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Contemporary and Vernacular Architecture in the Western Scottish Islands Bradley Sumner

Contemporary and Vernacular Architecture in the Western Scottish Isles

Bedford Travelling Scholarship 2018

Preface This research project was undertaken at the end of the summer of 2018, to examine the historic and contemporary built environment on the remote, Western Scottish Islands. The examination utilised a phenomenological approach, investigating the current movement from traditional, and often simply constructed dwellings, to the contemporary creation of bespoke, well crafted pieces of architecture. Photography and drawing was used as a method of extracting and interpreting found information around the islands. Alongside this, research was undertaken into the island’s adverse environmental conditions, in conjunction with conversations with two architecture studios, Rural Design and Dualchas, whom are involved in this current change in architectural typology.


This document has been produced as a narrated version of the presentation given at the Tetley Building in October 2018, extra contextual information has also been included. I would like to also take this opportunity to thank the West Yorkshire Society of Architects for the opportunity to undertake this piece of invaluable research. Bradley Sumner



Having completed my Architectural Undergraduate Degree at Kingston University in 2015 I gained employment as an Architectural Assistant at Carmody Groarke Architects in London, after which I started a Masters in Architecture at The University of Sheffield. It was during my studies and my subsequent employment that I gained a passion for buildings which respond carefully to their environment, community and surroundings.

‘I want to squeeze the essence out of it and put it down in a very elegant and simple way; I’m just trying to get a resonance of humanity,’ Norman Ackroyd


Coming from the small Channel Island of Alderney gives me a personal viewpoint on this subject of study, being a firm believer in the potential for communities to learn from architecture on remote islands where material, labour and experience is sparse. This island environment formed my earliest views on architecture, Alderney is an island which is home to a large variety of both granite and concrete architectural works, spanning over two centuries, within a beautiful natural environment.



English Channel



Guernsey Jersey




Braye bay

View of Braye Bay, Alderney, Channel Islands


Despite the Western Scottish Isles being in relatively close proximity to mainland Scotland from my starting point, in the Channel Islands, the Western Scottish Islands have always been considered inaccessible. The trip to reach the islands took in total, 2 days, 3 planes and approximately 4 hours of flying.





Guernsey Airport

Before / After From one small plane to another

Benbecula Airport


The map shown here was produced as an illustration of the proposed itinerary. There was a total of 19 buildings to visit while in the islands. Car hire was utilised in order to provide transport around the Hebrides with a large proportion of the islands being interconnected via bridges and causeways. The islands are also served by regular ferries which provided transport from Berneray to Harris and from Harris to Skye. The buildings visits were selected to represent a mixture of vernacular, historic and contemporary architecture across the islands. Whilst visiting Skye, Dualchas and Rural Design architects were also visited in order to understand the architect’s own response to vernacular and contemporary architecture.


Outer Hebridies

Vernacular architecture Ness

Contemporary architecture Lewis 11 10 Uig Sands


09 Breanais

07 Harris 06 04



Leverburgh Berneray North Uist 12





Benbecula Airport



Skye 14



South Uist

15 17



Inner Hebridies



Fort William



Building Visits 01. Benbecula Water Tower, c.1970 02. Our Lady of Sorrows, 1965 03. St Michael’s of the Sea, 1899-1903 04. Gatliff Hostel, c.1800 05. The Girnal 06. Talla na Mara, 2017

08. Uig Sands Restaurant 09. Breanish, Dualchas 10. Gearrannan Blackhouse Village 11. Dun Carloway, c.1st Century AD 12. Herring shed, Rural Design 13. Houses around Colbost

14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19.

Houses around Carbost Grealin, Rural Design Rural Design Studio Dualchas Studio An Cala, Dualchas Black House, Dualchas




Image from the first night in the Outer Hebrides, Berneray


Skye and Inner Hebrides

The Isle of Skye is the most northerly and largest island of the Inner Hebrides with an approximate population of 103,000 residents. Skye is arguably the best know of all Scotland’s islands and is also the most accessible from the mainland due to a bridge constructed in 1995. The island is approximately 50 miles long by 30 miles at its widest point. Skye’s most celebrated mountain ranges are the Black and Red Cuillins which were formed around 50-60 million years ago as part of a vast volcanic chain which stretched from Britain to Greenland.

