Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

By Craig Neil
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Summary

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village lies on the southwest edge of the Isle of Lewis, set within a deep cove that offers protection against the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

The village comprises a number of restored blackhouses – traditional thatched stone-walled dwellings that served as home to both people and animals for hundreds of years.

During a visit, tourists can look inside and imagine what life would have been like for the crofters and tradespeople that lived there, as well as enjoy a cafe, gift shop, and scenic coastal walks.

Address:Gearrannan,
Carloway,
Isle of Lewis,
HS2 9AL
Opening Hours:Open from 3rd week in March - 3rd week of October.
09:30 - 17:30 Monday - Saturday.
Admission Price:Adult: £3.90,
Concession: £3.60,
Family £10
Parking:Free on-site parking
Contact:01851 643416
info@gearrannan.com
Facilities:Shop, cafe, toilets

The highlights

1: Gearrannan is the best-preserved example of a traditional thatched blackhouse village in Scotland.

Visiting this attraction really is like taking a step back in time – yet the interiors of these age-old buildings are more modern than you may initially think. Gearrannan is a must-visit for anyone with an interest in Scotland’s history and island culture.

2: Aside from the many photo opportunities in the village, you’ll be blown away (literally and figuratively speaking) by the scenic bay and the dramatic clifftop views in both directions.

The west coast of Lewis may be one of the windiest places in Britain but that doesn’t detract from the fact the scenery is nothing short of stunning.

3: Gearrannan is well set up for tourists thanks to a cafe that serves delicious food and drink, a wee gift shop, and an original loom that’s used to craft genuine Harris Tweed.

You can even book an overnight stay in a restored blackhouse that caters for families and large groups of up to 16 people.

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

Visiting tips

1: It won’t take you long to walk around the blackhouse village – an hour at the most – so you might like to extend your stay by taking a coastal walk.

There’s a waymarked trail that starts at the entrance to the bay and continues to Dalmore Beach across rough moorland. The 4-mile route takes approximately 3 hours to complete.

2: There aren’t many places to get food in this part of Lewis so if you’re visiting Gearrannan I recommend filling hungry bellies in the on-site cafe.

The food is basic (soup, sandwiches, cakes etc) but it’s tasty, the portions are a decent size, and the price is reasonable.

3: If Gearrannan has whetted your appetite for island history you might like to drive a few miles north to visit another restored blackhouse at Arnol.

This particular example has been restored by Historic Environment Scotland and is open all week except Sunday and Wednesday. The exterior is open year-round.


Overview

One of the most interesting aspects of a visit to the Isle of Lewis is seeing the remnants of old (and long-abandoned) blackhouses that were at one time the primary type of dwelling in the Outer Hebrides.

These houses can trace their design back thousands of years and they’ve been found as far north as Orkney, though sadly there are few left today that are still entirely intact.

At Gearrannan on the southwest coast of Lewis, visitors can experience a traditional blackhouse village thanks to a collection of restored and renovated houses that are now part of a museum and private holiday rentals.

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, ‘blackhouse’ refers to the long, low buildings that are unique to Scotland’s remote islands.

Farm animals were housed at one end and people were housed at the other, in a standard design that had thick thatched roofs and even thicker stone walls.

The walls were double-layered and had peat compacted in the gap between them in a form of early insulation, with just a few small windows set into the roof and the walls to allow light in without letting too much heat out.

Due to the ferocity of Scotland’s west-coast winds, the thatch was held in place with netting that was tied down with heavy stones and the corners of the walls were rounded, giving these houses an unusual look that’s unlike any other in Scotland.

As for the name, well there are a few theories, but it most likely stems from the fact that when new building regulations were introduced at the turn of the 1900s, the blackhouses were abandoned in favour of modern-design buildings that took the nickname ‘white houses’.

‘Blackhouses’ weren’t actually given that name back in the day, but considering how different the two styles of house are it makes sense they were eventually named as polar opposites.

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

The name blackhouse is also believed to stem from the fact that the earliest examples had no chimney which meant that soot from the peat-burning hearth had to escape through the thatched roof, leaving behind a thick coating of black soot.

Inside, these buildings are surprisingly big, with a double bedroom set to the one end, a living area and kitchen in the middle, and a workshop and animal stables at the opposite end.

At first glance, you might imagine they’d be tiny inside but they’re actually quite spacious, and with a peat fire burning away they’d have been rather cosy too – although they had plenty of drawbacks such as no running water, no sewerage, and little natural light.

At Gearannan, visitors can explore two blackhouses that have been restored back to their original condition.

The first is a museum complete with original furnishings and the second is set up with a video display and information boards that describe what life was like for the islanders when they lived there.

I’ll cover what it’s like to visit this attraction in the next section.

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

Tourist information

As far as the location goes, Gearrannan (signposted Garenin) is rather handy for tourists, with the must-see attraction of the Callanish standing stones just 9 miles to the south and Dun Carloway broch (one of the largest Neolithic forts in Britain) 3 miles to the east.

To get there, follow the A858 to Carloway where you’ll then find brown tourist information signs pointing towards the blackhouses.

Be mindful that the roads are single track so motorhomes may struggle in peak tourist season as although there are passing spaces, the roads aren’t really set up for large vehicles.

Once at Gearrannan you’ll find it has its own car park with has plenty of spaces for cars and buses, as well as a couple of disabled spaces.

To the south of the car park there’s a wee gift shop that sells local arts and crafts, while the ticket office is located in the first building in the blackhouse village immediately ahead.

