The Haa at Watsness is a two-storey, three-bay former manse of the Shetland 'haa house' type, built between 1780 and 1833. It is located around 5 miles west of the village of Walls (Waas) on the west coast of Mainland Shetland. It has a large rectangular walled enclosure to the south, a detached outbuilding to the west, and to the northwest, a former stable with two adjoining outbuildings forming a U-plan. The buildings are constructed from locally sourced stone.
The front (south) elevation of the house has a pitched stone porch offset slightly to the right of centre. Windows in the flanking bays and three windows at first floor are symmetrical and set towards the centre of the building. The gables have moulded skews and coped chimney stacks. The west gable is blind. The north roof pitch is grey slate. The interior, seen in 2018, retains fully timber-lined walls and ceilings to most rooms. There is a central timber staircase with carved newels and handrail and an upper landing. Some timber fireplaces and timber shutters survive. A fixed timber ladder stair accesses a large single attic space which has thick rafters and collar beam ties.
The rectangular dry-stone walled enclosure to the south of the house is largely intact and has a timber gate to its north side.
The detached outbuilding to the west is complete to wallhead with a later corrugated cement roof. The former stable is gabled with a partial flagstone floor and a timber door to the east elevation. The walls have been raised slightly using cinder block and the roofing is also corrugated cement sheet. The two buildings adjoining the stable have been modified, probably around 1940, while retaining a significant proportion of their rubble walls. The southernmost outbuilding has a concrete rib and cement sheet roof, while the northernmost building has a round Nissen hut type corrugated roof and two sea-facing window openings.
Later 20th century alterations to the house include a pebble-dash render, a single-storey outshot with half-piended roof to the east gable and a flat-roof concrete porch to the north elevation. Timber sash and case windows have been replaced with side-hung casements with a non-traditional glazing pattern. The slate to the south roof pitch has been replaced with felt tile. There is also a raised concrete path with metal handrail.
Statement of Special Interest
The former manse at Watsness is of special interest as a representative and fairly intact example of a Shetland haa house that retains its historic setting. The exterior form, massing of elements, survival of interior fabric and plan form, and evidence of traditional materials and methods of construction all illustrate the continued use of the haa building type in Shetland during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Its survival, and the survival of its wider landscape setting, provides important information about cultural, social and ecclesiastical trends in Shetland's rural communities from around 1800.
Age and Rarity
The Haa at Watsness is a late 18th or early 19th century house in the Shetland haa house tradition, with associated ancillary buildings relating to small scale agricultural use and stabling for horses. It was built between 1780 and 1833 as the manse for the minister of Walls and Sandness, possibly by the Church of Scotland or by local landowners, the Scotts of Melby and Vaila.
The 1798 Statistical Account for Walls and Sandness parishes states that the parish manse was built in 1780 and is neat and well finished (Old Statistical Account of Scotland, 1798) but it is not clear whether the account refers to the present house at Watsness. Another potential early source is Thomas Preston's 1781 Hydrographical Survey of Shetland which depicts a building at Watsness, between the churches in Sandness and Walls. A building depicted at this approximate location is labelled Manse on the 1833 Admiralty Chart while church records from 1838 state that the manse, occupied by the Reverend Sinclair, is 'situated between Sandness and Walls churches about 4 or 5 miles from both' (Commissioners of Religious Institution Scotland, 1838).
The 1st Edition Ordnance Survey (surveyed 1878) shows the building as Suther House. The name book records it as a substantial stone building with slated roof formally occupied by Rev. Archibald Nichol as his manse and still remains his property (Ordnance Survey Name Book 1878). While Nichol (1797-1884) is known to have lived at the manse from 1843 and remained minister until 1881(Shetland Times 1884) the building is thought to have ceased as a manse in the 1860s. In 1871 John Cowie noted that the manse at Watsness was a very inconvenient situation for a gentleman whose chief duties lay four miles away and that the old house had been abandoned as a manse in favour of an 'elegant and commodious structure' – probably Sutherland House, a former manse on the east side of the bay at Walls (Cowie 1871).
Various families are understood to have rented the former manse at Watsness during the 20th century. Many thousands of servicemen were stationed on Shetland during the Second World War, and the 20th century alterations to the stable outbuildings may be functionally related to the substantial Royal Air Force radar station located at Watsness during the war. Traces of the station remain on higher ground to the east of the house.
