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Melsetter House


Melsetter House is situated on the south of the Island of Hoy, overlooking Longhope Bay. The woodlands are an important feature of the surrounding treeless landscape. Parts of the garden walls date from the 18th century but the current planting design dates from the early-20th century. The gardens are influenced by Arts and Crafts principles and are divided into compartments, comprising formal gardens, shrub gardens, a kitchen garden and lawns.

The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:

Location and Setting

Melsetter House is situated at the head of North Bay at the south end of the Island of Hoy, Orkney. The town of Stromness lies some 11 miles (18km) due north on mainland Orkney whilst mainland Scotland lies some 9.5 miles (15km) due south across the Pentland Firth. The B9047, the main route across Hoy, forms the eastern boundary of the designed landscape. To the north, the landscape rises gently beyond Melsetter Hill to a height of 479' (146m) at Ward Hill. Melsetter occupies one of the most sheltered parts of the island. The immediate surrounding landscape is rolling farmland which is important to the setting of the house. Also important to the setting is North Bay, a sea loch which lies beyond the B9047, between the islands of Hoy and South Walls.

From within the Melsetter policies, fine views can be gained north across Hoy and east down to Longhope Bay; from the Burial Ground on the top of Melsetter Hill, views can be gained across the Pentland Firth to the Castle of Mey and the Scottish mainland. Melsetter is highly significant within the landscape looking south from the B9047; the buildings are seen on the skyline and the garden is visually exposed on its east-facing slope.

Melsetter House stands in the lee of Melsetter Hill within 25 acres (10ha) of designed landscape which is enclosed on all sides by walls and extends to the B9047 in the east. The kennels and gamekeeper's house stand on the shore to the north-east of the policies. Published documentary map evidence of the designed landscape is confined to the 1st edition OS map of c.1850 and the 2nd edition map of 1906. Comparison of these shows that the extent of the designed landscape has remained constant over the last 135 years. There are two access drives: a main south drive to the house, and an access road on the north boundary.

Landscape Components

Architectural Features

Melsetter House, listed category A, was built in 1899 to the design of W.R. Lethaby; it is reputedly Lethaby's only complete work in Scotland. Lethaby's design incorporated the south wing of a former house built in 1738. Measured drawings were made of the house in 1943 by J. Brandon-Jones FRIBA. The Chapel, also listed A, was built by Lethaby in c.1900 to the south- west of the house (it is now empty, disused since the war). The walled garden, incorporating a tea house and doocot, is listed category A and is thought to date from the 1738 phase of the design. The walls of the walled garden are thought to have been heightened in the 1900 phase of work. The steading and outbuildings are by W.R. Lethaby c.1900 and are included in the A listing. The walls which form the boundary of the designed landscape are important features in the landscape. The South Lodge is due to be restored. The gates and other ornamental ironwork are distinctive by their 'Arts & Crafts' design. A sundial which stands in the flower garden is in need of repair.


The park lies to the east of the house between the gardens and the B9047. It is grazed. There are no park trees today although old photographs in the Moodie family collection apparently show large trees in the parkland in the mid-19th century.


Reference to the 1st edition OS map shows that by 1877 woodlands were established at Melsetter on either side of the south drive, along the edge of the park to the Flower Garden and in a small square to the west of the kitchen garden. By 1906, additional areas of woodland had been planted around the perimeter of the park and to the south of the walled garden. Since then, there has been little further replanting except by the late Mr Seatter. Today some sycamore and ash which predate 1906 remain on either side of the south drive and in the square to the west of the kitchen garden; other willow and alder were planted c.1900 and there is some natural regeneration. Some willow and alder remain in the south-east corner of the park by the lodge but the majority of the trees planted around the perimeter of the park have gone due to exposure to wind and sheep.

The Gardens

The Gardens are divided into several compartments, mostly walled, and were originally planted in the Arts & Crafts style popularised by Gertrude Jekyll.

The house and chapel are designed around a high-walled courtyard. This is decorated with several large urns and tubs filled with catmint.

The shrub garden is enclosed to the south and west by the former drive. Its almost triangular form is completed by a hawthorn hedge which cuts the corner of the drive and separates the garden from the formal lawn beyond. Sycamore forms a woodland canopy along the boundary of the garden within which, although presently overgrown, Fuchsia, Olearia and Laburnum are well established.

