Visiting Two of Orkney’s Fine Old Houses

By Bernie Bell

(Pics by B&M Bell)

Bank Holiday Weekend saw three Open Days in a row at the Hall of Clestrain, home of Arctic Explorer Dr. John Rae.

There are constantly new developments relating to the Hall, so we went along on Sunday the 5th May, to see what’s occurrin’.

A striking improvement to the structure of the house, is the fact that the Hall is now weather-proof, with sturdy covers over the door and windows, and proper guttering.  The deflection of rain water away from the walls, and along and down gutters and down-pipes, plays a surprisingly large part in keeping damp at bay – and we all know how damp can ruin a building.

Hall of Clestrain front Bell

So, it was good to see proper guttering, and a big ‘thumbs up’ to Casey Construction, who not only  are undertaking the repair work needed on the Hall, but also provide the Porta-loo for the Open Days!

I’m focussing here, on new developments at, or acquisitions appertaining to, the Hall. Thanks go to Jean and  Ivan Craigie, for the loan of their garage, where refreshments were provided for  visitors by the John Rae Society, and which also meant there was somewhere to display John Rae related items.

I’ll start with a pic of President of the John Rae Society,  Mr Andrew Appleby, wearing a whalebone mask!

whalebone mask Bell

There were two display cases – the first containing a pair of Inuit mittens donated to the John Rae Society by Lesley McLetchie in 2018,  a model of the kind of kayak John  Rae would have used, and a wooden and ivory harpoon

And the second containing various carvings, including  a Caribou and a Polar Bear, a walrus tusk animal procession, and my favourite – a tiny little carving of a Leopard Seal, used  as a charm when hunting seal – sympathetic magic.

seal Bell

All the JRS needs now, is some kind of Visitor Centre in which to permanently display the artefacts and items of interest which they are fast accumulating, relating to The Man Himself.  As the wind and waterproofing has been successfully achieved, this might  be their next aim, for which, needless to say – funding is much needed!

If you would like to find out more about the Hall of Clestrain, and John Rae, and maybe donate to the JRS, have a look at the John Rae Society website…………..

As always from Clestrain –  the sea-ways beckon……………

Clestrain panorama Bell

And so, on to Woodwick House, another fine house on a modest scale.

Woodwick House Bell

Woodwick House is now a B&B/Hotel, which, each Spring, starts a season of being open for Sunday afternoon teas.    If you book in advance, you might be lucky enough to sit in the conservatory, with the Wisteria in bloom and smelling….divine.

The lunches/teas, prepared by Carola and her helpers, are yummy, and make for a substantial lunch – sandwiches and cakes, while looking out and down the beautiful garden – what better way to spend an afternoon in springtime.

Woodwick House 2 Bell

It’s Bluebell time, and after lunch, we called by the Doocot  (pigeon house), for a little bit of Doocot magic

Then down along by the river, takes you through Bluebell woods, to the shore.

You can then wander back, up through the gardens, under the archway, under the rookery – mind your head – rooks aren’t fussy where they poo, or who they poo on!

and back to your car, or bicycle, or head for home by Shanks’s Pony.

We got into our car, and went home for a nap, dreaming of Robert MacFarlane’s Bluebell spell, from The Lost Words

Carola, the lady who runs Woodwick, was kind enough to provide me with information about the history of the house, so, I will now present to you…a (very) potted history of Woodwick House………….

Woodwick  ‘twelve penny land’ (a ‘penny land’ being a division of land in those parts of Scotland at one time under Norse occupation,  which paid tax of one penny to the Norwegian king or local ruler), was one of the earlier Norwegian settlements in Orkney, and it’s boundaries were probably settled before 800 AD. Some of the boundary stones are said to still be in position and the estate was intact for over 1,000 years, until 1924 when new legislation compelled William Henry Traill to sell the surrounding farms to his tenants.

After the ‘mortgage’ of Orkney by King James III in 1468, the estate fell into the hands of the Murray and McLennan families, who built a fortified manor house and doocot in 1648, which stand very close to the present house.

Woodwick House Doocot Bell

Pigeons provided much needed eggs and meat, in those days.

Subsequently the estates of North Ronaldsay and Woodwick passed into the ownership of Archibald Nisbet, who borrowed money for this purchase from an Edinburgh lawyer called James Traill.  Then, financial difficulties forced Mr Nisbet to sell both estates to James Traill in 1727.

The Trails were involved in a feud with Andrew Ross, the earl of Morton’s’ Deputy Sheriff, and a Lieutenant Moodie.

The defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden in 1746, is said to have been used as an excuse by Mr Ross to gain an advantage by accusing his opponents of involvement in the 1745 rebellion, which mean that they suffered reprisals, in the shape of a party of Marines, who in 1746, under the direction of Lieutenant Moodie, burned and looted several mansions in Orkney, including Woodwick.

The ruin of the original Woodwick Manor House and the intact doocot, were then left for 166 years, when the present house was constructed, incorporating stones from the ruins, including the placing of the carved red sandstone lintel from the old house, as the lintel for the Doocot

Woodwick House lintel Bell

The Traill family prospered as ship owners and merchants.  The present house was built in 1912 by William Henry Traill, to be the seat of his branch of the family, on the Orkney Mainland.  The building still has two fine oak fire surrounds, one in the dining room, and one upstairs in the concert room, which were carved by W.H.Traill himself.

When the present house was built, there was no convenient road link to Kirkwall, and the necessary materials were brought by sea. This could be seen as hearkening back to ancient times, when the sea was a more reliable way of transport, than land.

After the death of William Henry Traill, the residue of the estate was administered by Trustees, and Woodwick embarked on a chequered history, including being used as accommodation for a local garrison in the Second World War.

At another time the house was used by both Royal and Merchant Navy personnel as a ‘respite’ stop-off after being on Northern patrols.

The house later provided  TOC H with a ‘symbol of home and friendship’, when it was known as The Pilgrim House.

Immediately after the war, the house was used by the Marwick family as an hotel, it then passed back to the Traill family, the then owner being the granddaughter of W.H.Traill.

Woodwick House was then acquired by the present owners, for whom Carola manages it as a B&B that anyone would be delighted to stay in!

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3 replies »

  1. This Bluebell spell film, works – or, I hope it does!……………

    That’s the trouble with magic – it doesn’t always do, what you think it will/ mean it to….. do.

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