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Apart from writing an excellent ‘History of Orkney’ [Kirkwall, 1932] and several novels, J. Storer Clouston published extracts relevant to Orkney from Sir John Sinclair's ‘Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-99’ entitled ‘The Orkney Parishes’ [Kirkwall, 1927] to which he added “a general introduction and notice of each parish”. The whole of his ‘notice’ on Sandwick appears HERE. Clouston was also a regular contributor to ‘Proceedings of the Orkney Antiquarian Society’ [POAS] from which the following extract on ‘Old Orkney Houses’ is taken. His words throughout appear thus.

He takes “the ruined house of Samsstaðir in Iceland, a homestead believed to have been abandoned before the year 1300, and certainly not later than 1350” as the pattern for Viking domestic building in Orkney. “With the rarest exceptions, all [in Iceland] are on the same general plan, and show us the kind of building one ought to expect in Orkney at a similar date.”

Such houses in Iceland “consist...of two principal rooms, a very long and narrow living room, A, and a shorter sleeping room, B, with a side chamber C, used as a store-house or larder, opening out of the long room. D was a bathroom, but this, I regret to say, is a feature there is no trace of in early Orkney houses. The rooms A, B, C, are the rooms to look for. Frequently there was more than one room built out to the side, or an outhouse might be built on to the end, but these were simply modifications of the same general design.”

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In Orkney I have so far found four old houses closely resembling this model, with a very long “sellar” and a side chamber called the “ale-hurry” opening off it; and in all of them the masonry and general appearance indicates, beyond any doubt, great age. These four are Winksetter and Furso in Harray, Nether Benzieclett in Sandwick and Meiklehouse of Hundland in Birsay. Sellar: A storeroom in a house for storage of provisions, wine, etc.; a pantry; in later use more specifically for the storage of wine and ale. [DSL - Dictionary of the Scots Language] Ale-hurry: “A small recess or chamber in a wall where 'pigs' of ale were stored.” [Marwick 1929] A hurry was Norn for a nook or corner and was often “a corner in an old Orkney house for micturation.” [Marwick 1929] The urine was kept for bleaching linen and wool. [DSL] One can only hope that no confusion arose in Orcadian minds in their hurry; an Irish woman, on being complimented on the strength of her tea replied “when I makes tea I makes tea - an when I makes water I make water.” at which her interlocutor observed “Jayzus - let's hope 'tis not both in the same pot!” - which I think is from Ulysses. [Ed.]

NETHER BENZIECLETT in Sandwick [O.S. HY 28033 20580]

Nether Benzieclett is marked NB on the Thomson's 1822 map.

This is the only one of four early houses where there is any material for giving a date, apart from their design and appearance, but they all seem clearly to belong to the same general period.

Judging by the appearance and the character of the masonry, Nether Benzieclett in Scabra in Sandwick seems older even than Winksetter, and personally I should feel inclined to regard it as certainly the oldest inhabited house I have seen in Orkney, and probably the oldest private building I have examined, inhabited or not.

Its curious ground plan is shown [below]. At the east end the Byre is 14 ft. 6 in. wide. The breadth steadily diminishes till it ought to be about 10ft. 6 in. at the west end of the Sellar, but there it suddenly contracts and is actually only 8 ft. 10 in. across. I may add that this peculiarity of one end being wider than the other is to be seen in a number of the early Icelandic houses.

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One has again the long Sellar, 28 ft. 6 in. in length (though now divided into three small rooms), with a comparatively large ale-hurry A, of most primitive construction opening out of it. The fire-house, H, was originally 18 ft. long, but is now divided by a wall. Tradition says that there was once an upper storey to the firehouse, and this is confirmed by the existence of filled-in joist holes. (The side walls were evidently lowered when this upper floor was removed.) A stair is indicated in the plan in the position which it is almost certain to have occupied, and there was probably a fireplace in the west cross gable. Wallpaper now covers this gable so that one cannot confirm its existence, but there cannot have been a fire in the middle of the floor while the upper storey existed, and there was certainly no fireplace in the other cross wall. In the north wall is a neuk bed, n, and the door into the sellar is shown adjacent to this, as it used to be, and not at the other end of the cross wall where it is now.

At the west end of the house stands a small primitive chamer, C. It is now enlarged and joined to the house, but was originally only 9 ft. square inside, and had neither window nor fireplace.

The greater part of the south wall and west gable of the house and byre was rebuilt a couple of generations or so ago, so that one cannot tell anything about the early windows, or whether there was a fire in the sellar. One section of original wall remains, and this, one would say might well have been built by Viking hands, the boulders are so large and irregular and the whole effect so barbaric. The north wall has never been rebuilt, but has evidently been patched intermittently. Its appearance now can only be likened to an avalanche arrested in mid career. I question if there be any more undoubted and characteristic piece of old Norse Orkney surviving than the house of Nether Benzieclett.

