Episode 8: Skaill House
Listen to Episode 8.
Interviewer: Grant Stott (GS)
Interviewee: Cormac Grogan (CG)
Grant Stott: Hello and welcome back to Tour Guide Tales, brought to you by VisitScotland. I'm Grant Stott and each week I'll speak to a different tour guide to hear the eclectic and often incredibly rich history of Scotland through their knowledge, stories and experiences.
Today I'll be speaking to Cormac Grogan, manager of Skaill House on Orkney. Owned by generations of the same family for years, Skaill House is a treasure trove not only of amazing artefacts but of spellbinding stories. The tales of the lads of the house who fought in wars, hosted royalty, discovered thousand-year-old villages and sunken treasure are matched only by the stories of the ghosts who also reside in the house… Here to regale us with just some of these tales is Cormac. Welcome, Cormac.
GS: Well Cormac, welcome to Tour Guide Tales. There you are looking resplendent with your Skaill House jumper on. You're very much set for the chat. Before we get into Skaill House itself and where it is let's get a background to your journey and how you came to find yourself here.
Cormac Grogan: I arrived in Orkney first in 2010 where I did my masters in archaeology up here and I left for several years. We were desperate to return as a family and the job here at Skaill House came up and it was the best decision we ever made. We came back in March and I've been here ever since.
GS: You said you were desperate to get back to Orkney and many of us can understand that but what was it for you that was the pull?
CG: Well, the quality of the job. I have a passion of history and my wife is Orcadian as well. We love the way of life up here and Skaill House is such an iconic part of the landscape here in Orkney so the opportunity to work here and to develop the business here was just… I couldn't turn it down.
GS: And I can see why given what you say your background is and what your passion is - archaeology. This is the thing about Skaill House - there's more to it than it just being this fabulous historic mansion house; there's so many different aspects to this.
So, for those who perhaps never seen it in its setting, this is probably the furthest north we've gone so far in our Tour Guide Tales so we're right in the north of Scotland on Orkney. So, give us an idea of the house, where it is, what it looks like, and what you see when you go there.
CG: Yeah, so Skaill House is located on mainland Orkney - so the main island - and we're right on the west coast so we overlook the beautiful Bay of Skaill. We're in the Orkney World Heritage Site here at Skaill House. The house is a rambling mansion house around twenty thousand square feet and the front aspect faces right onto the sea. It is a beautiful location surrounded by sunken gardens and lawns and with the site of Skara Brae right on our doorstep.
GS: We're going to get to Skara Brae shortly but sticking with the house now, this is the only mansion house open to the public in Orkney, am I right?
CG: Yes, it is. So, it's the oldest mansion house in Orkney as well and it was opened to the public in 1997 following six years of renovations to the house.
GS: And it's still owned by the same family? Give us a bit of the family history with the house.
CG: Yeah, it's been owned by four different family groups, but they're all linked by marriage and are true relations in that way. It's had twelve Lairds so Skaill House is the seat of the Breckness Estate which is a four-thousand-acre estate and is the largest private estate in Orkney. So, the family are still connected and there is another set of generations to take over the house as well.
GS: And the thing that I find fascinating about Skaill House is that it is a mansion - it is, you know, still a family home in many aspects - but it's open to the public. It's the history that's within it as well, which is global; it's not just from around Orkney. There's so much to take in when you visit.
CG: No, it's a time capsule of both Orkney's social history but, as you said, collections from the 400 years of the house that have all been kept here. They range from Russia to Japan and worldwide and there's a story in every object in the house and people really are amazed when they walk through the door. By the time they leave, the sheer amount of content in the house is unbelievable.
GS: So, it's homely, it's historic and just to cap it all off it's haunted as well!
CG: It is, it is. There're four well-known ghosts attached to the house but there's always different sightings, different stories, and it adds to the whole ambience of the building, the intrigue of it. Locally it's very much known as a haunted house and Halloween is always a very good time for us in that regard.
GS: Well, we will get to the ghosts over the course of our conversation today. Now, let's start with that connection that sort of drew you there, I think is fair to say, with that connection with Skara Brae. Again, give us a little bit of background about itself what it is Skara Brae and the connection to the house.
