Ensay House

Ensay House, sound of harris, outer hebrides


A brief history [nicked off the internet]: Ensay House dates from before 1805 (it appears in William Bald’s map of this date). Remodelled in the mid-19th century, the former tacksman’s house was described in the census of 1851 as “a gentleman’s seat” and by 1871 had 14 rooms with one or more windows. A visitor described the dining room walls as covered with “guns and rods, skulls and tusks…devoid of all ornament but the instruments and trophies of the chase “. The late medieval chapel to its east was restored as an Episcopal chapel in 1910. The chapel is part of the Episcopalian diocese of Argyll and the Isles, and requires an annual service in order to remain consecrated.

I was only on the island for a couple of hours so concentrated most of my efforts on the interior of the house….

As you might expect, a house of this age that spends much of its time unoccupied shows signs of deterioration. Mix in some ancient artefacts, the stunning location and childhood memories of those who spent summer months on the island and you have the perfect location for an interesting photoshoot.

The old spinning wheel was in the second largest downstairs room. Apparently the two sisters who lived in the house during the early part of the 20th century would migrate from room to room as the day progressed, following the warmth of the sun.


Close-up of the mini-canon

Mad bull in the porch

“The bull went mad one day, starting charging at everyone – they had to shoot it”. Bully now spends his days peering down on everyone who enters, as well as terrifying the wee children who had to use the tin potty on the landing when the urge to ‘go’ during the middle of the night got the better of them.

"Are you going to be long on that potty?"

The servants’ quarters were at the back of the house, the main hub of activity being the kitchen. My thanks to Heather Mackenzie for sharing some of her childhood memories of her times spent in this room during the lambing season, when she visited the island with her parents and grand parents: “Sat at the table, doing our maths schoolwork with a bag full of little counting blocks listening to Atlantic 252 – dogs asleep under the table – and a lamb in or alongside the stove trying to get heat to stay alive!”

Ensay Kitchen, ensay house, sound of harris

Stag at the top of the stairs

There are two sets of stairs. The narrower, darker stairway was presumably for the servants. When Heather and her friends stayed in the house, they were discouraged from using this stairwell by their parents. They were told the rats who lived under the stairs would drag them through the gaps into the darkness below!! At the top of the main stairway a stag’s head, dated 1919, hangs on the wall.

The main bedroom has a four poster bed and like many of the other rooms in the house there are sections of plaster that have fallen from the ceilngs and walls, exposing the timber lath beneath. At some stage an old wooden door has been placed across the top of the four post frame to protect the occupants’ heads.

Four poster bed with added head protection

Further along the corridor are a couple of smaller bedrooms overlooking the older chapel. Spot the bell pull for summoning the servants on the wall in each room.

Bedroom and Chapel

Another bedroom with a view of the chapel

A closer look at the chapelA closer view of Ensay Chapel

And to finish off, a view from the beach in front of Ensay House, looking across the Sound towards Northton, Leverburgh, Strond and the hills of Harris:

Ensay beach


42 thoughts on “Ensay House”

    • Hi Alison, currently the house and island have separate owners. To the best of my knowledge the island, along with the house, was bought by the Mackenzies of Leverburgh in the 1930s. They sold ownership of the house in 1957 to a surgeon, Dr. John David. When he passed away, members of his family took on shared ownership. The island (minus house) was put up for sale in 1999 and purchased by Douglas Woolf, who owns the neighbouring island of Killegray. Ownership of Ensay House remains in the hands of the David family.

  1. My mother, stepfather and I stayed for around a week in August 1977. My stepfather was a long-term friend of John David as the two of them had worked in Ghana. I had met John David when he visited our home in Sevenoaks.
    Our stay on Ensay was very memorable, and unlike any holiday I have ever had. I found the house to be bright and welcoming by day, but a bit spooky when it got dark (I was 13 at the time) When the sun shone the island was so very beautiful, and we had long walks across the island, and we saw otters playing on the sand in front of the house, and a seal watching us when we were walking along Mannish Strand.
    Wonderful to discover these photos on the web. Thank you for sharing them!