The rest of the present buildings, I may add, are of no great antiquity; even those that look old. Nor do they even stand on the sites of the original offices. When it first appears on record, Benzieclett, together with several other farms in Scabra, belonging to the Linklaters*, and as the township of Linklater is close by, it probably was part of their estate from a very early date. There is no record, however, to indicate when this house was built.

* Charters in author's [i.e. Clouston's] possession. From these it seems that Benzieclett was the chief house in Nether Scabra (forming half of the 18 pennyland of Scabra). For instance, in 1659 the house freedom and cornyard "of Scabra" are mentioned, when Benzieclett was meant.

Nether Benzieclett and occupant c. 1920/30 Nether Benzieclett was no Blenheim or Chatsworth, but far more venerable if Clouston was correct in his dating. In spite of Nether Benzieclett being listed by The Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments In Scotland [RCAHMS - Edinburgh 1946], no. 675 in its ‘Inventory of Orkney’, and where the short description concurs with Clouston's views, the “arrested avalanche” has apparently been allowed to continue its career and the building is now [2015] in ruins; a shame and a disgrace for a building that, according to some, pre-dated the Tower of London and Windsor Castle, not to mention having been occupied by Linklaters! Laing in 1974 writing of “classic Orkney farmsteads” stated: “A number of good examples can still be seen in Orkney, the best being Nether Benzieclett in Sandwick.” Yet, seemingly only a year later, Ernest W. Marwick described the building as “ruinous” in ‘The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland’ published in 1975. It seems the RCAHMS surveyed the property in 1968. Their website notes: “Although considerably altered, this is a good example of the simpler Orkney homestead which compares with the early Norse house of Iceland... A good example of a simple longhouse, with two dwelling-house units and a byre in line, roughly on an E-W axis.” Arising from a further visit dated 7 May 2013 they add these additional notes indicating that Nether Benzieclett “is now in some danger of collapse.” Having seen Nether Benzieclett for myself in 2015, I can state they grossly underestimated the danger! See colour images at foot of page.

This traditional Orkney farmstead, which is now roofless, is comprehensively described in Alexander Fenton's account (1978, 116-118), which is illustrated with a plan, two sections and an elevation taken by RCAHMS in 1968, when the building remained largely intact (ORD/3/1; G 96106 S). It is now in some danger of collapse.

The farmstead comprises two ranges, both facing SE, set along the SE side of a large rectangular enclosure. The NE range measures about 28m from NE to SW by a maximum of 6m transversely over roughly coursed faced flagstone walls that still stand for the most part to full height. Only the dwelling at the NE end retains a portion of its original flagstone and turf covered roof, together with the timber framework that supported it, but even this is now poorly anchored and has begun to cave in. Nevertheless, the four compartments and the two bed-nooks remain intact, while the press and the fireplace with its iron swey in the kitchen survive, despite the fact that both are blocked with debris. However, the timber partitions that subdivided the ben in the middle of the range are long gone, as are the five box beds that once stood within it, while the walls of the byre at the SW end have partly fallen.

Nether Benzieclett, Sandwick The SW range has been built on the same orientation as the NE range but is set slightly further towards the SE. It measures about 32m from NE to SW by 5.5m transversely over roughly coursed faced flagstone walls that stand largely to wall-head height. The interior contains three compartments and there is an outshot at each end. The SW half of the range is narrower than the NE half, a reflection of its earlier construction as evidenced by the 1st edition of the OS 6-inch map (Orkney 1882, Sheet XCIV). This SW end contained a barn, and a horse-engine platform, measuring about 10m in diameter, lies attached to the SE side of the building. The NE end of the range appears to have contained a byre, and two slab-built stalls project from the inner face of the NW wall, while two single doorways and a small window punctuate the SE facade. In the compartment between the byre and the barn there are the remains of a large rectangular flagstone bin which appears to have been a grain store. The outshot at the NE end of the range was a cart-shed.

The large rectangular yard measures roughly 80m from NE to SW by 40m transversely over flagstone walls. There is a gateway immediately SW of the SW range and a small rectangular enclosure, measuring roughly 13m from NNW to SSE by 8m transversely over flagstone rubble walls, lies within its W corner. This appears to have been accessed from the SSE. All that now remains of a probable garden enclosure that stood adjacent to the SE side of the NE range are its wall-footings.

There is also a WWII observation post situated immediately SE of the NE range. This measures about 3m from NE to SW by 2m transversely over flagstone rubble walls thinly rendered with concrete. Its flat roof remains intact and the building, which contains a large rectangular gun-port low down in the SE wall and a small rectangular aperture near the top left corner, was accessed by a central doorway on the NW. Its lintel has the following inscription outlined in capital letters in the wet cement: ‘Air Raid Shelter’. This was probably established to help protect the disused airfield of Skeabrae (HY22SE 59) situated some 600m to the W.