CG: Yeah, so Skara Brae is a Neolithic village on the Bay of Skaill and it was there around 3000 BC and it was sort of the first visible signs of occupation in this part of Orkney. The site itself was occupied right up until 2500 BC and it's one of the best-preserved in the UK. It dates back past the pyramids of Egypt and it's a real national treasure, drawing hundreds of thousands of people every year and it's, again, right on our doorstep. The house has been part of the story of Skara Brae from its discovery in 1850.
GS: So, there is a connection with the house and the discovery of Skara Brae, and this goes back to the first laird?
CG: So, it's the seventh Laird of Skaill - William Graham Watt - and he discovered it in 1850 following a huge storm. Following on from the storm he was assessing parts of the farmland and had realized that some stone had been revealed under what was previously a sand dune and being a gentleman of the time, they were fascinated with antiquity and he began excavating the first three houses at Skara Brae and from there it just led on to this incredible story and incredible worldwide renown.
The original items or artefacts that were discovered at Skara Brae originally were housed in the private muse at Skaill House and it wasn't until the 1920s and 30s that they were donated to the National Muse of Scotland and the local muses of Orkney.
GS: So, what do you see now when you come to visit Skara Brae itself, as opposed to this which we will get to, but what is there for you to take in?
CG: Yeah, so there's a wonderful visitor centre that was built in 1998, which contains a muse, video production and a mock-up of one of the Skaill Houses and when you get down to the site you'd be amazed at the quality of preservation. They're all roofless sites and inside them they're still the box beds, the stone dressers, the hearths are all still there and one of the houses is a workshop as well.
It's incredibly well preserved and is some of the earliest evidence of a sewage system in a house and the narrow passageways and kind of togetherness of the of the buildings kind of make it so you can really imagine people living in it.
GS: And right on the doorstep of Skara Brae is Skaill House. Give us an idea of the distance between where you are right now and Skara Brae.
CG: Yeah so you're talking about 100 meters up the bay from Skara Brae is Skaill House so from our windows here you see right down to the site and it's an iconic image is the ancient settlement and then the most, more recent, mansion house.
GS: Well it's fabulous that there is this connection between the two sites. Let's go into Skaill House now. So, I come up to Orkney and I make my way to Skaill House. What do I see when I step over the threshold? What's waiting for me?
CG: Yeah so, you're welcomed into what previously was a servant's entrance into Skaill House that is now our reception and so you come in that that entrance and you're welcomed into what used to be the butler's pantry. That leads to the dining room and to our gift shop which was once the kitchen for Skaill and it's there you begin your self-guided tour around the house.
GS: And as we mentioned at the start of the conversation, the house itself is obviously 400 years old so that in itself is fascinating but it's the contents that are housed within, and I don't think we can quite ever underplay the amount of - and is it fair for me to use the word hoarding - that the generations have amassed here. So, let's go through some of the fascinating stories and items that you have. When we spoke earlier you mentioned that you have a dinner service from one of Captain Cook's ships, is that right?
CG: Yes that is true, yeah, we have a beautiful low staff dinner service that arrived in the house approximately august 1780 and at that time the HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery had returned from Hawaii following the death of Captain Cook and the first port of call when they arrived back in the UK was actually Stromness which is just eight miles from here.
There are a number of rumours of how the dinner service came to the house. The one that we're most fond of is that it was used as a barter by the crew for supplies and being the largest landowner in the area, the estate and Skaill House would have been the key point of contact for those ships so they would have maybe bartered the dinner service which they would have had no real use for because as Captain Cook was dead now and they would have traded that in for rations and supplies.
Another good theory as well is that the current laird at the time had just passed away and that the dinner service was given as a gift of condolence to his widow. It's an amazing dinner service; it always attracts a huge amount of attention as the service is an incredibly floral pink and green dinner service and people often question how such a dainty and beautiful service ended up on a on a ship at that time. I suppose it's a really good illustration of that era because it wasn't until the Victorian period that we associate pink as a feminine colour in a sense so that would have been seen as a really incredible kind of status symbol on this ship.
GS: So, it wouldn't be too far a stretch to say that the dinner service that you have there was once used by Captain Cook?
