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Burnmouth Bothy including walled enclosures, Rackwick Bay, Hoy

A Category A Listed Building in Stromness and South Isles, Orkney Islands

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Latitude: 58.8687 / 58°52'7"N

Longitude: -3.3807 / 3°22'50"W

OS Eastings: 320475

OS Northings: 998744

OS Grid: ND204987

Mapcode National: GBR L509.42P

Mapcode Global: WH6BD.1CF0

Plus Code: 9CCRVJ99+FP

Entry Name: Burnmouth Bothy including walled enclosures, Rackwick Bay, Hoy

Listing Name: Burnmouth Bothy including walled enclosures to northwest and southeast, Rackwick Bay, Hoy

Listing Date: 16 September 1999

Last Amended: 10 April 2019

Category: A

Source: Historic Scotland

Source ID: 393664

Historic Scotland Designation Reference: LB46375

Building Class: Cultural

Location: Hoy and Graemsay

County: Orkney Islands

Electoral Ward: Stromness and South Isles

Parish: Hoy And Graemsay

Traditional County: Orkney

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Burnmouth Bothy is an early 19th century, single-storey, roughly rectangular-plan former crofthouse with a heather thatched roof, and adjoining the northeast gable is a lower three-bay former byre with a flagstone roof. It was restored in the 1970s for use as a bothy. The buildings have undressed, rubble stone and thick walls. The end walls are gabled and the roof has a shallow-pitch. The building is located on a slight rise towards the middle of the curve of Rackwick bay, on the island of Hoy, with the southwest gable facing the sea and with cliffs to the southeast and northwest.

The principal (northwest) elevation of the crofthouse has a central timber door with a small window to the left of the door, all flanked by two enlarged window openings. There is a small window in the southwest gable end. The byre has three windows and a timber door. There are no openings in the rear elevation.

The heather-thatch roof is secured with netting and stone weights laid in rows along the ridge, the eaves and the centre of the roof pitch. The crofthouse has a chimneystack on each gable.

There is a long rectangular-plan walled enclosure to the northwest of the bothy. Directly to the southeast is a smaller, detached rectangular walled enclosure and the lower courses of a former outbuilding. The walls are built in rubble stone.

The interior, seen in 2017, is a large single space with exposed rubble walls. Raised rubble-built benches or sleeping areas have been added along the long walls. The fireplace on the northwest gable has a broad stone lintel, and has been modified to house a wood burning stove. There is a vertical recess to the left of the fireplace. The infilled fireplace in the southeast gable also has a heavy stone lintel. The interior of the former byre section has been changed to a toilet.

Statement of Interest

Burnmouth Bothy is a largely intact and rare example of a traditional 19th century Orkney crofthouse with adjoining byre and walled enclosure. These vernacular buildings were once prolific across Orkney, but are now extremely rare. The building has been restored but retains a significant proportion of its 19th century form and fabric. The long and low exterior form of the building reflects traditional methods of construction and materials, such as thick and irregular rubble walls and a flagstone and heather thatched roof.

It is one of only around ten buildings or groups of buildings in Orkney that are known to retain an intact thatched roof, and is among a relatively small number of thatched buildings across Scotland.

Burnmouth Bothy makes a significant contribution to its dramatic coastal location and within the largely 19th century pre-improvement fishing and farming settlement at Rackwick.

Age and Rarity

Most of the buildings in Rackwick are likely to date from the 19th century. It is not known when Burnmouth Bothy was first built. The footprint of Burnmouth Bothy is first shown on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map (surveyed in 1880), but may date to the early or mid-19th century. The map also shows the large rectangular walled enclosure to the northwest of the cottage, as well as the footprint of numerous other dwellings and associated buildings in the surrounding landscape. This wider settlement pattern is largely reflected by the present arrangement of buildings, either as habitable dwellings or as fragmentary remains of earlier buildings.

Rackwick is a remote farming and fishing settlement on the largely uninhabited west coast of Hoy. There is little early recorded history relating to the development of Rackwick. The Old Statistical Account of 1879 notes that the size of farms on the island of Hoy were small and produced little grain. The population of Rackwick grew from around 40 residents in 1850 to around 80 by 1900 (Undiscovered Scotland), before numbers dwindled again by the mid-20th century. Currently (2018) there are around five people in permanent residence at Rackwick.

