A mix of tradition and innovation is giving the blackhouse village at Gearrannan a major facelift, as thatchers work on the roofs of two of the buildings in the historic village.
A team from the Cheshire company Master Thatchers (North) Ltd have been up on the roof at the hostel and on the blackhouse where the café and shop are based, stripping off old thatch and replacing it with a new covering with a lasting lifespan.
Iain Macarthur, a director of Urras nan Gearrannan (Gearrannan Trust) said the replacement work was in the existing workplan for the village, but lockdown meant it could proceed quickly without visitors around.
He said: “Obviously if there had been visitors here, it would have enhanced their experience to see the thatching process, but having the village closed while the work is done has, to some extent, made it easier.”
Iain has been on-site with his camera at intervals throughout the job, recording the work being done by thatchers Dave Brooks and brothers Michael and Daniel Mikelowski, who are from Poland and qualified as thatchers in England.
Adding to the international dimension, the reeds being used for the job have come from Europe – most likely from Austria or Hungary.
Dave Brooks said: “Our usual suppliers are in Scotland, on the River Tay, but sadly they had a fire this year which destroyed their stock, so the reeds have had to come from further afield.”
Using reeds is a new departure for Gearrannan, according to Iain Macarthur, who said: “Barley or oat straw would have been used traditionally, or anything that was available, including heather and reeds, if they were just patching damaged spots.
“We have found that the straw doesn’t last as long, even though it is what would have been used in the past. These thatchers are used to working with reed and a precedent was set by the Skye Museum of Island Life at Kilmuir where their houses have been thatched with reed for a number of years.
“The technique and material may be different but the final finish is very much like how it would have looked.”
Work is progressing very well, with the thatching team paying attention to details such as the finial posts – where nets are fixed to help weigh down the roof against storms – and a flush finish at the ridge of each roof.
Thatcher Dave said: “The technique we use for ridges is different in Scotland because, with the likelihood of stronger winds – especially in the islands – we don’t do the decorative scalloped ridge but a tight, flush finish. That means there’s nowhere that the wind can catch it.”
Dave and his team are expecting the work to be finished by next Friday (2 October) and have no fears about the weather in the meantime. Dave said: “It doesn’t make any difference, we work in any kind of weather, so it doesn’t really affect our timetable.
“We have worked all over Scotland, Ireland and even in France. The weather conditions don’t hold us back, though we might take the odd break if it’s really raining hard.
“It has been different for us working here because we can’t travel home for weekends and we do miss our families, but the hospitality has been great and the people are really nice. We enjoy it up here.”
Iain Macarthur’s pictures show Dave, Michael and Daniel at work. The net with stones weighing down the finished thatch will be added later by island workers.