Isle of Skye

Red Cuillin Mountain, Skye

The Outer Hebrides

The outer Hebridies lie in the Atlantic ocean approximately 30 - 60 miles from the North Western Scottish coast. Despite the islands being an archipelago of around 200 islands only 14 are inhabited. The island chain begins in the north with Lewis which is attached to Harris, this is the largest and most densely populated island with a population of 20,000 residents. North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay and Barra were once all separate island however they are now all joined by causeways or bridges, with the exception of Uist and Barra. The entire archipelago was known to the Vikings who first ravaged and then settled the islands as “Havbrødøy” or the “Islands on the Edge of the Sea”

Isle of Lewis


Historians believe the earliest inhabitants of the Hebrides were probably hunter gatherers who arrived from the South in the wake of the last ice age, when the English Channel was still dry land. Permanent communities are thought to have been established by Neolithic or new Stone Age farmers who settled in the islands around 6000 years ago. These early farmers are most renown for their Cairns and large communal stone tombs. Around 1800.BC new settlers using bronze technology arrived in the Western Isles. These settlers were known as the Beaker People, after their distinctive style of pottery. The groups of standing stones around the Hebrides date back to this time.

North Uist

The Celts began settling on the Western Isles more than 2500 years ago, at the beginning of the Iron Age. They constructed large defensive hill forts called Brochs with double walls, large galleries and hidden stairs. The Vikings arrived to the islands in around 850.AD pillaging and saving existing structures for reuse. The Norse settlers stayed on the islands for around 250 years with little contact to their homeland. The design of the traditional island “Blackhouse� is thought to echo the traditional Viking Longhouse of these times. In the latter part of the 18th-19th century the Western Scottish Isles suffered from the Scottish lowland clearances whereby residents were evicted and relocated to Canada and Australia. This resulted in a large displacement of population with nearly 30,000 people being transported from Skye alone.


The Hebridian landscape is one formed by its geology. The backbone of the Outer Hebrides is largely formed of ancient Lewisian Gneiss. These rocks originated 2,800 million years ago and have undergone a number of metamorphic processes under increased temperature or pressure. These Gneiss are some of the oldest rocks in Europe. Ceaseless pounding of the Atlantic waves, and by the action of ice, wind and rainwater have formed the landscapes we see today.



North Uist



South Uist

Barra Key Granite and related rocks Gabbro and related rocks Metamorphic rocks Igneous sills LewisianPermian gneiss toTriassic sedimentary rocks Area with many granite vein s Sills gabbro and related rock s VolcanicMetamorphosed rocks Metamorphosed sedimentary rock s Sedimentary rocks Banded gneisses Outer Hebrides fault Outer Hebrides Fault Dykes Geological diagram of the Outer Hebrides







30 km

30 km

The oldest rocks on Skye are found on the Sleat Peninsula. These are the same Lewisian Gneiss which are found on the Outer Hebridies. The majority of Skye’s landmass however was formed much later, around 65 million years ago, due to plate movements an extensive system of fractures began to develop in the earth’s crust. Through these fractures magma welled up and erupted in what was probably the most extensive volcanic episode ever experienced in north-western Europe. The initial outpourings rapidly built up the vast lava plateau of northern Skye. Later activity was more localised and large central volcanoes developed. The volcanic cones and craters have been eroded away, but their roots remain - they form the Cuillins.



Mountains, North Harris

Image illustrating geology on the outer Hebrides

Geology, South Harris


Beach, Harris

Image illustrating scale and variety of geological features


Mountains separating Harris and Lewis

Image illustrating scale and variety of geological features

Human Use of Geology Both the Lewisian Gneiss and igneous granite are hard rocks and not easily broken, yet over the years they have been worked by humans for a variety of reasons. An example of the Gneiss can be seen in the standing stones that are found across the islands. With a lack of other available resources, the Lewisian Gneiss continued to be used as building stones on the Outer Hebrides For many years. The Iron Age Brochs, including the famous Dun Carloway, were built from slabs of Gneiss that had been split along the banding. In more recent times, these slabs were plundered from the Brochs to build the Blackhouses in which many Outer Hebridian residents lived until the mid-20th century. Stone for these houses was probably a mixture of beach cobbles, field boulders, and worked blocks of gneiss. It was not until Victorian times that imported stone began to be extensively used, for instance in building the town of Stornoway.

