Orkney – Kirbuster Farm Museum

Several sites in Orkney allow a visitor to see the progression of human habitation. The earliest is Skara Brae. After that, we went to Kirbuster Farm Museum, a massive leap forward in time but one in which the types of structures and living spaces implemented at Skara Brae were still evident.

Kirbuster originated in the 16th century. Where Skara Brae is 5000 years old, Kirbuster came into being about 400 years ago as a croft (smallholding, or farm) house. While typical of its time in some respects, it was larger and more diverse and the domicile connected with more land than most structures of its era. It was also expanded in the 18th century and was lived in until 1961, so many portions reflect inhabitation from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Here's a glimpse of some of what's there. . . .


One interesting thing about the two farm museums I visited in Mainland Orkney is that they are so approachable. Some of the items are historic and some are replicas, but all can be moved among and "felt" in place, as if the spaces were still in use, perhaps by you who are moving within them, imagining what it would be like to carry out the activities of daily life inside these walls and and among these fields.

The ancestral stonework skills endured—prompted, no doubt, by the ready availability of stone. This is an outbuilding near the entrance: I think it was a drying house or type of kiln, but am open to correction. Having recently been at Skara Brae, I was more focused on its construction than its function.


Here's the inside of the house, looking back toward where we entered, from a vantage point near the hallway to the later addition. That great block of stone is the hearth. The pole hanging down is attached to boards in the opening of the roof that lets the smoke out. More about that in a moment.


Here's the hearth and its burning peat fire, with strings of fish drying in the heat. Yes, real fire and real peat. While it was smoky, it was nowhere near as bad as you'd think (for an open fire burning without fireplace or chimney) because of the ingenious draft system.


The hole in the roof (proto-chimney) is amazingly effective—more so than the smoke-removal options in many later houses of this area and elsewhere. The boards attached to the pole can be adjusted (by angle and position) in response to the direction of the wind to make the draft most effective. I have some photos of the opening in the roof, although they're not terrific.

This is looking up into the hole. The board extension controlled by the pole is in place on the upper edge of the hole that the photo is looking toward. It could be shifted to the other sides and slotted into place.


The hole isn't just a hole. It's pretty carefully and ingeniously devised and built. Here's another view of the portions that are in the dark in the photo above.


The point is: this place is rustic, but people knew what they were doing when they put it together. It was not in the least haphazard, and when the winds blew and the rain fell, the thick walls and adjustable heating system provided relatively spacious and functional shelter.

Textile crafts were in evidence, if not actively progressing (but wait for the end of the post to see a much better representation of the fiber heritage).


A wheel that needed cleaning, a flyer, driveband, oil, adjustment. . . .


Old wheels like this always make me wonder if they're salvageable.


It was very "gray" in the fiber-processing realm, but at least the elements were present. The drying fish over the fire were pretty dusty, too.

The neuk (nook) bed is strongly reminiscent of similar stone enclosures at Skara Brae.


My next photo's a little fuzzy, but the style continued into the new wing and its box beds. The materials from which those beds were constructed were different and the styles of bedding changed. But the type of resting place would have felt familiar.


The new part of the house has a very different feel, but there is continuity. Shawls hang on a peg rail:


Inscribed names record a lot of family history—the information on these pages reflects events of the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, with an emphasis on the late part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth:


Like Skara Brae, this was a home.

At the back end of the property is a long building with a lot of tools. I'll show just a few. Two wagons, of similar design but from different eras:



And a tool for laying rope:


 Out back of the extension is a walled garden area with an orchard and flowers.


It's even more remarkable than it looks in this photo, given the general Orkney landscape—this taken nearby:


And this of the croft context:


And that brings us to the most interesting fiber detail of the Kirbuster visit:


There were two North Ronaldsay sheep in an adjacent pasture. I have to show you both.


At both Kirbuster and the following museum (next post), the curator/attendants offered fascinating insights into the buildings and objects in their care. They're obviously and justifiably proud of these resources where history can be touched and felt and experienced in continuity with the present day.


1 thought on “Orkney – Kirbuster Farm Museum”

  1. I adored my time in Orkey. Glad you are also experiencing history up close and personal. Safe continued journeying!

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