An area of lawn lies to the south of the house. Photographs taken in World War II show a walk along the north side of the lawn edged with miniature cannons. The lawn is now somewhat overgrown. A high wall encloses this compartment on its west side. The plantings of spring bulbs, snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells provide an outstanding display in the gardens in season.

The formal garden lies to the immediate east of the house and north of the formal lawn and is enclosed by low walls. It was designed to be viewed from the drawing- room window above. Photographs taken during World War II show a layout of rectangular flower beds in grass. These beds have gone, replaced by lawn within which specimen trees and shrubs have been planted, mainly by the late Mr Seatter although some remain from earlier periods. Shrub and flower beds line the edge of the garden. It has been planted for colour and the effect is extremely attractive. A fuchsia arch overhangs the gate in the north wall through to the kitchen garden.

The rose garden is situated in a square enclosure formed by farm buildings to the west of the house. The garden is overgrown and the roses which remain have gone to briar.

Walled Garden

The kitchen garden is situated to the north of the Formal Garden and north-east of the house. It is surrounded by low walls. The garden had become overgrown in recent years although the original fruit trees remain. Restoration work began in 1984 and it is now partially stocked with vegetables. The original greenhouse has gone and it has been replaced.

The large walled garden, thought to date from 1738, lies to the south of the house beyond the chapel. The east wall runs along the edge of the former drive. It is divided into two main sections: an apple-house is incorporated in the south-east corner of the north section and, above it, a summerhouse from which splendid views can be gained of the whole garden. Access to the summerhouse is by a steep flight of steps on the outer wall. The north section has been cultivated but is currently disused. The southern section was planted as a shrubbery and contains large splendidly overgrown flowering shrubs.

Visitor Access, Directions & Contacts

The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:

Reason for Inclusion

An early 20th-century Arts and Crafts style garden and landscape which forms the setting for a category A listed house and plays a very important role in the scenery of the Orkney Islands.

Site History

Melsetter House was built in 1898 and incorporated features of an earlier house which are known to date from 1738. The layout shown on the 1st edition OS map of 1877 remains today although the gardens were replanted for Thomas Middlemore at the turn of the century.

The original house at Melsetter was built in the 16th century for William Moodie of Snelsetter. His family was responsible for the earliest remaining parts of the house and gardens which date from 1738. (The house was sacked by the Jacobites in 1745.) It remained in the Moodie family until 1820 when George Heddle of Cletts acquired the estate from the 10th Laird. The OS Gazetteer of 1883 notes the owner to be John George Moodie-Heddle. In 1898, Thomas Middlemore acquired the island and subsequently carried out many improvements in the course of which he commissioned W.R. Lethaby (a friend of his brother, Sir John) to extend the house. Lethaby was a pupil of Richard Norman Shaw and a follower of William Morris, and Melsetter remains as one of the most important surviving examples of Lethaby's work. Local people were responsible for the construction of the house and local craftsmen assembled the furniture, some being made in Kirkwall.

Many well known personalities of the Arts & Crafts movement and the Bloomsbury Set, including May Morris and Duncan Grant, were regular visitors to Melsetter; May Morris described it as 'A sort of fairy palace on the edge of the northern seas'.

The house was occupied during both World Wars; during World War II, the house was requisitioned by the Admiralty as the residence of the Admiral in command at Scapa Flow. Whilst still requisitioned, the widow of the owner died and, after the War, the estate was put up for sale. The house and policies were purchased by Mr Seatter. Since his death the estate has been divided between his family; his daughter, Miss Elsie Seatter, has retained the house and has taken a keen interest in the restoration of the house and garden. Other members of the family live in estate buildings within the policies.

Associated People
Features & Designations


  • Historic Environment Scotland An Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland

  • Historic Environment Scotland Listed Building

  • Reference: Walled garden
  • Grade: A


  • Summerhouse
  • Dovecote
  • Country House (featured building)
  • Description: Melsetter House, listed category A, was built in 1899 to the design of W.R. Lethaby; it is reputedly Lethaby's only complete work in Scotland. Lethaby's design incorporated the south wing of a former house built in 1738.
  • Earliest Date:
  • Latest Date:
  • Courtyard
Key Information





Principal Building

Domestic / Residential





Open to the public





  • Historic Scotland