A family house steeped in 5,500 years of history – well of course it’s going to be riddled with ghosts! And it would take a Norse code to unravel its beginnings. The current building is a conglomeration of wings and whims from the early 17th century to the mid 20th century. It has an amazingly unified appearance despite – or should that be because of? – a thorough 1950s rejigging. Skaill House is set between the Loch of Skaill and the Atlantic Ocean. Nearby, a World War II Italian Chapel and German warship wrecks are remnants of more recent history. Captain Cook’s dinner service is a sign this Laird and Lady Laird boast serious provenance.
Major Malcolm and Jane Macrae are the current owners. Their daughter Kate was born in 1987 and son John in 1990. The Laird restored the unoccupied house and opened it to the public in 1997. It’s incredibly charming with low ceilinged rooms except for the centrally placed double height staircase hall. A drawing room upstairs has gorgeous views across the Atlantic Ocean. The house is surrounded by the plainest of parterres and simplest of sunken gardens, as befits this windswept treeless location.
The Pevsner Guide Buildings of Scotland Highland and Islands by John Gifford records, “1.2 kilometres south of Sandwick. Rustically smart harled laird’s house placed on a low hillside between the Bay of Skaill to the northeast and the Loch of Skaill to the southwest. The earliest part of the main house is the narrow crowstep gabled north range, probably built for Bishop George Graham circa 1620, apparently as a freestanding block, its slightly off centre south door from the present stairhall provided with a bar hole and clearly the original entrance from outside. In the late 17th century the Bishop’s grandson, Henry Graham of Breckness, converted the house to a U plan by adding a southwest link to a broader straight gabled south range, the two west gables being joined by a screen wall. In this wall, a roll moulded round arched doorway, its weathered keystone decorated with a cherub’s head surmounting the Honours of Scotland (crown, sword and sceptre). Above this, a reused lintel, probably from a fireplace, carved with a monogram of the initials of Henry Graham and his wife Euphemia Honeyman and the inscription ‘Weak things grow by vnitie [sic] and love by discord strong things weak and weaker prove Anno 1676.’ The date may be that of the additions.
The south range was damaged by a fire circa 1800, and subsequent remodelling of the house introduced late Georgian windows, including a big ground floor bullseye window in the south range’s west gable. Probably at the same time the open centre was partly filled by a piend roofed stairhall with a three light first floor window looking over to the sea. In the mid 19th century further alterations took place, two gabled stone dormerheads being added on the south side and a flat roofed porch built on the east, providing a resting place for early 17th century carved stones. In the porch’s south side, a panel taken from Breckness House bearing the arms and initials of Bishop George Graham. In the porch’s east front, a dormerhead, its strapworked cartouche again containing Bishop Graham’s initials. At one corner of this front, a skewputt carved with a shell, at the other a skewputt bearing a rosette.
Office courtyard attached to the house’s north side, its present appearance largely informal late Georgian. Tall crowstepped north range. On the east range’s east front, shaped dormerheads, perhaps mid 19th century. Over the entrance through the single storey west block, a reset 17th century dormerhead carved with a cherub’s head under a star. Mid 20th century courtyard to the northeast with a battlemented screen wall on the southwest and north ranges, the north with shaped armorial dormerheads, forming two sides. The fourth side is closed by the north end of the 19th century crenelated walled garden.”