From the early half of the 20th century until the 1950s, Burnmouth Bothy is understood to have been occupied by the Nicholson family (Orkney Image Library). A photograph from 1966 shows the building without window frames or a door but retaining its roof covering of what appears to be turf or a mix of heather and turf over flagstones. Burnmouth was used by the BBC in 1970 for an adaptation of a story by the Orkney-based poet and author, George McKay Brown. The building was later renovated by the Hoy Trust to provide shelter and accommodation for campers and hill walkers.

A traditional Orkney croft was typically a linear arrangement of single-storey, stone buildings with associated outbuildings including livestock sheds, barns and sometimes a kiln. Crofting settlements fulfilled the individual and communal needs of the community. Buildings would be built using long-established and simple construction methods, without the need for highly specialist tools.

A croft was often a component of a larger farming settlement or 'ferm toun'. This form of subsistence living based around the basic need for shelter, fishing, seasonal livestock and crop management, changed little in Orkney for many hundreds of years.

The decline of local vernacular building traditions in the later 19th century was largely due to advances in agricultural mechanisation and improved transport links. The gradual evolution of crofting settlement took place throughout the 18th and 19th centuries as improved agricultural methods were adopted in Orkney, but at a significantly slower pace in comparison to mainland Scotland. Substantial elements of traditional, pre-improvement farming patterns and building techniques survived in the more remote areas and islands, into the 20th century. Traditional croft buildings continued to be built. The move away from subsistence living caused a dramatic change, and the farming landscape of Orkney and the highlands of Scotland generally was comprehensively reorganised.

By the end of the 20th century, the farming landscape of Orkney had been comprehensively altered by a wide range of factors. These included improved transport links, changes in agricultural legislation and the importing of standardised building materials from mainland Scotland. Many pre-1900 crofthouses were either rebuilt, substantially reworked or abandoned by 1960. The poet, George Mackay Brown noted that Rackwick during the 1970s consisted of a large number of crofthouses in ruins, interspersed with a number of holiday cottages owned by Orkney mainlanders (The Valley by the Sea, 1982).

The use of thatch as a roofing material has a long tradition in Scotland. Thatched and turf-roofed buildings are usually single storey structures that reflect pre-industrialised construction methods and materials.

The survival of traditional turf-roofed buildings into the 21st century is rare. A Survey of Thatched Buildings in Scotland, published in 2016 by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), found there were only around 200 buildings with thatched or turfed roofs in Scotland. The survey records seven buildings in Orkney that remain thatched or turfed including Burnmouth Bothy and Muckle House (LB46376) in Rackwick. At least three further examples in Rackwick have come to light as part of the Thatched Buildings Listing Review 2017-19 including The Mount (LB46377) and the buildings restored as the Crow's Nest Museum. Rackwick is currently understood to have the highest surviving concentration of turfed and thatched-roofed buildings in Orkney (2018).

Pre-agricultural improvement period crofthouses that largely retain their traditional 19th century character, are increasingly rare in Orkney. The former crofthouse at Burnmouth is a rare example of a crofthouse with attached byre that largely retains its 19th century form and character and significant proportion of historic fabric. It shows a number of elements that are typical of early to mid-19th century vernacular building traditions and construction methods in Orkney, including rare examples of two traditional roof coverings (See Regional Variations section below). These once prolific traditional thatched buildings are now extremely rare.

Architectural or Historic Interest


The interiors of traditional crofthouses and cottages were often simple. Many of them have been refurbished and the survival of historic fixtures is rare. The interior of Burnmouth Bothy has been remodelled with stone benches fixed to the long walls. There is no surviving evidence of internal walls. Some historic features survive such as the broad stone lintels of each fireplace in both gable ends. Later changes to the property, including the loss of the internal room plan, are not considered to have a significantly adverse impact on special interest of the building.

Plan form

Burnmouth Bothy has a plan form typical of thatched vernacular buildings. The expense of suitable roof timber, particularly in Orkney where timber was scarce, restricted the depth which could be spanned, resulting in a narrow rectangular-plan form. The crofthouse and its associated byre were usually adjoining in a long, linear pattern on sloping ground, almost reflecting the Norse longhouse. The byre end would be on lower ground for drainage of animal waste.

The building would be purposely built to make use of the natural topography of a site and reduce the effects of extreme weather conditions. The thick stone walls, sit low to the ground plan, and the building is orientated with its south gable end facing the sea, reduces the likelihood of damage to the roof by strong coastal winds. There are also minimal openings in the rear elevation of the buildings.

The large walled enclosure to the west is of the size typically used as a kitchen garden as well as for airing livestock. The survival of associated buildings, including the remains of a former outbuilding at the rear (southwest) helps our understanding of the use of tenanted crofts by farmers in Orkney in the 19th century.