The farmstead is depicted roofed on the 1st and 2nd editions of the OS 6-inch map, together with the yards to the front and rear of both buildings. However, the small enclosure situated in the W corner of the large enclosure first appears on the 2nd edition of the map (Orkney 1903, Sheet XCIV). Visited by RCAHMS (ATW) 7 May 2013. [RCAHMS website 2014]

By June 2015, only a year after the above appeared on the RCAHMS website, Nether Benzieclett was a roofless ruin. I took a number of images, two of which appear for comparative purposes below those estimated to have been taken around 1930 at the foot of this page.

Nether Benzieclett was an example of what Clouston called a ‘half-and-half house’, i.e. a building which was “partly one-storey and partly two; or, as it was termed, a house with a two-storey ‘end.’ ”

In Orkney we find the half-and-half house in two forms. Most frequently the two-storey end was built on to a complete one-storey house. This type is clearly later than the other. In the older form the house was built all in one piece, and consisted, like the old one-storey houses, of two rooms divided by a cross wall, with an upper storey over only one of them.

So far, I have only found three specimens of the older form. The first, and oldest, is Nether Benzieclett, which has already been described. There the upper chamber was over the fire-house, and there is no evidence of a for-stue, or outer hall.

On looking back over the list of these old half-and-half Orkney houses, it is somewhat surprising, I think, that it should not be longer. Apart from one long vanished specimen at Quaquoy in Marwick, of which tradition remembers no details at all, I have not been able even to hear tell of any others in all the parishes I have visited. No doubt, of course, there were others which have vanished too long ago to be remembered at all, but they cannot have been numerous. Yet the type was very ancient, mentioned in many sagas; it was very common in Norway; and it certainly existed in our own islands at an early date. Nether Benzieclett, as we have seen, was partly two storey, and there is a curious record of another house, probably equally old, in the same parish of Sandwick.

MANSE OF CONSGAETH

The Rev. John Brand in his ‘Brief Description’ of Orkney published in 1701, has this interesting little passage: “Also,” he says, “the minister of Sandwick's Manse is said to have been the Residence of one of the Kings of Picts, and therefore to this day is called Koningsgar or, the King's House; And that part of the Manse, which they say served for the Palace of a King, is so litle, tho now keept in some Repair, that it could not accommodate a Family of an ordinary rank; The Figure thereof and contrivance of its two Rooms or Chambers one above and another below, of narrow dimensions, are antick (antique), and the Building hath been but course (coarse).”

Here we have an authentic account of a building in two stories, which was regarded as remotely ancient in 1700, and impressed an observer of that day by its antique appearance. The story of the Pictish King is, of course, not to be taken seriously, but it at least shows the building was so old that all memory and tradition of its true origin had been forgotten. I have no doubt myself it was really the two-storey end of an ancient house, whose one-storey portion had been replaced by the newer part of the manse. You can see exactly the same thing at Hoy Manse to-day, where half of a very old house still projects at the west end.

Since this kind of house, with the obvious convenience of an upper floor, occurred here so early, and since the type persisted as a building tradition through the 17th century, why should so very few of our older houses have a two-storey end? It is remarkable, for instance, that a house like Winksetter, so ambitious for the period, and with walls actually quite high enough at one end to carry an upper floor, should not have had one.

The only probable explanation that I can think of is want of wood for the flooring. Apart from that, nothing was lacking; the model was already here; and the advantages were evident. There was no wood of course in the islands, and one may take it we got our supplies, or far the greater part of them at least, from Norway. But there was a period during which it is impossible that this supply can have been maintained; the period of desolation that followed the appearance in Western Europe of the plague known as the Black Death. In 1349 and again in 1371 it swept through Norway with results so appalling that work of all kinds, in town and country, was well nigh paralysed for lack of workers. Referring to house-building, a Norwegian writer [Sundt in Bygningsskik] says that so many of the best carpenters having died, and the few people who survived being too busy with the necessities of daily life to engage in skilled work, a poorer and lighter type of timber work marks the houses erected after the plague. Manifestly there can have been neither much inclination nor much labour to fell and prepare timber for export.

If this really be the explanation (and I only offer it as what seems to me a very probable suggestion), it would seem to follow that the old houses of Benzieclett and Consgarth were built before 1349, and Winksetter and the other larger one-storey houses, after. Curiously enough there is some support for this view in the very matter just referred to; namely, the timber work. I have never seen elsewhere in Orkney such massive couples as support the roof of Nether Benzieclett; they are more like trees than beams. Obviously, good timber and plenty of it was obtainable when that roof was first put on. But at Winksetter, and indeed everywhere else, there is no wood-work of that sort.

