Breek was an old house in Quandale, north of Tofts, and in the early 1800’s it was occupied by George Flaws and his wife Margaret Low. Two more houses in the immediate vicinity were Braehead and Hasley, and further down the hill was Lower Breek, rent payers in 1841 being named as Thomas Craigie and William Corsie.
George Flaws was born about 1785 and Margaret was born in 1782. They had four children; Margaret, Janet, George, and Jane, all of whom were born at Breek between 1817 and 1825. They lived at Deal for a while before being evicted from Quandale in 1845. By 1846 a small croft and house, also named Breek, was built in Frotoft and occupied by the Flaws family.
The census of 1851 records the fact that 27-year-old son George was head of the household, and at that time he was earning a living as a blacksmith and farmer. Living with him was his father George, then 66 years of age, his mother Margaret, in her 69th year, and his 24-year-old sister Jane, who was employed in the house. George worked as a blacksmith for many years, and though retired by 1881 he still lived at Breek.
The images below show Lower Breek, though there are no records of its occupants in the past.
Breck was the name of an old house in Quandale, some 300 yards or so northeast of Tofts. In 1841, 55-year-old farmer David Costie paid an annual rent of £1 18s. 6d. and lived there with his wife Christie, who was 45 years of age. They had three children; William (11), Alexander (5), and one-year-old Fanny. As a result of the 1845 clearance David was forced to move, and the 1851 census tells us he and Christie were living at Bare Brakes [Braes], close to Midgarth and Quoys in Sourin.
The following text has been extracted from a survey of the farm of Breck, undertaken by the Rousay Archaeological Rescue Group in 1980, and reproduced with the author’s permission.
……..An interesting site, much of the masonry work by the same person. The builder was a craftsman who for example, smoothly blended in joints and junctions, and who tried unconventional construction techniques. We can see also that he was fond of flagstone.
Only those parts of the complex that are unconventional will be described in detail, the remainder will be described only briefly.
The Corn-drying Kiln [1, in the diagram below] is smaller than the usual, and was probably purpose-built for a small harvest. The door  is a large, wide type, without the usual mural cupboard and stoke-hole. The South side of the kiln  is the only part of the complex still standing above two metres in height, the remainder is mostly below 1.2 metres.
The Neuk is the only one of this construction that I have seen, being composed of two flagstones set vertically, and roofed by another,  & . The roof junction is sealed by a soaker as usual. The Barn is quite conventional but the sweep  at the Neuk entrance and the edges of the door  are finished to a better degree than normal. The byre is of the normal type, and is separated from the barn by the baak wall . The byre doorway  is well built, and near this door is the odler hole for dung clearance. This would have been used to great advantage before the pig-shed was built, for the odler hole would eject the dung in the shed doorway. This shed  was probably built in the late 17th Century. How the byre was cleaned from this date onwards is not clear.
Moving to the second part of the complex, we see the North-easternmost rooms , , were originally built as a two roomed dwelling house, without windows or a gable-hearth. Later, a small corner was taken down and the room  added. This later room is much like the shed  in its construction, and a late 17th Century date is suggested. The original door  was retained at this conversion and a new door  was provided for room . The new door being narrow has been given radius corners, but the workmanship is less perfect. In this new configuration the doorway  matches the older doorway . To prevent draughts as much as possible, two vertically set flagstones , , have been built-in, in all probability both predating the room . Room  is an almost square room of uncertain use, there are no windows or other features, and the only access is via door . Room  is the most interesting. lt is an over-square room for general uses, cooking, eating and sleeping. Again no windows are included in the walls, although the floor hearth (almost at the “15” spot on the drawing) would have had an opening in the roof to let in light, and let out smoke. On the South wall are three mural cupboards – two vertical , and the third at .
The most remarkably preserved box-bed entirely built of stone is situated, bubble-built in the North wall. It comprises a chamber almost 2 by 1.5 Metres, with two flagstones vertically set to produce a small doorway, [12, 15, 14]. The feature shown as  on the illustration, is a semi-mural shelf, of very good workmanship. It produces two compartments separated by a flagstone set horizontally. This was used as sleeping accommodation for children and dogs alike.
