The trials and tribulations of building our house in Cuil Bay. I hope you enjoy it. I’m not enjoying it (yet) but hope I will start to warm up to the stress of housebuilding soon. (but I like a good yarn, and this is certainly good for collecting those…)
Previously in Cuil Bay’s cladding saga ….. she eventually manages to find a builder who can put the cladding on the house and, after discovering that all the windows are set in the wrong position and fixing it, they get started…
There’s not a huge amount of drama and disaster to write about the cladding. It all went smoothly (but Stephen told me that, in contrast to the smooth look of the render, it went on about as smoothly as a bucket of long-masticated chewing gum). There was a bit of discussion about the detail of the render and the architect drew some more drawings. The batons went on first, all around the house. And then the boards.
For some reason there was a void of around 20cm by 30cm under the eaves at one corner of the front gable. The plan was to fill this with a piece of insulation before the boards went on. However, before this could be done, I discovered that a pied wagtail had set up nest in the hole. A clutch of 8 beige, speckled eggs were hidden under a flap of the silver membrane. Around the back a pair of House Sparrows were nesting in a hole.
Now you may already know that I absolutely love birds. I joined the Young Ornithologists club aged 5, was a dedicated member of the Heath House YOC for more than a decade (never missed a meeting) spent my teenage years on shingle spits and in gravel-pits with a pair of binoculars and volunteering as a warden on RSPB reserves, did a PhD on gulls, and now I even work for the RSPB.
My first reaction when I found them was delight at the prospect of baby wagtails in my house, followed swiftly by abject dismay, followed even more swiftly by guilt for feeling dismayed. It was going to put back the cladding.
I went to look at the nest. The adult flew out when I lifted the silver membrane. She flew back in quickly after I descended from the scaffolding. Pied wagtails have an incubation period of 13 days and a nestling period of 14-15 days. This gave a maximum of 28 days until they left the nest. I spoke to the guys doing the render. They would put on the cladding on all around the nest area and leave that board until last. The house sparrow nest wasn’t visible but there was no cheeping coming from the nest, they were on eggs. The sparrows were in an area of the house destined for wood cladding which would be coming a little later.
The next day at work I went to speak to my colleagues, the conservation officers. They are the people who speak to people calling up to ask about what to do when birds set up nest in their half-built homes. I wanted to explain to them a little of how it feels to find that a bird nest will put back your build. I hadn’t been much inconvenienced as it wasn’t going to put things back much and it wasn’t costing me much extra (perhaps a bit of extra scaffolding hire, but it was very little compared for the other reasons for delays) I also love birds. However I could generally imagine what it would be like if it created serious delays.
The nesting peregrine on Glasgow’s Red Road flats came to mind. A few weeks before the scheduled destruction of the empty flats, a peregrine showed interest in an old flat, fitting a nest between old irn bru cans and rubble. The demolition had to be put back. RSPB Scotland staff built a fantastic fancy all-singing all-dancing nest box in a flat in the bock opposite that was not due for demolition in the hope that they would move there for the following year. The demolition did not take place that winter, as planned, and the next spring the peregrines returned, ignoring the purpose made boudoir offered by RSPB and the housing association, and choosing to return to their litter-strewn hovel for a second time. The demolition was again put back.
I visited the house weekly and gave an update to the guys on site. One day I arrived and there were 6 tiny baby wagtails. Two weeks later they looked almost ready to fledge. The sparrow cheeping was also very loud. ‘The sparrows may go at any time too’ I said, ‘Make sure you block the hole as soon as you are sure they are all out, otherwise they will start on a second brood’.
The next day the pied wagtails fledged and the last bit of render board went on. The sparrows went soon after. However the next time I returned the hole was still there and, as predicted, the sparrows had started a second brood. Arrrghhhh
But it wasn’t the sparrows that were holding back the timber cladding. It could have been man-power (it was during the summer holidays) or it could have been that I wasn’t really on the ball enough to hassle about getting it started. The delay left plenty of time to get all the stuff done on the roof: MVHR flues, stove flue, solar panels, SVP (which I have now learned is a soil vent pipe and sends smells out of the roof of your house).
But when, eventually, the cladding started, it really moved forward apace. When Stephen gets started on something, it can happen really quickly. This week, when I was up at the house, Stephen popped by to talk to someone about doing the block-work around the stove. While he was around I spoke to him about putting the leftover cladding on the back of the porch. When I got back from a joyful swim in the bay, torrential rain hammering the slate grey water, and white horses splashing into my face, Chris the joiner had arrived on site and was already half-way through the cladding. I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised when he didn’t seem too sympathetic when I asked whether, since they always got things done so efficiently, could he charge me less money. It’s always worth a try …. perhaps.
Previously in Cuil Bay’s Blog…… she is let down by Builder2 and has to find someone to do the cladding for the house as it stands in a month-long torrential rainstorm surrounded by expensive scaffolding on hire. Unfortunately she finds that there is a glut of building work in the area and not enough builders to go around.
