This is a formal designed landscape associated with a prominent Orkney mansion. Its distinctive landscape character comprises a geometric layout of a series of rectangular lawn platforms, terraces and enclosures. In turn the gardens are surrounded by enclosed parks, associated with mid-18th century agricultural improvement.
Type of Site
Formal designed landscape associated with a prominent Orkney mansion. Its distinctive landscape character comprises a geometric layout of a series of rectangular lawn platforms, terraces and enclosures. In turn the gardens are surrounded by enclosed parks, associated with mid-18th century agricultural improvement.
Location and Setting
Skaill House is situated in the north-west of Orkney mainland, 10km north of Stromness. It lies on the coast, set on a hillside midway between the Bay of Skaill to its north-east and the Loch of Skaill to its south-west. Views from Skaill House extend over Skaill Bay to the north-west and inland down the Skaill Valley. Skaill House is a complex structure, a prominent feature in the landscape. The series of platforms and enclosures, which surround the house, make a striking, sculptural setting, contrasting with the more natural, organic forms of the outer, coastal landscape. The site lies within the intermediate setting of the World Heritage Site (Tyldesley, 2001).
Skara Brae, on the south side of the Bay of Skaill, lies 350m to the north-west of Skaill House. Now lying on the shore, but originally set further inland, its natural defences and some of the prehistoric settlement itself have been eroded over the centuries. To its east, about 420m away, stood a 18th century water-mill, on the burn flowing from the Loch of Skaill into the Bay of Skaill. It was finally lost through coastal erosion in 1979. To the south of the burn and 90m north-east of the house are the remains of a small tumulus. The land surrounding Skaill House is generally low-lying, prone to flooding and, on this west coastal area, prone to erosion and brackish marshy ground.
Skaill House and Gardens are compact and comprise 1.75ha (4 acres) defined by the outer boundary walls and terraces. The fields outwith the garden boundary are part of the agricultural enclosure system and are essential to the setting of the House and gardens.
Skaill House dates from the 17th century with 18th, 19th and 20th century additions, to form a U-plan house with buildings grouped around a courtyard to the north, and further ranges to the north and east. The building is harled. The west elevation consists of a single-storey screen wall with entrance door. Above it is a weathered, carved lintel with cornice initialled HEG (Henry Graham and wife Euphemia Honeyman); inscribed and dated 'WEAK THINGS GROW STRONG [B]Y UNITIE AND LOVE. BY DISCORD STRONG THINGS WEAK AND WEAKER PROVE. ANNO 1676'. To the north of the House is a stable yard with a brewhouse and harness room linked to the House by a screen wall enclosing a courtyard.
Against the south-east corner of the gardens is an 18th century lectern Doocot. The Walled Garden lies to the north of the main access drive. Its rubble walls are between 3-5m high with concrete crenellations along the north and west sides. Lean-to potting sheds abut the north side of the north wall and there are the remains of a glasshouse in the north-west corner.
Drives and Approaches
The main drive leads in south-westwards from a gateway on the Aith-Birsay public road (B9056) at the north end of Loch of Skaill. After crossing a burn, the drive turns to lead on a straight axis up to the east front. The drive ascends a gentle ramp, which cuts between terraced lawns retained by low stone walls, to terminate at a walled forecourt in front of the east porch.
A second entrance at Grahamsha', 400m north of the main gateway on the public road, approaches the west front from the north. It then leads further west to Skaill Home Farm.
Skaill House and gardens are set within a series of rectangular parks to the north and south, probably enclosed by William Watt in the mid-late 18th century. They remain in agricultural use.
Skaill House sits centrally within a complex of rectangular terraced lawns and platforms. These are formed variously by stone retaining walls and low boundary walls.
South-east of the House lies the largest compartment, comprising a three-tiered, sunken, terraced rectangular lawn. The terraces are retained by low stone walls with a series of curved steps positioned at their north-west angle. On the east side of the lawn, a grass ramp leads across the terraces to the upper level. Colonel Scarth laid out these terraces and sunken lawn.
South of the House, placed on an axis with the south façade, is a rectangular sunken flower garden. A low parapet wall to the west and a raised grass platform to the east enclose this. At its north end is a flight of steps giving access to a terrace set against the south façade.
The West Terrace extends across and beyond, the west front. A broad, grass terrace retained by low stone walls, it forms a generous podium for the House. At both its north and south ends it forms two square bays enclosed by parapet walls. A flight of steps lead down centrally from the West Terrace onto the field and west entrance drive.
The Walled Garden lies north of the main range of Skaill House, its northern wall abutting the gable-end of the 1930s north wing. A north-south cross-wall sub-divides the garden into two compartments.