No gable-tops survive to show the true elevation of any of the rooms, but it would be quite safe in assuming the roofs to be of the pitched type set in an East-West orientation. Although excavation was not carried out on the floors, it seems that they were earth in all cases. Breck was a croft belonging to the house of Tofts, and consequently the occupants were very poor. However, they must have been very rich in other senses. The dwelling-house, although dark, smoke-filled and perhaps a little damp, must have been very cosy in the depths of an Orkney winter. Certainly the sleepy occupants of the box-bed would hardly have stirred on their mattress of heather while the Westerly gales shook their house. No sign of the original internal plastering remained, nor was it expected, but it was usual for the walls to be covered with a mixture of clay, cow dung and horsehair. The houses are said (unexpectedly) to have smelled of soot, even though there were probably more animals indoors than humans – it being usual for a dozen hens to be perched up in the roof beams.
With the house went a piece of land, a little over an acre arable, and the common grazing where cattle were allowed to mix and wander; their ears being cut as a mark or owners name. Once a year these cattle were rounded up and claimed back by their owners.
Croolea is the first site of ruined houses along the western slope of Green Hill above Tofts at Quandale. In early rentals it is variously known as Cruly or Crowly. The nearby enclosure of Claypots [below left] was also known as Clay Pows.
According to the 1841 census, carried out on June 7th that year, Croolea was occupied by 55-year-old farmer John Clouston, for which he paid rent of £3 7s 0d. His wife was 45-year-old Christina and they had a fifteen-year-old daughter Betsy. When Quandale was cleared John Clouston went on to build a house on land at Claybank, Wasbister.
Cairn [below] is the next ruin, between Croolea and Breck. Unfortunately I have no information regarding this site.
From Jim Spence, Hamilton, Ontario – via Facebook:
My thanks to Jim for allowing me to reproduce the following:-
Magnus Murray was born out of wedlock. His mother was Barbara, born in 1746 to parents, James Murray and Margaret Knarston. James and his brother, John, were sons of Magnus Murray. James born about 1714 and John, about 1711. John married Bessie Alexander, and had 3 boys, Magnus, 1737; Alexander 1739; and George 1744.
James and Margaret had 3 children, George, 1740, Jacobina, 1743 and Barbara, 1746 who was the mother of our Magnus.
Some info on the Murray family of Magnus and Janet (nee Robertson):
1st born were twins, Barbara and Betsy, born September 30, 1809. Barbara married Alexander Logie on March 28, 1837. Betsy married William Manson, December 19, 1828.
Next came Ann, born March 25, 1812. She married Alexander Craigie, February 19, 1836.
Then sons, Magnus, born June 25, 1814 and James, born March 26, 1817.
Next was daughter, Janet, born July 3, 1819 in Brough Head. She married George Robson on June 15, 1841. These are my g-g-grandparents.
The came Charles, born December 22, 1821 and lastly, Mary, who was christened August 22, 1824. She married Robert Logie, March 26, 1855.
Janet (Murray) and George Robson had 6 children: Anne, 1842; James, 1844; Eliza, 1846, who married Magnus Mowat in 1872; Robert, 1852; Margaret Brotchie Robson, 1848, who married John Sabiston in 1874 (These are my g-grandparents); and Alexina, 1859, who married William Tinch in 1881. All the children were born in Rousay except for Alexina who was born in Outslap, Glebe, Birsay.
Janet (Murray) Robson’s obituary:
OBITUARY: Death of a Nonagenarian
On Friday 5th . Was laid to rest in the quiet churchyard the remains of one who has long lived past the allotted span. We refer to the late Janet Murray Robson, daughter of Magnus Murray and Janet Robertson, who was born at Brough, Westside, Rousay on the 3rd of July and baptised 15th July 1819 before witnesses. She had thus reached the prolonged age of 94 years and 11 months. In her childhood, her father removed to the farm at Tafts in Quandale, Rousay, where he died about the year 1848 when these parts of Rousay were being depopulated. In the Spring of 1850, her husband, the late Mr. George Robson, Schoolmaster, removed from Rousay to Birsay 61 years ago, crossing Eynhallow Sound to Evie, thence by road, the furniture being landed by boat from Rousay at Tanga to Skipi Geo, Birsay. Mrs. Robson was of a kindly and unselfish disposition and often used to refer to her happy, active days of her youth at her father’s farm at Tafts.
