Mike and I went to visit Skaill House on Tuesday, 22nd December 2015 when Lauren was kind enough to show us round, including parts of the house which aren’t usually open to the public
When I was waking up on the Tuesday morning, in that state between sleep and waking, I had the idea that there were buildings there, before the ones we can see, now. This is often the case with these old places – something has been there for a long time, and some of it has gone completely, some is underneath what we can presently see, and some is incorporated in the present building. You come across that many times. Often, old farm-houses have been added onto and added onto for the expanding family. There’s a big hotel ( The Woodlands) near where my family live in County Limerick, which started off as a modest little bungalow, got added to and added to, and is now huge! But, as my sister used to say, the bungalow is still in there somewhere!
Anyway, I had the idea that there were parts of that building which are older than how it looks – the rendering tends to make a building uniform. The idea I had, was 17th century. Then, it began to flow, that there was a man there, who had a little room. He needed this room, as a haven – a retreat from the demands and responsibilities of the Estate and the family. It was only a small room – with a table, a chair to sit at the table, and another chair which I wouldn’t quite describe as an arm-chair. It was low-slung, with a wooden back and arms, and cushions, but not like the cushions we have – they were made of some kind of quite rough woven material and were stuffed with…..something! The chair and table, were for him to write at and the more comfortable chair, was for him to read in. He also had a small book-case, with a small, but carefully chosen selection of books.
As I say he had a lot of responsibilities and demands on him. He embraced these responsibilities, and felt a great care for the people in his….care, and for the Estate. I presume the man I was seeing, was the Laird, at the time. He’s a man of slight build, average height. A quiet sort of chap. This room, was where he went to read and write, and …….have a bit of peace for himself. He did totally embrace his role in the running of the whole place, but….needed this refuge, this haven, that’s what he saw it as.
I had the idea that room is still there, somewhere in the house, and, even, that the piece of writing he was working on, is still there, somewhere. It’s surprising it hasn’t been found, with all the work which has been done on Skaill House, but, I do feel that it’s still there, waiting to be found, sometime. Not necessarily in the room, but it’s still in existence. The room, I do think is there, but not as it was.
On the way, in the car, I was telling Mike about all this, and, as we drove up to the house, I got a strong idea of there being an older part of the building, within what we see now. So, one of the first things I asked Lauren was, was part of the building older that it looks, and I explained why I was asking, and Lauren told me, and showed me a bit in the guide book, about how there are two sections of the house which are 17th Century, then, the house has developed, around them.
In fact, I have the idea, that there has been something – a dwelling place, on that site, for a long time, earlier that the 17th century buildings.
Back to the man and his ‘haven’. Lauren wondered if he was the Bishop, who built the ‘beginning’ of the present house. Malcolm Macrae also thought that might be the case. I don’t think so…..somehow, there was nothing of a bishop about him! Possibly vaguely ecclesiastical – the ‘learned parson’ kind of person – but I didn’t get any idea of his being the Bishop. His main concern was with the Estate and it’s people, and his family. I think he was the Laird – he had all the responsibilities on his shoulders. He did have a feeling of care for his people, which is how a bishop should be, but….some Bishops do care about their people, some don’t, and, some folk care a lot about the people around them, who aren’t religious, at all!
Lauren did say that the Bishop had a more lenient attitude to people’s….weaknesses, than was prevalent at the time, so ….maybe, but I didn’t get that. What I got was, a slightly built man, of average height, quiet demeanor, and a lot on his plate, who needed that room to retire to, where no-one would disturb him. A strong ethic of caring for his people and the place, but a knowledge of himself that meant that he knew that he needed that break from his cares, however much he wanted to do the right thing by the estate. I can understand that – however much you might love what you do, sometimes, you have to know your limitations.
And recently, I read this……The Ruins of Breckness: The Grahams
……and I wondered if this is the same person? Someone who went into the church, but with not much interest in religion – more interested in his estate and what was best for that? I think it could be the same person. Mebbe.
Bernie Bell is a regular contributor with The Orkney News where you can read many of her stories