Jonathan & Denise >
A few days ago we went for an evening walk in Eriskay. Starting at our croft store in Bun a Mhullin, we walked east to where the blacktop stops, and then continued eastwards along the old pony track to a ruined crofting township in the far north east of the island. Ròisinis was finally abandoned in the early 1970s : by then there was mains electricity, mains water, even the telephone had reached Ròisinis ; but what the township lacked was a road suitable for motor vehicles. Much of the roads of Eriskay were improved in the 1950s, with carriageways widened somewhat, the worst twists and turns straightened, the steepest gradients eased. At Bun a Mhullin the road was re-routed entirely – closer to the shore and the houses (which is why we refer to the ‘old/high road’ and ‘low/new road’ crossing our croft. But the work was more expensive than expected, and when the budget ran out, the furthermost tentacles of the islands roads were left unimproved, and the township of Ròisinis was left to struggle on with ponies and panniers.
In theory there are four crofts at Ròisinis, but there are many more than four ruined houses. Many of these are the primitive thatched houses loved by anthropologist-photographers : all these are reduced to little more than rectangular remembrances of lives now known only in the barest of outlines. Some of the houses are of the modern era : which, in the context of crofting, means since the 1880s, when the Crofting Commission was created, and crofting tenure of the land was protected in law from absent or oppressive landlords. Security of tenure, subsidized loans or grants, and improved access to markets for island produce, these and new agricultrual practices encouraged crofters to see a future for their families that was worth investing in ; and this is when new houses began to be built that were not thatched houses consructed of natural materials easily found on the island, but required materials imported from the mainland – cement and corrugated steel above all else. Those with the means to built houses with strong walls of stone bonded with cement mortar : the photograph here shows just such a house, now in ruins, with the low walls of two thatched houses in the background.
During the Great War (World War One), many crofting communities, struggled for four years with their most able menfolk away at war, and the struggle continued for many of those whose menfolk would never return. Many families gave up the struggle and moved to the mainland, and it was at this time that the population of the islands begain it long decline – only recently slowed. The men who chose to return to their island homes found the land and their fishing boats in disrepair – their houses too. There were grants available for those who decided to build new houses, though the grants covered only the materials – and it was the shortage of strong and experienced hands in the townships that led to many houses being built with less durable forms of construction. Photos here show one of these.
The foundations and gables were built with concrete formed with gravel from the nearby beach and cement. Steel anchor bolts were cast into the foundations for front and back elevations, which were built up with timber framing clad in corrugated steel on the outside, and tongue-and-groove boarding on the inside. The boarding was used too, to line the gables (fixed to the timbers cast into the concrete – and now completely rotted away), and indeed it was used to form a ceiling, and a slightly different form of t+g board, laid across floor joists, formed the floor. This form of construction – sanctioned by the authorities that administered the grants – was appallingly cold, damp and draughty, though to be fair these houses were intended to be temporary, allowing the crofter to get back to work, saving up to build a better, more permanent house.
Unsurprisingly, most of theses houses were built on the east of Uist, where crofts are mere patchworks of rock and peat, infertile and unforgiving, and by the war’s end were most depopulated or abandoned. Men returning to these crofts often found that it was impossible to make their crofts pay – especially so when – as was so often the case – they lacked the money, the support of extended family and neighbours, and the access to paved roads, all of which were essential to make a success. Even before the outbreak of World War Two, these houses of concrete and corrugated steel were being abandoned as families moved away, either to more robust communities on the west of Uist, or leaving Uist altogether – starting a new life on the mainland. World War 2 took away a second generation of men (and, for the first time, women also, for ‘war work’), and with that most of these east coast crofting townships began their final decline into oblivion. Now, it is only the hardy Scottish Blackface sheep that pass on, from one generation to the next, that certain and intimate knowledge of the land that is the birthright of the native.
A few, a very few, of these houses of concrete and corrugated steel, remained occupied until relatively recent times. This particular house must have been occupied as late as the 1950s : attached to one of the fallen fragments of wall there are the ceramic insulators for an overhead electricity supply ; there is the stop-tap for the public water supply ; and nearby lies the fallen remains of a pole for carrying telephone wire. (Alongside the track to Roisinis there are occasional water markers and hydrants, and stumps of utility poles. It was, though, the lack of access for motor vehicles – especially the larger vehicles which could deliver building materials, which was the key factor in the final abandonment of Roisinis in the early 1970s, but also coal for the stove and fire – which in these cold draughty houses would have been very hungry.