About 100 meters from Balnakeil Church is the stately mansion Balnakeil House. Perched on a rocky outcrop at the southern end of Balnakeil Bay, the Tigh MOR or Big House has gone through many changes. The present house from 1744 was built on the site of a monastery which served the church of Balnakeil
There is evidence that an important building stood on this site as the summer residence of the Bishop of Caithness in the 12th century. In the 16th century the house belonged to the chiefs of Clan Mackay. It was probably a fortified mansion, approximately the size of the current house. Mackay's chief, who later became Lord Reay, had his main house at Tongue, but spent at least part of the year in Durness, holding criminal courts at Balnakeil house. The convicts were hanged at the nearby Loch Croispol, the gallows hole. The hanging tree or gallows stood in one of the fields bordering the lake. The last person to be hanged in the area in the late 18th century was a Strathmore man convicted of murder.
Balnakeil House was built by the Mackay Chiefs as a family villa on the site of an earlier building that was once the summer palace of the medieval Bishops of Caithness.
There is little contemporary documentation about the building itself, but many stories about the site and its residents. The first occupant of the rebuilt manor, Donald, son of the third Lord Reay, was, according to poet Rob Donn, "the pinnacle of society and entertainment, men of poetry and song".
In 1740, the vicar of the nearby vicariate, Rev. Murdo Macdonald, wrote in his diary that with all the merriment going on in the house on Saturday nights, he could not concentrate on writing his Sunday sermon!
Ian Grimble wrote in The World of Rob Donn: 'After the chief's seat at Tongue, his villa in the far west remained resplendent. This old manor house was occupied by the second Lord Reay while Tongue House was being rebuilt, and was also used as a hunting lodge for expeditions into Reay Forest, a granary for the chief's western lands, and the residence of his heir. According with the doctor. Grimble was built at Balnakeil by the second Lord Reay, who was educated in Denmark while his father fought with his clan regiment in the Thirty Years' War, "and it may not be fanciful to see in its architecture the influence of Danish property".
Another story, narrated by Ian Grimble, relates how the wife of a Mackay chief, a native of Sutherland, helped to rescue Kenneth Sutherland, a deserter from the army who had fled to Durness during or shortly after the rebellion of 1745. A detachment of troops caught up with him. at Balnakeil. "Whether accidentally or on purpose, Kenneth Sutherland did not choose any of the doors that led to the ground floor premises as he made his way through the garden and courtyard. He chose the entrance that led to this narrow staircase. At the top is the small cupboard next to the paneled sitting room, to which Lady Reay pushed her Clansman with her extremities. She then greeted her pursuers as they mounted the stairs and led them into the great room behind Kenneth's hiding place. She ordered drinks for them; She called for the women who worked at the place and improvised a dance.”
"There was a lady on the threshold / she stood there, vigilant, formidable. / I don't know her passport / She passed, for my life / But between the woman's legs, / Without a hood and without arms, / Very close to the crevice where she was born, / There escaped.” The ambiguity was apparently lost in translation."Lady Reay's ingenuity in smuggling the deserter to safety in the narrow stairway beneath a woman's skirts was not the only subject she provided Rob Donn," commented Dr. Grimble.
Balnakeil House was listed by Historic Scotland as an 'A' grade building in 1971, making it of national importance and placing it in the top seven and a half per cent of buildings listed. The description reads: “1744. Symmetrical U-shaped house with two floors and attic; four central spans, projecting exterior wings with 3 interior spans for a small paved patio; two upper floors and small skylights only in the outer gable wings facing south. All fluted, with edges and bandages in polished stonework.” The interior is a mix of original elements with 19th century alterations and decorations (wood panelling, etc.). The walled garden dates from 1863.
Work on the house began in late 2009 after lengthy discussions with Historic Scotland. Now fully restored, it has been carefully refurbished to offer a unique and luxurious experience.
From the beginning of the 19th century, Balnakeil was occupied by sheep farm tenants, starting with John Dunlop. The last occupants were the former farm manager and his family, the Andersons. Balnakeil House sat empty for several years.
Melness-based author, the late Mary Beith, wrote: "At Balnakeil House in Durness, John, Lord of Mackay ruled what historian Edward Cowan described as 'an almost aggressively traditional house'. When then Lord Lovat visited John Mackay in 1669, there was falconry, hunting, deep-sea fishing, archery, wrestling, feasting, music and dancing. Among other retainers, Mackay had a piper, a harpist, and an amadon (Gaelic: fool or fool). Lovat was showered with gifts: a sheltie, weapons, longbows, an ancient sword, two hounds, a silk plaid, and a doublet and mail breeches.
The east front encloses a courtyard paved with Caithness flagstones on three sides and has a very regular pattern of doors and windows. The main entrance is in the southwest corner. The adjoining door on the south side of the courtyard may have served as the servants' entrance. The corresponding doors in the northwest corners are probably more architectural than practical, as the door to the main hall is locked from the inside with a cupboard. The door on the north side may have given access to the laundry on the ground floor of the north wing, although it has an exterior door in the north wall.
To the south on the green you can see the elevated sector where there used to be a tennis court. To the east, next to Balnakeil Farm, is the 1863 walled garden.
