The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Housing styles

Necessity is the mother of invention

Today if we are building a house we call the local builder. He may then sub-contract to the stonemason, joiner, electrician, plasterer and plumber to come in and do the work. If we are feeling brave we may even decide to build the house ourselves. Either way, we can go to a company who can supply the materials we require. 

Our ancestors did not have this luxury. It was a case of finding the materials themselves, transporting them back to the site where they were going to build, and beginning the long, back-breaking and time-consuming work.


Although there are many fine houses in Orkney, most people lived in very modest homes. In the early days these were built where fuel and water could be found and, if the surrounding land supplied stone for building, then so much the better.

The earliest houses discovered in Orkney so far are on the island of Papa Westray. The Knap of Howar consists of two buildings, a home and an adjoining workshop, built using dry-stone walls with midden material within the core. Flagstones set up on edge create partitions. Beds and other furniture such as cupboards are all made from stone, as are the large hearths in the middle of the rooms. It was occupied from around 3700 BC.

 Knap of Howar, Papa Westray

Erosion has destroyed a considerable area of the coast, but evidence suggests that an even earlier domestic settlement was here. It is also impossible to tell if this was a house that stood alone, or if it was part of a larger community or village. 

The village of Skara Brae in the parish of Sandwick, West Mainland is perhaps one of the best-known Neolithic sites in the world. It too was surrounded by midden material. Perhaps this helped to keep the homes warmer. We do not have any evidence of how these Neolithic people roofed their home, but it is thought that whalebone or driftwood would have made rudimentary couples, which may then have been covered over with animal skins or turf.


The houses at the Knap of Howar and Skara Brae are quite different and have developed slowly.

The Vikings brought us the longhouse and this remained in vogue for many years. These houses generally housed the family and animals in a single abode.

Built on a slope, the family would live in the house at the upper end, while the animals lived in the other end. A hole at the gable wall allowed the animal dung and urine to drain away. This style of building meant that less stone needed to be used, cross walls and partitions were again created using flagstones.

Peat and turf would have kept the home warm as well as offering some disinfectant properties. The heat from the animals would have helped to keep the home warm, even if it was at the cost of smell.

Cooking was done over an open central hearth, which provided heat and a little light. Benches down either side of the wall would have been used for sitting and sleeping.

Croft on built on slope: it has simmans on the roof, held down with bendlin stanes

At Kirbuster Museum it can be seen how little changed. This building dates from around 1595 and has a central hearth and a peat neuk formed by upright flagstones. Cupboards were built into the fabric of the wall and are very similar to those at Skara Brae. Flagstones are used to cover the bare earth. The lintel is dated 1723.

Kirbuster Museum

Although similar in many ways, Kirbuster is upmarket compared with a Viking long house. The animals were housed in a separate building, although there are some stalls made from upright flags in the ben end of the house which might have been a temporary home for lambs or calves. The house is quite well lit with numerous small windows and another source of light comes from the 'lum', a hole in the roof which allowed smoke to leave.

Interior of Kirbuster Museum showing central hearth, flag floor and some furniture

So generally, the typical house of this period was a one-storey building with a dwelling area, which was divided by a cross wall into a 'but and ben', ie two rooms known as the 'in by' and the 'oot by'. In the 19th century the but end was generally split in to a scullery and kitchen area by an inserted gable. A fireplace with a hearth was set into this gable so the older central hearth could be removed. This was a huge change to the house. The rooms were now separated by a wall instead of the central hearth.

Flagstone paving runs between the house and the outbuilding and evidence of this has been seen from some Norse archaeological sites, such as Skaill in Deerness. Later houses began to become more modern when the longhouse was divided by a dry-stone wall. A fireplace was inserted in this wall and a chimney created. Animals were given their own residence, but often small recesses were still built into the wall to provide a nesting place for laying hens. Barns and stables were built and were no longer an extension of the house.

As fishing was so important, many houses are built near the shore. Interestingly neither Kirbuster nor Corrigall Farm Museum are near to the shore but both are built close to freshwater streams.