“Proceedings of the Orkney Antiquarian Society : 1923, Vol. 2: pages 7-14: Old Orkney Houses 3 by J. Storer Clouston”
…..I have left to the last one structure which I believe myself to be probably the oldest two-storey house in Orkney, since the question of its age can only be judged after one has examined examples of the various known periods. This house is Tofts, one of the roofless crumbling buildings in the deserted district of Quendale in Rousay, abandoned in the year 1846 to the plover and the rabbits. The spray of the Atlantic salted its fields and the houses were out of date and in need of repair, and it was not thought worth rebuilding them. So that this whole collection of derelict dwellings, untouched since their inhabitants left them nearly eighty years ago, is extremely interesting.
The old mansion, with five small farms on the slope above, formed what was really a separate township from Quendale proper. In the “Uthel Book” of 1601 it is entered as “Toftis ob terrae uthall (i.e., a halfpenny land odal). The samyne apperteins to the Craigies and Yorstons, occupyed be Johne a Toftis.” In 1668 a sasine* of certain lands in Rousay, from William Douglas of Egilsay to his son, included his “halfpenny land in Wesbuster called Tofts, with the privilege of the uppa thereof, as the samen has in use been in all times bygane past memorie of man”[Tankerness Charters]; a statement which implies that the “uppa” or right to the first rig in every field in the adjacent township of Wasbister went with the house of Tofts, and proves the early importance of its owners. *[a notarial record of a land transfer]
But though thus claimed by the Douglases, the Craigies actually remained the true owners, for in 1662 Magnus Craigie of Skaill wadset* his 1½ farthings in Tofts to Thomas Craigie of Saviskaill –and in 1664 the five daughters of the deceased James Craigie of Hunclett were infeft** in the other ½ farthing, which had belonged to their father. Later, in 1705, Jean Traill, daughter of James Traill of Westove and widow of Magnus Craigie of Skaill, lived there; so that it was presumably her dower house. *[Scotch law. A right, by which lands, or other heritable subjects, are impignorated [mortgaged] by the proprietor to his creditor in security of his debt] **[when a vassal (Feuar) obtains full title to land, he is said to be infeft]
These are the only documentary glimpses of the early history of Tofts, and we may now return to the house itself. Save that it has lost its roof, it still stands in tolerably good preservation, and externally there is, as at Tankerness, little to suggest great antiquity. It is a very small building, with a door in the middle, a window at each side, and, immediately above these, two upper windows, exactly like any elderly farm house of to-day, except for the size of the windows; which are only 1ft 6ins square below and a little smaller above. The east gable (the only one intact) is crowstepped, but that of course is a feature common to practically all the better houses down to comparatively modern times.
It is only when one examines the house in detail that the evidences of antiquity begin to appear. It is quite small; 32ft long by 12ft wide inside, divided with two rooms on the ground floor, of which H, in the illustration, is 12ft 6ins long and S is a trifle longer. The side walls are 2ft 8ins thick and the gable 3ft, all without lime, but exceptionally well built. Across the middle ran two cross walls, ‘a’ and ‘b’. ‘a’ still stands. It is only 1ft 6ins thick and ran up to the roof – ‘b’ has fallen. It was apparently of the same thickness, but only one storey high.
There was thus a stone passage a little over 3ft wide running through the house, and at each end of this was an outer door. The stone stairs are placed inside the room S, and rise along the north wall. Only a few steps are now left, but evidently one crossed the passage by a stone lintel.
Windows and doors are all grooved for frames and door posts, and the windows are splayed slightly outward beyond the groove. In each of the windows is a very neatly executed stone window seat.
Each ground floor room has two windows. H has a fire-place, but no recesses; S has three small square recesses but no fire. There is barely 6ft head room below the joist holes in these rooms.
