The Ruins of Breckness: The House of Bishop Graham

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

The stone with the coat of Arms and most of the mouldings I removed a few years ago (from Breckness) to Skaill, and erected a porch on the east side, on which I placed them. This was done for their preservation. Had they been allowed to remain at Breckness much longer, they would certainly have been destroyed, as parts of the walls subsequently fell in.

On entering by the front door there is a room 15 feet long and in the gable end there are 2 large archways, both at first sight like two fireplaces. The chimney vent is a large one, and some little distance up there is a stout beam which, according to tradition was used for the support of a bullock or other animal while being roasted; and this may quite well have been the case for the fireplace is large enough to hold and roast an ox of the present day, let alone the indigenous Orkney ox of 1633, which was a “peerie beastie”; and as the Bishop was given to great hospitality, it would often be all required for his numerous friends and retainers.

Under the staircase at the west corner of the kitchen there has been a door leading into a room , likely the dining room or hall. In it there is an arched fireplace faced with freestone. On the right hand side of the fireplace there are two small recesses or cupboards, and on the opposite side a window which looks out on the entrance of Hoy Sound, broad Atlantic, and distant hills of Sutherland; and there is another window commanding a beautiful view of the hills of Hoy.

On the east end of the hall or dining room, and entering from it has been a room with a small fireplace and a window of the same size as the others in the hall looking out on Hoy, also a small window in the N.E. corner of the gable.

From this room again there has been a door by which one could get direct to the kitchen or to the stone stairs leading to the rooms above or out of the front door, which so far as I can see was the only outer door to the whole building, for the other outer door on the south side is of comparatively recent date. I am unable to give a plan of the rooms on the second flat, but I fancy there must have been four or five.

Below the staircase and off the passage leading from the kitchen to the hall there is a curious little closet with an outlook to the westward through a  peephole cut out of a solid piece of freestone. It has been handed down from generation to generation by the old inhabitants of the township that in this closet lived a noted and indispensible personage. He was none other than the famous Brownie of Breckness. There is no authenticated account of him, but it can be supposed that he was an uncanny looking little fellow of small stature, with long arms and big head, and possessing beside the power of “second sight” other qualifications needful in the case of one who without doubt acted as right hand help to the Bishop, not only in domestic affairs, but also as a faithful reporter of all the peccadilloes of the folk in the surrounding district.

It is also said that there is an underground passage leading from the house to the shore, and this passage no doubt Brownie was well acquainted with and took advantage of, when he had any secret mission to perform, as he could go and return without the inmates of the house knowing anything regarding his movements.

Owing to the steepness of the roofs, the attics were commodious and would have been portioned off for bed rooms and keeping places.

The windows in the house were small and narrow and they seem to have been strongly barred with iron. The outer door also was well secured from within.

Opposite the east gable there was a thick low building with a deep recess and an opening to it like an oven. It is said that this was the Bishop’s oven where he had his bread baked.

in the middle of a small field between the house and the sea there is a “steethe” 39 feet by 18 feet overgrown with grass, which, no doubt was a chapel, and near it there are two stones which apparently mark a grave. There was a burial ground at Breckness so this may be the place with the chapel in the centre.

To the west or back of the present ruins of the main house there have been other houses which formed a quadrangle similar to that at Skaill.

ruins of Breckness 2

Suffer this gent the bearer thereof, John Grahame, to passe to Edenbor, with his servant and two horses, and backe again into Kirkwall into ye Isls of Orkney, without lett or molostation. Given under my hand at Kirkwall this 18th day of october 1653.Tho. Salkins

Ruins of Breckness

I Desyr all Officeris & souldiouris under Command of his excelt. my Lord Generall Cromwell, to forbeare to trubell or molest ye persouns, famiellis, goods, or geir of John Graham of Breknes & ye inhabitants of Stromnes, nor tak any of ther cornes, cattell, hors, or shep away, th[e]y acting nothing preuiditiall to the commonwalth of England or Armie to them belonging. Given under my hand at Kirkwall march 4th 1652. RT. OVERTON

Next week: The Oyce of Firth by William MacKay F.E.I.S. in Orcadian Papers

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