Shetland Crofthouse Museum

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Opening Hours (May to September)
Every Day (including weekends) 1000 - 1300 &
1400 - 1700
Admission is free, but donations welcome
Bobby Mouat in the late 60s
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives

The Shetland Crofthouse Museum, located at South Voe in Dunrossness, was restored as an example of how a typical crofthouse and outbuildings would have looked during the 19th century, and gives a fascinating glimpse into how people lived in those times. The thatched buildings include the 2 room living quarters, byre, barn, and drying kiln. Throughout the crofthouse traditional furnishings and tools from the period are displayed.

As well as the main buildings there is a restored water mill near the burn below the croft.

The museum is open during the main tourist season, and a custodian is available to answer questions about the buildings and items on display.

South Voe in the 1930s.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.

The idea for a Croft House Museum was first suggested at the 'Hamefarin' (Homecoming) in 1960. The expatriates that visited that year, many of whom left prior to WW2, were shocked to see that the traditional Shetland croft house had all but disappeared from the landscape. It was decided to start a fund to preserve the Shetland croft house, and the way of life it represented.

Of the many possible sites for the project, the one that stood out was the croft at South Voe, Boddam, which was in a good location, and also had an available watermill nearby. The house, which had stood on the site since the 1850's, had gone through many modifications over the years, but had become derelict since its last occupant, Bobby Mouat, left in 1962.

Two local craftsmen, Jimmy Gray and Willie Manson, were employed to carry out the reconstruction. The roof and front wall were rebuilt, and the fireplace and doorway reset to their original positions. The watermill was also restored to full working order. After almost two years of work the Croft House Museum was finally opened on August 16th 1971.


Wall construction

Crofthouse wall
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives

The walls of 19th century Shetland croft houses were built of rough 'unhewn' stone and were constructed in such a way that any draughts were kept to a minimum.

This photograph shows the outside wall of the Crofthouse Museum's byre. Based on the 'two skin' principle, the inner and outer facing walls were built with the best stones available and trussed together at regular intervals with long rectangular slabs known as 'trow baands'. The walls were then made draught proof by filling the gap between the two with dry earth and rubble.

Once completed, the inside wall was pointed with clay to fill up any crevices that remained. In some instances pony dung was mixed in with the clay to act as a binding agent.

Tekkin the roof

Heaps of poans for the roof
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives
Roof construction
Photo Shetland Museum And Archives
Thatching (tekkin) the Croft House Museum roof, at Southvoe, Boddam, Dunrossness. Jimmy Gray and Ian Tait at work.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives
Linkstens (Thatching weights)
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives

The roof is 'tekkit', (thatched), with peat and covered with straw which is held in place with ropes and stones.
When constructing a croft house roof, a frame had to be built before the straw thatch could be laid. Taken from inside the Croft House Museum, this photograph, (upper right), illustrates how such a roof was erected.

The roof couples have been set up and connected together by long battens, known as 'twartbaks', which are themselves connected by thick laths nailed on lengthwise. Ropes have then been laid at ninety degrees to these strips to provide a framework onto which 'poans' (dried turfs) have been spread.

The turfs provided a watertight underlay for the straw thatch, and were laid in a similar fashion to modern slates. Each turf was fixed in place using wooden 'hoose pins'. This process was continued until the entire roof had been covered, at which point the spreading of the thatch could begin. See photo second right.
The photograph (third right), shows a close up view of the thatched roof of the Croft House Museum. The straw is being held down using 'simmens' (straw ropes) and 'linkstens' (thatching weights).

Roping down the thatch. Jimmy Gray, Ian Tait and Ian Younger
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives

The roping down of the thatch was the final stage in the roof's construction. One end of the rope would be passed up to a man who stood on the 'waa-head' (the edge of the roof), along with a stone. The rope was then fastened to the stone and handed to another man positioned on the top of the roof. This man would haul up any slack and tie a loop into the rope, before throwing it down to go around the stone on the opposite side. This performance was repeated until the entire roof had been fastened down. See picture down left.

When being positioned the 'linkstens' were usually placed about a foot up from the 'waa-head'. The reason for this was that as time went by the ropes would slacken due to the weight of the stones, bringing them down towards the edge. It was important for the 'linkstens' and 'simmens' to keep the same strain.

Approaching the croft, the kiln to the left
View from the garden
The Crofthouse 2007
To the left is the living area, the main door is in the middle, the byre to the right and a part of the barn can be seen at the back.
Shed with a boat as roof
The garden 2007
Peats stacked at the Crofthouse Museum
Da kiln

Da Kiln
At one time every croft house had its own kiln for drying corn in preparation for grinding. These were normally rectangular stone constructions that occupied one corner of the barn. However, in the Dunrossness area, where the Croft House Museum is situated, they took on a distinctive circular shape.

Inside da kiln, showing the sticks forming the platform

The kiln was usually built as an appendage to the barn and was accessed via an opening on the inside. From here sticks were laid across the diameter of the kiln to form a platform, on top of which a layer of straw acted as bedding for the grain. A fire was then lit at the end of a small tunnel that led out from the base of the kiln. The heat would rise up from beneath the sticks and dry out the grain.

It was always important to have someone keep a watchful eye on the fire. If too much heat was generated the straw could catch light and destroy the precious grain.

Inside the Crofthouse

Da trance.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives

The crofthouse is three buildings joined together - the dwelling area, the byre and the barn. They were all joined together with Da trance.

"Da trance" was the name given to the passageway that attached the byre and barn to the main dwellings. It was also the principal entrance to the steading.