Upstairs there were also two rooms, with side walls 3ft 9ins high, one small window in each, but no fire-places.
Outside the front door ‘y’ is a projecting wall to give shelter from the west winds.
Evidence of Age: – Taking the evidence afforded by these features, the cross wall ‘a’ in itself is proof of very considerable age, since no two-storey house with a cross wall is (so far as I know) to be found in Orkney later than the early part of the 17th century. The stone window seats and remarkable finish of all the stone work in the house show that it was originally a place of some pretensions, unquestionably a “gentleman’s house.” But what kind of gentleman indulged in stone window seats, and yet was content with rooms 12ft square and barely 6ft high, and with only one single fire-place in the whole building? These are the standards of a keep, and a keep of the earliest and simplest type, and give us a very significant indication that our gentleman lived in rude and far-off times.
And why did he have a stone tunnel through his house, provided with an exit at each end, and then stow away his staircase inside one of his rooms? Why also did the stairs rise awkwardly along the wall, where a bumped head at the top rewarded the careless, instead of across the house?
Again one is reminded not only of the standards but the uses of a keep. Suppose you wanted to raid this gentleman, with the view of either terminating his career or plundering his house, then you would begin to see some point in his arrangements. To begin with you must bring enough men to guard both doors, or he will slip out by one while you batter the other. Also, each party must be strong enough to resist a sortie, for you cannot tell which door he will sally forth from. Then suppose you have broken in; you find yourself enclosed in a stone passage with no room to swing a weapon, the inner doors still barred, the stair out of reach, and very possibly an aperture at the top of the stair for raking the passage with a blunderbuss. When one adds that the splayed windows are admirably contrived for firing out of and too small to jump in through, it becomes evident that if the houses were not actually built for defence, then it is a very curious coincidence that it should have been so well adapted for it. In fact the coincidence is so singular that personally I find it hard to doubt that it was originally designed as a semi-defensive structure.
In seeking for analogies for this type of house, one is met with the difficulty that the subject of early Scottish houses, other than castles, has never been dealt with save in the most fragmentary way. McGibbon and Ross, for instance, confine themselves to castles almost entirely. I have, however, been able to discover two buildings which seem to throw some light on Tofts.
One of these is an ancient house existing in Musselburgh at the end of the 18th century, of which a plan and some particulars are given in the Old Statistical Account [published in 1795]. It was only one storey high, but the ground plan was very like Tofts, consisting of two vaulted rooms with a vaulted stone passage between them running right through the house. In this house tradition stated that Randolph Earl of Murray, died in 1332.
The other is a 15th century house at Inverkeithing described, with plans, in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland for 1912-13. Here there was one room on each floor, with a stone passage running through the house alongside the ground floor room, leading to an outside stair at the back, which rose along the wall. The author says of this house:- “The high interest of this building lies in its showing that the first stone builders (of domestic structures), for lack of other tradition, followed closely after that of the small ‘keep,’ both in arrangement of parts and in details of workmanship.”
It seems clear that Tofts belongs to the same general type as these two ancient buildings, and in the second of them I think one can see the reason for the awkward position of the stair along the wall. It was simply an outside stair placed inside for safety, and the builder was so accustomed to outside stairs that it never occurred to him to turn it the opposite way and get more head room at the top. This at least seems to me the likeliest explanation.
We have thus, as very strong evidence of high antiquity, first the remarkable contrast between the finished workmanship and the single fire-place, and secondly the analogy of these two early buildings. But there are two further arguments that support this conclusion. At what period was a defensive house most likely to be built in Rousay? From early in the 15th century down to 1461 we know that the Orkneys were constantly raided by the Lewismen*, and traditions of these raids are actually still extant in Rousay. After 1461 there is no further record of them; and it may be taken that they had certainly ceased by 1471 when the Scottish Crown took Orkney into its own keeping; and therefore it is before these last dates that one would naturally look for a defensive structure in the island. * Records of the Earldom of Orkney and also Highland Papers, vol. I.
