Modelling the St Kilda Blackhouse Vol II

So here you have it, the St Kilda blackhouse!

 This week I’ve had a rush on finishing up my paper for next Wednesdays’ archaeology seminar at Glasgow Uni where I’ll be talking about the St Kilda blackhouse for the first time. When I get to this stage with a model I always feel like I want to do more, but for the meantime I’m happy with the scene as it conveys enough of what I want to discuss in my thesis as it stands.

With the blackhouse I wanted to construct a narrative around the 18th and 19th century written accounts of the island together with the vast early 20th century photographic archive. The model is still ongoing, but the scene is beginning to take shape. We see a woman (I like to think its Mrs Gillies from the archive photographs!) sat at the central hearth boiling a kettle, surrounded by various items essential to life on the island. A quern stone sits near the door ready to grind cereals into flour. Ropes lay waiting to be untangled and fish hang from the ceiling to smoke over the peat fire. As all these little details are added, it’s beginning to feel a lot like home. The more depth the image has the more an audience will be drawn in and will engage with the site.

On the more technical side of things some of you may remember the tricky business I had with the roof before Christmas, a problem I solved by taking James Hephers’ wise words from TAG 2011 to heart. He said “If you can’t draw something, if you can’t observe it then put pen to paper, then you don’t understand it.” Back in December I definitely fell prey to that! When I began to model the roof and consider the structure in detail something didn’t quite sit right. After careful study of the archive photos I noticed that the blackhouse roofs had at some stage been replaced with a more makeshift bitumen structure. After comparing the 1930′s photographs with much earlier photographs of the Street, I came to the conclusion that the gable ends of the blackhouses were modified to accommodate these replacement roofs. Presumably the thatch took too much upkeep on a structure which was no longer inhabited once the cottages were built in the 1860s, and as such they were modified.

So in order to understand the structure in more depth I turned to Chris MacGregor from Historic Scotland who sent me a series of books on the construction and maintenance of the Arnol blackhouses on Lewis.

Image from "The Hebridean Blackhouse: A Guide to Materials, Construction and Maintainance" by Historic Scotland.

 Although the blackhouses on St Kilda are smaller than the ones on Lewis, the principal is the same.

Reconstruction of the blackhouse exterior in 3ds Max showing the thatch roof and twine structure weighted down with stones.

I used the manual to base my model on, and modelled each element separately.

Reconstruction of the blackhouse exterior in 3ds Max showing the layer of peat slabs below the thatch, with gaps to allow smoke to dissipate.


Reconstruction of the blackhouse exterior in 3ds Max with the entire peat layer removed, showing the structure of the lower wooden coursing.

In the case of the blackhouse gable ends, I realise of course that I’m not the first person to notice the discrepancy between the remains still standing today and the photographs showing low rounded roof ends. But regardless, this example goes to show that it was my process of visualising that aspect of the structure that led me to the conclusion. 

Reconstruction of the blackhouse exterior in 3ds Max with all upper layers removed showing only the internal A-frame structure.

It wasn’t until I consulted the maintenance document for the blackhouses at Arnol on Lewis which had detailed diagrams of roof construction that I realised the gable ends couldn’t possibly have been peaked. I was stumped initially because I found I couldn’t model the roof with what the scans were showing me – it just didn’t make sense structurally. Naturally I didn’t understand it until I considered its construction in detail. Scanning essentially produces a 3D surface model, not a digital surrogate for the site, which is why it is vital to add interpretation to the digital record and not just to accept the data as it stands.



  1. Ingrid Hansen · · Reply

    The walls look a bit like modern day bulkhead construction with fairly small stones gathered in wire cubes. How much of the shape is dictated by locations in areas with strong winds?


    1. Hi Ingrid!
      The last few images are of the unrendered model, it doesn’t look like that in real life, it’s only the wireframe with textures mapped onto the polygons, sorry if that’s confusing!
      The shape is almost entirely dictated by the positioning of the structure into the wind. On St Kilda the blackhouses face the prevailing wind end on and the corners are rounded to allow the wind to flow around the building to minimise damage in storms and such – 19th Century aerodynamics I suppose!

