Chapter 3: Ardtun (1850 – 1914)

Chapter 3: Ardtun (1850 – 1914)

In 1839 in Ardtun, John Black married Lucy Lamont, also originally from Ulva and sometime about then, he built a house on his small croft. This was probably a typical ‘black house’ – single story, thatched roof, no chimney, the smoke just escaping through the thatch, animals living at one end and people at the other. In the early 1800s, ‘Black houses’ were gradually replaced by ‘white houses’, which had chimneys and by law separated people and animals. Why suggest that John Black built a ‘black house’ and not a ‘white house’?

There are two reasons for suggesting this. One is the poverty that stalked the Ross of Mull at exactly this time. The 8th Duke of Argyll wrote in evidence to the Napier Commission into the plight of the crofting population, "In 1846 and the following years the aspect of the population and the numerous wretched hovels erected by squatting cottars along the roadsides, was most painful. It resembled nothing so much as the descriptions given of the poorest part of the West of Ireland.” At the same time, ministers of The Kirk in Iona and Ross of Mull wrote to their Glasgow superiors that, "The poor here are in a state of great destitution, not only of food but also clothing... Most of the cottars have sold or consumed their only cow; many of the small tenants are at present living from their stock of cattle, which they are consuming for food. A short time will reduce many of this class to the level of the poorest cottars."

A second reason is that John Black built a second house, 100 yards nearer the sea in a more sheltered south-facing situation – the current one, Knockan, the house by the little hill. Exactly when he started that building is unknown, but it is certain that it was a ‘white’ one and almost finished by 18 July 1864. How so certain?

(* ref. from Ch. 1) In 2004, Am Muileach, the local Mull Newspaper, reprinted verbatim a report from old Bunessan Police Records. It concerned two young men and their attempt to help their 64-year-old dad, who was building a house. They took a boat and rowed the 6 Kms along the coast to Eilean Ban, a small island close to Bunessan, where they knew about a disused quarry. What they did not know about was owner Donald MacLean’s continued proprietorial interest in his quarry. They loaded some 60 stones, obviously mostly small, but a few larger, which they reckoned would finish off the chimneys nicely. Unfortunately they were spotted in flagrante delicto by MacLean, who despatched messengers hot-foot across the moor to their dad with the news of their good deed and the dim view taken of it by the quarry owner. Their dad tried to resolve the dispute with MacLean, who refused to meet him, choosing rather to report the lads to the police. No amicable settlement being available to him, their dad took the stones by horse and cart and dumped them on MacLean’s doorstep. There were no criminal proceedings, nevertheless John (aged 21) and James (aged 25), sons of John Black of Knockan, have a Police Record for “wickedly, feloniously and theftuously” removing stones from Eilean Ban on 18 July 1864, their crime reaching the tabloid press 140 years later! 

The House that Black Built

The second Knockan was a single-storey cottage, still with the rounded corners that are typical of the earlier houses designed for a thatched roof, built largely with stone from the fields, driftwood from the shore and thatch from the moor. The walls were constructed like a meter-thick vertical sandwich - two layers of rough basalt stone held together with lime, the space between filled with rubble to keep out the wind and rain and the floor of beaten earth. Geologically, Ardtun is mostly basalt – a hard crystalline rock, which does not shear neatly into slabs like sandstone or limestone, so building is tricky, requiring extraordinary skill. There was no damp-proof course for the walls, yet the house was known to be dry – testament to the skill in construction and choice of site. Inside, there were one living room with a peat-fired range for all the cooking, one main bedroom with an open fire and a small central bedroom. Outbuildings consisted of a stable, a byre and a chicken shed. A round natural stone platform in front of the house was the stackyard, where the hay and grain were stored, a low stone wall keeping out the animals.

A local ‘water diviner’, holding the two arms of a newly cut ‘Y’-shaped hazel twig in each hand, located a spring about 100 yards east of the cottage. Exactly how this works, and how it distinguishes surface water, which you don’t want from spring water, which you do, is a mystery. But work it does! The twig twists round and points down in response to water below, the strength of the twist indicating the abundance of the water. Unlike other methods provided elsewhere for the amusement of tourists, this Mull version seems to be a gift rather like the second sight. Once a spring had been located, a shallow well was dug, about two feet square by about two feet deep, surrounded by a low turf bank to keep out surface water, and covered to prevent livestock, wild-life or children stumbling in. Surface water in the area is permanently peat-brown, yet through the silt at the bottom of the well, improbably clean, clear drinking water visibly surged up, come summer drought or winter flood. To avoid disturbing the sediment the water was collected in a jug and decanted into a bucket, two buckets being fillable before the sediments began to stir. Each croft had its well. These underground water courses were related to fractures in the underlying impermeable geology, but sometimes dried up because of disruption of established water flows remote from the well concerned, e.g. the building of a house or a road, a ditch being dug or even the digging of another well elsewhere. A small stream running past the cottage was dammed for the weekly clothes wash, water being heated in a large pot outdoors on a peat fire.

Chapter 1: Before Crofting (pre-1814)

Chapter 2: Mull's Triple Whammie (1814 - 1850)

Chapter 3: Ardtun (1850 – 1914)

Chapter 4: Crofting Life

Chapter 5: Educated Non-conformists

Chapter 6: A Second Clearance (1914 onwards)

Chapter 7: Deja Vue all over again


Forgotten Scots