As agricultural improvements brought wealth to the lairds and landowners of Orkney, they began to live in ever grander houses. The straw, kelp and linen trade saw many merchants build their town houses on the outskirts of the town. In Kirkwall, Dundas Crescent became a popular place to build and these fine houses still stand today.

  House on Dundas Crescent, Kirkwall

Of course, the ordinary man could not afford to have such a fine home. Farming had progressed greatly from the Middle Ages, the run rig way of farming had given way to enclosed fields, and the larger farms were well managed and carefully cultivated using the five-shift rotation system.

The lairds needed a large work force and small crofts were built in abundance. The more industrious of the workers put in drains and enclosed the land with stone dykes. They built small cottages on the edge of the hill dyke and generally turned their once-poor dwelling into a small-but-profitable farm. As their steadings improved, the rents they paid to the laird were increased.

But in the 1880s the growth in farming fell. Prices dropped and so did the crofter's income as a result. Rents, however, did not decrease and this caused great hardship. Tenants now had little incentive to improve their humble homes. There were no contracts or terms of employment and no security. If they made any improvements, the rent they paid would increase yet they could be evicted from it at the whim of the laird. It was only after The Crofters Act in 1886 that landowners allowed their tenants to have longer leases and encouraged them to improve their homes.

Purgatory in Birsay showing the remains of a flag roof

Finally, people could take a real pride in their home. Knowing they were secure for a long period of time allowed them to make improvements. Today, there are all kinds of houses to be seen in Orkney from pre-fab to kit-houses to huge houses big enough to house several families.

But what materials were used and which methods employed in the past to build?

Building materials


Building materials were easy to come by. Stones might be gathered from the fields or the beach. If this was not possible, small quarries were opened and used by just a few families. Larger quarries were created at the Black Craig in Stromness, where slate was cut and used for roofing. Red and yellow sandstone was quarried from land at Midland in Orphir.

House on island of Fara with flagstone roof and drystone walling. Notice the very narrow door and window

Roofing - couples

Making couples for a roof was perhaps the biggest headache. In the Neolithic period it is thought that whalebone and driftwood were used. With the lack of woods in Orkney, timber was in short supply and it was not unusual to see a hotchpotch of materials used.

The earliest record of wood being ordered and transported to Orkney is in 1587, when 1,000 deals were ordered from Norway. In 1670 the Sheriff Court Records mention timber coming from Caithness, which was to be used as untrimmed roofing timbers. However, this was only for those who could afford it and was well beyond the means of most families. Driftwood and timber from shipwrecks were always a bonus.

In January 1800 the Three Friends of Montrose was wrecked on South Ronaldsay and the timber she was carrying consisted of fir deals, oak planks, oak staves and balks of timber. All the timber was measured by Mr Omond, a merchant in Kirkwall. He legally sold it all.

The Prudentia (also known as the Two Sisters), was wrecked in Hoy Sound in April 1811. The mast and logs she was carrying were sold. The timber was used for making furniture, fire surrounds and doors. 

The roof

It is thought the earliest roofs were covered using turf, grass or heather. Later straw or heather simmans were used to cover the roof. Simmans are ropes made from straw by the men during winter evenings and on days when the weather was too inhospitable to work outdoors. The simmans were stretched in parallel lines across the roof.

When the roof had been covered, a layer of loose straw was laid down. The straw also ran parallel to run off any water. A second layer of simmans was then added. This layering would continue until it was felt that the roof had been completed. The last layer of simmans was weighed down using a heavy stone (usually flagstone) which was placed in a fold in the rope.

Simmans on the roof at Gimps, South Ronaldsay

The roof looked very homely and fresh when first completed but soon the smoke from the fire would discolour it and, when it rained, it was not unusual for drips of black soot to fall on to the residents below. Although it helped to keep the house warm, it was hardly wind and watertight. It was, however, the only ready material the crofters had. Sometimes simmans were made of heather, but this was a much harder task, the heather being less pliable.

