History of Symbister House
Symbister House - researched by S1 in 2008
The harbour entrance at Symbister is dominated by Symbister House (1823), the former laird's house and a grade B listed building. The Bruce family acquired most of Whalsay and oppressed the islanders for over 300 years. But they virtually bankrupted themselves building Symbister House, or the New Haa.
It is one of the best examples of Georgian architecture in the north of Scotland. It is built of granite blocks, rafted from a quarry in North Nesting, three miles away across a tide race. Despite the use of forced labour, the building cost over £30,000, a fortune in the early 1800s.
The New Haa had courtyards, stables, byres, a farmhouse, mill, a dovecote and even a "high-rise", three-seater, outside toilet. The estate's finances never recovered and the last resident laird died in 1944.
Over the next few decades the once grand manor house stood unused and neglected, eventually falling into a derelict state by the late 50's. Work took place on the building in the early 60's to convert the house into the Island's school. The wings were extended to accommodate two extra rooms, and due to the uninspiring architecture of the time, much of the old characteristics of the Georgian building were lost.
In 1964 the old schools at Brough and Livister closed, and the pupils from those areas came together for the first time. The Brough school remained open for a further year to ease the transition. Symbister House Junior High School was now the centre of education for the Isle. In 1993 work on new Nursery and Primary buildings was completed, and these pupils started work in the new accomodation in August 1993. The secondary pupils remained in Symbister House which has since undergone extensive, and expensive, refurbishment - the buildings being completely gutted, interiors at all levels taken back to the original granite and the wings, which were added to and given flat roofs in the 1960s, now back to having peaked, slate covered roofs. The work was completed and the pupils were back in their classrooms in April 1998; officially reopening in March 1999 by councillor Loretta Hutchision. In 2003 it was decided to rename the school as Whalsay School. Behind the house remains still the midden yard, with its belfry, doocot and lairds toilet. The local history-group have recently converted the Farmer's House, on the north side of the school, into a museum and heritage centre. This impressive attraction was opened by a former resident of the house, Mary Lizzie Stewart, in March 2006.