CG: Yes, we believe so. It's an incredible artefact. It's around 100 pieces in the service so we only have a small amount on display but it ties in very well with records of the ships having anchored at Stromness and with this normal kind of port etiquette which was that of gift-giving to the local landlord.
GS: So, what pieces are on display? I mean you know; I think of a dinner service I think of a large plate, a side plate, a saucer, a cup; give us an idea of what is on display?
CG: In one of the cabinets in our dining room is the main plates, so we've got the large serving plates, serving dishes, smaller side plates and bowls, and of the remaining service some of it is held at Binskart - another house and current -home of the current Laird of Skaill House. There are some beautiful soup terrines as well from the set which are just stunning absolutely.
GS: I take it nobody uses them?
CG: No, we don't; it hasn't come out for a party yet!
GS: So that's one fascinating story dating back to Captain Cook's time, we also have a story connected to war - World War One?
CG: Yes, so Henry Scarth, who was the eleventh laird of Skaill House, served in the First World War with the Scots Guards and he was injured at the very start of the war in 1914 and it wasn't until around 1918 that he was put back into commission and was sent to the Russian front to fight on the on behalf of the white Russians who were fighting for the tsar. We have a huge number of artefacts and records and diaries connected to that time and one of the stories that is fascinating is the Russian flag - Bolshevik Russian flag - that we have in our hallway.
GS: You have it there? Did he bring this home?
CG: Yes, it was it was a captured treasure of the war and he had defended the port city of Archangel in western Russia and captured this Bolshevik flag in Murmansk, brought it back to Skaill House, and it was on display in the hallway.
Later on in his military career he served as a connection between the Orkney islands' people and the military presence here during World War II and a Russian admiral was coming to dinner at Skaill House and he was driving in his motorcade up the drive and it wasn't until he had almost parked and was out of the car that they realized that this Bolshevik flag was still in the hallway. So, to save any blushes, they quickly had to hide the flag and stuffed it into a cupboard near our west doorway.
GS: Wow… And that is clearly there for us all to see today?
CG: Yes it is, yeah, and it's faded colour now but we have an example of what it would have looked like when it was first captured and it's probably the key part of that Russian collection but we have like iconography, a huge array of photographs that were taken during the time there so it's a lovely collection to have.
GS: How big is that collection? So, it's photographs, the flag obviously that we talked about, what else can we see?
CG: So there's a lot of his military regalia from the time when he's served, so we've got kits, we've got winter coats and we have different religious icons that were picked up from ruined churches and the likes as well as translation books from Russian to English and English to Russian.
GS: So, it's safe to say that they weren't really for throwing anything out, were they?
CG: No, there's plenty of space here at the house so you know there's plenty of room to hoard things and we're still finding things today in the many attics in the house.
GS: Well there is so much to try and get through. The next thing I want you to tell us about is this ornate chest from the armada.
CG: Yeah, so during the kind of height of the Royal Navy and the Spanish armada's battles, the Spanish armada were forced to retreat up the English Channel into the North Sea where many of the ships were actually lost in storms or ended up wrecking. One of these ships ended up wrecking off Fair Isle just between us and Shetland.
Unfortunately Fair Isle couldn't accept these unannounced visitors and provided them with a boat to make their way south towards Orkney and they landed on our north isle of Westray and it's believed that these panels that we have at the house came off one of the galleons and they again were probably traded for rations and provisions as the crew try to get back to Spain. These panels that were taken off the galleon were then made into a chest which sits in the hallway at Skaill House and the only other known example of a chest similar to that is at the V&A in London.
GS: Absolutely fascinating. And it would be tricky to even begin to think what the value of something like that is?
CG: Yeah, it's priceless in a sense. I mean with the rarity and the fact it's a bespoke piece of furniture as well so it's very unique in that regard. And again, it's a lovely part of the history of Orkney and how despite being a small island cluster we've still found ourselves part of something like the Spanish armada.
GS: And what's also great about the collection and the things, the artefacts, that we're talking about is that it's not just a case of or they've acquired something they've bought, something that's purely there; there tends to be a connection - a personal connection - with the family of the house at some point through history and acquiring these pieces that we talked about. And this brings me on to the connection with Japan which forms quite a large part of the collection as well. Tell us about the member of the family, what he did, and what he has brought back.