Callanish standing stones

Lewisian gneiss

Image illustrating Lewisian Gneiss on the outer Hebrides, Callanish Stones and Stone in situ on beach

Human Use of Geology

Broch, Dun Carloway

Broch at Don Carloway, Constructed from Lewisian Gneiss


Crofting is a hugely important part of life and communities in the Outer Hebrides with crofting practices and traditions being an influential part of island life. When visiting the Hebrides the results of thousands of years of crofting can be seen in the landscape in the form of visible ‘runrig’ lines that shape the landscape. Sheep and cattle are also still an extremely prominent feature on the islands landscape. The Western Isles’ vernacular architecture is one which has developed as a response to the crofting lifestyle with the Black houses being born from the necessity of needing a place to live, keep livestock and craft products.

Peat cutting Comann Eachdraidh Uig Collections

Historic images of crofting on the Outer Hebrides

Breanish Village Comann Eachdraidh Uig Collections


Whilst on the islands, alongside visiting local architects, who are pivotal to the emerging Architectural Typology in the Western Scottish Isles, I took the opportunity to make sketches as a method of capturing the islands atmosphere.

Sketchbook pages

On site sketches, capturing colours and grain in the landscape


Sketch of double skin wall Broch, Dun Carloway

Sketch of Don Carloway, produced as investigation into historic construction

Architectural Progression

Traditionally on the Western Isles, architecture was utilised as a device to overcome the extreme environment, providing a space for both shelter and work. Within this project an Investigation, which focussed on apertures, provided the focal point for the development of architecture and helped to identify a series of key changes within the architectural tradition.

Architectural progression


Croft / Department House

Diagrams outlining architectural progression

Evolving typology

‘Modern’ House

Contemporary Shelter


The Black house is the most prominent vernacular dwelling on the Western Scottish Isles and, as outlines earlier, is in direct response to the landscape and traditional living cultures of the Wester Scottish Isles. The houses generally feature two main rooms and are constructed from local stone. The walls are constructed to shoulder height, with deep walls and reveals in order to protect their inhabitants from the extreme climate. The Black houses also use Maram grass, a locally available long beach grass, as a roof thatching material, held down by stones.

Gerreran Black House Village

Gerreran Black House Village


Today, the islands black houses, if not derelict, are mainly either used for agriculture or guest accommodation, with very few utilised for year round accommodation, due to their small size and inefficiency.

Gatlif Black House, Berneray

Gatlif Black Houses

Vernacular Aperture

Marram grass roof

Walls to shoulder height

Deep reveals

Lewisian Gneiss walls

Measured elevation drawing Gerreran Black House Village

Aperture drawing from Gerreran Black House Village, Investigating construction materials and techniques


The typical ‘Croft’ or ‘Department’ house is the most noticeable in the Hebridian environment and was one born in conjunction with developments in agriculture, living standards, new materials and construction techniques being brought to the islands. Most croft houses feature two stories and a slate roof. The houses are generally constructed around a standard plan, thought to be issued by the Scottish Department of Agriculture. These houses take strong influence from the earlier black houses, utilising masonry walls and deep reveals however with a thrown lime ‘hailing’ render produced from sea shells to protect their occupants from the Hebridian environment.

Crofters cottage and barns North Uist

Crofters cottage and barns, moving livestock out of the family home


Crofters cottage, derelict and inhabited Berneray

Inhabited and derelict Croft houses, Berneray

Historic Aperture

Slate tile roof

Two stories, offering separated living

Masonry construction

Thrown ‘Harling’ Lime render

Measured elevation drawing Isle of Lewis Croft House

Aperture drawing of a Croft House, Investigating construction materials and techniques


Similar to most parts of the United Kingdom and Scotland, the Wester Isles saw a movement to modernity after the Second World War, noticeably in a number of larger, churches and public buildings. Domestic building also moved in a similar direction, with the introduction of the bungalow and more contemporary, non vernacular, construction techniques.

Our Lady of Sorrows Church South Uist

Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Exhibiting an architecture separate to vernacular


Water tower Benbecula

Benbecula Water Tower, Exhibiting an architecture separate to vernacular

Modern Aperture

The image below is taken from Tom Wier’s documentary visiting the Isle of Harris in c.1970. Showing a newly constructed modern house which at the time was hoped to offer a new way of living for islanders. When in conversation with both Alan Dickson of Rural Design Architects and Rory Flynn of Dualchas Architects, both cited buildings utilising certain modern construction techniques being susceptible to the extreme weather experienced by the islands with concrete render failing, overhanging eaves being susceptible to damage in high winds and lightweight concrete tile roofs being blown off.