I set about calling local builders. A few came out on site, saw that the job was needed there and then and turned me down straight away as they were too busy. Some didn’t get back to me. I even asked the builder that a friend, with parents living across the loch, had specifically advised “don’t touch him with a barge-pole”. I ventured further afield and called a whole pile of numbers of builders from Fort William to Oban, starting by asking whether they would be able to start within a month.
Eventually I found Stephen. “Yes I think I’ve got enough people to be able to fit this in” he said. He came back out on site the day that I’d asked Matt the architect to come up to look at the timber frame. By this point it had the slate roof on and the replacement metal shoe in place but it had become evident to me that faith and hope is simply not enough when building a house (or it isn’t if you don’t have Stuart building it…)
Matt liked Steven, which was a good sign. Matt and Stephen bonded over some larch cladding chat, and we sorted out what we were going to do about the windows. Stephen has a solution to everything, which is certainly handy when there are plenty of problems to sort out.
Stephen had already spotted on his first visit that the windows were set in the wrong position within the frames and I’d spent more than a few sleepless nights worrying about other as yet undiscovered problems with the most expensive part of the house build. The windows were set in the position they would normally be for a house that was to be clad in blockwork and render rather than cladding.
It’s difficult to reflect on the house build in this blog without sounding, even to myself, like a hopelessly trusting naïf. Sometimes, in the cold light cast back by retrospection, my decision-making seems verging on the self-sabotaging. Rather like pedaling a bike that is already freewheeling downhill, that undimmable optimism telling me things will be better in the future seems to reinforce a sort of reckless nihilism. I kept telling myself that it will all work out in the end, and, anyway, if it goes to hell in a hand-cart, there’s bound to be a jolly good story in it.
So all this decision-making led me to where I was: It hadn’t occurred to me to double check that Scotframe was designing the same house that the architects had sent to them. It seemed to me that, since every plan and diagram they had received from us showed that the house was to be clad in a combination of wood and render boards, they would design the house as such.
We received three huge boxes of mystery metal thingies with the Scotframe kit. It didn’t occur to me to ask what they were until it was obvious that they were redundant to the build. Thanks to twitter they were quickly identified as masonary ties, for attaching a masonry wall to the timber frame. We also had received around twice as many caberboard floor boards than we needed (which me and the family shifted with great difficulty up a ladder to the upper floor so the screed floor could go in). In retrospect it was clear that the kit was issued with standard gubbins (masonary ties etc) despite all the information they had from the architects. It was also clear that they had issued instructions to their contractors doing the kit erection, to install windows to ‘standard’ spec. So they hammered them in with a nailgun in a few minutes flat (see timelapse – blink and you’ll miss it) in the wrong position. And left a hell-of-a headache for Stephen’s guys coming in afterwards who needed to get them out and move them.
It took a couple of weeks, but eventually all the windows were in the correct position in the frames. There was some headache with the scheduling of the windowsills and I ended up going to Cumbernauld to collect them from Scotframe on the way up to the house, but all the various Scotframe scheduling headaches have merged into one long shimmering, nauseating, debilitating migraine, and I forget the details. I certainly feel a sense of physical pain when I recall the countless phonecalls I have had with Scotframe’s scheduling guy. The most agonsing was calling him 10 days ahead of the due date for the kit delivery and erection to be told it wasn’t going to happen.(link)
In the end we were left with one fewer windowsill than we needed. Scotframe said that they had made a mistake and omitted a 2 metre windowsill. Stephen had installed all the windowsills and was left without a 1 metre sill. So Scotframe sent us one of each, just to be sure.
Then the cladding started. The architect seemed to have specified a cladding system for the render that none of the builders I had been in contact with had heard of. It didn’t help to get the house built that’s for sure. The usual cladding system that the local builders seem to use is called K-Rend, Stephen had used Weber on another house and recommended it, so we went for that.
There were some issues with the timber kit erection. Some I knew about, including the missing beam shoe and a myriad other things; and some I didn’t.
There will, inevitably, be an asymmetry of information about the house build between myself and the builder, especially when you know as little about building a house as I do. I was worried about things I didn’t know about that could have gone wrong. It was pouring with rain, every day the rain was more torrential, everyday more drips were appearing in corners and every day I seemed no closer to finding someone to do the cladding for the house.
Unfortunately, as well as leaving me with all sorts of issues to clear up, Builder2 also let me down on the cladding. This was something they had said they would do for me straight after the build but, when it came to it, they said that they had too much time pressure from other timber frame erections they needed to do. Since I had naively assumed that they were dong the cladding, I didn’t line up any alternatives and was left with a half-built house in the mid-march torrential rain, scaffolding sitting there doing nothing, and no realistic prospect of getting it sorted in the near future.
All the various difficulties I have encountered can be traced back to a decision. The first misguided decision was to build a house in the first place. But deciding to go on and get the house built (see blog) when the architects had received no tenders was inevitably going to bring glory or annihilation, and most probably the latter.
It was all going swimmingly to start with; one of the builders who we had sent the tender to, and who came highly recommended, was getting stuck into building the house next door. He had the diggers on site, portacabins, a loo. I called him to ask whether he would consider doing the foundations drainage and stuff while he was on site and he agreed to do that. He couldn’t do the rest of the build, but he could arrange the slater, underfloor heating, plumber and electrician. Oh goodie, we could start. And so Stuart became Builder1.
