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27 Feb 2019

Moirlanich unlocked – an introduction

Written by Emma Inglis
Moirlanich Longhouse on a summer's day. Heavy clouds are forming in the sky. Sheep are in the surrounding fields. A chair can be seen outside in the sun, just beside the main door and porch.
Moirlanich Longhouse – a rare survivor
This is the first in a series of stories about a very special place. Sitting low in the picturesque landscape of Glen Lochay in rural Perthshire, Moirlanich Longhouse is a rare discovery. Inside, there’s an atmosphere like no other.

Inside the rough stone walls, beneath the red tin roof and in the half-light of the cottage rooms, it feels like time has stood still. Three features in particular stand out: a hanging chimney over the kitchen fire, the original early 19th-century cruck frame construction, and layers upon layers of decorative wallpaper spread throughout the house.

Moirlanich Longhouse was the home of the Robertson family from the 1850s until the 1960s. Often three generations lived in the house together, although by the 1930s the occupants were all unmarried adults – siblings and their cousins or nephews who were brought to live in and help on the farm. The last inhabitant, Tom Proctor, moved out in the 1960s, leaving the house relatively untouched until it was bought by the National Trust for Scotland in 1992.

During Tom Proctor’s time in the house he didn’t change it much. The original earth floor was covered with more practical concrete, the walls were redecorated, and the roof renewed. Without a younger generation to take it on, however, the essential elements of the house remained the same, a small time capsule of a way of life long past. Old photographs show us how the inside and outside of the house withstood changes in fashion and living standards, and memories gathered from people who grew up nearby during the 1930s and 1940s support this impression. To them the house was something old-fashioned and noteworthy. Their memories are important in helping us to create a clearer picture of the Robertson family and their daily life at Moirlanich.

A black and white photograph of Moirlanich Longhouse around 1918. It shows the road running past the house. There are trees on the hills in the background.
Moirlanich Longhouse, photographed around 1918

Although once common in the Scottish landscape, longhouses are now very rare. Moirlanich Longhouse is an important surviving example of a form of architecture that’s closely associated with an older and more communal method of Scottish agricultural land use. Moirlanich Longhouse is the only house from the Glen Lochay farming community that still exists in its original form, both outside and in. Farming still continues in the glen, and archaeological evidence of other similar dwellings remains.

Two portions of the original thatch lie on a wooden bench. A wooden peg from the roof at Moirlanich rests against the larger portion. There is also a tied bundle of straw to the left of the photo.
A portion of the original thatch and a crook from the roof at Moirlanich

The house is built from local materials, with walls of clay-mortared rubble, and a wooden cruck-framed roof. This was originally covered with turf and a rush thatch over the byre end, and with bracken and oat straw over the dwelling house. Ropes and batons were placed at intervals to stop it all blowing away. In the 1920s the entire roof was covered with straw thatch, which was easier to work and was held in place with crooks – sharpened pegs. By 1935 the roof had been replaced with tin to make it easier to maintain.

Allan Walker lived in Killin when he was a boy and remembered the distinctive thatched roofs of Moirlanich Longhouse and other houses like it:

The houses were all thatched, and then some of them that used to be thatched wi’ reeds were latterly covered wi’ tin. In our time it was wheat straw. When they got it thatched right up … at the end it was pegged wi’ wooden pegs and battens put across it again and they were either pinned down wi’ wood forks – and sometimes there would be wire put across and a heavy stone hung on each end to weight it down and there were larch strips on top of the finished thatch to keep it from getting blown by the wind cos’ a high gale would have lifted it up and cleared it all away. Oh yes, it was nothing unusual to see big holes made in the thatch by a high wind. And if it was well done, the thatch would last for several years if it was good stra’ they had.

The wooden wall partition between the kitchen and back room. There's a window in the stone wall to the left, letting in natural light. A grey wooden door stands open to the right. Through it you can just glimpse a tartan blanket. Straight ahead is the wooden room partition, stripped of wallpaper.
The wooden wall partition between the kitchen and back room, showing through where wallpaper has worn away in the doorway.

Moirlanich Longhouse is something of a contradiction, being both extremely rough in construction and highly decorative in character. The space inside the house is sub-divided by simple wooden partition walls to form three rooms: a kitchen, a small back room and a best room. Structures such as the chimney back and box beds double up as room dividers, to make the most of the small space and efficient use of available wood. From the kitchen a door leads through to a key feature of the longhouse structure: the adjoining animal byre.

Overlying this basic structure, which is crudely pieced together, is one of the wonders of this small house. Colourful wallpaper was once plastered nearly everywhere, bringing a bewildering range of designs into close proximity. Walls, ceilings, the inside of the box beds, even the sides of the dresser all show evidence of an interior that was once wrapped in colour and pattern. In many areas the paper is several layers thick, forming an in situ archive of wallpaper history.

When Moirlanich was purchased by the Trust, it was in a very sorry state. However, the fact that it has never been modernised is key to its charm. Following sympathetic restoration in the 1990s, all the key characteristics of the house have been preserved, and we continue to maintain the house with a ‘less is more’ approach today. Moirlanich Longhouse challenges our imaginations. It encourages us to consider a very different way of living, experienced through the enveloping atmosphere inside the house and the small fragments of daily life that the Robertsons and Tom Proctor left behind.

Over the next few weeks, look out for more articles in the Moirlanich Unlocked series and explore stories about life in this remarkable and cherished little house.

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