The Laidhay Croft Museum stands beside the main A9 road a mile north east of Dunbeath and a mile and a half south of Latheronwheel. The long white thatched building is clearly visible from the road, and there is ample parking immediately to its north, near a cafe.
The croft museum comprises three main buildings. To one side of the car park is a small thatched barn and a more modern shed. The farmhouse itself is a long linear structure built of whitewashed walls topped off with a thatched roof. This sort of farmhouse or longhouse was once common in this part of Caithness but today the one at Laidhay is a very rare survivor, probably built in the early 1800s.
The longhouse was designed, if that is not too strong a word, to provide everything a farming family might need under one roof, and it is a linear evolution of the traditional blackhouses that can still be seen in parts of the Western Isles. The walls were made of fairly neatly constructed rubble masonry, whitewashed in later times to help protect the surface of the stone. The roof was originally supported on a framework of "Highland couples" or crucks. The cruck-framed roof provided a little more space within the roof than was found within the more robust A-frame roofs which tended to replace them in later buildings. The original cruck-frame at Laidhay appears to have been replaced by A-frames at some point during the life of the longhouse, but the original roof structure of the nearby barn remains in place.
The oldest longhouses, like the blackhouses, had heating and cooking provided by an open peat fire in the centre of the floor of the kitchen (or "fire house"). Pots would be hung from a frame above this for cooking. Such dwellings had no chimneys, with the peat smoke instead finding its own way out through the thatched roof. Entering a smoky blackhouse in which a central peat fire is burning is an unforgettable experience, and one that leaves you wondering how the residents' eyes, lungs and sense of smell could possibly have survived. It is no surprise to find that in later longhouses, such as the one at Laidhay, fireplaces were made a feature of dividing walls, and chimneys were provided: thus giving residents a relatively smoke free environment.
Other aspects of life changed more slowly. One of the striking features of brochs, dwellings from the Iron Age, was that the residents shared their roof with their livestock, who would often occupy the ground floor of the building while the humans lived above them. In blackhouses the vertical arrangement of brochs was laid on its side, with the family living at one end of the building (the uphill end if possible), and their animals in a byre under the same roof at the other end of the building.
This arrangement is taken to its logical conclusion in buildings like the longhouse at Laidhay. Here you have a very long structure which is just one room wide, set end-on to the prevailing wind and divided into a series of rooms intended for different purposes. At Laidhay the family who lived here occupied three rooms in the middle of the length of the longhouse. The only one with a defined purpose was the kitchen. The other two were simply rooms used for living or sleeping depending on the time of day and number of residents. The west end of longhouse provided stable accommodation for the family's horses, while the east end of the longhouse provided a scullery and beyond it a byre for the family's animals. Both the stables and the byre have drainage troughs in the floor to make it easier to clear away animal waste.
At Laidhay Croft Museum the longhouse, barn and shed have over the years become home to a remarkable collection of everyday objects and furniture. Some were part of the fixtures and fittings of the croft itself. Others have simply accumulated over time.
The result is to add another dimension to the fascination afforded by a visit to the museum. At one level you do get some sense of the family that lived here, while accepting that no Caithness family would ever have sought to (or been able to) pack quite so much stuff into their home. At another, you can appreciate what amounts to a large collection of the everyday domestic and farming objects of the last couple of centuries which line every surface and occupy every corner. Meanwhile the barn and shed are home to a surprisingly large collection of farming implements including a number of threshing machines and a two wheeled horse-drawn carriage.