Here is Nether Benzieclett ca. 1930 compared with 2015.

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Note the addition of a fine M.O.D. carbuncle on the southern side of the building shown in the first 2015 view. Stuck in the ‘middle of nowhere’ such a defensive structure might seem an exercise in futility, but Nether Benzieclett occupied a strategically important defensive position less than two miles south-east of R.A.F Skeabrae, one of only two R.A.F. airfields defending Orkney and Scapa Flow, the principle naval base in both world wars for the British Home Fleet. R.A.F Skeabrae was operational from 1940-57. No Germans made it past Nether Benzieclett.

Not everyone agrees with the antiquity of Nether Benzieclett as outlined above. In his chapter The Longhouse in Northern Scotland Alexander Fenton, at one time Director of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, deals at some length with Nether Benzieclett as he does in his ‘The Northern Isles’ [Fenton, 1978]. Although he mistakenly places it in ‘Sandness’ rather than Sandwick, his views are in stark contrast to those of Clouston, RCAHMS, even though they cite him on their website (see above). Fenton sumarised his views thus. Nether Benzieclett appears as a simple three-unit longhouse, with byre, kitchen and ‘bedroom’, of the type that is characteristic of Orkney and elsewhere. The additions probably date to the second half of the 19th century. An 18th-century date for the original building can be postulated, but no single feature suggests an earlier date than this. The same can be said of several other Orkney longhouses that have been examined or re-examined ... and apart from the terminology of certain features, the Norseness of serviving longhouses is a very shadowy concept indeed. Fenton's views are echoed by the equally authoratitive Anna Ritchie. [Ritchie, 1996]

Just to add to the confusion, the meaning or derivation of the name Benzieclett is unclear, to put it mildly, one reason being that it was not always spelled Benzieclett. In Poll Tax records for Sandwick 1694 [Poll Lists of Sandwike 94 NAS RH9/15/175] it is spelled Bonyclyde and the householder named as Thomas Redland [not Redford!] Bonnyman is a coruption of benimann, and meant a clergyman, [Thomson, 1995]. There is a link here with the sea as neither clergyman nor kirk, among a host of other things, could be referred to openly by fishermen or those embarking on the sea without fear of inviting divine or other supernatural catastrophe, whereas bonnyman and bonnyhoose were acceptable alternatives. [Marwick, 1991] Bonyclyde and Benzieclett were presumably both as safe as houses. Gregor Lamb notes a possible relationship between klaet or cleat names in general with sites of ancient worship. It is quite clear...that in many cases a klaet could be a chapel in support of which he states the old house name Benzieclett in Sandwick...is baena-klaet prayer klaet. The Orkney Benzieclett name shows quite clearly that this type of building was a chapel or at least an oratory.

Finally, should you ever find yourself near Nether Benzieclett in the wee small hours, bear in mind that Orkney has had several animal ghosts. At the now [1975] ruinous farmhouse of Nether Benzieclett, Sandwick, one of the oldest houses in the islands, where ‘a King of Norway once spent the night’, [one apparently sufficing] a man was supposed to have been murdered in the ale-hurry, a chamber in the wall where the ale was stored. [Marked A in the Benzieclett plan above] Ever afterwards a ghostly grey ewe came to the back of the ale-hurry at one o'clock each morning. [Marwick, 1975] So there you have it; the grey ewe did it in the ale-hurry and her apparition will be a convenient supply of wool for pulling over any eyes that happen to be open at the ungodly hour of her apparition.




URLs active at the time of writing in January 2016.
  • Clouston, J. Storer: A History of Orkney [Kirkwall, 1932]
  • Clouston, J. Storer: Old Orkney Houses. Vol 1 POAS
    Proceedings of the Orkney Antiquarian Society [Kirkwall, 1922-39]
  • Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL) http://www.dsl.ac.uk/dsl/
  • Fenton, Alexander: The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland [Edinburgh, John Donald 1978]
  • Fenton, Alexander: The Shape of the Past 1 [Edinburgh, John Donald 1985]
  • Laing, Lloyd: Orkney and Shetland. An archeological guide. [David & Charles 1974]
  • Lamb, Gregor: Orcadiana: pen portraits of the past. [Kirkwall 2004]
  • Marwick, Ernest Walker: ‘The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland’ [London, 1975]
  • Marwick, Ernest Walker: ‘Some Sea Superstitions’ from An Orkney Anthology [Edinburgh, 1991]
  • Marwick, Hugh: The Orkney Norn [Private, 1929]
  • RCAHMS Nether Benzieclett
  • Ritchie, Anna: Orkney. [H.M.S.O. 1996]
  • Willaim P. L. Thomson: The Landscape of Medieval Birsay published in Northern Isles Connections [Kirkwall, 1995] edited by Barbara E. Crawford
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