Orkney life has always centred around the farming and fishing industries and a fine example of a typical croft house of the 16th century, is the Kirbuster Farm Museum in Birsay.
Kirbuster Farm is the only surviving example of a central hearth homestead (firehoose) in Northern Europe and for all it appears to provide only the most basic living standard, it must be remembered that this croft was considered one of the most luxurious at the time, being higher and wider than most other crofts with more windows.
Once the home of the Spence and Hay families, this stone house with a central smoke hole, provided a roof for the farmer and his livestock.
The central hearth burns peat blocks cut from the surrounding lands, stored carefully in outbuildings and piled high in a recess near the bed.
Smoke from the fire escapes through a hole in the roof which can be adapted to suit the wind direction by the use of a few boards on a long wooden pole.
Most of the smoke fills the room, making breathing quite difficult and with only a small window and a few holes in the roof to let in light, seeing is not a great deal easier.
To one side of the hearth, a pot is suspended over the fire for cooking and a small wooden table and chairs, along with an Orkney chair and a stool provide the only furnishings.
On the right just beyond the hearth is a small recess in the wall, where a horizontal slab about 3 feet from the ground creates the bed. The stone Neuk bed (pronounced nook bed) is again a unique survivor of this period.
On the opposite side of the hearth, the farm animals would traditionally be kept, sharing the roof with their farmer.
One can only imagine what the smell of animals mingled with the peat fire would have been like, not to mention the fish strung up across the roof, drying out over the smoking hearth.
A later 18th century addition to the house was a parlour and bedrooms and instead of the Neuk bed, the bedrooms sport the latest in box beds, not a great deal different in design than the neuk bed but this time constructed from timber with a mattress of woven straw.
The addition of byres for the livestock and gardens established by the Nicol family, turned this property into what was at the time, quite desirable real estate.
Willows were grown in the garden to build eel traps and a grain drying kiln was used well into the 20th century for drying malt to make home brewed ale.
Two brothers lived in the house, complete with working hearth until 1961….they both lived into their eighties!
A great insight into the lives of centuries of Orkney islanders and for those with an Orkney farming heritage, Kirbuster Farm Museum is an absolute must visit.
With the peat fire burning and the cups, chairs and neuk bed looking as though their owner will return at any moment, it is an experience that will instill a great respect for those who forged a living on the windswept farmland of Orkney.
Visit Scotland Guide – Information and opening hours for the Kirbuster Farm Museum.
Orkneypics.com – Images of Kirbuster Farm Museum.
Orkney Islands Council – About Kirbuster Farm Museum