  2. I like your quote from James Hephers. Picasso said that underneath every good painting was a good drawing, which is absolutely true. I like to think too that underneath every good model is a good drawing too. It’s all looking very nice indeed!

    1. Thanks John! Yes James’ quote was a good-un, I refer to him all the time whenever I present my work now, it just sums things up so well!

  3. Grace · · Reply

    Wow, I just stumbled in and this is amazing! I know nothing about digital modeling, but I’m a dollhouse miniaturist and I’m planning to make a miniature blackhouse. I’ve been to St. Kilda and Arnol. I love your model! Silly question, but where can we see and play with it? Or is it not out in public yet, or too huge to go online?

    1. Hi Grace, thanks for the lovely comment! Believe it or not I was recently pointed in the direction of a website plugin that hosts big 3D model files so visitors can play about with them. I’ve been planning on trying to use this to put the model on my blog but have been out of the office for the past week or so, back at my desk next week though so will try and get it online!

      Your miniature blackhouse sounds really interesting and possibly very cute! I’d love to see pictures when it’s finished!


      1. Grace · ·

        Oh that would be great! I’d love to see it and play with it. I’ve read about some other big scanning / digital modeling projects (like this one that I’d love to see:, but I haven’t seen places where one can actually view and play with the models yet. Are they generally just too huge for the internet?

        I haven’t even started a blackhouse yet, but I’ve been toying with the idea for years. I bet a lot of our research would overlap! After all, we’re both making models. I bet we’d have a fun play date. And I’m envious that your work allowed you to stay on St. Kilda for so long and immerse yourself in that world so much! Marvelous!

      2. Hi Grace,

        Sorry for the late reply, I’ve been enjoying the bank holiday weekend up in Inverness! Yes generally these files are just too large to put online, but hopefully this plugin I found will be useful.

        Where are you based? It would be great to meet up and have a chat, as you say I bet a lot of the way we both work would overlap – you would be welcome to come and visit the Digital Design Studio here in Glasgow sometime and I could show you some of the things I’ve been working on first hand, and we could have a good chat about St Kilda!

      3. Hi Grace – A little update, unfortunately the plugin I’d hoped would upload the blackhouse model doesn’t take files over 50MB! I’ll keep trying to find a way to get it online but am a bit stumped for the moment!

  4. Hi again Alice! Oops, I ended up getting distracted with life and never came back to follow your updates and such! But I’m back to thinking of the idea for making a blackhouse dollhouse again (I have to ruminate on these things a long time before I’m able to jump in and start working), so I’ve come back to poke around your blog. The Skara Brae project looks wonderful too! I’ve never been there, alas! The closest I’ve been is the Knapp of Howar. I’ll get there some day.

    I would love to meet up for a chat, but I live in North Carolina, USA! Alas and alack.

    1. Not sure if I gave you this link before ( but that text was very useful to me when I reconstructed the blackhouse on St Kilda so it may help you too 🙂

      1. Oooh, I just read through that whole Historic Scotland thing about the Arnol blackhouse, and it was very useful!

        Did the St. Kilda blackhouses have byres connected? I can’t remember. I’m afraid my dollhouse isn’t going to be accurate because I’m not attaching a byre. I guess it won’t technically be a real blackhouse, but oh well.

      2. You’ll have to send me a photo of your dollhouse/blackhouse when you’re finished! Yes, the St Kilda blackhouses were divided by a central wall between living space and byre. The byre was always at the downhill side of the blackhouse…for obvious ‘drainage’ reasons! So you would have entered through the outside door into the byre which was home to your cow, then turned to the uphill side and ducked under a partition to get to the living area. Cosy!

  5. […] there’s going to be a lot of smoke and that’s going to need to filter out somehow. The St Kilda blackhouse roofs were constructed from peat and thatch which allowed the smoke to filter through gaps in the peat […]

  6. Hi Alice! Here’s the start of my dollhouse.
    Would a division like this work for a byre?

    Argh, I can’t decide about the byre. Did the St. Kilda houses have a separate bedroom too? And did they do box beds? I don’t think I’ll have room for even a tiny bedroom if I have a byre, just a box bed in the corner. I’m working from a kit, and I’ve already altered it somewhat, but I don’t really feel like adding length. Maybe it’s just a crofter’s cottage and not a blackhouse? I feel strangely guilty for not having a byre, but if I can find another historic model to work from (a similar style crofter’s cottage that didn’t include a byre), then I’ll feel happier.