The homestead comprised the first improved farm buildings in the northwest; By 1801 there was a slate-roofed barn and adjoining heather-roofed barn, a timber-framed barn, stables and an aviary. In 1995 many of these buildings were destroyed by fire and new barns were built. An abandoned 19th century flour mill served by a bypassed burn mill flowing from Loch Croispolis and currently in ruins. Late 19th century technology harnessed the energy from this charge to power farm buildings. This old mill is a listed monument. A dilapidated wheelhouse downstream of the mill once housed an endless wheel and steel cables and pulley wheels that ran into the stable to move threshing machines and other agricultural implements. The only known detached wheelhouse of its kind in the Highlands. Balnakeil Farm is known for the thin, dry dykes that surround the fields.
A brief description of the interior of Balnakeil House before renovation
Entering the house through the main door, a stone staircase rises immediately in front of it. To the left is a door that leads to a small cellar under the stairs that may have been a fuel store, although this room has a small window in the north wall. Further to the left, a door leads to the south wing. The first room was possibly intended for a real estate office and could also be entered through a door in the south wall of the courtyard rather than the main door. This room has a very small room on the north wall. Next to it is the pantry with sink and built-in cupboard, paved with stone slabs as in the hallway. The largest division is the kitchen, also with stone slabs. The Mute Waiter was installed in the late 1930's. The door in the south wall leads to a large porch. This porch could be a 19th century addition, especially as it disturbs the symmetry of the house. It is possible that the kitchen was replaced by the laundry room during the expansion.
From the entrance hall on the right, a corridor runs along the east façade. The first room is small with cupboards and was used for storage, but it may also have served as a shoe rack. The next room is a bedroom with a typical 19th century cast iron fireplace. Next to it is a bathroom, probably created by removing part of the adjoining bedroom. Another bedroom follows, also with a cast iron fireplace. This room is unusual in that it has a step up from the hallway. This may have something to do with the underlying structure of the original building, much of which appears to be incorporated into this part of the current building. The first door in the north wing leads to the basement. Down a steep flight of stairs are the remains of a wine rack. Next to the door is the back staircase, in very worn stone, which gives access to the remaining floors. At the end of the hall is the laundry room, which takes up most of the north wing. This large bedroom is below ground floor level. It has a large fireplace with stove from the 19th century that is no longer used. There is an exterior door in the north wall that leads to the washgreen. Next to this door is a small door that leads to a deep closet. It appears to be built into the thickness of the wall, suggesting a considerable amount of wall between the laundry room and the basement. The laundry room was probably the original kitchen.
The main stone staircase leads to a spacious and bright landing. There are two main rooms, a bedroom and a wooden staircase leading to the attic. The wooden arches on the stairs show Victorian influences. The dining room is in the north wing. Here, two windows in the north wing are bricked up from the inside; They look completely normal from the outside. The fireplace is from the 20th century. Floor plans indicate that this part of the house may have been significantly altered since 1744. The bedroom, like the one below, has a small space on the west wall. This room was used as an office in Miss Elliot's time in the early 1900's. The china cabinet is on the left between the landing and the hall. Around 1745, Lady Reay allegedly hid an army deserter here who was being hunted by a detachment of troops. She greeted her pursuers, led them into the paneled reception room and ordered drinks and women of the house and improvised a dance. The defector was safely tucked under a woman's skirt. The case was noted in a eulogy by Robb Donn.
The sitting room has three windows on the east wall and one on the north wall and shows all the hallmarks of Victorian improvements. Miss Elliot remodeled the fireplace. This room is probably known as the blue room because of its earlier decor. In this part of the house, the house ghost "the green lady" can be seen or felt.
Behind the hall there is a small corridor from which the black room and the landing of the back stairs lead. The Black Room is the only room in the house that has retained its 18th century appearance and is paneled in pine. Local legend has it that the panel came from a shipwreck in Balnakeil Bay, but as it is very similar to panel found in other parts of Scotland at the time, it is probably pine imported from Russia. However, it may have been salvaged from the original house. Some hinges can be seen on the wall next to the dining room, suggesting that the panels could be opened to create one large space. One hinge is broken and has been replaced with a leather strap. On the other side of the landing is a room occupied by the late Miss Elliot. It has a sink and is decorated in a 1920s style.
At the curve of the back stairs between the ground floor and the first floor there is a bathroom. The attic is a series of small rooms, most of which would have been used for servants and storage. However, the bedroom in the north wing, at the top of the back stairs, must have been intended for a guest room at some point, as it has a bell handle. The room in the northwest corner is furnished like a laundry room with cupboards and shelves. Outside the north wall there is a door that leads to a small cellar. Next to it is a large water tank that served to store water from the roof before there was a water supply. There is also a large cheese press here.
It is said that there is a secret panel that leads directly to the church with a tunnel. Miss Elliot did work to look for such a connection, and fresh cement can be seen in the laundry room where the soil was excavated, but no definitive evidence of a tunnel can now be found. There are tales of tunnels dug by monks and explored by locals in the past, with vague accounts of escapes and visits to nuns. The tunnel is depicted with steps in the walls where prisoners were held and divided into two parts, one leading to the church and the other to the sea. The paneled room also houses the secret panel covering the tunnel. Studies have found that all entrances here are more likely to lead to latrines when this half of the house was a bishop's palace.