Context 158 - March 2019

30 C O N T E X T 1 5 8 : M A R C H 2 0 1 9 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 compli- cated 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.’1 The roof of the blackhouse had fallen into dis- repair 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 muse- um 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 black- house 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 commis- sioned 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 craftwork- ing 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, mean- while, 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 knowl- edge 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 infor- mation panels and other exhibits in a gazebo alongside the blackhouse. Maureen Hammond, the museum’s collaborative PhD research place- ment 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 authen- ticity to the structure through the employment of marram grass, while simultaneously support- ing 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 (see page 31). The Highland Folk Museum has been able to supply the Engine Shed with much valuable data over the last year 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. Matthew Withey is curatorial manager at High Life Highland. ¹ 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