CG: Yeah so one of our most recent discoveries is the importance of four sketchbooks belonging to the eleventh laird's grandfather, Henry Sharville, and Henry was a German native originally and he was born in Lübeck in Germany and became a British citizen and worked with the admiralty as a cartographer and hydrographer. He did a lot of work in his early days surveying the western isles and it was during that time that he ended up meeting an engineer called Colin McVean.
Colin McVean ended up going out to Japan during the Meiji period to set up the Imperial school of engineering and it was their friendship that led to Henry ending up in Japan where he spent two and a half to three years during one of the periods of the greatest amount of change, where it went from a feudal society to a more modern society. And so, we have travel diaries, artefacts and gifts, swords, and these four very important sketchbooks that detail day-to-day life in late 19th century Japan.
GS: And this is of key interest to Japan now as well?
CG: Very much so. We have had a lot of interest from the Japanese consulate in Edinburgh; the Vice Counsel of Japan has been here to have a look at the sketchbooks; we also had a professor Yoshi from California that came over who is an expert in Japanese art and he couldn't get over that he was finding something like this in Orkney. We always knew we had these sketchbooks, but we never knew the importance of them, and this has led now to hopefully a wider project where we're hoping to retrace the steps of Henry in Japan in the years to come.
GS: And henry was a bit of a prolific sketcher as well - he also did some notable sketches closer to home?
CG: Yes, he did. One of his most important sketches was of the village in St Kilda which details the village and the people that lived in the houses - all the family names attached to it - and this sketch that he did ended up being part of the UNESCO world heritage site's brief for St Kilda. You know, a very important part of the history of those islands. When he came back from Japan he then became chief draftsman at the Royal Geographical Society and he did some of the first detailed maps of Tibet, Afghanistan, eastern Australia, to name just a few, and he remained in that role right up until his death and is known for his artistic and attention to detail maps that are still referenced today.
GS: See, I love that because you could almost expect just that one part of the story to be, you know, a visitor attraction - it's enough to draw people in to come and see just what he has done but yet you have all this history with all these members of this this family who have contributed to what is on offer at Skaill House. And I guess as you mentioned, you know, you give us an idea of this the size of the property but you're continuing to find and make these amazing discoveries.
CG: No, we've we had some work done in our archives here at the house and there's still a lot of work left to be done and, as I said before, there're small attic rooms that are still housing chests and stuff that haven't been opened and even this winter we discovered one of the original portraits of one of the ninth lairds of Skaill House. So, to be able to return that and refurbish it, put it back into our dining room where it should have been, was a lovely find. But it's the marvellous thing about old houses like this - you just don't know what you're going to find and what's around the next corner.
GS: And I'm just going to throw this in - I'll throw this name in because there's a connection here - Florence Nightingale.
CG: Yes, so it's again a strange discovery where there's a relation of the house that acquired these letters from Florence Nightingale and she writes very personal letters to a lady who was key in founding modern nursing in Scotland and they detailed the kind of warmth of receiving a letter and talking about how the nights are drawing in - you know, as you would chat amongst friends. She references the fact that she is writing by candlelight as in the winter days the light is gone so again an incredible find at the house and we had those on display last year.
GS: And I love the fact that Florence Nightingale used the phrase 'the nights are fair drawing in! Visitors, as well - the Queen Mother has been at the Skaill House and dined as a guest?
CG: Yeah, so the Castle of May is just across the water from us here which was her residence in Scotland and the Queen Mother attended here in 1970 and 1983 where she dined in the dining room and it's a great story that we like to tell of her first arrival at Skaill. She sat at the dining room and they had offered to give her the head of the table seat, but she wished to sit with her back to the windows because of fear of the light revealing her wrinkles. So, she even in small companies she was very much aware of her appearance. And it was always a very enjoyable visit to Skaill House, so much so that the staff at the Castle of May while she was alive made an annual visit to Skaill House to have a picnic in the sunken lawns here.
GS: Fantastic. Well, lovely connection. I'm sure even though the Queen Mother was a very important guest, I take it she wasn't offered Captain Cook's dinner service to eat off?
CG: No just a 19th century service - just the bog-standard stuff! But, no, she was a great a great friend of the Scarth family and her visits here were always a very good party and a very good Orkney welcome that she received.