The foundations appeared; effortlessly, beautifully, perfectly, and everything went to plan. The architect fretted a bit that the foundations might not be the right size so I bought a huge tape measure and we went to measure them. Each wall of the house was accurate to within 1-3 mm – in fact it was probably my measuring that was inaccurate. Nothing was a stress for Stuart. He navigated my questions and requests and general ignorance of building with the calm of the Dalai Lama. I decided that faith, hope and love are really all you need to build a house.
So when I found out I had been let down by Builder 2 I went to plead with Stuart. Up until that point, Stuart had mainly managed to get by in discussion with me with a reassuring ‘Aye yes, that will be fine’ and a pensive ‘’Aha, yes’, (except when advising on how we should build the foundations). But unfortunately I didn’t get the hoped for ‘Aha yes, that will be fine’ this time. Stuart couldn’t help with the cladding, he was building two houses close by. The rain was particularly torrential the day I asked him and Stuart was building strip foundations on a site with a depth and consistency of mud that hasn’t been seen since the Somme. The trenches were filled with water, and I wondered whether those scuba divers that work on oil rigs could be persuaded to build West Highland foundations when they are off-shift.
I had the time-lapse camera all set up and then forgot to turn it on so i missed the weber cladding going on. I managed to catch a bit of the wood going up though….
Russwood larch cladding and Weber render system on board by SEC joiners and Builders, Oban.
Today we actually got our phone and Internet line installed.
I had a call at 810am from a nicely-spoken engineer. After a lot of waiting and disappointments, they were on the way. Would there be someone on site? Asked the engineer.
So I had the customary panic, called the builder and yes, someone would be there.
The engineer called back at 9am. There wasn’t anyone on site and he didn’t realise the pole was on the farmer’s land. He needed permission.
Action stations: call the farmer who owns the field with the pole in, yes it’s fine, call the builder, yes they are on their way.
I couldn’t call back the engineer as the whole area is a mobile reception black hole (hence the need for a phone-line…) so a text and crossed fingers had to suffice.
Later this afternoon I called back the builder to find out how they got on. The porch is up, the wall at the back is up and the perch for the way pump is on the way. And, best of all, the BT line is fully installed.
So am I happy? Well I am certainly feeling rather more jolly than earlier today while contemplating the stresses of getting the interior finished. I felt elated as I dumped sacks of rubbish from the site in the dump (official moratorium on rubbish on site to all builders from now on…on pain of death), zoomed to the hateful Hillington Industrial Estate to look for tiles, taking a little time out to strutt my John Travolta stuff on these sparkly disco tiles.
However I’m feeling a bit of, what can only be described as survivor guilt, too. When I chatted with the engineer this morning I checked that he was also putting in the line for my neighbour. I know they are also awaiting Openreach action and have been for a long time. The engineer didn’t have it on his list for the day (which seemed rather an enormous omission). I asked if he could find out about it but they can only do jobs allocated on the day. It seems like a huge problem of efficiency, customer service and everything else on the part of Openreach.
So I have a line now. But it seems that my neighbours and the many people who have tweeted me following my blog posts on openreach do not. There is a population of people out there who just aren’t getting any kind of service from Openreach. BT Openreach may have responded to my mini campaign for installing my own line, but a response to the wider issue of thousands of people waiting with no phone or internet obviously needs to be addressed.
You can get a view of the size of the problem from the submission of Sky, in June, to the Government consultation on whether Openreach should be split from BT. Here are their main findings:
- Approximately 90% of new line installations, which require an Openreach engineer to attend, take 10 calendar days or longer. Almost one in ten installations takes longer than 30 days.
- Openreach changes the agreed installation date for Sky customers on average around 12,500 times a month.
- Openreach misses over 500 appointments each month to install new lines for Sky customers and fails to complete a further 4,000 jobs per month.
- Fault rates across Openreach’s network increased by 50% between 2009 and 2012, the last year for which reliable data is publicly available.
- Openreach’s performance in fixing faults is consistently below the targets set out in agreements with service providers.
See update at end…..we have a line!
I’ve been stood up again. This will not comes as a surprise to anyone who has had dealings with Openreach and stayed in hoping and waiting to get a line installed only to get a no show.
Since ‘The Letter’ I have had an almost daily phone call from my personal customer services representative from the Chairman’s office at BT Openreach. They are really keen to help and earnest and call back when they say they will. At one point I was getting a call every day to update me on the status of my line installation – each one telling me they were awaiting information and promising to call the next day.
In a parallel and non-overlapping storyline, I also had made contact with the local engineer for new line installation. This occurred through the neighbour making a phone call about their line, and the Galasheilds-based engineer getting in touch direct with me. From him I discovered we were waiting for poles to be moved or upgraded and that there was capacity for one more phone in the area, but not two.
Last week the update from my personal customer services representative was that they were waiting on some work to a pole near to my house and then they would install the line.