The roof was re-thatched every few years. Instead of removing the original material, new simmans and straw were simply added to the roof. In some very old dwellings there are many, many layers that can be still be seen. In some houses where the building was set against a hillside for added protection, the farm animals would climb onto the roof and supplement their diet.

A great move forward was using flagstones to roof the house. Flagstone exposed on the shore was easy to split, using a hammer and a wedge. The flag had to be quarried, though, and transport was required to bring the material home. Several trips would have to be made, owing to the weight of the stone. The stone did, however, make the roof more watertight. The flags were laid side by side with small ones covering up the seam. These 'seamers' were sometimes pointed using lime to give extra protection.

Sometimes only a small part of the roof was done this way. The upper part would be made with simmans, while the lower part was made using large flagstones. Recent excavation at the Ness of Brodgar has revealed some very thin stone, which has been fashioned to resemble tiles. It is thought that the Neolithic people here may have used these to roof their homes.

Large thin carefully trimmed stone slates, probably from a collapsed roof, discovered at the Ness of Brodgar © ORCA

In the Neolithic period flagstone was used to create partitions, beds, dressers and hearths. This style of building was continued for hundreds of years, as it was the only material available.

Well into the 18th century, homes had furniture made from flagstone. Neuk beds were built into the fabric of the wall and a front was created using flagstones. Shelves were made from flagstone, as well as lintels for doors and fireplaces. It was also used to cover the bare earth to make a waterproof floor and a flag shelf was inserted into a corner of the home to hold the quern stone (grinding stone).

Stone was also used in outbuildings for feeding troughs, stalls, floor covering, outside paths and as a lid to top the kiln. Later, slates were used. Many came from the slate quarry at the Black Craig in Stromness. These were much lighter and easier to use.


The layout of the early farms showed the close association between people and their animals. The earliest dwellings were long and rectangular and were divided into two rooms, the 'in by' and the 'oot by', otherwise known as a 'but and ben'. The family lived at one end of the house, while the byre was at the other end. It was usual for there to be only one door, which was shared by everyone. Sometimes young animals were actually kept in the room with the family and you can see an example of this at Kirbuster Museum in the parish of Birsay.

In addition there were often small recesses at the foot of the walls where brooding hens or a goose might lay their eggs, and there was often meat drying in the house. Fish was hung above the open fire to smoke.

Central hearth

Older houses in Orkney have a central hearth with a low stone back. The ashes were pushed through a low square hole, collected and used as bedding for the animals. A hole in the roof was surrounded by boards to allow the smoke to leave the house. Often, if the wind was in the wrong direction, the house would be full of smoke. This helped to provide a bit of sanitisation to the house, but it must have been hard to live with.

When the central hearth became out of date, it was often replaced by mid-gable, which incorporated a fireplace with a chimney. Many had a mantelpiece where ornaments sat. Tea was an expensive luxury and it was not unusual to see the tea caddy sitting upon the mantelpiece in pride of place.

Interior showing central hearth with a box bed in the background


The earliest homes were very dark. Glass was beyond the means of most, and the window tax made it unaffordable. Sometimes a square was cut out of a roofing flag and a small pane of glass inserted. Walls were sometimes white washed and this lightened up the home as well as making it easier to clean. Gradually, as a family income improved, small windows would be inserted.


Some small farmsteads had a barn, which had a corn-drying kiln at the far end, and doors opposite each other were used for winnowing. The draught from these doors carried away the chaff, leaving the clean stalks. These would be built opposite the dwelling house and would be separated by a narrow kloss (passage). These narrow paths were necessary in the fierce Orkney winters.

Timber could be a problem, as there is very little woodland in Orkney but, being an island, there was always the spoils of shipwrecks to look forward to. Often ships would be carrying wood, which was washed ashore, or the ship itself would founder and be broken up on the rocks. Nothing was wasted and there are many old houses that have couples made from the timber of a shipwreck. The wood was also used for making doors, box beds and other furniture.

Around Orkney, small quarries were opened up for the building of houses. Other materials came from the beaches or from the flagstone layers exposed on the shore. These could easily be spilt using a hammer and a wedge. Stones were transported up from the shore or gathered from the land.