsides and fields. Unshaped stones are unstable, so the walls were built low and thick, with a layer of sand in the middle of a stone ‘sandwich’. This produced walls that were up to eight feet thick, thick enough to keep out the wind, warm enough to retain the heat, and strong enough to support the full weight of a rain-sodden roof.

Wood is difficult to source, coming for many years from the Duke’s oak woods on the north bank of the Sound of Mull. Tiree also suffered for many years from fuel poverty, as peat banks were emptied. A low, tight roof meant a space that was easier to heat.

Lastly the flat Tiree landscape gave little shelter from the winter gales. If you go to Coll, you’ll find real trees growing in the middle of the sliabh: that’s how much protection you get from just a few undulations. Additionally, with Hebridean houses always built with their backs to the main southwesterly gales, the roof timbers at the back were cut a foot shorter to give a steeper slope. Thatch was put on thicker in the middle of the pitch, and along the ridge there were two ridgepoles instead of one, meaning the Tiree roofs were much more rounded than on other islands.

The roof timbers were first covered with turfs cut from the sliabh with a flauchter spade. The moorland soil, with its heathery roots, was stronger.  An average roof might need a thousand turfs: five days work. The preferred material for thatching was bent or marram grass. This is flexible, fine and water-repellant. About five hundred sheaves would do. A new roof had to be thatched every year, but more ‘mature’ roofs could be left for two or three years. Cutting the bent is hard work, mainly because the sickle or scythe becomes blunted by the sand every few minutes. IBent is also much less common than it used to be probably, because the large areas of ‘blown sand’, where bent thrives, are now grass. Thatched roofs have been held down with chicken wire since the 1950s, but before that elaborate webs made of hand-twisted straw ropes were created, held down by a line of anchor stones.

The old houses had no windows (glass did not feature in the houses of most crofters and cottars until the 1850s), and the door was made of sheaves of straw bound together. The peat fire was in in the middle of the floor, with two small vents cut into the thatch just above the wall head. One of these was closed, depending on the wind direction. The door was kept open most of the day, summer and winter, something you still occasionally see today on Tiree. Often the interior was divided with framed clay and pebble partitions into a bedroom end and the ceann-an-tinidh ‘the fire end’. Between the two there was often a small room known as an closaid, a loan word from the Scots ‘closet’.

When coal became more popular, in the late nineteenth century, the hotter fires were moved to the gable walls, small ranges installed and tower chimneys built, usually leaning outwards slightly in case of accidents!

There are fewer thatched houses on Tiree than there used to be, but their graceful shape finds a faint echo in the popular black tar-roofed houses that are still so popular.

Dr John Holliday, 2017

The History of Tiree in 100 Objects


Black & white photograph of  James Galbraith (seated with beard) and family outside his thatched house at Balevullin in around 1890. Standing – daughter Janet Galbraith (later MacDonald, Kilmoluaig); seated – daughter Sarah Donald (nee Galbraith) with baby Dorothy on her lap, and her other children Charlie, Jessie and Margaret. Sarah and her family lived in Glasgow and were probably paying a summer visit.

James Galbraith (1821-1903) was born in Gigha, and came to Tiree from Rothiemurchus, near Aviemore, with his wife and children in 1874 to take up the position of School Master of the Parochial School at Balevullin. He was given the croft at Balevullin as part of his payment.


DVD compilation of sections of old films about Tiree, made in 2016 from videos held in An Iodhlann amongst others. Includes footage of: ferries, the Mary Stewart, Scarinish harbour, Scarinish Hotel, the ringing stone, Nester and Gavin Carter’s bakery and bread making, school bus driven by butcher Donald MacLean, The Reef, livestock health, Balephetrish, Mannal, Balemartine, Baugh, Tiree High School, children singing a traditional Gaelic hunting song, accordion music and several accordionists, Gaelic songs sung by locals at a ceilidh, thatched houses and thatching with Hector Brown, Alexander MacNeill’s opinions on thatched houses (1985),  Am Bail Ur in Balephuil, Iain MacKinnon talking in Gaelic and English in his house at Kilmoluaig, Hynish harbour and buildings, harvesting and stooks, Cornaig mill, livestock sales, airport, bands, Balevullin, An Iodhlann, Tiree Music Festival, Travee, aerial view of a seal swimming, bicycles, schoolyard games, sheep shearing, Gott Bay pier, cattle, pipe music, shops, ships, Vaul, timelapse film of the sky as the sun sets and rises, young Eilidh Campbell and her brother talk in Gaelic about life on Tiree. Other people include: Ann Carter, Douglas Carter, Sinclair Carter, Olwen Carter, Monica Smith (nee Davis), Neil MacPhail, Angus MacPhail, Mairi Campbell, Bernard Smith, Iain MacDonald, Iain Brown, Iain MacLean, Myra Brown, Hector Campbell, Alex MacArthur, Gordon Connell.


Colour brochure about the Thatched Cottage Museum at Sandaig, produced after the buildings had been restored by The Hebridean Trust and made open to the public around 1995. Contains information on construction and the layout of the house, byre and barn, and tools found therein. The museum was closed and sold into private ownership in 2010.

Click here to view 2016.69.5


DVD film of the interior of Iain MacKinnon’s (Iain Chaluim) thatched house at Kilmoluaig in 1997. Iain Chaluim is seated by his hearth speaking with Iain Patterson, East Linton, while the camera pans the inside of the house, focusing on a variety of objects: medicines, tea caddies, photo of a baby, the range, glassware, wall clock, crockery, the interior of the porch. Furniture and a gas cooker, radio and kerosene lamp are also visible. The sound is muffled although Iain Chaluim can be heard to say “I don’t think Dr Holliday approves…very nice man”, then both Iain’s prepare roll-up cigarettes. Another unidentified crofter is present briefly at the start of the film. (5 minutes).

Access to this film is partially restricted

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