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Detached cottage to north at Muckle House, Rackwick, Hoy

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

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Latitude: 58.8711 / 58°52'16"N

Longitude: -3.3939 / 3°23'37"W

OS Eastings: 319719

OS Northings: 999030

OS Grid: ND197990

Mapcode National: GBR K5Z8.XQL

Mapcode Global: WH6BC.V915

Plus Code: 9CCRVJC4+FC

Entry Name: Detached cottage to north at Muckle House, Rackwick, Hoy

Listing Name: Muckle House crofthouse and detached cottage to north, Rackwick, Hoy

Listing Date: 16 September 1999

Last Amended: 9 April 2019

Category: B

Source: Historic Scotland

Source ID: 407157

Historic Scotland Designation Reference: LB46376

Building Class: Cultural

Location: Hoy and Graemsay

County: Orkney Islands

Electoral Ward: Stromness and South Isles

Parish: Hoy And Graemsay

Traditional County: Orkney


Muckle House is a mid-19th century, single-storey, roughly rectangular-plan, crofthouse with late-20th century alterations. Adjoining the east gable is a lower former byre. The walls are built of flagstone rubble and have gable end walls and the roof is turf covered flagstone. To the north and at right angles is a detached, single-storey, three-bay cottage, built between 1880 and 1900. The buildings are on falling ground and located close to the shore at Rackwick Bay on the island of Hoy. The group of buildings, and the area, has a close historical association with the composer Peter Maxwell Davies and the author George Mackay Brown.

The crofthouse has a projecting rubble porch to the south elevation. The window openings have been enlarged and have replacement single-pane timber frames. There is a very small window in the west gable. The lower byre section to the right has a timber door and one window. There are no openings in the rear (north) elevation.

There is a ridge chimneystack and a small chimneystack on the west gable of the crofthouse. The south and west elevations are whitewashed. There is a small later 20th century timber frame addition with a corrugated tin roof to the east gable.

The interior of the crofthouse and former byre, seen in 2017, consists of four rooms in a linear arrangement. The two 'but and ben' rooms of the crofthouse are the living room, at the west end, and the kitchen. The living room has wall recesses and a box bed. The box has carved scroll timber panels and has been fitted to the slope of the roof. The two rooms in the former byre are bedrooms.

The east elevation of the detached cottage has a timber door flanked by 12-pane timber sash and case windows. There are coped rubble chimneystacks on both gables. It has a corrugated cement roof covering. The interior of the cottage has not been seen.

Statement of Interest

Muckle House is a mid-19th century crofthouse with an adjoining byre and a detached, later-19th cottage to the north. This grouping of vernacular buildings were once prolific across Orkney, but are now extremely rare. The crofthouse and byre building has been altered but retains a significant proportion of its 19th century form and fabric. The long and low exterior form of the buildings reflects traditional methods of construction and materials, such as thick and irregular rubble walls and a flagstone and turf roof. Other notable features include the 'but and ben' room plan form and a rare surviving example of a box bed.

The thatched crofthouse and byre are 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. 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.

The late 19th century cottage shows the developing living standards of tenant farmers and fishermen at this type of site during the 19th and early 20th century on Orkney.

The buildings both individually and as a group are prominent in the landscape and make a significant contribution to its dramatic coastal location and within the largely 19th century pre-improvement fishing and farming settlement at Rackwick.

The historical association with composer, Peter Maxwell Davies, and author, George Mackay Brown, also adds to the interest.

Age and Rarity

It is not currently known when Muckle House was first built (2018). Most of the buildings in Rackwick are likely to date from the 19th century. The footprint of the crofthouse and adjoining byre is first shown on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map (surveyed in 1880), but may date to the early or mid-19th century.

The later cement-roofed cottage to the north does not appear on this map, but is shown on the 2nd Edition Ordnance Survey map (revised 1900). This indicates that it was constructed between 1880 and 1900. A small enclosure (no longer extant) adjoining the rear of the earlier crofthouse is also shown on the 2nd Edition map.

The buildings are located on a small promontory of land known as 'the nose of the yard'. The Ordnance Survey Namebook of 1880 describes it as a small point situated at the western extremity of Rackwick on the sea coast, and is the property of J.G.M. Heddle of Hoy.

The 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map shows 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.