Then it all happened very quickly. Yesterday Robert from the chairmans office called, the engineers would be installing the line between 11 and 1 the following day. It was a race to get hold of the builder to make sure someone was on site – I was working away on the Isle of Cumbrae, so it couldn’t be me. Yes the builders would be there, phew.
My personal customer service helper called me at lunchtime to check all was well and the line was in. I called the builder and no, the line wasn’t in. No-one came, but the builders came across an Openreach van on the road as they headed off at the end of the day, but the guys in it had not heard about my job.
Oh well, we’ll wait till another day.
Update: WE HAVE A LINE!
There’s loads and loads of excess materials hanging about on site and, having observed the process of building a house, I thought it could be a useful exercise to attempt to emulate it in miniature in building a shed using left over materials. Following a quick tutorial from Builder1’s son, straight out of joinery school, (which I didn’t understand any of at the time he was explaining it), I made a plan.
I’d hoped this timelapse would show a shed emerging out of the dirt, but unfortunately it shows quite a bit of looking for a lost 10mm hammer drill-bit which we lost in the first five minutes, quite a bit of tea-drinking and, among it all, me buzzing about clearing that huge pile of rubbish almost blocking the camera.
Fortunately dad came to the rescue on day 2 with another drill, but the raising of the shed will have to wait for another day. At least the rubbish got cleared
It was while I was running a team planning and review day on the Isle of Cumbrae that the scaffolding, at last, came down.
My thoughts fell to calculating how massive the bill for the scaffolding will be, but I perked up when I received these photos from the builder who has been working on the outside of the building.
It really does look lovely. (Russwood larch and Weber render system in case you are interested, and all so expertly stuck on by SEC Joiners and Builders)
Photos by Stephen Campbell
Some more emails to and from BT Openreach – we don’t seem any nearer to having a phone line, but I am thanking my lucky stars that I actually have a real engineer-type person to correspond with (and now a second one too). Names have been changed to protect the innocent… this letter to the CEO gives a good summary of the situation.
16 July 2015 (day after the site visit)
How did things go yesterday? The electrician says he saw you on site.
What is the next stage?
17 August 2015
We were in correspondence a month or so ago after you had visited cuil bay for a reconnaissance. You were going to chat to the local team and sort out a line installation.
I haven’t heard anything from you or them since then. What progress are you making.
Our electrician has put a wire through the wall and we are just waiting on the BT box being put on the outside.
I still have the armoured cable you left but have no idea where you want it so it is just sitting in the house for safekeeping.
21 August 2015
I am just calling to see how the plan to install the phone line at Cuil is going.
I now have the line going through the wall into the house and just awaiting connection from the outside. I still have your cable you left which is for the outside. I don’t know where you want us to put it.
28 August 2015
Can you advise Kat please.
28 August 2015
The cable is to be installed from the house to the pole adjacent to yourselves leaving enough to go up the pole and a metre or so at the house to allow a connection to be made. The job is waiting a pole renewal to allow the lines to be put through to the pole adjacent to yourself. When this work is to get done is something I have no involvement in but it should be on the order notes and getting fed back to yourself through the service provider who is meant to be keep you up to date with progress.
Any queries with regards to putting the cable in from the house to the pole please give me a call as I can help you with that.
28 August 2015
Thank you for the update Angus. Is it the pole in the field west of the house that you are referring to? And is this the pole waiting on a renewal? or is that another one?
Can the cable be installed and left on the surface to be dug under when we dig the existing cable (that was dropped from the poles over the winter to allow the construction to take place)? At present we have the cable that was dropped between the two poles lying across the site and we will be putting that into a trench so it would be good to do these at the same time.
Who can advise me of the timescale for the pole being renewed, as no one has been in touch about this with me.
I had a little giggle today and I thought I’d share it with you.
I have a portaloo. I should have organised it myself but Builder#3 offered to arrange it and it was one less thing on the to do list. I use the portaloo sometimes but generally I wander up to my neighbour the fisherman’s barn and use his outside loo, which he very kindly offered me the use of. It seems to double as his cold store and contains shelves of cans of beer and bottles of cider, however it isn’t the booze that’s the main attraction to me. It’s the flush and the hot and cold running water.
All was going well with the portaloo until Builder#4 came on site to do the plaster-boarding. Now it wasn’t that there were too many people on site – Builder#4 and his two guys may have been staying over in a caravan in site but they arriving Monday afternoons and generally leaving by Wednesday.
But he complained a lot about the state of the loo. I kept calling Builder#3 to try and sort it out. I wasn’t clear whether it was being emptied and what the problem was.
Well not until today. Today the man came to clear it out and I discovered that the reason the loo was in a state was because it was blocking because Builder#4’s baby wipes are blocking the pipes.
Builder#3’s chaps, cladding the house come midge, come shine, come biblical rainstorm, were beside themselves with glee.
‘Just to let you know that if you do use baby wipes please put them in a seperate bin’ I said to them.
‘We don’t use baby wipes’ yelled one of them from the scaffolding.
‘We use sandpaper’.
Toilet humour, you might say.
We haven’t had much of a summer in scotland this year so when scorching temperatures of 24 degrees were forecast for the Highlands, and with me due up at the house build on Monday, I decided to make the most of the weather window and sleep up a mountain on the way to Cuil.