Again, it is the only old two-storey house of which there is any tradition in Rousay and it was clearly a good house in its day, so that the very absence of anybody “of Tofts” or even “in Tofts” in the numerous Rousay records extant from about 1570 down to 1700*, shows that through that period it was not inhabited by anybody of local importance and strongly suggests that its glories had already departed before the first of these dates. * The earlier records are contained in the Brugh estate papers, and in the 17th century, in the Saviskaill papers.
The illustration also shows the old farm buildings at Tofts:- The barn ‘Ba’, with kiln ‘K’, and neuk ‘n’; the stable ‘St’ attached, two byres ‘By’ and ‘T’, and a small building ‘D’. Another byre on the west end of ‘T’ is shown, though it is evidently later; but all the buildings in the plan are of the most ancient type. The narrow, thick-walled barn, in particular, is perhaps the oldest looking structure of the kind I have seen.
It is strongly to be hoped that this unique homestead will not be allowed to fall into further ruin, if any means, or any money, can be found to avert such a fate…..
This is Tofts – a deserted and ruinous house in Quandale, Rousay, almost in the centre of that wide valley which looks out to the Atlantic. Although small it must at one time have been a house of distinction, and originally a place of some importance.
Its pre-eminence is confirmed by a 1668 sasine by which William Douglas of Egilsay disposed of Tofts to his son ‘with the priviledge of the uppa thereof as the samen has been in use in all times bygane past memorie of man.’ The uppa, the first rig in each field or block of rigs distributed among run-rig sharers, was a privilege reserved for the most important house in the community.
Tofts consisted of two lower rooms, each 12ft. 6in. by 12 feet and separated by a passageway running straight through the house connecting a front and back door. Stone window seats of good construction were a feature of the design and one downstairs room had a fireplace. The upper storey was reached by a stairway from within one of the lower rooms and consisted of two further rooms with low sloping ceilings.
Arguing that the two doors, the narrow passage, the deep-set windows and the stair leading from the lower room rather than the passage are all features designed for defence, novelist turned historian Joseph Storer Clouston dated the building from before 1471, when persistent raids by Lewismen ceased. Such a dating seems highly conjectural, but there is no doubt that Tofts was old and had once been a place of importance.
Unlike the traditional Orkney farm, Tofts had quite separate outbuildings. These consisted of a barn with its threshing floor between two doors, a corn kiln, and a byre. Despite its original importance, by quite an early date Tofts had very little land.
In 1601 it consisted of only a half pennyland of udal land and, although it was occupied by a single tenant, John a Toftis, it did not belong to a single owner but was shared by Craigies and Yorstons. It would appear that Tofts was a victim of the sub-division which udal inheritance often caused.
Deprived of much of its land Tofts became the dower house and in 1705 it was occupied by Jean Traill, the widow of Magnus Craigie of Skaill.
Had Tofts retained its importance, it might have become a large farm gradually absorbing its smaller neighbours in the traditional Orkney way, but the very nucleus of the community had decayed.
Mary Downie, the firstborn child of George Downie and Janet Murray, was born at Tofts on June 5th 1814. and their second child, Margaret, was also born there on June 22nd 1817. Their third child William was born on November 1st 1820 at Nether Quandale, and their other child Isabella was born on July 20th 1823 at ‘Quendale in the hill.’
1837 November 10. From the John o’ Groat Journal.
THUNDER STORM IN THE ISLE OF ROUSAY. – On Thursday, 26th ultimo, about half-past 10. P.M., the farm house of Tofts of Skeaburgh-head, in the north end of the Isle of Rousay, was struck by lightning. Only one clap (loud and long) was heard by the inmates. The electric fluid had entered by what is called the cellar end of the house, which it levelled to the ground, tearing up the very foundation. Three wooden beds, a press, and some chests were literally smashed to splinters. It then appears to have gone through the fire house, every door and every pane of glass in which was broken; a dog was killed while lying before the fire at one of the servant’s feet, yet all the family escaped unhurt, although they were for a considerable time in a state of stupor. The byre also had been struck at the same instant; it too, was levelled with the ground, and three cows in it were killed. The wind was from the south, blowing a gale, with heavy showers of rain and hail.