GS: So, homely - clearly that box is ticked. History - that's ticked. Let's deal with the fact that this is known as haunted locally and beyond. I think of where it's built it gives it a nice sort of lead-in to the haunted story.
CG: Yeah, so Henry Scarth, the 11th laird, was doing renovations on the hall, which used to be a flagstone floor. They wanted to put in a wood floor, so they started to lift the flagstones to reveal several bodies underneath the hall. And these turned out to be pre-Viking Pictish burials - and they basically just put the flagstones back down and put the floorboards over the flagstones!
So that's a great lead into the fact that the house is built on a pre-Viking burial ground and surrounding the house is an early Christian graveyard as well. So, when the house was to be opened to the public, new drainage was to be installed and approximately 15 graves were discovered around the house as well. So, no doubt there's plenty more bodies under the stairs at Skaill and that provides an amazing platform for a haunted house - and the house has had many strange encounters that have happened over the years here.
GS: Sure, given the fact that there are literally dead bodies underneath the foundations of the house, in the hall where you walk, who knows what else is underneath? You know, it's perfect fodder for some ghost stories and with every good ghost story there are there are characters abound, so give us an idea of a couple of the characters who haunt Skaill House?
CG: Yeah, so one our most famous is a character called Ubi and Ubi is a sort of strange character from sort of around the 18th century. They believe he may have been a servant, or a child of a servant and he would have been quite short, maybe not able to work as normal, may have had some disabilities. And he set about building an island in the middle of Skaill Loch, so he would roll his boat over the loch filled with stones and would drop the stones down and eventually a small island formed in the middle of Skaill Loch
And to give context, the loch is visible from the back of the house - we back right onto it as well. And once he had built this island the, story goes that he lay down on the island exhausted from all the work and just died. But his room is a part of the house that hasn't been renovated as yet so there is Ubi's bedroom, and when people have stayed in our apartments here they have heard running steps in this long corridor which leads between the main apartment and Ubi's bedroom and another part of house. And, of course, when you open the door there's no one running…
So Ubi tends to make an appearance as a sort of mischievous character. Our gardener and maintenance man Steve has a great story in that part of the house where he was fixing a leak that had occurred in one of the towers in what's called the long room and he had noticed while he was there that the door shut and clicked shut. So, he went down saw if someone was there and pushed it back open again went back up the stairs and again the door closed and clicked shut. So, this happened a couple of more times before he started to get a bit on edge about it
GS: As I am at the moment!
CG: And it wasn't I am just and it wasn't until he was pretty much getting ready to leave and it finished the job that you realized that the door in question didn't have a lock, didn't even have a door handle, so how was he hearing this clicking sound? He then opened the door a final time and was just leaving the room when it closed again and clicked shut and he hasn't been back since!
GS: To be honest, I can't blame him. We do love a ghost story on Tour Guide Tales. You have another - a lady in black spotted at the window?
CG: Yeah, so a lady in black has been spotted a couple of times in the house - a few times she's been spotted in what's known as Mrs Scarth's bedroom - and probably one of the most notable kind of sightings is one where a person was driving away from the house down our driveway. Mrs Scarth's bedroom looks out over the drive and she did look back and saw a figure standing in the window and, again, I don't think it'd be any good house without a lady in black!
We do have a gentleman in black, as well, which also makes an appearance here and there. He has been known to speak to people and someone has come off…
GS: He's been known to speak to people?! How's that manifested itself?
CG: So, we've another room in the house, the gun room, and guests about five or six years ago came back into the shop and said it's great to have a member of staff dressed in period costume. And we said, 'there's no member of staff dressed like that.' And they said 'Well, this gentleman in a black uniform spoke to us in the gun room.' and of course we went back to check and no one was there but there have been sightings of a gentleman in black or the smell of cigar smoke and cigarette smoke coming from that room over the past.
GS: And you have your own experience - have you encountered a ghostly resident?