    Do you know the Museum of Island Life on Skye? I never got to go inside, but those buildings seem to be too small to have both living space and byre in one structure.

    Reading about the byre being sloped downward and having the lower roof was fascinating, to keep the animals from breathing the smoke, and allowing some ammonia steam to rise into the living space and preventing the people from getting tuberculosis! Amazing! Would the cows and people enter through the same door into the byre, or was there a separate animal door? And I love that they would set the clay floor by just filling the byre with sheep for 12 hours.

    1. Also, the tiny furniture you’ve made for the dollhouse is lovely! I look forward to seeing more pics as it develops 🙂 I’m actually planning on re-visiting my virtual model of the blackhouse in the next few weeks to improve on a few things and set up an animation, so when I do I’ll be sure to send you some images from different angles!

      1. Oh goody, I look forward to seeing more images!

        Thank you! I didn’t actually make the furniture pieces I’ve photographed for my crofter’s cottage, though I’ve made other furniture. The spinning wheel and Orkney chair are much to elaborate for me to make though.

  7. Oh wait, is that the partition I can see in the A-frame picture? So the living space gets the space between two trusses, and the byre gets the space between three? Is that right? Are you still trying to make it a copy of House 7? In the floorplan of House 7, it looks like the room and the byre are separated by a stone wall without a connecting door. And is that the crub bed beside the spinning wheel?

    Sorry to have so many questions! I wish I could have your digital house here to play with!

    1. Hello, sorry for the late reply! Yes that’s the partition you can see there – the blackhouses were incredibly cramped inside so although it seems like there’s no room for a byre there actually is! That’s a separate building added onto the end of the blackhouse for storage in the plan not the byre. In the interior reconstruction that’s a box bed that you can see, and it you look carefully next to the spinning wheel there’s a dark hole in the wall that was used a bed (or “crub”) that you would have crawled into. Have a look at this post ( which has a plan in it, though ignore the structure on the end imagine the wall bed on the other side of the wall, slightly confusing sorry!

      1. Thanks for the details! So have you modeled the byre too? I think I’ve only seen your interior pictures of the living space. I saw the plans on that page with the crub bed, but it seems so tiny! Or is it for a child?

        I love all the furniture in your interior. Did you say it was based on photographs?

    2. In fact, this is a fairly comprehensive book on St Kilda if you can get your hands on it that covers blackhouses and might give you some good ideas? It has more detailed floor plans with furniture etc that came in handy for me!

      1. Grace · ·

        Thanks! I’ll ask my mom if she has a copy. She seems to have a copy of every book that mentions St. Kilda, so I need to borrow some of them. I’ve been looking at tons of pictures of other blackhouses too.

        I’ve started doing my stone walls, and suddenly I’m wanting to make souterrains and brochs and cairns too, and a Skara Brae house. Ack. Maybe I’ll just become your groupie and make miniatures of all the places you model.

      2. Haha, a Skara Brae doll house would be very cool!

  8. Yes the byre is modelled too (complete with cow!) but as this project was produced as part of the pilot case study for my research I didn’t render that many views I’m afraid! The plan showing the crub bed is a little misleading as during the later lives of the blackhouses crub beds were discouraged as being primitive and unhygienic so a lot of them were filled in with stone. And yes the furniture was based on photos and drawings of some original artefacts, written accounts and photographs of the interior of other (non-St Kildan) blackhouses on the West coast. Unfortunately there are no clear photographs at all of the interiors of the St Kildan blackhouses as they were far too dark inside for photography at the time, but there are lots of good parallels if you do a google search. The Arnol blackhouses for example are much bigger but a lot of the furniture would have been similar.

  9. […] I first became involved with the St Kilda blackhouse as part of one of my earlier PhD case studies back in 2011 so it was great to return to a familiar site to have another bash at visualising the blackhouse […]

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