It turned out warm, but very windy and during an enforced stop at Duck Bay to sit out a road closure due to a serious multiple vehicle crash, I sat and watched the white horses racing across the loch. When they reached the shore they were cruelly intercepted by eight men on jet skis. The massed hordes had seen the weather forcast and headed up Loch Lomondside for some tranquility, a nice view and a barbecue and met with nose to tail traffic, the roar of jet skis and nowhere to park. The people didn’t venture far from the cars though, and a short walk past chalets and a wedding found me a secluded spot for a swim where rhododendrons growing right down on the shore like mangroves, roots and limbs twisted into the corse sand, and forming dark caverns on the beach where I could forget the traffic jam and the jet skis.
The road reopened at last but the wind was undiminished. On the way back to the car I put out a fire of smoldering clothes and paperwork at the loch edge. There were hundreds of bank statements all belonging to one person, clothes and other personal items lit and then buried in a pile of sand. All within 50 yards of the bussling hotel. No one else seemed at all bothered by the smoldering pile and me filling carrier bags with water to put it out. Eventually I left for Cuil, having reported it to the Police in case it was the key to a heinous crime or something.
As I drove north, I thought through spots to stay. All my planned places had been hilltops and that wasn’t going to be possible in a howling gale in my bivvy bag. As I approached Glencoe I remembered the hidden valley, a steep gorge woodland leading upward into a seemingly impenetrable mountain massif which opens and levels out into a calm and sheltered glen. It was where Glencoe’s former residents would take their cattle in times of danger to hide them.
I parked and headed down the track to the bridge, the granite of the first of the Three Sisters glowing a fierce orange in the setting sun. I passed a man and his two teenage sons heading down from a day in the hill looking very well toasted.
The mountains are looking at their loveliest at the moment, with the heather in full bloom and casting whole hillsides in purple. After crossing a bridge over the steep-cut gorge of the river Coe the path climbs up through twisted oak and birch woodland growing precariously on the gorge side and on a vast mound of huge boulders that block the view of the fertile valley beyond.
It was darker in the woodland and in my keeness to gain height, and with my eyes on the hills rather than the glen, I somehow lost the path as it crossed the river. I stayed on the right hand side of the river and gained height scrambling over moss-covered boulders, using thin birch trees for hand holds and trying not to break my leg, be stranded for the night and not discovered until husband raised the alarm when I didn’t return home the next evening.
Eventually, though, my scrambles led to the valley itself and an amazing place. Lost in time and an escape from the real life of house building preoccupations and to-do lists. It was nearly dark by the time I’d decided on the most sheltered spot, rolled out my bivvy and clambered inside.
It was the first night for a while I hadn’t drifted off to thoughts of the house build. But that’s probably because I didn’t drift off at all. The wind howled across the valley in waves. Sending all the trees into little fits and trembles and building the anticipation in my little sleeping bag for when the wind would hit the birch tree perched precariously on the top of the Boulder overhanging my sleeping spot.
We may not have bears and wolves in our woods in Scotland but it’s amazing how a dark night and wild wind and a little sleeping bag below a big Boulder can conjure all sorts of monsters. I suppose it’s one way of distracting oneself from a needy house build project.
Today we achieved an airtightness value of 2.54. This means that, under the 50 Pascales pressure applied during the test, the house exchanges 2.54 volumes of air with the outside world every hour. This might seem like a lot, but when you compare that with current building standards, which is 10, this is very respectable indeed.
It’s not passive house standard which is 0.6, but I’m feeling happy, especially given the state in which Scotframe’s builder left the house after the panel erection. And it’s down to Jamie who has also been fitting the Mechanical Ventilation Heat Recovery system. This is a system of pipes taking hot humid air from areas like kitchens and bathrooms, exchanging the heat with that in new air coming into the house. And it keeps hot air from escaping from the house while maintaining the air quality.
He did a great job. And it’s made me almost forget the horror I experienced when I arrived to see the first stage of the MVHR work to find that three 100mm holes had been drilled through the substantial beam that is holding up the whole roof. These holes had the MVHR ventilation pipes passing through them, instead of (as was planned) underneath the beam within a false ceiling in the utility/plant room.
The swiss-cheese beam is amazingly that same beam which was missing the vital and substantial piece of metalwork when it was first erected (see previous blog). So I was NOT happy. And I as rather flabbergasted it could have even happened, as I had spent an hour on the phone the previous evening talking through every thing with Jamie. And the design for the lowered ceiling came from Paul Heat recovery, who designed the MVHR system for the house, rather than from my architects. And they had contracted Jamie to install it.
Jamie had been anxious about drilling a row of 100mm holes through the OSB I-joists keeping the floor cassettes rigid. He’d asked me to go back to Scotframe to confirm that would be ok. So you can imagine my surprise that he had drilled three 100mm holes through the middle of the main wooden supporting beam without checking. (It would have taken quite some time to do that – some thinking time to consider the engineering implications….)