CG: Well, it may have been, but it certainly put the hairs up in the back of my neck. This winter, we're doing a lot of maintenance for 400th anniversary and I was chatting to our maintenance man and I just cast my eye to the right, across kind of a doorway, and I just saw this black figure just cross the doorway and into the gun room, which would connect very well with this figure in black. But being the sceptic, of course, I was thinking it must have been the reflection on the glass surfaces of the two pictures on either side. But certainly, you know, when you don't have many lights on in the dead of winter in this house it certainly was chilling.
GS: You're not the only one to have had an… interesting experience, let's just say. Malcolm, the current laird, we were talking about some of the bodies underneath and he touched a bone. What's the story here? What happened to him?
CG: Yeah, so it was Malcolm that was the latest laird to inherit the house and he did the work to open the house to the public. So he did an amazing video of the excavations at Skaill House and when the bodies were first found, he picked up one of the bones that was put into a box - just examining it and having a look at it - but for seven days he had no feeling in the fingers where he touched those bones… So, someone wasn't happy with being disturbed, I don't think!
GS: So we've discovered that those of you that that live and work there have had experiences; we heard about some of the guests, the visitors, who engaged with this figure in the gun room; what other experiences have you had with people who've come to visit? Is there any sort of standout experiences or tales that they've given you?
CG: Well, yeah we've had a few people that have come down over the years that have taken photos and you get this lighter white image or a light image crossing the dining room - there's been a range over the years - of course your mind kind of goes to flashing your camera's flash in your phone - but the one that kind of always intrigues me is the cigarettes smoke in the library.
Wandering in there, people were like 'it smelled like someone was recently smoking a cigarette in there' and all the family were known for being maybe not heavy smokers but they certainly all smoked but certainly there's no smoking allowed in the building. So that's always been an intriguing one and it has occurred on quite a number of occasions.
GS: So apart from ghost hunting and all have their own experience, what are the main draws; why do people come and visit Skaill House?
CG: Well, certainly I think to get a wider appreciation for the Skara Brae experience is one of the reasons they come. The house being the only mansion house in Orkney open to the public is also a big draw. It's a time capsule of Orkney's social history and is a treasure trove, again, a hoarders' treasure trove maybe, but a treasure trove of information on the more recent art history. And, for families, the kids are always lured here. The gardens are a wonderful lure to the house for the kids to go running around and obviously the idea of maybe seeing a ghost - kids love that.
GS: So how would you encourage people to come and visit? How can they make the most of the visit? You say Skara Brae's obviously there; there's clearly so much to take in when you come to Skaill House -how much time should you allow just to get the best of the whole experience up there?
CG: Yeah, so certainly if you're just coming to the Bay of Skaill as an experience you could spend the whole of a half a day there. You've got the beautiful beaches at Skaill, as well, which are just stunning. You've got Saint Peter's Kirk up the road from us and beautiful coastal walks around but certainly the house requires at least an hour to an hour and a half to really get an appreciation for it.
The information that's provided and also the opportunity to often chat to the laird who is present quite a bit - that's always a highlight for people when they're here. And then Skara Brae as a whole - again, you know, you're talking two to three hours between the two sites and I think you've really got a good understanding of the scale of history and the span of it.
GS: Cormac, you clearly don't have any regrets about making that move up there?
CG: No, it's the best decision I've ever made both for family but also for me personally. I love the house and I feel like I'm putting my own stamp on the place and to feel like I'm playing a role in its survival is really, really positive for me.
GS: And the fact that the story is not finished because there's clearly more to be discovered; there's more to be found?
CG: Oh, very much so, yeah, and you know, the story of Sharville is one that's only in its infancy and the scale is incredible, but it's all very positive and the support is there to do the work so we're really keen to see where it leads, but, yeah, I know it's certainly a career job!
GS: Cormac Grogan, it has been fascinating talking to you and again, as I'm doing every week on Tour Guide Tales, I'm adding and adding to my must-go-to list and Skaill House is definitely up there. Thanks for spending time with us today.
CG: Thank you so much.
GS: Well, I hope you agree that Skaill House and all the stories it's home to have been absolutely fascinating to listen to. If you haven't already, please had a listen back to the other fascinating episodes within this series and tune in for our next episode where I'll be speaking to another of Scotland's brilliant tour guides. if you like the show please subscribe and leave a review wherever you're listening. I'm Grant Stott and you've been listening to another Tour Guide Tales brought to you by VisitScotland.