Balnakeil House is an A-listed nine-bedroom highland mansion which sleeps up to 17. Now fully restored it has been sympathetically refurbished to provide a unique and luxurious experience.
The setting is magical, all rooms have spectacular sea or mountain views, step out the back door and onto the mile and a half long white sandy beach. Step into a timeless décor of earthy colours in sympathy with the surroundings, solid wooden furniture and heated slate floors, lovely muted plaids and tweeds from Anta. Enter to find the superbly equipped kitchen with an Aga at one end, and a stove at the other separated by a 4.5m long oak table, it makes the perfect spot to gather and socialise whilst preparing and enjoying meals. A games room with a pool table, board games, books, DVDs, stove, a comfy sofa and a flat screen TV will keep the young at heart entertained, whilst those requiring quieter moments can rest in the sumptuous drawing room upstairs, with a fantastic view over the beach, before all joining up for dinner in the breathtaking dining room. The nine bedrooms are welcoming and exceptionally comfortable, with crisp white linen over memory foam mattresses.
The History of Balnakeil House
It is believed that building of the original Balnakeil House was begun around 1642 and it was then rebuilt c. 1744 and extended a few times in the 1800's, but there is no known authoritative work documenting this.
Balnakeil House was built by the Mackay chiefs as a family mansion on the site of an earlier building which had at one time been the summer palace of the medieval Bishops of Caithness. There is little by way of contemporary documentation on the building itself but plenty of stories about the place and its inhabitants. The first occupant of the rebuilt mansion, Donald, son of the third Lord Reay was, according to poet Rob Donn, "the apex of society and entertainment, of the men of poetry and of music". In 1740, the minister in the nearby manse, the Rev Murdo Macdonald, wrote in his diary that he couldn't concentrate on composing his Sunday sermons for all the merrymaking going on at the house on Saturday evenings!
From the early 1800s Balnakeil was occupied by the sheep farm tenant, beginning with John Dunlop. The last occupants were the previous farm manager and his family, the Andersons. Balnakeil House has lain empty since 1992.
Melness-based author Mary Beith has written: "By the end of the seventeenth century, the Reay Forest, including Glen Golly, had been subject to Sutherland's [sic] earliest and least publicised clearance when a chief of Mackay moved the people to Eddrachillis in the west to make way for what may well have been, ironically, both the Highland's first purpose-planned sporting estate and one of the last resorts of a truly indigenous luxury lifestyle.
"At Balnakeil House in Durness, John, Lord of Mackay, held sway over what the historian Edward Cowan has called "an almost aggressively traditional household". When the then Lord Lovat visited John Mackay in 1669 there was hawking, hunting, sea fishing, archery, wrestling, feasting, music and dancing. Among other household retainers, Mackay had a piper, a harpist and an amadan (Gaelic: fool or jester). When he left, Lovat was showered with gifts a sheltie, guns, longbows, an antique sword, a pair of deerhounds, a silk plaid and a doublet and trews."
In his book "The world of Rob Donn" (Edinburgh, 1979, although a new edition has now been issued) Ian Grimble wrote: "Second in magnificence to the seat of the chief at Tongue stood his mansion in the far west. This ancient manor farm had been inhabited by the second Lord Reay while Tongue House was being rebuilt, and it was used besides as a hunting lodge for expeditions to the Reay Forest, as a granary the chief's western estates, and as the residence of his heir. Like Tongue House it remains exactly as Rob Donn saw it, though it has also lost all its eighteenth century furnishings." According to Dr Grimble, Balnakeil was built by the second Lord Reay who was educated in Denmark while his father was fighting with his clan regiment in the Thirty Years' War, "and it may not be fanciful to see in its architecture the influence of the Danish manor-farm".
Another story related by Ian Grimble tells how the wife of a Mackay chief, a Sutherland by birth, helped save Kenneth Sutherland, an army deserter who had fled to Durness during or shortly after the 1745 rebellion. A detachment of troops caught up with him at Balnakeil. "Whether by accident or design, Kenneth Sutherland did not choose one of the doors leading to the ground-floor premises when he bolted through the garden and across the court. He chose the entrance which took him to these narrow stairs. At the head of them can still be seen the little closet beside the panelled reception room into which Lady Reay pushed her clansman in his extremity. She then welcomed his pursuers as they tumbled up the stairs, ushering them into the great room beyond Kenneth's hiding place. She ordered drink for them; she summoned the women who were working about the premises and improvised a dance."
