Scotland Magazine Issue 53
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The ghosts of Skaill
Charles Douglas visits Orkney's largest mansion house.
ORKNEY is a seventy-island chain crowning the top of Scotland, where the Gulf Stream meets the North Sea. Time stands still in this windswept archipelago, adorned throughout by the remnants of an ancient civilisation – the Stones of Stennes, the Ring of Brodgar and the Tomb of Eagles. And nowhere is this more apparent than at the stone age village of Skara Brae, miraculously uncovered after a storm in 1850.
To give some indication as to the sophistication of life in those Neolithic times, the accommodation unearthed here on the Bay of Skaill on the Breckness estate, near Sandwick, contains stone beds, tables, hearths and indoor toilets. Access to the site, which is under the protection of Historic Scotland, includes entry to nearby Skaill House, Orkney’s largest historic dwelling house. Having explored how our ancestors lived five thousand years ago, follow the pathway to the stone stairway which leads from the surrounding pasture onto the lawns on the long seaward side of Skaill House. It is well worth the experience.
From a rather more recent millennium, Skaill House (“Skaill” is the old Norse word for “Hall) rises stark and white against the surrounding flat and treeless landscape.
After the trial and execution for treason of Earl Patrick, second Stewart Earl of Orkney, a cousin of King James VI of Scotland and I of England, the lands of Breckness were confiscated by the Crown and handed over to the Church. It was therefore on this strategic spot overlooking the Bay of Skaill that George Graham, Bishop of Orkney, a former Bishop of Dunblane, erected a mansion house in 1615.
The central wing dates from around 1620, and was probably a conversion of the earlier hall into a separate building which now forms part of the north wing. An even older building is known to have stood on the same spot. The outlook is spectacular.
But power and influence, then as now, waxed and waned and, in 1638, the recently formed Assembly of the Church of Scotland accused Bishop Graham of having neglected his duties and of having used wealth belonging to the church for his own ends. As was so often the case during the Reformation, by renouncing his bishopric, Graham was permitted to hold on to his land, and Breckness somehow passed into the hands of his youngest son. Since then, successive lairds, through various marriages, have claimed their inheritance and, twelve of them to date, have individually enhanced the property to make it what it is today.
By 1770, the two free standing wings had been joined into a square around a courtyard, and, at around the same time, a dovecot, chapel and walled garden were added.
Although the chapel was demolished in 1806, by the 1880s, a significant extension had been added to the two ends of the building.
Much of the appearance of today’s house, however, dates back to as recently the 1950s when there were large scale alterations to create two-storey wings and a third storey for the tower.
The current owner, Major Malcolm Macrae, served with the Queens Own Highlanders before returning to Orkney to run the family farm. He inherited the house in 1991, and having initiated substantial restoration work to re-create the style of the 1950s, he opened the house to the public in June 1997. Although its outward appearance is undeniably spartan, the interiors have the warmth and welcoming charm of a stylish family home. Rooms accessible to the general public between April and September include Bishop Graham’s bedroom, the Library, and Dining Room, which features Captain Cook’s dinner service and paintings by the acclaimed Orkney artist Stanley Cursiter.
Now you might imagine that the not-solong- ago discovery of fifteen skeletons beneath the east porch might easily put some visitors off, but not at all. The consensus is that if there are ghosts at Skaill House, they are friendly ones, although dogs might tend to disagree.
While working in the apartments around the courtyard, Major Macrae heard footsteps in the corridor and his dog began to bark and growl. Stepping outside to see what was going on, the Major found nobody there, but his dog continued to growl.
The sound of footsteps in an empty passageway is not an unusual occurrence at Skaill House, and other dogs have reacted in a similar fashion. “Their owners shout at them to be quiet, but it’s not their fault,” says the Laird. “They’re only being protective.” And he admits that guests staying overnight are sometimes awoken by somebody sitting on a corner of their bed.
“That’ll be Ubby,” he explains.
Ubby, according to the Skaill tradition, was a reclusive old man who long ago created a little island for himself in the middle of Loch Skaill. Day after day, he rowed a small boat loaded with rocks and stone into the middle of the loch and tipped his cargo overboard until the islet was formed. When it was sufficiently large for him to inhabit, he built a shelter on it and lived there until he died.
Nobody has ever actually seen Ubby’s ghost, but his presence in and around the house is widely accepted and welcomed.
“Ubby often comes to visit us,” confirms Mary Connolly who manages Skaill House for the Macrae Family.
“He doesn’t mean any harm. He just likes us to know he’s there.”