Built in the 1620s by Bishop George Graham, Skaill House has been cared for and enhanced by its owners over the centuries.
The drawing room upstairs is the setting for a Festival presentation at 6 pm, often a talk, but the format can vary to commemorate a special occasion. Thus in 2018, to mark the centenary of the birth of the Orkney film-maker Margaret Tait, there was a showing of her film Land Makar. Just across the Loch of Skaill is the cottage where Margaret Tait herself lived, and also the cottage of West Aith, the home of the subject of the film, Mary Graham Sinclair.
The drawing room has beautiful views of the loch and of the Bay of Skaill. The Festival presentation there is followed by a themed tea downstairs in the dining room, surrounded by family portraits on the walls, with a display cabinet containing some of Captain Cook’s dinner service. This was brought to Skaill House in 1780 from Stromness, after Cook’s ships called there on their way back from the Pacific, with the sad news of Cook’s death on Hawaii.
The house is rich in history. On the stairs are pictures of two great Scottish military commanders, both cousins of the Graham lairds of Skaill – one is James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose who fought for King Charles I in the civil war in Scotland in the mid-17th century. The other is of John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee – ‘Bonnie Dundee’ – who rallied the Highland clans to the Jacobite cause and was killed at the moment of triumph at the battle of Killiecrankie in 1689.
Skaill House is the perfect setting for stories for stories of insights from history. We were able to commemorate there the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, who formulated ideas about the way in which mechanical computing machines could be able to work.
We marked the 150th anniversary of the death of William Balfour Baikie, the Orkney-born explorer of the River Niger.
We looked at the life of Fanny Copeland, daughter of the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, who has a deep love of Orkney and for the mountains of Slovenia and who developed ideas about Spanish Armada connections in the east as well as the west.
We marked the 150th anniversary of the American author Washington Irving, whose parents came from Shapinsay, and told the story of his journey into the heart of Moorish Spain that led to a revival of interest in the lost centuries of Moorish Spain and its influence on Western knowledge.
And we celebrated the life of George Marwick of Yesnaby, whose collected Orkney folklore is a treasure chest of tradition.