Closer view of the waterbenk, the fishing line beneath it

This photograph, (right), shows the 'trance' at the Croft House Museum. There are three doors that open off to the various buildings: left to the house; straight ahead to the barn; and right to the byre. Up against the wall on the left side is the 'waterbenk', a wooden bench used to store buckets and barrels of water. Other items that can be seen include ponies' 'klibbers' (pack saddles), a wooden box containing a fishing line, and a whale's vertebra, possibly once used as a chopping block.

A house with a trance was particularly effective when tending to cattle during the night. The occupants of the house could move quickly between the house and byre without having to go outside into the darkness.

Da barn
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives.

Da Barn

Inside the barn ... looking at the kiln
The hand quern
Plow stored in da barn

When entering da trance, the door to da barn is stright ahead.
Every Shetland steading had its own barn, which acted as both a working and storage area for the crofter and his crops. These buildings, which could be either separate from, or adjoined to the main house, were an integral part of every croft.

This photograph, (left), shows the barn at the Croft House Museum. In it you can see various implements used by the crofter at different times of the year. A quern for grinding grain sits in the corner, while the carpenter's lathe would have been used to fashion various household utensils. Note that part of the floor is wooden. This is where the sheaves of corn were laid for thrashing. At the back of the room is the entrance to the 'tattie kro', a small appendage that provided a dark environment in which to store potatoes.

The barn was where the crofter butchered his livestock, and it wasn't uncommon to see sheep heads hanging from the rafters to tenderise. There would also be barrels of fish, meat, and even birds that had been caught from the cliffs. The barn was even used to house travelling tinkers who occasionally visited the isles to sell their ware. All in all, it was probably the busiest building on the croft.
The carpenter's lathe
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives

This photograph, (second left) shows a carpenter's lathe in the barn of the Crofthouse Museum.

Made around 1880 by Tammie Umphray this lathe was used on his croft at Gravins, Foula. It is interesting because it has been made entirely by hand. Most homemade lathes from this period incorporated at least some factory-made parts.

The lathe was last used in the barn at the Foula dykes in the 1950's. It is now on display at the Crofthouse Museum.

Da threshin floor.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives

The 'threshin floor' consisted of several planks of wood set into the earthen floor and was an essential part of the barn. It was here that the sheaves of corn were laid for thrashing with a 'flail', a process required to remove the grain from the straw.

The sheaves would be passed into the barn through a hatch in the outer wall and laid on the floor. Two men would stand either side of the floor and take alternating turns at beating, one side of the sheaf being thrashed then the other.

The final stage saw the straw being collected up and shaken to remove the grain, which was kept in barrels or sacks until there was enough for winnowing to take place. The leftover straw was used as fodder for the animals, or if still whole, incorporated into craftwork such as rope and basket making.

Da Byre

Da byre with da runnik

On the right side of da trance is da byre.
The byre was used to house the crofter's cattle, and like the barn, was connected to the main house by the 'trance'. The cattle would be led into the byre through a small doorway in the front wall, and were kept indoors every evening in the summer, and all day long during the winter.

While in the byre the cows were tethered into the stalls, which were divided up by wooden partitions to stop them from injuring each other with their horns. Peat mould and turfs were also laid across the floor to keep the animals' hooves dry and healthy. The stall at the far end of the byre was usually kept free for any calves that might be born.

Da runnik
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives

The byre also acted as the household's toilet and was used whenever bad weather or a lack of privacy prevented the needy individual from going outside.

Da Runnik
Cattle dung was accumulated in the byre over the winter. Each day a mixture of hay and soil was added to the waste until the cattle were literally standing as high as the roof.
The practice of keeping cattle indoors for the duration of the winter meant that their dung became enriched with urine. The drain or 'runnik', shown in this photograph, allowed any excess moisture to be drained away from the byre.

Dung was mainly used as manure for oats and barley. Built into middens it was spread over the fields once tilling had taken place.

The dwelling area

The but - end, the door to the ben - end can be seen to the right of the fireplace.
Photo from Shetland Museum and Archives
Another view of the but - end

The dwelling area in the crofthouse is to the left of da byre.
It is divided into two rooms, the "but - end", which is the main living room, and the "ben - end", the family's sleeping room.

The 'but-end' was the living room and main focal point of the Shetland croft house. Here people worked, meals were cooked, and visitors entertained. Having few windows and an open fireplace often meant that the 'but-end' was a dark and smoky place in which to live, but a warm one nonetheless.

This photograph, (left), shows the interior of the 'but-end' at the Croft House Museum. At the back of the room is the hearth where the peat fire and cooking paraphernalia is situated. There are several different chairs where people would have sat knitting a garment, or weaving a basket, while telling stories and sharing jokes. The flagstone floor was swept regularly to keep the room clean and the plastered walls occasionally lime-washed.

It wasn't only the family that lived in the 'but-end' but their cats and dogs too. On top of this it was often the case that a young pig or 'caddy lamb' would be kept in the house over the winter. As you can imagine a croft house 'but-end' must have looked more like a zoo than a living room at times.

Gun and powderhorn above the fireplace
Spinning wheels
Window showing the thickness of the walls
Box bed.

This 'box bed' came from the 'ben end' of a house at Goster, Watsness and was so big that it had to be dismantled and rebuilt in the Croft House Museum. Note the heart shaped finger holes in the doors. These allowed the doors to be opened and closed and also acted as ventilators.
As their name suggests 'box beds' were large wooden boxes used for sleeping in. They would stand on four legs, approximately fifteen inches from the floor, and usually measured about six feet by four feet. They offered their occupants a warm and dry environment in which to sleep, and also a certain degree of privacy, a rare commodity on the croft.
Sleeping arrangements were such that the parents and grandparents of the household would have had a box to themselves. The children were segregated by their gender, all the boys sleeping in one box and all the girls in the other. As many as three children could fit into a box bed at one time.

External Link

Crofthouse Museum page on Undiscovered Scotland

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