Jamie was there that evening so we chatted through his plan to go back to Scotframe engineers to seek a solution. In the end he did a great job sorting it all out with little hassle to me. The Scotframe engineers came up with a solution which was then OK-ed by my engineer involving bolts coming through the beam top and bottom and holding all the laminations of the wooden beam together. It’s yet another thing to add to the growing resource of dinner-party anecdotes. II’m still standing (as Elton John once said)
This weekend the sun decided to come out at last, after the worst summer I can remember in Scotland. Sunshine brought all of Glasgow out into the parks. It was even hot enough for ‘taps aff’ and some of our city’s finest gents had their bellies on show, glowing a fine cerise.
Unfortunately I had earmarked this weekend to choose and buy all my bathroom stuff. It really needs to be on site this week, and I work best with a looming deadline. I managed an hour or so in a massive bathroom warehouse in an industrial estate just south of the river before I felt the unbearable urge to go to Loch Lomond.
We collected friends, zoomed out and my daughter and I swam in the breathtakingly freezing water for a good half-an-hour. There is, something about those soulless godforsaken bathroom showrooms and the knowledge that you have joined the ranks of consumerists accelerating our planet to disaster, that, ironically, makes you feel like a bath. And swimming in the clear and icy waters of Loch Lomond has got to be the ultimate bath.
But it didn’t get me any nearer having my bathrooms ordered and on site. So I went back on Sunday – with husband and daughter as back-up. We had an hour. Ricocheting around the showroom with the plans we made good progress but a garden party for a friend’s leaving do called and we left un-bebathroomed once again.
I write this having at last settled on the bathroom furniture. For once it was cheeper than I had expected and I ended up doing it online in the end. I do, however after many years of hardly ever buying anything new and protletising about the ills of our consumer society, feel like I am now a fully paid up and inducted member of it.
There is no getting away from it, building a house is the ultimate consumerist act. No matter how eco you think you might be (and I would like it recorded in the minutes of my life that I paid extra for water saving taps….) and no matter how energy efficient your house is going to be. see a previous blog on the matter…
So to cheer myself up I went along to the school PTA meeting. I doodled some designs for bird boxes to fit under the eves (must put them up before the scaffolding comes down) and ended up signing up to be vice chair.
We have so much leftover wood on site I could go into production on these nest boxes but the plan is to replace the nest sites on the half built house that were used by a pied wagtail and a house sparrow. I will add a few others for good measure and a couple of platforms for swallows while I am at it.
So my consumerist house with my consumerist bathrooms may be somewhat redeemed by the chirruping of happy fledglings this coming spring (and the chi-ching of the PTA cash register)
An update following previous blogs here and Here
A few further calls to the ‘new connections’ line never elicited an answer so I chased up the Galasheilds engineer who had come out to site.
He was really helpful but there seem to be quite a few problems with the connection. He audibly sighed during our conversation while recollecting his investigations.
It seems that the infrastructure on the ground simply doesn’t resemble anything in his maps and inventories. The dropping of the line (with such efforts in November- I’m still to traumatized to have blogged that encounter with Openreach) doesn’t seem to have been recorded.
But that’s just the start of it.
He said the records suggest there is only enough capacity on the line for one additional house, rather than the two plots that need connections. However having seen the lie of the land he is not at all sure and would want to get a surveyor onto site to see.
He also said that another neighbour, whose ground the phone line is in is also looking for certain things from Openreach including replacing the pole in their garden.
We await progress. In the meantime I need to try and get a number as the order number I seem to have doesn’t relate to anything the engineers on the ground can identify with. Apparently I need a VOLO number.
And I need to work out what to do with the 45m of cable Openreach left for me. The engineer I spoke to suggested that we take the cable into the house through the wall and leave the rest for BT to deal with when they eventually work out what to do. The electrician tells me that cable is what goes from the pole to the house, not into the house.
In the mean time I get daily phone calls from various customer services officers from Openreach and now from BT following my letter. They don’t seem to have contact with th actual engineers on the ground.
To be continued …..
The stove is here! A very exciting day with Verek and Matt of the Kinross stove company getting this long planned and brain-exploding stove installed at last.
The stove was the right size and the flue fitted through the ridiculously small allowance for it.
And here’s how the flue amazingly just fits into the space.
I’d started the day with an early excursion to B&Q to get a slab to go under the stove. It was ‘just in case’ as I’d sent the details of the slab for the stove to Builder#3 but he didn’t think it had reached him. It was all getting a bit last minute so I’d popped into B&Q for one big concrete slab and also a few smaller ones just in cas helped by the very friendly Larry who obviously found it easier to function than me 7am
Up at the house the stove fitters were nowhere to be seen. But Builder#3 arrived with a slab exactly the right size. I should have had faith.
They worked out a path into the house avoiding the piles of plasterboard for the hefty stove and then it was in place. The flue fitted through the space allowed for it (once Verek had reduced the length of the connector – sparks everywhere). It all seemed effortlessly smooth.
The stove is a spartherm varia 2L. It’s designed to have blockwork or fire board around it so it is inset into the wall. The dimensions of the house meant that we had a very limited space where the stove could go in. And this was the one that fitted.