House on hillside, Tarbet


In response to the modern house and its susceptibility to the environment and perceived failure in the offer of providing a new way of life in the Western Scottish Isles a new typology has started to emerge. The typology has been developed through a close view on an historic approach to construction, revealing three overriding principles. The main principles were developed a direct response to the concept of shelter within the island environment and being pragmatic in the way that this can be approached, these have been outlined below;

Contemporary response to ‘shelter’ in the Western Isles

Appropriate construction techniques

Material sensibility

Considered form and orientation

Design principles for developing a contemporary response to ‘shelter’

Appropriate Construction Techniques

The first principle which was revealed in the research project was an approach of construction which was sensible in an island environment. Island environments are difficult places to build. This is due to a number of factors such as seclusion, transport and environment. In response to this, two approaches which have been developed were revealed, the first being that of the self builder. Self building allows a reduction in the construction cost for a new dwelling meaning that more money can be invested in higher design quality alongside more appropriate materials. Rural Design Architects in particular exemplify this point in their designs which approach construction as an assembly of components which teach new skills through construction and take the self builder into account at all times.

Herring shed, Self build Rural Design

Self building as an appropriate method of construction

Appropriate Construction Techniques

The second appropriate method of construction revealed during the research trip was one of a society which embraces prefabrication. Prefabrication allows the on site construction of buildings to be significantly reduced which in a direct response to the islands difficult climate and physical geography with short summers and sites for some houses having restricted access.

Use of pre-fabricated panel construction Allowing construction in adverse environment

Prefabrication as an appropriate method of construction

Material Sensibility

The second principle which was revealed during the research trip was that of a new found approach to material sensibility. This seems to be as a direct response to the common of misappropriation and subsequent failure of some modern building materials on the islands. Contemporary buildings look to their surroundings and agricultural partners for more appropriate alternatives for materials, cladding and roofing being good examples.

Corrugated steel clad barns

Vernacular cladding and covering materials

Material Sensibility

On this page we can see an example of a new found material sensibility and abstraction of agricultural materials for cladding and roofing. They differ slightly to their vernacular alternatives whereby the materials are detailed in a more sensitive manner.

Timber cladding with corrugated metal roofing Talla Na Mara Rural Design

Talla Na Mara Visitor Centre, Appropriate materials

Considered form and orientation

The third principle used is building in a manner which takes into account a buildings site, form and orientation in order to take advantage of the islands climate and views. The islands vernacular buildings were incredibly sensitive to climatic conditions in their siting as they were following ancient human and agricultural sensibilities. The island’s contemporary buildings follow this pragmatic response to orientation with a modern sensibility, orienting buildings to take advantage of views and light alongside an awareness to protect the buildings users and building fabric from the abrasive island climate. The majority of contemporary buildings also draw on the vernacular in their approach to ornament, removing or streamlining nonessential additions and overhangs.

Timber cladding and deep reveales Breanish Dulchas

Contemporary removal of ornament, Streamlining of building form

Considered form and orientation

Refined and weather resistant form Inspired by vernacular Houses near Fiscavaig

An overriding sensibility when considering form and orientation, This photograph illustrates two buildings following a similar set of principles.

Conclusion The investigation into Contemporary and Vernacular Architecture in the Western Scottish Isles has reinforced my belief that buildings should reflect a strong sense of place, dictated by the environment, inhabitants and current technologies available. Also, by undertaking this investigation I have became aware of the importance the human subconscious takes in connection to shelter and belonging in response to a specific place. The evolving typology in the Islands also clearly demonstrates a physical manifestation of the concept of continuous evolution within architecture. I feel that it is incredibly important that pragmatic analysis of the places we live in is undertaken, which has been borne from necessity on the Islands, and used elsewhere in other challenging environments to provide shelter appropriate to the needs of society.

Form influenced by surrounding landscape Hen House Rural Design

Thank You

Mountains on Skye

Thank you to all whom made this trip possible and came to my presentation. Bradley Sumner

Profile for West Yorkshire Society of Architects

2018 Contemporary & Vernacular Architecture in the Western Scottish Isles - Bradley Sumner FULL REPT  

Digital copy of the printed report produced Photographic by 2018 Bedford Scholar, Bradley Sumner, architecture student at the University of...

2018 Contemporary & Vernacular Architecture in the Western Scottish Isles - Bradley Sumner FULL REPT  

Digital copy of the printed report produced Photographic by 2018 Bedford Scholar, Bradley Sumner, architecture student at the University of...


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