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Using technology to 'reconstruct' blackhouse G

29 January 2012

Like many people, my fascination with St Kilda began when I was small. My father, as an avid and adventurous sea kayaker, had attempted to make the 40 mile crossing from the Monarch Isles to Hirta on a number of occasions. As a child I remember listening intently as he told me stories about the community who used to live there.

It wasn’t until my final year as an undergraduate in archaeology at the University of Glasgow that I re-kindled my interest in the archipelago when the opportunity arose to write my dissertation on the iconic cleits which pepper the slopes of Hirta and Boreray in their hundreds. Following months of pouring over maps and devouring any St Kilda related book I could get my hands on I decided I’d put too much of my heart and soul into my dissertation not to visit before I handed in my final paper. So on a chilly spring morning of April 2009 I boarded the first boat of the season and embarked on what would be my first trip to the island. I was joined by my father who was certainly not going to miss an opportunity to explore the island which for so many years had remained frustratingly distant through a pair of binoculars as the bad weather rolled in!

Alice surveying cleitsPhoto: Conducting my survey of the cleits on my first trip to Hirta in 2009

The week we spent on Hirta was a fantastic experience, we both talked of how it was a once in a lifetime trip and I certainly never expected to have the opportunity to return again. But in late 2010 I began my PhD at the Glasgow School of Art’s Digital Design Studio working as part of the Scottish Ten Project. The project forms a partnership between the GSA and Historic Scotland whose joint aim is to digitally document the five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Scotland together with five international sites. The Scottish sites include Old and New Town Edinburgh, The Antonine Wall, Neolithic Orkney, New Lanark and of course, St Kilda.

In the years since I had first visited the island I had spent my time specialising in 3D visualisation and animation for archaeology down at the University of Southampton. If you have ever watched Time Team or Digging for Britain and marvelled at how they can reconstruct a whole village from one tiny piece of pottery and a few holes in the ground...well, that’s more or less what I do!

Laser scanner used to survey the structures on St KildaPhoto: Digital survey of The Street using a Leica C10 laser scanner which generates a 3D point cloud

For two weeks between June and July 2011 I joined the Scottish Ten team on St Kilda to digitally document select areas on Hirta. We used a combination of different scanners and photogrammetry rigs to record the structures within the head dyke, some of the field systems in An Lag above the village and the Amazon’s House over in Glen Mor. In addition to the wide-scale scanning of the Village with terrestrial scanners, an Artec hand-held scanner was used to record a number of culturally significant features in detail, including the three carved stone crosses. On a much larger scale, a long range mining scanner was brought in during the second week on the island which was used to capture the surrounding terrain in detail. The final result being the creation of, in effect, a ‘virtual St Kilda’, an exceptionally accurate digital model of the site which can be used to better conserve and manage this unique place.

Scanning the inside of structuresPhoto: As the project PhD student I get all the best jobs! Scanning in the ankle deep mud of Calum Mor's House in the Village Bay

After an unforgettable fortnight we returned to Glasgow to begin processing the data we had collected. Using a portion of the scan data for the purpose of my research I began to reconstruct one of the blackhouses on the Village Street which date to the 1830s.  Point cloud 3D surface model of structures

Solid model of the street generated from the point cloud modelPhotos: The scanners generate 3D surface models of the structures. In the top image we see the point cloud,and in the bottom image the solid model generated from this point data. We call this stage 'meshing'. Images reproduced courtesy of the CDDV (Centre for Digital Documentation and Visualisation)

Archaeological reconstruction is a tricky business. If done correctly a single image can spark academic debate, raise new questions about a site or simply promote a greater understanding of the archaeological evidence to a general audience, perhaps even inspire them to learn more about that subject. For me, visualising a site as it would have been in the past is not just about presenting the evidence we have, that can be done in a museum display or in an academic paper; it’s about tying together those pieces of evidence to make a compelling story. With my work producing an ‘authentic’ visualisation is not solely about accuracy, it’s about creating a believable sense of place and atmosphere.
BlackhousePhoto: A view inside my smoky reconstructed blackhouse

With the blackhouse I wanted to construct a narrative around the 18th and 19th century written accounts of the island together with the vast early 20th century photographic archive. The model is still ongoing, but the scene is beginning to take shape. We see a woman (I like to think its Mrs Gillies from the archive photographs!) sat at the central hearth boiling a kettle, surrounded by various items essential to life on the island. A quern stone sits near the door ready to grind cereals into flour. Ropes lay waiting to be untangled and fish hang from the ceiling to smoke over the peat fire. As all these little details are added, it’s beginning to feel a lot like home. The more depth the image has the more an audience will be drawn in and will engage with the site.Blackhouse G reconstructions - byrePhoto: Another view of the blackhouse G reconstruction produced using 3ds Max software, showing the family's cow in the byre

In the coming weeks I hope to finalise my reconstruction simply by adding more objects to the scene, more mess, more life. So that what you will see is not just a virtual museum display of this aspect of St Kildan life, but something which feels closer to a window on a past reality. View of the reconstructed blackhouse on the StreetPhoto: And finally, a view of my reconstructed blackhouse where it would have sat on The Street, the surrounding terrain was generated and textured from the laser scan and photogrammetry data by Alistair Rawlinson of the CDDV

To read more about the St Kildan blackhouse, and my current research projects you can follow my blog here ( and find out about the Scottish Ten project here (

Alice Watterson



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