I had spent sat too many hours trying to get my head around what was needed and chose pretty much the only stove in the world that could work in the space previously all weed for a Masonary stove (see blog)– with a ‘helix’ on top (mainly to absorb the heat from the flue gasses and release back into the room, but also because it had a side exit for the flue which means it would fit in the gap allowed)
I was buzzing around them like an anxious bee but they really had it sorted. After all my stove angst it was actually working. I left them to it and went back to Glasgow.
On the second day the whole lot was finished – flue in, slater in to slate round the flue, the air pipe* sealed in. We are ready to go!
* the stove is a sealed unit burning in air brought in from the outside via a pipe going through the foundations. This is because the house is so well sealed the stove needs its own air source to burn
the stove came with two guys but I think I was supposed to send them back after the installation.
installing a simple BT line to a new property? Hellish.
Letter to their CEO sent today and also emailed to high level complaints email@example.com
Thanks to phonebt.com for the contact information. For a communications company, they make themselves almost impossible to communicate with.
Mr Joe Garner, BT Open Reach, Kelvin House, 123 Judd Street, London, WC1H 9NP
Dear Mr Garner
Order Number HMNAAZZ04502760469
I am hoping that, as CEO, you will be able to help me navigate the impossible architecture of your new lines installation process and assist with the impasse I have encountered in dealing with your organisation.
I have been told by your own staff that I need to contact the local New Installation Team to discuss putting a phone line into a new property but, ironically for a communications company like yourselves, there appears to be no way of obtaining the number to call.
It was easy enough setting up the installation: I have a phone package, I have a direct debit set up, I know how much it will cost me a month, I even have a wireless router that was delivered to me. However when I get to speak to your new installations team it is like entering a parallel universe where everyone is impeccably polite and reassuring-sounding, and yet they have absolutely no useful information to impart. They call me daily with updates on the process but they don’t seem to be able to answer any of my questions. Here are a few things that they cannot do to help me:
Firstly: They can’t change the date the line will be installed until the date I had been given was confirmed. And they can’t, for some indefinable reason, confirm the date of installation. Even on the day before the installation was due I couldn’t change the date. I asked them to cancel the installation. I am not sure they even had the power to do that.
Secondly: They can’t tell me the works that I need to do before the line is installed. When they called the day before the line was due to go in they asked me to confirm that all the necessary building works were complete to allow the installation of the line. I asked what the works I needed to do were but they couldn’t tell me. I asked them to email me a list of work that they want me to be complete. No email arrived.
Thirdly: They can’t tell me the number of my local new lines team. The most recent two calls I received, one this afternoon, – said that I should contact my local new installer to get information on what needs to be done. They could not give me the phone number of the local team and told me that local builders know the number.
I then spoke to two of the local builders working on my house and the electrician and none of them knew the number to contact the local office. I called back your new installation team and, after the customary 10 minutes communicating my order number (see below for info on how to improve that for customer experience), and other personal details I spent half an hour trying to persuade them to give me the number.
The man I spoke to reiterated that local builders know the number (I told him that the builders I am working with don’t know it and neither does the electrician). He then said the same thing again a couple of times and so did I. He put me on hold a couple of times to check with his supervisors and each time came back with the same spiel. Once he suggested that I pass on the builders’ number and I had to explain again that I am leading on the build and don’t have one single builder dealing with everything. If anyone was to contact the local installers it would be me. Could he please pass the number on to me? He put me on hold again. Unfortunately, my battery died while I was on hold for this stretch. I had a phone message when it came back to life again telling me that, No they couldn’t get me a number. But engineers would be on site by 21stJuly to look at the situation.
Now I expect that you will agree with me that this is not an efficient use of your staff time nor my time. I am unlikely to be on site when the engineers visit and so I presumably will receive another call from your call centre, with as much information as they have at present. I have already asked for information about what works need to be on site and if they are not done when your engineers visit then I presume this is a wasted journey for them. What I really need to know is the number for the local office so that I can arrange to have everything ship shape and Bristol fashion for when they turn up. This saves your time, and it means that I get my line installed as soon as possible. At present I am in an impasse which I have no idea of how to extract myself from: Your call-handlers tell me I need to contact the local office, but can’t get me the number.
I hope that you can help with finding this mythic number for the local office so that I can contact them and arrange for the work to go ahead.
For the future, it would be useful to look at the way you handle new requests for lines as the customer experience has been nothing short of appalling. One useful thing that could be achieved quickly would be some training for staff at your new lines call-centre to ensure that they have knowledge about how phone installations happen so that they can usefully advise people, like myself, who call up. The staff at the call centre are all very polite and try to be helpful but it is very evident that they do not know anything about the procedures for installing a new phone line and are essentially only there to be a voice at the end of a line. If they had a little more information about the process of installing a new phone line to a new property, I am sure they would be able to make the experience of dealing with BT slightly less infuriating.
Secondly another very quick way to instantly improve the customer experience would be to look at the length of your order numbers. You have given me an inconceivably long order number – HMNAAZZ04502760469 which is almost impossible to communicate correctly over the phone. It took a full 10 minutes to communicate this number to the call handler correctly – and a similar time for me to take it down correctly in the first place.