That to the east was the Kitchen Garden, now disused. The route of a central north-south path can still be discerned, as can a peripheral path. The south-facing north wall was furnished with two glasshouses at its north-west corner; the rest of the wall was used for fruit trees. Early 20th century garden records indicate that the garden was very productive, with cut flowers and sweet peas in one half and a wide variety of seasonal fruit and vegetables in the other. This included carrots, cauliflowers, peas, broad beans, rhubarb, strawberries and blackcurrants. There was also a range of cold frames.
The west compartment was also in productive use in the mid 19th century (1880, OS 6"). In recent years, it was used as a drying green and tennis court. It is now lawn, overlooked by the 1930s north wing.
- 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
The arrangement of its geometric lawns, terraces and enclosures make this a striking and unusual complex of formal gardens and historic house. It is also very important in relation to the discovery of the 5,000 year old village of Skara Brae, a scheduled ancient monument, and lies within the outer buffer zone of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney, World Heritage site. Skaill House played a prominent role in the social and political life of Orkney.
Main Phases of Landscape Development
18th century, late 19th century, 1950s.
Excavations at Skaill uncovered remains of a medieval or Early Christian cemetery. The earliest reference to Skaill is a rental of 1492. By the 15th century, it was a farmstead on Earl Robert Stewart's estate until 1615 when it passed to the bishopric and to Bishop George Graham (1565-1643) in 1615. The Bishop was forced to resign his position by the Covenanters in 1638 but the family retained much of their property, including Skaill estate. His main residence was the Earl's Palace, Kirkwall and he enlarged Graemeshall (9.7km/6 miles south of Kirkwall), Breckness (3.2km/2 miles west of Stromness) and Skaill. At Skaill, he built the central wing, known as the Mansion House. A portion of his extensive estates passed to his youngest son John Graham (c 1615-66), who thereby became the 1st Laird of Skaill House and the Breckness estate.
Harie Graham (1648-1718) succeeded his father as 2nd Laird. A prominent figure in Orkney he was Member of Parliament for Orkney and Shetland. He extended the Skaill Estate, modernised the Mansion House in the 1670s and was probably responsible for adding the buildings to the east and west of the courtyard. Predeceased by his first and second wives, and Andrew, his eldest son, the estate passed to his grandson Robert Graham (1696-1736). By this time, the estate was in debt following a series of bad harvests and Graham was forced to mortgage the estate. The situation was exacerbated during the lifetime of Robert Graham (1724-80), the 4th Laird, who sold land and took out further loans and mortgages. In 1787, his son Patrick Graham (1748-1800) sold the property to his brother-in-law William Watt (1730-1810). Watt was a successful merchant and shipowner in Kirkwall. As 6th Laird of Skaill he attempted kelp production and sought to diversify the economic basis of the estate through sea fishing, quarrying, a flax mill, brewery and tannery. He employed a gardener to tend the productive walled garden, extended the estate, modernised the home farm and promoted straw plaiting for the London fashion market in order to give female tenants a cash income. In the 1790s he undertook extensive repairs to Skaill House and built the south wings. The west front became the principal entrance front as the main route north from Stromness led west of the House.
His son William Graham Watt (1776-1866) ran the estate for 56 years. A Commissioner of Supply for the County, he was also an advocate of modern farming techniques. He abolished the runrig system and enclosed commonland. Coastal erosion exposed the neolithic settlement of Skara Brae and he excavated four of the houses.
William G. T. Watt (1849-1909) built a porch on the east front in 1878, heavily decorated with moulded stonework from the ruined mansion at Breckness, including two large armorial panels commemorating Bishop Graham. In the 1880s, he constructed a screen wall linking the west gables of the old mansion and the new south wing. The principal west façade was decorated by the incorporation of a 1676 commemorative stone, from its original position. It surmounted a moulding carrying the crown of King Charles and the Honours of Scotland. The construction of the West Terrace Lawn seems also to be contemporary with this work (1880, OS 6", 1900, OS 6").
The formal gardens seem to have been established initially in the 18th century. As the house was extended, so were the gardens, although their development has not been firmly established. The majority of the current layout seems to be due to the activities of W. G. T. Watt in the 1870-80s, modified in the 1950s by Colonel Scarth.
After being derelict and unoccupied for a few years in the 1990s the House has been restored and is now open to the public.
- Features & Designations
Historic Environment Scotland An Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland
World Heritage Site
- Reference: The Heart of Neolithic Orkney
- House (featured building)
- Description: Skaill House dates from the 17th century with 18th, 19th and 20th century additions, to form a U-plan house with buildings grouped around a courtyard to the north, and further ranges to the north and east. The building is harled.
- Key Information
Open to the public
Birsay and Dounby