At one time thought to be the oldest inhabited house in Orkney

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 is reproduced 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 [writing of 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.”


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] [DSL] One can only hope that no confusion arose in Orcadian minds in their hurry such as that of the Irish woman who, 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.] The urine in Orkney was kept in a graith or strang tub and used for bleaching linen and wool, dressing leather and as a general disinfectant. During an outbreak of scarlet fever in the 1850s, blankets of infected children were soaked in cow's urine, while in Harray, at about the same time, human urine was employed to control head-lice. With what success and whether ‘hot from the press’ or cask matured first I am unsure. Maybe that is what is going on HERE ?

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

Nether Benzieclett is marked NB on 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.


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 the next page.

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© 2018 Duncan Linklater Sennachie.