I have to point out that the paths throughout Gearrannan are composed of compacted gravel so they’re suitable for wheelchairs and buggies, but the doors to the blackhouses themselves are rather narrow.

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

If you have mobility issues consider phoning the visitor centre (01851 643416) for advice before leaving home.

The visitor centre building houses a small gift shop as well as a cafe, followed by a door that leads outside to the first two blackhouses which are the only ones you’re allowed to enter.

The remainder have been renovated as holiday homes so bear that in mind when looking around the outside of them as there may be people living inside.

The first port of call is the ‘main’ blackhouse which has been converted into a museum.

Inside, the living area is set up just as it would have been at the turn of the last century, with a big peat-fuelled hearth in the centre, wood-panelled walls in the living area and bedroom, and a workshop at the other end of the building where the animals used to be kept.

This workshop houses a fine example of a traditional human-powered loom that’s still used to this day to transform wool into the famous Harris Tweed – one of the best-known cloths in the world in addition to having the oldest certification mark in Britain.

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

The second blackhouse is more of an open-plan building which houses offices at one end and a video display at the other.

The video shows early footage taken on the islands in a documentary about island life, the wild landscape, and of course, the blackhouses.

Surrounding the walls are a series of information boards that go into further detail about Gearrannan and Lewis, but to be honest there’s not much else to see in there.

At this point then, you might like to wander down the old track that runs through the village to Garenin bay which has a pebble beach and a trail that winds its way north along the coastline to Dalmore Beach.

Having walked the trail myself I thoroughly recommend it (as long as you’re wearing boots – it’s a wee bit muddy) and it’s a great way to finish off a tour of the blackhouses.

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village

Explore this area with a detailed paper map from Ordnance Survey:

North Lewis – 460 Explorer.

Stornoway & North Lewis – 8 Landranger.

OS Explorer Maps: Best for walking, mountain biking, and finding footpaths. 1:25,000 scale (4cm = 1km in real world). Buy OS Explorer maps direct from Ordnance Survey.

OS Landranger Maps: Best for road cycling, touring by car, and finding attractions. 1:50 000 scale (2 cm = 1 km in real world). Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.


Things to do nearby

Calanais Standing Stones. Address: Callanish, Isle of Lewis, HS2 9DY. Distance: 9 miles. Calanais (AKA Callanish) standing stone circle is one of the largest and oldest neolithic stone circles in the world.

The stones were erected between 2900 and 2600 BC and comprise a circle of 13 stones with a 16-foot monolith in the centre, surrounded by 5 rows of standing stones.

Norse Mill and Kiln. Address: Isle of Lewis, HS2 9BJ. Distance: 5.5 miles. A fine example of two restored Scandanavian buildings situated next to Loch Raoinebhat.

There were more than 200 such mills and kilns in the past but few remain today. The kiln was in use until the 1930s. The mill and kiln are free to visit and are accessible via a small car park off the A858.

Dun Carloway Broch. Address: Isle of Lewis, HS2 9AG. Distance: 3 miles. Dun Carloway is an ancient Scottish fortification (known as a broch) that was built in the 1st century AD. The broch is one of the best-preserved in Scotland with walls standing up to 30 feet tall.

Dalmore Beach. Address: Carloway, Isle of Lewis, HS2 9AD. Distance: 4 miles. Golden sand beach set within a shallow bay and surrounded by cliffs, with a number of sea stacks around the coastline. Dalmore Beach is frequently listed as the top beach on Lewis.

Arnol Blackhouse. Address: 42 Arnol, Bragar, Isle of Lewis, HS2 9DB. Distance: 10.8 miles. Arnol Blackhouse is a restored traditional thatched blackhouse managed by Historic Environment Scotland.

Unlike Gerrannan, Arnol Blackhouse is the sole surviving example in the village, though there are the remains of abandoned blackhouses nearby.


Frequently asked questions

When did people stop living in blackhouses?

The design of Scottish blackhouses originated several thousand years ago, consisting of a twin-walled building that had a layer of insulating peat in the gap between the stone walls.
This design proved resistant to Scotland’s west coast weather and was unrivalled until a new design (named ‘white houses’) arrived which separated the living quarters between animals and people.
As modern building techniques were brought onto the islands the traditional blackhouses fell out of favour and most of them were abandoned by the early 1900s.
The last permanent residents of Scottish blackhouses finally moved out for good in the 1980s.
Today, many of the old buildings have been renovated and are now used as holiday accommodation.

Why is it called a blackhouse?

The origin of the name ‘blackhouse’ can be traced to three potential reasons.
First, these dwellings had no chimney, leading to the roof becoming lined with a layer of black soot.
Second, while blackhouses housed people as well as animals, a new design moved animals into separate buildings, and islanders differentiated the two designs with the names blackhouse and white-house.
Third, the Gaelic word ‘dubh’ – meaning black – sounds similar to the Gaelic word ‘tughadh’ – meaning thatch.

How old are Scottish blackhouses?

The original design for Scottish blackhouses is believed to date back at least 5,000 years. The earliest known examples can be seen in the Neolithic village of Skara Brae in Orkney. The last blackhouses to be built date from the late 1800s.

How do you get to Gearrannan Blackhouse Village?

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village is located 25 miles west of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides.
To get there, follow the signs to Carloway on the A858 and then follow the brown tourist information signs to Gearrannan.
The address is: Garenin, Isle of Lewis, HS2 9AL.

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