    • Thanks for adding your story Robyn. I’ve had some great feedback on this post and I know for sure there are many people who will enjoy reading about your Ensay experience. Maybe you’ll make it back there one day!

  2. John, I was there with my girlfriend Charlotte for about a week before your visit, We overlapped by a few hours with Nick David and friends who had also been there for a week. Nick is a joint owner with other family members.
    This year was my third visit in as many years. Ensay is a remarkable place on so many levels and I love the limitless sky and sea, changing weather and sense of the pioneer keeping the Rayburn going and baking bread every day whilst making sure that the water system is working. You must have gone across with Ruary as I recognize his dog from one of your pictures; he and his wife and friends, Joel and Dede turned up to look at the old burial ground, church and broche while we were there. It was fascinating to have it interpreted by them.

    Best wishes


  3. I stayed in the house as a 9 year old in 1992 with my family and several others, and it was one of my best childhood holidays!

    These photos are bringing back lots of memories, and filling in lots of gaps too; time seems to have rounded off a lot of the details in my memories so it’s great to see all the detail of the deterioration and trinkets around the house up close again. Thanks for the amazing photos!

  4. 15/2/2013

    It was wonderful to see your beautiful photos. My husband and myself are hoping to visit Ensay as part of a family history tour in June 2013.The Island was once owned by an ancestor of mine – Archibald Stewart who died around 1880. He left the island to his nephew John Stewart.

    I have never seen photos of the house before. It’s exciting to see what is there.

    Many thanks

    • Hi Jeanette,

      Hope you manage to make it over to the island. I should imagine your family connection with the place will make it feel especially special!

    • Jeanette I just came across your post when Googling Ensay. My interest, from Australia, is also that I am a descendant of Archibald Stewart… Maybe you will see this?

  5. dear jeanette,
    my great grandfather was john stewart,a very succesful farmer on skye at duntulm he was tennant of duntulm for about 40 years,he inherrited ensay pabbay and afew small islands in harris sound.you will find harris sound amazing.

    • Hello William,
      You are just the person I am looking for. Amazing what modern technology does.
      I have just seen your post for the first time.
      I am trying to find a descendent of John Stewarts who could tell me if there is a living direct Stewart male line from William Stewart of Luskintyre( born 1745 Fortingall). Hoping to hear from you,
      J eanette.

    • In the mid 1980’s me and a friend were touring Scotland and the Isle of Skye and one afternoon we went down a dead-end-lane so we could perhaps walk to Rubha Hunish (I might have spelled that incorrectly). When we got to the end of the lane an old guy came out of his house and asked what we were looking for,so we told him and he said “I’ll tell you,but only if you call in for a cuppa when you get back”. After a few minutes of un-comfortable peat-gruft-hopping we went back and WILLIE McLEOD (3 North Duntulm) invited us in for cuppa and cake.What an absolute star he was, I went back on quite a few more occasions and sadly I heard,tears ago,that he’s passed away.

      • I remember finding ourselves in same scenario, reaching by car a dead end at Willie Mcleod’s croft around 1991 and myself and my girlfriend were persuaded to come in and enjoy a cup of tea and scone in front of his warming fire – delightful and generous old man who I vividly remember. He explained that he had been to Glasgow once in 1930 but had not set foot off Skye since.

  6. I too was very lucky to visit Ensay twice, once in 1994 and again in 1999 (I think). On the second trip I was invited up by Nick David to join his family,friends & co owners to re roof much of the slate roof. It was a wonderful couple of weeks in a beautiful place with a great bunch of people. I think I can say with some certainty that approximately 60-70% of the slates were removed, checked, reshaped, drilled and sized ready for being reinstalled by me…

    Your lovely photos have brought back some happy memories. Doesn’t look like it has changed much. Be a great shame if it had!

