About one 100 meters from Balnakeil Church stands the imposing mansion of Balnakeil House. Perched on top of an outcrop of rock at the southern end of Balnakeil Bay the Tigh MOR or Big House has witnessed many changes. The present house, which dates from 1744 is built on the site of a monastery that served the church of Balnakeil
There are references to imply that a substantial building was on this site in the 12th century as the summer residence of the Bishop of Caithness. By the 16th century, the house belonged to the chiefs of the Clan Mackay. It was probably a fortified manor house corresponding roughly to the size of the present house. The chief of Mackay who later became Lord Reay had his principal house in Tongue but at least part of the year was spent in Durness holding criminal courts in the house at Balnakeil. The condemned were hanged at the nearby Loch Croispol, the Loch of the Gallows. The hanging tree or gallows was in one of the fields bordering the loch. The last person to be hanged in the area in the late 18 century was a man from Strathmore found guilty of murder.
Balnakeil House was built by the Mackay chiefs as a family mansion on the site of an earlier building which had at one time been the summer palace of the medieval Bishops of Caithness.
There is little by way of contemporary documentation on the building itself but plenty of stories about the place and its inhabitants. The first occupant of the rebuilt mansion, Donald, son of the third Lord Reay was, according to poet Rob Donn, “the apex of society and entertainment, of the men of poetry and of music”.
In 1740, the minister in the nearby manse, the Rev Murdo Macdonald, wrote in his diary that he couldn’t concentrate on composing his Sunday sermons for all the merrymaking going on at the house on Saturday evenings!
Ian Grimble wrote in “The world of Rob Donn” “Second in magnificence to the seat of the chief at Tongue stood his mansion in the far west. This ancient manor farm had been inhabited by the second Lord Reay while Tongue House was being rebuilt, and it was used besides as a hunting lodge for expeditions to the Reay Forest, as a granary the chief’s western estates, and as the residence of his heir.” According to Dr Grimble, Balnakeil was built by the second Lord Reay who was educated in Denmark while his father was fighting with his clan regiment in the Thirty Years’ War, “and it may not be fanciful to see in its architecture the influence of the Danish manor-farm”.
Another story related by Ian Grimble tells how the wife of a Mackay chief, a Sutherland by birth, helped save Kenneth Sutherland, an army deserter who had fled to Durness during or shortly after the 1745 rebellion. A detachment of troops caught up with him at Balnakeil. “Whether by accident or design, Kenneth Sutherland did not choose one of the doors leading to the ground-floor premises when he bolted through the garden and across the court. He chose the entrance which took him to these narrow stairs. At the head of them can still be seen the little closet beside the panelled reception room into which Lady Reay pushed her clansman in his extremity. She then welcomed his pursuers as they tumbled up the stairs, ushering them into the great room beyond Kenneth’s hiding place. She ordered drink for them; she summoned the women who were working about the premises and improvised a dance.”
“There was a lady beside the threshold / Standing there, alert, formidable. / I don’t know the pass / He went out by, on my life / But between the woman’s legs, / Without bonnet or weapons, / Very near the fissure where he was born, / There he made his escape.” The double entente got lost in the translation, apparently. “Lady Reay’s resourcefulness in smuggling the deserter to safety down that narrow staircase beneath a woman’s skirts was not the only theme she provided for Rob Donn,” Dr Grimble commented.
Balnakeil House was listed in 1971 by Historic Scotland as a category “A” building, which makes it of national importance, placing it in the top seven-and-a-half per cent of listed buildings. The description reads: “1744. Two storey and attic, symmetrical U-plan house; four centre bays, projecting outer wings with 3-bay inner faces to small paved court; two first floor and small attic windows only in south facing outer gabled wings. All harled, with polished ashlar margins and dressings.” The interior is a mixture of original features and nineteenth century alterations and decoration (wood panelling etc.). The walled garden is dated 1863.
Works on the House started in late 2009, following lengthy discussions with Historic Scotland. Now fully restored it has been sympathetically refurbished to provide a unique and luxurious experience.
From the early 1800’s Balnakeil was occupied by the sheep farm tenant, beginning with John Dunlop. The last occupants were the previous farm manager and his family, the Andersons. Balnakeil House laid empty for several years.
Melness-based author the late Mary Beith has written: “At Balnakeil House in Durness, John, Lord of Mackay, held sway over what the historian Edward Cowan has called “an almost aggressively traditional household”. When the then Lord Lovat visited John Mackay in 1669 there was hawking, hunting, sea fishing, archery, wrestling, feasting, music and dancing. Among other household retainers, Mackay had a piper, a harpist and an amadan (Gaelic: fool or jester). When he left, Lovat was showered with gifts a sheltie, guns, longbows, an antique sword, a pair of deerhounds, a silk plaid and a doublet and trews.”
The east front encloses on three sides a courtyard paved in Caithness flagstone and has a very regular pattern of doors and windows. The main door is in the south west corner. The adjacent door on the south side of the courtyard may have been for servant access. The corresponding doors in the north west corners may have been more for architectural reasons than practicality as the door on the main hall is blocked up with a cupboard on the inside. The door on the north side may have been for access to the laundry on the ground floor of the north wing, although it does have an external door in the north wall.
To the south on the green can be seen the raised sector where there was a tennis court. To the east beside Balnakeil Farm is the walled garden dated 1863.
