• Skaill House, Orkney - image by Colin Keldie

Four centuries at Skaill House

Coronavirus has postponed plans to celebrate a major milestone for this old Orcadian building, but organisers vow they will be back bigger and better.

Orkney’s historic Skaill House, renowned for its collections of unique artefacts and tales of ghostly happenings, marks its 400th anniversary this year, though celebrations are understandably on hold for the time being.

The house, which overlooks the Bay of Skaill, on Orkney’s west mainland coast, was built in 1620 by Bishop George Graham - Bishop of Orkney between 1615 and 1638 – and added to over the centuries by all of its subsequent owners, or lairds.

It was the home of William Graham Watt, 7th Laird of Breckness, who unearthed the world-famous Neolithic village of Skara Brae – sited within walking distance of the house – in 1850.

All of the lairds of Skaill House have been related, with the current owner Major Malcolm Macrae – the 12th Laird of Breckness - inheriting the property in 1991. He opened it to the public six years later in a bid to share its story with a wider audience and help preserve this important Orkney building.

Skaill House, Orkney - image by Colin Keldie

Neolithic and Iron Age finds, a dinner service from Captain Cook’s ship, a Spanish Armada chest, paintings by renowned Orcadian artist, Stanley Cursiter, and even Bishop Graham’s bed, are all on display within the house, along with many other items collected by its various owners.

“The 400th anniversary is a hugely important milestone for all of us associated with Skaill House, though clearly we’re going to have to wait a while until we can celebrate properly with all of our visitors,” says Malcolm.

Accredited as a four-star visitor attraction, Skaill House normally draws over 80,000 people a year. However, like so many sites in the islands it has been forced to close its doors during the COVID-19 crisis.

“It’s disappointing of course, but the safety of our staff and visitors is something we’d never compromise on,” says Malcolm. “However, the house has weathered many storms over the centuries and we’re sure it, and the Orkney community, will pull through this very difficult period.”

Malcolm inherited the property in 1991, “right out of the blue”.

“It was a complete shock to the system,” he recalls. “It was needing an awful lot of work done to it back then and I wasn’t sure what its future might hold.

“Given the incredibly rich history contained within the house, we felt it was right to share that more widely. Six years later, and after an awful lot of effort, we got it open to the public.

“We’ve continued to evolve and modernise the visitor experience since 1997, adding new exhibitions, hosting weddings, concerts and events, opening self-catering flats, and running a falconry in the gardens, but have endeavoured to retain the feel of a family home, which it always has been.

“That special atmosphere is something many of our visitors comment on and people are always surprised by just how much personal history is contained within the house.”

Skaill House has also gained a chilling reputation as one of the most haunted buildings in Orkney, with numerous ghostly sightings reported over the years. However, it’s a quality embraced by Malcolm and his staff.

“Whether you believe in them or not, our spectral inhabitants are very much part of the history and story of Skaill House,” says Malcolm. “We’ve hosted ghost story evenings, which have been very popular, and have plans for Halloween events too, all being well.”

When Skaill House does eventually reopen, visitors will also be able to enjoy a new exhibition that’s been created around diaries and sketchbooks recording Japanese life, owned by a relative of Malcolm who was a surveyor in the Far East in the 1860s.

“We’ve totally redone our archaeology room and the Orkney Museum is loaning us Skara Brae artefacts that originally came from Skaill House,” adds Malcolm. “We’ve also revamped our interpretation panels throughout the house, sharing more information about Bishop Graham, and my own family’s service history, reflected in the many military items within the house.”

And, what would Bishop Graham make of Skaill House in 2020?

“The house is much bigger than when he had it!” laughs Malcolm. “He was a businessman as well as a bishop, so I think he would be delighted to see the house had survived. I’m sure he’d also remind us to be patient, keep our spirits up and look forward to the return of happier times.”

Find out more about Skaill House.

The Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020

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