History in Structure

Former Byre, Old Bea Farmhouse, Birsay

A Category C Listed Building in West Mainland, Orkney Islands

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Latitude: 59.1382 / 59°8'17"N

Longitude: -3.2602 / 3°15'36"W

OS Eastings: 327988

OS Northings: 1028610

OS Grid: HY279286

Mapcode National: GBR L49L.580

Mapcode Global: WH692.WKPY

Plus Code: 9CFR4PQQ+7W

Entry Name: Former Byre, Old Bea Farmhouse, Birsay

Listing Name: Old Bea Farmhouse including former byre to north, outbuildings to southwest and walled enclosure to south, Birsay

Listing Date: 9 December 1977

Last Amended: 9 October 2018

Category: C

Source: Historic Scotland

Source ID: 407050

Historic Scotland Designation Reference: LB6178

Building Class: Cultural

ID on this website: 200407050

Location: Birsay and Harray

County: Orkney Islands

Electoral Ward: West Mainland

Parish: Birsay And Harray

Traditional County: Orkney


The Old Bea farmhouse buildings, located in Birsay on the northern coast road of the North Orkney Mainland, are built of traditionally constructed flagstone on a rectangular-plan. The group comprises the remains of a single storey, Orkney firehouse dating to around 1664 and extended in the 19th century with a two-storey section added to the west gable. There are two doorways to the south elevation. The two-storey addition is roofless (2018) having previously had a flagstone roof. The mid-17th century firehouse itself was raised in height by one storey, using reconstituted stone blocks, during the late 20th century.

Running parallel to the rear (north) elevation of the house is a long narrow former byre. To the south is a rectangular-plan enclosure with a low flagstone wall. To the west of the enclosure are two adjoining single-storey gabled outbuildings. The roofs are covered with corrugated or 'crinkly tin' sheeting.

Statement of Interest

Old Bea Farmhouse, dating to 1664 and extended in the 19th century, is a rare surviving example of an Orkney farmstead that retains a pre-Improvement period, mid-17th century core. There are very few farmsteads with 17th century components surviving in Orkney or more widely across Scotland and the survival of pre-Improvement agricultural buildings is rare. While the surviving elements of Old Bea Farmhouse and outbuildings have been altered, the buildings demonstrate the evolution of farming practice from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The grouping shows traditional building methods and plan-form, and use of locally sourced materials. The little-altered setting also adds to the interest.

Age and Rarity

17th century farm houses are among the earliest surviving historic buildings of the post-medieval period in the Orkney Islands. Writing in 1923, J Clouston describes Bea as one of three early houses with adjoining two-storey additions in the township of 'Abune-the-Hill', Birsay (Old Orkney Houses, p.45). Bea, Swannay and Ingsay were granted feu charter in 1664-65 (Land tax rolls for Orkney, Volume 02) which is the likely date of the earliest construction at all three sites. Swannay House was largely rebuilt during the later 19th century, possibly reusing stone from the earlier property, while Ingsay was demolished during the late 20th century.

Old Bea is first shown on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey Map (surveyed in 1880) with its rectangular-plan walled enclosure to the south. The Inventory of Monuments in Orkney entry for Bea House, written in 1935, indicates that the two-storey range was added to the west gable of the earlier single-storey range during the mid-19th century. The locally-sourced clay flagstone construction of both the west and east sections of the house also indicate a continuity of traditional vernacular building methods from the 17th century through to the 19th century. The Inventory describes an additional room to the east of the Old Farmhouse. Only the footings of this part of the building are extant.

The former long byre to the rear (north) and the gabled outbuilding to the west are also shown on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map. The regular plan form arrangement of these associated outbuildings is likely to date them to the mid-19th century, around the same time as the two-storey addition to Old Bea Farmhouse, although they may incorporate much earlier material. The field boundaries in the current landscape (2018) appear to be largely consistent with those shown on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map. A replacement farmhouse was built to the south of the walled enclosure between 1902 and 1935.

The older a building is and the fewer of its type that survive the more likely it is to be of special interest for listing. Age is a major factor but its weight differs across the building types. While the industrial and agricultural revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries (known commonly as the Agricultural Improvement period ranging roughly form 1750 to 1850) transformed the northern regions of Scotland at a slower rate than the south, little altered examples of pre-Agricultural Improvement farmsteads are exceptionally rare. Nearby Kirbister Farmhouse, Birsay (LB6179) is larger than most farmsteads of the period and is thought to date to 1723 with later additions and alterations. Operating as a museum since 2008, it is promoted as having the only traditional farmstead firehouse (with central hearth and 'fire backstone') in Northern Europe.