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 crofts 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 cottages or crofthouses reflecting 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 Muckle House and Burnmouth Bothy (LB46375) 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. Muckle House is a rare example of a relatively intact, 19th century crofthouse with adjoining byre with a 'but and ben' interior room plan and a rare surviving box-bed. It shows a number of elements that are typical of early to mid-19th century vernacular building traditions and construction methods in Orkney (See Regional Variations section below).

The later cottage adds to the interest of this group of croft buildings. It shows the development of the croft, improvements in living standards of the crofter and the continued use of the croft into the 20th century.

Architectural or Historic Interest


The interiors of traditional cottages were often simple. Many of them have been refurbished and the survival of historic fixtures is rare. The principal interest of the interior is the rare survival of a timber-panelled box bed. This survival adds significantly to the interest in listing terms. The decorative scrolled panels of the box-bed indicate that it may have been reused from an existing item of furniture, such as a wardrobe, during the earlier 20th century. This is not uncommon and reflects the vernacular or traditional approach to construction by reusing existing items.

There are also recesses within in the walls that are likely to date to the construction of the crofthouse. The fireplace appears to have been altered to create a rubble plinth to support a later wood burning stove.

Plan form

Muckle House 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 thick stone walls, sit low to the ground reducing the likelihood of damage to the roof by strong coastal winds. There are also minimal openings in the rear elevation of the buildings.

It is common for these traditional cottages to have been altered by addition of porches and small extensions, as can be seen here. Porches were a practical addition, allowing the front door to be opened and closed during storms.

The survival of the traditional 'but and ben' arrangement in the crofthouse and its adjoining byre also adds to the special interest of the building.

Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality

Muckle House 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 traditional vernacular dwellings, the retention of the overall traditional character of is also important in determining their special architectural or historic interest.

Some windows in the south elevation have been enlarged to allow more light into the building and there has been a timber and glazed addition to the west gable. Slight changes to these traditional buildings are not unusual. The overall appearance of Muckle House is of 19th century thatched crofthouse with adjoining byre and continues to show traditional building methods and materials characteristic of Orkney. The buildings retain their traditional exterior character and a significant proportion of historic fabric in the walls and turfed roof.

The detached cottage to the north is a little-altered example of a late-19th century domestic addition to an existing croft. The proportions and form of the building show that this is a later cottage and therefore reflects the development of a croft. Features that indicate its late-19th century date include the even-spacing and large-scale of the openings, and the construction of the rubble walls, which are not cattered and have squared corners in worked stone. The building has a replacement cement roof covering and it is not known if any of the original roof structure survives underneath.

Together the buildings help us understand about land-use and the development of farming communities in Orkney during the 19th century.


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.

Muckle House is 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 heather-thatched Burnmouth Bothy (LB46375). 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 the building, 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 Muckle House likely followed this pattern. The earlier crofthouse is a good surviving example of this arrangement.

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 flagstones lining the eaves, the ridge and along the centre of the roof pitch. This turf overlay can be seen at Muckle House, and its survival adds significantly to the building's special interest.

The low, shallow pitched roof, the lack of overhanging eaves and the use of flagstone is typical 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

Close associations with nationally important people, or events whose associations are well-documented, where the physical fabric of the building is also of some quality and interest, can be a significant factor.

Rackwick Bay is a recurrent theme in the works of composer, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Orkney-based poet and author, George Mackay Brown, both of whom had a significant influence on each other's work. The men first met at Muckle House in 1970. Maxwell Davies spent the winter of that year at Muckle House writing the scores for the Ken Russell films 'The Devils' and 'The Boyfriend' as well as music influenced by the natural landscape of Rackwick. Maxwell Davies went on to repair the roofless remains of the dwelling called 'Quholme' to the west of Muckle House, and lived there for much of the 1970s.

In 1982, Mackay Brown noted that Peter Maxwell Davies had 'woven the four Rackwick seasons into his life and his art' (Valley by the Sea, 1982). Mackay Brown uses Rackwick Bay and its crofts as a source of inspiration in a number of his books including 'Dead Fires' (1967) and 'Fishermen with Ploughs' (1971).

Statutory address, category of listing changed from C to B and listed building record revised in 2019. Previously listed as 'Hoy, Rackwick, Muckle House, including ancillary building'.

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