"There was a lady beside the threshold / Standing there, alert, formidable. / I don't know the pass / He went out by, on my life / But between the woman's legs, / Without bonnet or weapons, / Very near the fissure where he was born, / There he made his escape." The double entendre got lost in the translation, apparently.
"Lady Reay's resourcefulness in smuggling the deserter to safety down that narrow staircase beneath a woman's skirts was not the only theme she provided for Rob Donn," Dr Grimble commented.
Balnakeil House was listed in 1971 by Historic Scotland as a category "A" building, which makes it of national importance, placing it in the top seven-and-a-half per cent of listed buildings. The escription reads: "1744. Two storey and attic, symmetrical U-plan house; four centre bays, rojecting outer wings with 3-bay inner faces to small paved court; two first floor and small attic windows only in south facing outer gabled wings. All harled, with polished ashlar margins and dressings." The interior is a mixture of original features and nineteenth century alterations and decoration (wood panelling etc.). The walled garden is dated 1863.
Works on the House started in late 2009, following lengthy discussions with Historic Scotland, and the house has now been sympathetically refurbished to form a comfortable large house.
The Durness Area
The region surrounding Balnakeil is as beautiful as it is remote. As well as boasting a stunning landscape, the region surrounding Durness is rich in history and culture.
Occupying the North West corner of the county of Sutherland, Durness parish covers nearly 606 square kilometers. This makes it one of the biggest parishes in Scotland, but with only about 315 people, it has the lowest population density of any parish in the country and is the remotest area on the British mainland. It is a land of mountains and moors fringed with golden sands and spectacular cliffs.
Within its bounds are the Clo Mor cliffs, the highest in Great Britain, Cape Wrath, the most north westerly point in Europe, Smoo Cave, the largest entranced cave in the British Isles and Ben Hope, the furthest north ‘Munro’. Unlike many other areas in the Highlands, Durness has good, fertile soil, particularly to the north and east of the Kyle of Durness and at Eriboll. This is caused by ancient limestone rock, which produces a fertile, alkaline soil giving rise to a richness of plant life unusual in this part of the north. Not surprisingly, ancient man was attracted to this area and Durness abounds in remains of early settlement from those at Smoo Cave of the hunter gatherers of 4000BC to the hut circles and chambered cairns of the Neolithic Age and the brochs and earth houses of the Iron Age. Later, about 720 the Irish saint Maelrubha brought Christianity, founding a monastery at Balnakeil. The Vikings came and settled, rather than pillaging and in mediaeval times Durness became an important centre of the Clan Mackay. Balnakeil House developed from the domestic buildings of the monastery to become a Clan seat. During the late 17th and 18th century, Durness was seen as a place of culture and learning giving rise to the term uaislean Dhuirinish or the Durness Gentry. The parish school was established in 1712 and the school building of 1766, although ruined, remains substantially as it was built. In 1714, Rob Donn, the Gaelic Bard, was born in Strathmore in the eastern part of the parish. He grew up to become a celebrated poet, - the Robbie Burns of the north, and his songs are still sung throughout Gaeldom today. In 1760, Joseph MacDonald, the youngest son of the parish minister wrote, ‘A Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe’. This was the earliest attempt by a piper to record his music in writing and is a very important document in the development of the bagpipes.
Emigration from the parish began in 1772 when 200 people left for South Carolina. This was before the notorious clearances when people were forcibly evicted to make way for sheep farming. Despite having been on the government side during the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, the Mackays were hit by the economic downturn which crippled the Highlands in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden. Poor management of the Mackay estates did not help and in keeping with elsewhere in the Highlands, sheep farming was seen as the salvation. The first enforced clearance was in 1820 in the West Moine district of the parish, followed by the Keoldale Estate clearances and in 1841, the Rispond Estate Clearance. The latter was, however, a clearance too many and it sparked off a series of events known as the Durness Riots, the first real resistance to clearances in the Highlands. The population, however, peaked in 1881 with 1109 people and then gradually declined. The biggest drop came in the aftermath of the First World War when emmigration to the Scottish Lowlands, England and Canada was particularly popular.
Today Durness is heavily dependant on tourism, although sheep farming and crofting are still important. Public Service jobs, hotels, small family run businesses, self employed crafts people and a fish farm make up the bulk of the economy.
|Fees||No additional mandatory fees|
|Refundable damage deposit||$619|
Peak season (22nd June- 14th September), Christmas and New Year- weeks only. Other times of year short breaks available minimum 3 nights at 80% of weekly let, 4 nights 85%, 5 nights 90%. The weekly let start / finish day is a Saturday. This house sleeps a maximum 17 guests.
30% deposit at booking and remainder due 6 weeks before arrival