Roof Timbers

A visitor to Roger Mackenzie’s ‘Lewis Loom Centre’ at The Old Grainstore, Bayhead, Stornoway cannot fail to notice that amongst the various lengths of wood above their head is one of circular cross-section that is labelled ‘Herring Drifter’s Sailing Mast’.

It might be thought that this timber was some later addition, an act of ‘olde-worlde’ artifice but, in fact, it is wholly typical of the Western Isles for these are a land without native forests whether of oak, larch, spruce or ash. The few oaks that are found are of such diminutive stature that it was only recently that they were correctly identified as a ‘normal’ rather than a ‘dwarf’ species.

When the Clearances took place it wasn’t just the quenching of the hearths that marked the end of a home’s occupation but the removal (to spare it from destruction) of its roof.

Accounts of the 1843 Clearance of Orinsay and Lemreway in the Pairc district of South Lochs, describe the roof timbers’ removal and transportation by boat. It was an act of finality for, without the protection of the floor by thatch and the feeding of the earthen core of the walls with rain, the traditional Blackhouse would soon succumb to the rigours of the climate and the force of gravity.

(Even were the roof to remain, the quenching of the fire has been shown to accelerate the process of decay in these chimney-less structures.)

So when you look at that spar from a sailing vessel, you are being reminded of recycling as necessity, reuse of something that had once served men at sea and now could serve people onshore.

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