  7. Hi, I have just read a book by Ken Duxbury, Called “Lugworm Island Hopping” he gets permission by the David family to stay on Ensay in the above house for a whole summer, ( great to see the photos they bring the book alive), He sailed to the island in his little Cornish Drasscombe lugger boat, and moored her in bay in front of the house, he spent all summer exploring the island,and sailed to many surrounding ones. Its a fascinating read, he really loved the island, i feel compelled to visit myself!!!!!!!!!!! cheers Chris PS think it was in the early 70s that he went there.

    • Hi Chris, I’ve never heard of that book before… will have to check it out. Thanks for coming on here and sharing the info.

      • Dear John, As a child on holiday on Harris, my family got to know Ken Duxbury and we were invited by him to stay the night on Ensay. A boat was sent back to Leverburgh to collect our sleeping gear, and some of us were left to wait in the growing dark of twilight for them to return. My memories of the amazing atmosphere have stayed with me and your photos capture them perfectly. I was very lucky that Ken painted and gave me a couple of his watercolours which I still have. I think the year that he was there was 1975.

        Thank you.

    • Hi Cris,
      The book about Ensay by Ken Duxbury has been re-published in 2022 as part of “The Lugworm Chronicles” by Lodestar Books. Also available in digital version.

  8. Hi John – I’ve just been sent a link to your amazing photos by my cousin Nick David. I am one of the owners of Ensay House (my mother’s maiden name was Diana David; she was John David’s sister). I’ve never seen such images of Ensay before – they’re extraordinary, and appear to have had a magical effect on the old place… Can you do the same for people?? If so, I’ll be first in the queue…
    Fascinating to read the messages from people who have known Ensay in many different ways over the years. It’s one of those rare places – once encountered, never to be forgotten.

  9. Hi Liz, glad you like ’em! Ensay is most definitely a special place – it certainly ranks as one of my favourite photographic outings. I hope to go back there again and capture more of the atmosphere. The series of images I’ve posted here have generated a tremendous response. Ensay clearly means a lot to all those who have visited it over the years. You summed it up perfectly: “once encountered, never to be forgotten”.

  10. Wonderful photographs, and so fascinating to read these accounts of visits to Ensay House.

    My girlfriend and I stayed there for a week in the summer of 1968, while I was a postgraduate at Edinburgh University. A friend of mine in the medical school there knew John David, mentioned that he liked to have people stay in the house, and so it was arranged.

    I remember meeting Mr. Mackenzie in Leverburgh, and being rowed over to the island with boxes of groceries, given instructions on how to heat the water, and what to do in an emergency – light a bonfire and hope someone on the mainland would see it! Heating water for washing was a challenge – I started a beard during that week which I have had ever since.

    The views were unforgettable – the photos here brought back vivid memories. The interior of the house does look much improved since then.

    Getting to Harris in those days without a car was quite a challenge too; bus from Edinburgh to Uig, then the ferry to Tarbert. On our return, we went by bus from Leverburgh to Stornoway, then an overnight ferry to Mallaig and the train home.

    I have a few pictures which I would be happy to share.


  11. Hi Simon,

    Thanks for sharing your Ensay memories. Feel free to post links to your Ensay photos. There are plenty of people who’d like to see more of the place, especially from years gone by.


  12. My family were lucky enough to be invited to stay in the house by one of the owners in 2007. Was such a delight to see your photos and brought back lots of memories ,some very amusing!

  13. Hi John,

    What a wonderful blog and photos! Would you happen to know if the island is still uninhabited and is it still owned by the same families? If you know a bit more than I do as you visited the island , I would love talking to you

    • The house and island are owned separately. The house isn’t permanently occupied but members of the family who own it (and their friends) are regular visitors.

  14. Would you feel there could be a possibility, if the right person would come forward with a plan to inhabit the island that the house and island could be sold? From knowing the family would that be something that would interest them ?

    And thank for replying

  15. Wonderful pictures and very interesting to read people’s stories. Don’t think I’d fancy being in the house after dark.