It is common for these traditional cottages to have been altered by addition of porches and small extensions. The footprint of the building, and its walled enclosure are largely unchanged from that shown on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map. The survival of the building's early footprint, without any significant additions or losses, is rare and adds to its interest.

Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality

Burnmouth Bothy is constructed using materials and methods that are characteristic of this part of Scotland. The interest of these vernacular buildings is discussed in the Regional Variations section below.

While authenticity of material can be an important factor in assessing the significance of thatched buildings, buildings which have been repaired (perhaps with new roofing material or rethatched) can also be listed. The retention of the overall traditional character of vernacular buildings is therefore important in determining their special architectural or historic interest.

A photograph from 1966 shows that the building had a thatched roof prior to its restoration by the Hoy Trust during the 1980s. The thatch roof has been repaired, as is regularly required, but follows traditional Orkney thatching techniques and uses locally sourced materials.

The two windows in the south elevation of the crofthouse have been enlarged at some point before 1966 to allow more light into the building. On the 1966 photograph, the window openings are shown without window frames. Slight changes to these traditional buildings are not unusual to accommodate improvements in needs and living standards. The overall appearance of Burnmouth Bothy is of earlier 19th century thatched crofthouse with adjoining byre that has been renovated, and continues to show traditional building methods and materials characteristic of Orkney.


The location of croft and fishing communities can provide valuable information about changing settlement patterns and land-use. Rackwick is a coastal valley located on the dramatic west coast of Hoy, the westernmost island in Orkney. Vertical red-sandstone sea cliffs, the tallest in the UK, rise up on either side of the valley. This area takes the full force of Atlantic gales and has a warm microclimate in the summer.

Rackwick has a substantial proportion of upstanding remains of earlier dwellings and buildings, showing the 19th century scattered settlement pattern. The arrangement of the buildings remains largely unchanged from that shown on the 2nd Edition Ordnance Survey map. Some buildings have been restored as accommodation while others survive as roofless shells or as lower courses of their walls. Collectively, the level of survival and lack of later development and alteration at Rackwick makes it among the best examples of a pre-Improvement farming settlement in Orkney.

Burnmouth Bothy is situated in a remote and dramatic coastal location surrounded by cliffs and hills. Located close to the shore towards the centre of the bay it is a prominent building in the landscape. The building is inter-visible with the turf-covered crofthouse at Muckle House (LB46375) to the west. Further turf roofed buildings at Rackwick include The Mount (LB46377) and the Crow's Nest Museum to the north. Collectively, these buildings all show traditional vernacular methods of construction and therefore contribute to the built heritage and historic character of the wider settlement at Rackwick.

Regional variations

The design and construction of buildings, the method of roofing and the materials used was a distinctly localised practice. The best examples of local vernacular buildings will normally be listed because together they illustrate the importance of distinctive local and regional traditions. The geology and climate of Orkney has made a significant impact on the physical appearance of vernacular buildings of the 19th century and earlier.

Traditional croft buildings of Orkney are usually single storey, low profile buildings, made up of two or sometimes three rooms with an adjoining byre. The interior walls have been removed but the arrangement of the window openings show that Burnmouth Bothy likely followed this pattern.

The low form, thick and irregular rubble walls with gabled ends is typical of the region in protecting against Atlantic storms. The walls are constructed from undressed stone, which is likely to have been gathered from surrounding land. Their thickness ensured that they could support the weight of the roof, reducing the need for timber in the roof structure to a minimum.

Flagstone roofs, as a lapped and seamed underlayer for turf or thatch, is a traditional roofing method in this region, because of the abundance of flagstone. The weight of the flagstones were supported on timber rafters, particularly as larger quantities of timber were imported to the islands from the mainland during the 19th century. The turf or thatch outerlayer would then usually be secured and weighted by rows of flagstones lining the eaves, the ridge and along the centre of the roof pitch. This can be seen at Burnmouth Bothy, which has heather thatch, and its survival adds significantly to the building's interest.

The low, shallow pitched roof, the lack of overhanging eaves and the use of flagstone is typical of for Orkney. These features allow the wind to travel over the top of the building more easily, making it less susceptible to weather damage and reducing the noise when inside the building. The thatch covering also helps stop the flags cracking through frost, it insulates the building and lessens the chance of water ingress during heavy rain.

Close Historical Associations

There are no known associations with a person or event of national importance at present (2018).

Statutory address, category of listing changed from B to A and listed building record revised in 2019. Previously listed as 'Hoy, Rackwick, Burnmouth, Including Boundary Walls'.

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