Local News

The Ruins of Breckness: the Grahams

by W.G.T. Watt, of Skaill (from Orcadian Papers 1905)

I have every reason to suppose that the Moodies, who acquired Breckness in the early part of the 16th century, had there a house of some consequence, but whether they were the builders of it or not I am not in a position to say.

The lands of Breckness were purchased from the Moodies by George Graham, youngest son of Geo. Graham of Inchbrakie, Perthshire, a cadet of noble and ancient family of Montrose. He was educated at St Andrews, and studied for the church, as many of the younger sons of influential families did at that time.

Episcopacy being in the ascendancy, lucrative appointments in the church were to be had, and young Graham was one of the lucky ones who, no doubt through family interest, was soon appointed parson at Scone, and some short time afterwards ordained Bishop of Dunblane, from which he was translated in 1615, to the See of Orkney, where he remained until 1638.

He disclaimed Episcopacy by a formal document signed at Breckness, 11th Feb., 1639. The document was duly laid before the General assembly at Edinburgh on 17th August, 1639, and as it was a total renunciation by him of Episcopacy, he was simply deposed, his private estates of Myreside and Gorthy in Perthshire and Rothiesholm, Graemshall and Breckness in Orkney not being interfered with.

It is clear that Graham was actuated by purely selfish motives in entering the church, and that when he saw his property in danger of being taken from him at the time Episcopacy was abolished, he did not hesitate to denounce the church he had cherished and fostered so long.

He went south and dwelt, probably at Myreside, in Perthshire, where he lived a quiet life, as no further mention is made of him in political or ecclesiastical affairs, and died about 1643-4,aged (circa) 80. It is said he was “a man of small stature but of great mind.” His writings are able, and I would draw your attention in particular to his quaint and clever style in replying to the demands of the magistrates of Edinburgh, vide Peterkin’s Rentals of the County of Orkney – No. III., p12,13,and 17.

His great hobby,however, appears to have been house building, for he built the mansion houses of Graemshall in Holm, Skaill in Sandwick, and Breckness in Stromness. The latter he erected in 1633 as a summer residence, and he seems to have taken more interest in this building than in any of the others as it was on a larger scale and more ornamented with carved freestone.

The ruins as they now stand do not show the original size of the place, for there are evident signs of extensive outbuildings which I am inclined to think formed part of the older house of Breckness. It, however, was, as may be seen, an ordinary two storied house of the 17th century style. The ruins as they are at present form a semi-quadrangle. One part 27 feet long by 24 feet wide runs northward, while the south gable of this portion runs into another 41 feet long by 21 feet wide, lying about E. and W.

The east gable of the south house and the east side of the north runs on a line and form the front, the entrance or main doorway being about the centre. The whole length of the frontage is about 50 feet. the side walls have been about 20 feet high and 2 feet 6 inches thick, and along the top a heavy moulding of freestone ran, the put stones at all the gable ends having either a clam shell or a rose sculptured in alto-relievo similar to those quartered in the coat of arms.

Bishop Graham's Coat of Arms

Bishop Graham’s Coat of Arms

The roofs have been high, with a sharp slope. The gables have the characteristic crow steps of the 17th and 18th centuries. The windows were narrow, with free stone moulding round them. The side facings and lintel of the door way are of freestone with heavy mouldings, and above it was richly sculptured on freestone, Bishop Graham’s Coat of Arms, viz – Quaterly, first and fourth, three escallops of the first, with chessman on the fourth, second and third, three roses barbed and seeded. Above the shield is a scroll with motto, which I am unable to decipher, and over that a Bishop’s Mitre, and above that again the letter “B” for Bishop, and below the shield a “G” on each side standing for “George Graham”.

This was surrounded by a handsome moulding of freestone, which had above it the date 1633. the arms are nearly the same in all respects as those of the present Duke of Montrose, with the exception of the chess-man, and a slight difference caused thereby in the third and fourth quartering, which may have been given effect to for distinction, or the chessman may have been a part of his wife’s family arms.*

*Since this paper was read Mr Watt finds that the chess rook is derived from the arms of Smyth of Braco who substituted an escallop for one of the chess rooks.

Next week: More from W.G.T. Watt of Skaill  and “Bishop Graham”

3 replies »

  1. Here’s a blatent plug for my ‘Warberth’ story – including another plug for Julie Gibson’s book – ‘Rising Tides’ – both connected to Breckness House.

Leave a Reply