The farm steading incorporated the earliest improved farm buildings in the north west; in 1801, there were slate roofed barn and byre beside the heather thatched on byre, a cruck-framed barn, stables and poultry house. In 1995 much of these buildings were destroyed by fire and new barns have been erected. A disused 19th century Corn Mill served by a millstream diverted from the burn flowing out of Loch Croispol is currently becoming ruinous. Late 19th century technology harnessed power from this lade to serve farm buildings. This old mill is a listed monument. A ruined Wheel House down stream from the mill once housed a wheel and endless wire rope and pulley wheels running up to the steading to move threshing machinery and other agricultural implements. The only known detached wheelhouse of its type in the Highlands. Balnakeil Farm is noted for the fine dry stane dykes enclosing the fields.
A Brief Description of the Interior of Balnakeil House Prior To Renovation
Entering the house by the main door, a stone staircase rises immediately in front. To the left is a door leading to a small cellar under the stair that may have been a fuel store, although this room does have a small window in the north wall. Continuing to the left a door accesses to the south wing. The first room may have been intended as an estate office, also able to be entered by a door in the south wall of the courtyard rather than the main door. This room has a very small room of it in the north wall. Next to this is the scullery with its sink and built in cupboard, paved with flagstones as in the corridor. The largest room is the kitchen, again with flagstones. The dumb waiter was installed in the late 1930’s. The door in the south wall leads to a substantial porch. This porch may be a 19th century addition, particularly as it spoils the symmetry of the house. It is possible that the kitchen was transferred from the laundry room when this was built on.
From the entrance hall to the right, a corridor runs along the east front. The first room is small with cupboards and was for housekeeping purposes but may have doubled as a boot room. The next room is a bedroom with a typical 19th century cast iron fireplace. Beside this is a bathroom, probably created by taking away part of the adjacent bedroom. Another bedroom follows, again with a cast iron fireplace. This room is unusual by the fact that it has a step up from the corridor. This may have something to do with the underlying structure of the original building, much of which would appear to be incorporated in this part of the present building. The first door in the north wing is to the cellar. Down a steep flight of steps can be found the remnants of a wine rack. Beside the door is the back stairs, of much worn stone, giving access to the other floors. At the end of the corridor is the laundry taking up most of the north wing. This large room is below the level of the main floor. It has a large fireplace with a 19th century heating stove, no longer used. In the north wall is an external door giving access to the washing green. Beside this door is a small door opening into a deep wall cupboard. It would appear to be built into the thickness of the wall and suggests a considerable measure of wall between the laundry and the cellar. The laundry was probably the original kitchen.
The main stone stair leads to a spacious and well-lit landing. Off this are two principal rooms, a bedroom and wooden stairs to the attic. The wooden arches on the stair well show Victorian influences. In the north wing is the dining room. Here two windows in the north wing have been blocked up internally; they appear as normal on the outside. The fireplace is 20th century. The layouts of the floorboards suggest there may have been substantial alterations to this part of the house since 1744. The bedroom, like the room below, has a small room in the west wall. This room was used as an office in Miss Elliot’s time earlier in the 20th century. On the left between the landing and the drawing room is the china cupboard. Around 1745, an army deserter being chased by a detachment of troops was supposedly hidden here by Lady Reay. She welcomed his pursuers ushering them into the panelled reception room and ordered drink and women of the house and improvised a dance. The deserter was smuggled to safety beneath a woman’s skirt. The affair was noted in a panegyric stanza by Robb Donn.
The drawing room has three windows in the east wall and one in the north and bares all the hallmarks of Victorian improvements. Miss Elliot altered the fireplace. This room is known as the blue room presumably because of its decor at some time in the past. The resident ghost “the green lady” is said to be seen or felt in this part of the house.
Beyond the drawing room is a small corridor off which are the black room and the landing of the back stair. The black room is the only room in the house to retain its 18th century appearance and it is panelled in pine. Local legend has it the panelling came from a wreck in Balnakeil Bay, but as it is very similar to panelling found elsewhere in Scotland at this time it is probably imported pine from Russia. It may however have been saved from the original house. On the wall next to the dining room can be seen some hinges suggesting the panels could be opened thus creating one large room. One hinge is broken and had been replaced with a leather strap. At the other side of the landing is a bedroom that was occupied by the late Miss Elliot. It has a wash hand basin and its decor is in the style of the 1920’s.
On the turn of the back stairs between the ground and first floors is a bathroom. The attic consists of a series of small rooms most of which would have been for servants and storage. However the room in the north wing at the head of the back stairs must have been intended as a guest bedroom at some point as it has a bell pull. The room in the north west corner is fitted out as a linen room with cupboards and shelves. On the outside of the north wall there is a door giving access to a small cellar. Beside this is a large water tank that was used to store water from the roof before there was a piped supply. There is also a large cheese press situated here.
A secret panel is supposed to exist which connects with a tunnel direct to the church. Miss Elliot had work carried out to search for such a connection and newer cement can be seen in the laundry where the floor was excavated but no secure evidence of a tunnel can be found today. There is stories of tunnels dug by the monks and explored by local people in times past with vague tales about escapes and visits to nuns. The tunnel is described with rungs on the walls where prisoners were jailed and splitting in two, one path leading to the church the other out to sea. The panelled room is also storied to house the secret panel covering the tunnel. Studies have thought it more probable that any entrance here was to latrines when that half of the house was a Bishop’s palace.