In Orkney, visible evidence of our long and illustrious history is everywhere. The West End Guest House is a prime example, representing a milestone in public healthcare in the county.
The building was constructed, in 1824, by Captain William Richan, who wanted his wife to have the finest house in Kirkwall.
A Royal Navy officer, Richan was from the Orkney island of Westray and made his fortune by investing in property and the booming kelp industry in the 18th and 19th centuries.
His other “business venture” saw him discharged from the Navy after he was caught smuggling tobacco in the guns of HMS Norfolk.
In 1789, Richan erected his first house on Kirkwall’s Main Street. It was, however, deemed too small by Mrs Richan, so the captain bought the property next door.
He demolished both buildings and constructed the fine town house that now hosts the West End Guest House.
When he died, in 1829, Richan’s finances were in a poor state — partly due to the collapse of the kelp industry but also because of his wife’s rather extravagant lifestyle.
As a result, the trustees of his dwindling estate were forced to let the town house and sell the furniture.
The property came into the hands of a local merchant, John Shearer, who, in 1845, sold it to John Balfour for £450.
Balfour used the building to establish Orkney’s first hospital.
Managed by a matron and Kirkwall’s four doctors, Bremner, Duguid, Flett and Logie, the first patient was admitted to the new “Orkney Hospital” on October 6, 1845.
By 1857, the facility was known as the “Balfour Hospital” and served the people of Orkney until the current Balfour Hospital was built in 1927.
In 1888, the “Fever Hospital” was built next door and remained in use until 1938.
By the 1890s, the full-time staff consisted of a matron and three servants in the main building, complemented by a matron and a servant in the fever hospital.
Because there was no money to pay for additional staff, the hospital workers often had to rely on friends and neighbours for unpaid help.
With the construction of the new health facility in 1927, the Main Street building was deemed surplus to requirements, but remained the property of the trustees until the late 1930s, when it was bought and turned into a boarding house.
It became the West End Hotel in 1944/45 after being bought, and renamed, by one Duncan Macrae.
However, the new owner didn’t keep the hotel long, instead selling it to James and Mary Whyte, who ran it to house tradesmen coming back from World War Two.
The Whytes kept the hotel until 1952, when it was taken over by the Currie family, who went on to run the West End for over half a century.
It 2007, the premises were completely refurbished and awarded a Three-Star Rating by tourism organisation VisitScotland.
The current owner, Mr Hutchison, purchased the property in 2017 and again extensively refurbished the building, especially the restaurant, which went on to gain a fantastic local reputation for its great food and warm hospitality. In 2021 Mr Hutchison took the hard decision to turn the building into a Guest House due to the unforeseeable circumstances forced upon him by the global Covid-19 pandemic.