Old Bea is an example of an early Orkney farmstead which has been improved during the 19th century. It displays 17th to 19th century building methods and materials, and largely retains its 19th century and early 20th century agricultural setting. There are few farmsteads with 17th century components surviving in Orkney and the survival of pre-Improvement agricultural buildings is rare. Although the upstanding elements of Old Bea Farmhouse and outbuildings have been altered, their survival continues to illustrate traditional building methods, Improvement-era planning, and use of locally sourced materials.

Architectural or Historic Interest


The interior has not been seen (2018). Recent photographs show that the interior of the farmhouse is now largely a shell with the loss of internal walls and flooring. There are very few surviving interior fixtures or fittings at Old Bea House and byre, and this is expected in this building type and for its date.

There are fireplaces with raised margin surrounds in the west gable wall. The 17th century 'firehouse' section has been noted as having two inset wall cupboards, or presses, and a fireplace (Inventory, p11). The recessed press cupboards are likely to date to the construction of the house. The loss of the central hearth 'fireback' stone and relocation of the fireplace to the edge of the building is probably a 19th century alteration, likely carried out when the two-storey section was added to the west.

Plan form

The earliest section of Old Bea farmhouse is orientated with the principal elevation facing south. Typically, the dwelling house, usually comprising two rooms known as the firehouse (kitchen/living area) and the seller (bedroom) was built in line with the byre, barn and stable sections resembling the linear plan of the Norse longhouse of the 8th century onwards.

The survival of the plan form, with outbuildings around a central rectangular enclosure, is characteristic of small farms during the early improvement era of agricultural development in Orkney. The long narrow plan of the former byre to the north is typical as the expense of suitable timbers for the roof restricted the depth which could be spanned. As such, the site plan form is an important part of the interest.

Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality

The local building methods employed at the Old Bea Farmhouse and its outbuildings meant that they could be readily altered to suit changes in farming practice, the availability of materials and the needs of the tenants. This is reflected in the series of alterations which have been carried out over the centuries.

The overall appearance of Old Bea Farmhouse and its principal ancillary structures is that of a 17th or 18th century farm grouping that has been improved. The scale of later alterations in in keeping with the earlier buildings and the rubble enclosure is also of interest for its survival. The use of traditional materials and building techniques adds to the interest of the Old Bea Farmhouse group.


The setting of the Old Bea Farmhouse has survived largely in its 19th and early 20th century form which contributes to the authenticity and historic character of farm grouping. The immediate setting of the farmhouse and enclosure includes an early twentieth century farmhouse (not listed) which is in keeping with the agricultural character of the earlier farm buildings.

Old Bea farmhouse is located in the former dispersed township known as 'Abune-the-Hill' (above the hill) in Birsay towards the northern tip of Orkney Mainland. The area is hilly, but not mountainous, with Old Bea occupying a natural dip in the landscape, making it prominently visible in long views, particularly from the A996 north road.

The location and setting of farms on Orkney tell us about changing settlement patterns and historical agricultural land-use. These buildings are a historical part of the agricultural built environment of the north Orkney Mainland.

Regional variations

The design and construction of old Orkney farmhouses was a distinctly localised practice. The best surviving examples of local vernacular buildings will normally be listed because, even in altered form, they can continue to illustrate distinctive local and regional building traditions.

The flag claystone in the Birsay area is noted locally as a good building material as there is no sandstone in the area. Built from undressed flagstone from the surrounding area, the Old Bea Farmhouse and outbuildings illustrate distinctive vernacular building methods and materials used in Orkney from the 17th to the 19th century.

The addition of a two-storey range to the west gable of the single-storey Old Bea house was a traditional method of extending single-storey farmhouses in Orkney during the mid-19th century (Clouston, p.39), reflecting a distinctive regional building tradition.

Close Historical Associations

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

Statutory address changed and listed building record revised in 2018. Previously listed as 'Old Bea Farmhouse'.

External Links

External links are from the relevant listing authority and, where applicable, Wikidata. Wikidata IDs may be related buildings as well as this specific building. If you want to add or update a link, you will need to do so by editing the Wikidata entry.

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