The 1841 census was carried out on June 7th, and by this time Tofts, with 13 acres of arable land, was tenanted by 74-year-old farmer Magnus Murray, living there with his 60-year-old wife Janet, and their two children, 20-year-old James and Mary who was 15 years of age. Magnus was of the same economic status as the other crofters, although his holding still remained marginally the biggest and he paid rather more rent than anybody else did. He is said to have been the first farmer in Rousay to own a horse-drawn cart.
At this time Magnus was paying £15.12.0, though in 1842 the rent was lowered to £13.0.0. Rents were high for such exposed land and the Quandale community was generally 10% to 30% in arrears, a greater degree of indebtedness than in any other part of Rousay. Yet not all tenants were in arrears. Magnus Murray paid regularly until the last years of his life when a debt accumulated which his widow had some difficulty in clearing.
The Quandale crofters were given notice to quit after the harvest of 1845, the surrounding fertile pasture land having been cleared and converted into a sheep-walk by the laird, George William Traill. The Murrays moved across the valley to the farm of Whome, but Magnus died early the following year. His body was interred at the foot of the eastern gable-end of St. Mary’s, the Westside kirk.
Janet died some time in the 1850’s. In 1858 her son James, who was an agricultural labourer, married Janet Louttit, daughter of Alexander Louttit and his first wife Barbara Craigie of Lower Blackhammer, who was born in December 1816. They lived at nearby Greystane and had a daughter Janet, who was born in 1859.
James’s sister Mary was married to Robert Logie. He was a shepherd at Westness and was the son of John Logie and Mary Craigie, born on September 2nd 1833. Mary and Robert lived at Geo, where they raised a family of seven children, born between 1858 and 1871.
Prior to 1840 there were more than twenty farms below the hill dyke at Quandale – homes to nearly 250 folk. By the time of the clearances, some of the holdings had been amalgamated to around thirteen farms. Of these, there are recognisable remains at ten sites. The map below shows their location: click on it so it fills your screen!
Quandale and Westness in Rousay were the only places in Orkney to suffer major clearances, firstly in 1845 and again between 1855 and 1859. Quandale was renowned for being one of the best corn-growing areas in the Northern Isles, but the laird, George William Traill, thought that sheep would be more profitable.
After the harvest of 1845 he evicted the 215 people and destroyed their farmsteads as part of the modernisation of his Westness estate. Some crofters were found dwellings else-where in Rousay, some became landless labourers, while others left the island.
Traill’s successor was General Sir Frederick William Traill Burroughs. He created such difficulties for the island’s crofters that he gained the reputation as the worst landlord in Orkney and was known as the ‘Little General.’
Conflict came with the visit of the Royal Commission whose findings were to lead to the Crofters Act. Burroughs evicted those tenants who gave evidence to the Commission, and with tensions running high a gunboat was sent to keep the peace.
Burroughs would have driven every crofter from his estate had the Crofters Act prevented him from doing so, the crofters having challenged the laird’s right to control the social and economic life of the island.
When Burroughs arrived to make his home in Rousay, John Gibson of Langskaill, as tenant of the largest farm, said, in his speech of welcome, “No connection between man and man ought to be more carefully guarded than that betwixt landlord and tenant…..” It was exactly this relationship which went disastrously wrong in Rousay.
Even after 35 years’ residence in Rousay, Burroughs remained a curiously alien figure. He might have owned the island but he never belonged to it. Ownership was important to him, but he had originally wanted more than that. Part of his ideal had been to settle into the community and become part of it. Money could buy ownership, but belonging – that close identification with a place and its people – was a more difficult matter. It was ownership and the gulf it created between laird and tenant, which made belonging impossible.
Today in Quandale the pattern of houses and fields can still be seen and shows the complicated system of runrigs previously used to divide up the land, a broad and bare semi-circular depression facing the open sea. In westerly gales the full force of the Atlantic breaks along a line of low cliffs and sheets of salt spray are carried hundreds of yards inland; the crofters of old often complaining that their corn suffered badly from ‘sea gust.’ This deserted community is now home for some of Rousay’s most rare and beautiful flowers and birds.