The older a building is and the fewer of its type that survive, the more likely it is to be of special interest for listing. Built mainly between 1650 and 1850 by landowners and merchants, haa houses are among Shetland's most distinctive historic buildings. It is estimated that between 40 and 60 haa houses were built in Shetland during that 200 year period. They were usually sited prominently within the landscape, commanding a view of their estate and places of business, and as an indication of their owners' wealth and status. The haa building type is broadly characterised by tall, narrow and symmetrical proportions with steeply pitched roofs and relatively small windows in relation to the surrounding wall mass. These substantial buildings contrasted with the majority of smaller, single storey dwellings throughout Shetland. Later houses in the haa style, around 1800 onwards, tended to be manses, farmhouses and factor's houses on a smaller scale but with characteristics that mark them out as descendants of the haa building tradition. The former manse at Watsness is a good surviving example.
Most of Shetland's haas have been adapted to some extent over the years and few survive without alteration, making unaltered examples of this building type increasingly rare. A significant number of haas are listed in recognition of their special architectural and historic interest. Larger examples in the area include Haa of Bayhall (circa 1750, now residential flats (2018) – LB18609, Category B) and Burrastow House (circa 1760, now a hotel (2018) – LB18611, Category C). Smaller examples are the late 18th century Voe Haa at Walls (LB18610, Category B) and the early 19th century Ervhouse at Weisdale (LB47309, Category C).
The house at Watsness is a representative and little altered example of a haa house, originally built as a manse, and later used as a farmhouse. Its exterior form and massing indicate a late 18th or early 19th century building date. The associated ancillary buildings and large walled enclosure are also good survivals that add to its interest.
Architectural or Historic Interest
Most of the rooms retain fully timber-lined walls and ceilings. These may date from the earlier phases of occupation in the building, adding to the historic character and interest of the building. The timber staircase with carved newels and handrail, and banisters to the upper landing is a significant central feature of the interior and also adds to the interest. Later 20th century alterations to the interior, including the replacement of a number of fireplaces and sanitary ware, are typical of the level of change expected of a building of this age and building type.
The plan form arrangement of The Haa (1 Watsness) and its associated outbuildings to the west and northwest and large rectangular walled enclosure to the south survive largely as shown on the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey map (surveyed 1878). Together, they provide evidence for late 18th and 19th century rural life in a west Shetland parish. The internal plan form of the house, with rooms arranged around a central staircase, is typical for a manse of this date. Its survival also contributes to the interest of the building.
Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality
The symmetrical, classically influenced proportions of the front elevation of the house at Watsness is typical of haa houses built between 1650 and 1850 in Shetland. The height, steeply pitched roof, unadorned exterior, and arrangement of window and door openings, with relatively small windows set towards the centre of the building, are also typical and support a late 18th or early 19th century construction date. The timber roof beams may date to the initial construction.
With a prominent location on the brow of a hill, The Haa, its outbuildings, and walled enclosure to the south, are set within an open, rural landscape, characterised by the built remains of what was formerly a dispersed, but more populous community than is now the case (2018). These remains, comprising stone walls, enclosures, tracks, paths, and isolated small houses and farms (mostly now unroofed), survive in a pattern largely as depicted on the 1st edition Ordnance Survey (surveyed 1878). Forming evidence for the domestic and agricultural economy of The Haa and its environs during the late 18th and 19th centuries, this survival contributes to the interest of the building overall.
When viewed from the south, The Haa is prominent against the skyline due to its scale, form and physical location on the brow of the hill. This visual prominence, together with its orientation towards the sea, is typical of the Shetland haa building tradition, and contributes further interest under 'setting'. From the house there are views south towards the Atlantic Ocean and southwest towards the island of Foula.
The location of the building relative to its former function as a manse is also of interest under this heading. The site of the building appears to have been chosen as a midway point from which the minister could travel to the four parochial churches in the parish at Walls, Sandness, Papa Stour and Vaila. The path northwards from the house, towards Sandness, is known locally as the Minister's Path (information courtesy of a member of the public).
Shetland haa houses were built from locally-sourced building materials where practicable. While some materials such as roofing timbers were increasingly shipped from the Scottish mainland after around 1750, construction remained a largely localised practice influenced by wider social and economic developments. At Watsness, the buildings are constructed of the 'Old Red' sandstone and gneiss that predominate in the Walls and Sandness area.
Haa houses are a distinctive historic feature of Shetland's built environment and landscape. The early haa builders were most likely incomers who brought the tall symmetrically proportioned laird's house tradition with them from mainland Scotland. While these buildings have their origins in other parts of Scotland, the haa houses of Shetland tend to share characteristics of their own, including walled enclosures to the front of the house, and the use of prominent sites in the landscape, orientated towards the sea. Watsness exhibits all of these characteristics.
Close Historical Associations
There are no known associations with a person or event of national importance at present (2018).