  16. John, your wonderful photos brought back a memory and fleshed out a brief experience never had but imagined. I found myself in Leverburgh while researching my novel CALLANISH in the early 80’s. Someone, an estate agent I think, told me that the island I could see with a manse on it, all distant, was for sale at £90,000. I was offered a trip out there, but instinct made me decline. Instead I stood for a long time staring at it thinking that while I could easily buy it, it seemed invasive to do so. My own home town (Deal, Kent) had been overtaken by rich incomers from London looking for second homes they rarely occupied, turning the streets of my childhood into places of ghosts. So I stood and stared and decided never to be such an incomer, least of all in such a place with a rich past to which I could never contribute. It was a formative moment for me. I’ve often wondered about it since. Now, nearly 40 years later, your images bring strange closure. Thank you to you – and to those who have added so many comments with history about a place to which I never quite went, to which I have never returned but is now somewhere rather more than simply in my imagination.

  17. Had one of the most magical weeks of my life on Ensay back in 1984/5? I was at Bristol University at the time and some how managed to persuade nick to let me take my brother and two girlfriends at the time. It was an adventure getting there but tremendous fun exploring the island. Don’t remember any hot water and the roof had fallen down in one of the rooms and a font with running water from the hillside behind the kitchen. I’ve sailed the west coast islands and one day hope to get as far as Ensay again. Thanks to Nick and family for letting us have the experience.

  18. Hi John, we went as family of four and a dog in around 1989 along with Ginny Murray David and her family. We stayed for nigh on 2 weeks and the memory of it never fades. One of the most evocative places I’ve ever been, memories of gathering brush and driftwood for the fires and Rayburn, drinking water coming through the kitchen wall in a constant flow where someone had rigged up a pipe from the spring, sheep wandering with no restriction, the machair alive with insects and the sea with seals and otters. The house itself was amazing, full of ‘things’, a bicycle hung on the wall, a bulls head, odd antique furniture but overall a great atmosphere and a feeling of privilege to be allowed inside. The nearby chapel, which had been fairly recently restored, was a beautiful, simple building, serene and calm. Ruins of ancient dwellings all over the island and the ancient burial ground at Mannish Strand where nearby in the low cliffs human bone was being exposed by the erosion. Love your pictures, we have loads somewhere, (on paper of course.)

  19. Pure Magic!!. John M. Macdonald’s 1936 book Highland Ponies with Reminiscences of Highland Men devotes its entie last chapter (VIII) to ‘A Gentleman of the Old School@. John Stewart of Duntulm (laird of Ensay). He was one of the most prominent Highland Cattle breedrs, so Bullie must be a Highland Bull. In 1896 Ensay is described as getting very still and old so given a chair in the auctioneers box at Oban Bull Sale. He always travelled with his piper descended from a race of Skye pipers almost as famous as the Macrimmons of Ske. One member of the family was piper to Queen Victoria and when Ensay died his piper became piper to a Highland Chieftain for many years.
    Ensay explained to Macdonald that he had lost 2 fingers to an otter he tried digging out from under a cairn. Doubtless an ancestor of the otters still living on Ensay to the delight of visitors. John Stewart bred the Highland Pony stallion ‘Skye’ from whom were descended the signifiant early stallions ‘Allan Kingsburgh’ and ‘Rory of the Hills’. Allan Kingsburgh’s descendents were widely used by Lord Arthur Cecil to improve the ponies of the Hampshire New Forest, while there are still a few Highland ponies continuing Skye’s direct male line.

    Macdonald’s book finishes thus: “One other characteristic of Ensay’s I must mention- he spoke English with the most beautiful accent that I have heard, and he was also a master of pure and cultured Gaelic. Thank you for bringing his beautiful Island infront of our eyes.

  20. Hi John , For me is so sad even the pics are excelente to see the conditions of the houses. is note possible to restoring and renta o do the same as in Italy. im renovating Chateaux,i Will LOVE to go and do some job in that. im spanish with wide experience in all that. in fact i go soon to look for a job because the island when i Saw was Magic. the island need me. i can help in several fields including people to buy.

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