A brief calculation tells me that there are 3 to the power 27 possible configurations of this number (3 with 27 zeros on the end) which is 430,000,000,000,000,000 (4.3 billion billion) times the total population of the world. Putting this another way, this gives enough order numbers to give every cell of every human currently living on the planet 116,000 opportunities to set an order with BT. This suggests to me that if you made these numbers easier to record and communicate accurately you are unlikely to run out of order numbers within the life of the universe.
We packed up in a hurry, there were moths from the trap to be Identified, the thermal imaging equipment to be taken down from the hill, and our bags and bags of kit to be transported down to the pier. We didn’t pour away the water we hadn’t used. Just in case we didn’t get picked up – the supply of freshwater is a shallow sink-sized reservoir half way up the hill, on a seepage line. And it’s a favourite haunt of the gulls who have adorned it with poo and feathers.
The weather had changed to perfect blue skies and gentle winds and we headed out to survey the nests on the bird cliffs.
As we circled the island the cliffs rose up covered with gannets. Birds were everywhere. Gannets hanging like saltires in the air twisted briefly and then dropped from the blue sky, hitting the surface of the sea like an torpedo. We saw an immature one, a dark cross folding to an arrow and then a line and I wondered what it feels like to dive out of the sky at 100 Kmph for the very first time.
Small stacks beneath were crowded with guillemots, stock upright with white tummies and chocolate backs, like miniature penguins on an iceberg. Then suddenly they launched into the water all at once towards the boat rowing their wings like a frantic oarsman in an attempt to take off. When a couple realized that they wouldn’t make it before the boat passed them, they dived suddenly into the smooth oily water.
All to soon it was all over and we were heading back to Girvan, and real work: computers, meeting rooms, and hundreds of emails.
Bye Ailsa. See you next year. I hope.
Waiting for dark and the arrival of the storm petrels. It’s after eleven but the sky is still bright in the west. As the sky changes from deep blue to paler blue the moon appears, full and round, and the wind blows steadily. It isn’t going to be a dark night.
‘Everything is conspiring against us’ said Bernie, as he adjusts the mist net. ‘and to make things worse, they never come until the first week of July’
Bernie Zonfrillo is a veteran of 35 seasons of Ailsa bird research. He spent a wild winter on the rock in 1991 while leading the work to exterminate the rats and sleeps in a cottage slightly less derelict than the other island wrecks.
We are sitting in the gloom along makeshift benches of driftwood balanced on granite blocks that had been cored for curling stones and then left as waste. Before us the sea shimmers silver in the moon and from the loudspeaker beside us comes a loud whirring sound punctuated by the odd Donald duck-like ‘ahh’. The sound of a storm petrel calling from a colony. Every storm petrel on the west coast of Scotland will be able to hear us, I think, as the super-charged petrel blares out of the speakers.
And despite the bright moon, and despite the wind billowing the mist net so it looked like the black and tattered sails of a ghost ship, they came. Little black birds flitting like bats around the net and then, suddenly caught in a fold in the fine black mesh. Bernie’s deft fingers release a bird and she is in the hand.
Small and delicate with a steep quiffed forehead rising up from its little beak, the storm petrel may be small but it is a relation of the mighty albatrosses. Petrels and albatrosses are ‘tube noses’, a name coming from the tube above the beak.
After the ringing I turn to Bernie to say that he was too pessimistic about the prospects for the night.
‘Actually I was right about one thing’ he said. ‘We didn’t catch any in June.’ We’d caught the first at quarter past midnight on the first day of July.
Image courtesy of Portlandbirdobservatory.org
I’m perched on an angular boulder at the base of a scree slope, binoculars raised, scanning the cliffs above for a peregrine nest. My shoulders are tensed uncomfortably and there’s a crick in my neck. The air is full of gannets and the cries of gulls.
I was just thinking that a deck chair would give me the optimum angle for this kind of work, when the female peregrine launches from the cliff-face into the clouds of soaring gannets beating short sharp wings and calling furiously.
Round and round she flies until she nearly alights on the cliff, wheels round once more and settles on the highest tip of rock to survey us suspiciously.
The clouds surrounding the steep summit mean we cant climb the rock to survey the colony of gulls at the peak and so, this morning, we have walked along the shoreline – past gull chicks, heads thrust into clumps of ragwort or under rocks, furry bottoms peaking out, and piles of boulders containing hissing, snake-headed young shags.
From where we sit, under the gannet colony, the rock rises precipitously from sharp grey boulders. On every ledge a shining white gannet sits and, up at the cliff’s rim, hundreds of birds balancing on the wind sway, black wingtips almost touching each other, and the rock.
They hang on invisible wires gently swaying while we are buffeted by the fierce winds and struggle to keep our balance on the boulders. Every now and again one dives down past us, heading out to sea and is gone.
History is strewn across Ailsa Craig in the twisted rails and rusted cogs winches and cables, and in the ruins of smithy, gas house, and lighthouse keeper’s cottage. Rusting sheets of corrugated iron lie in the base of the huge gas storage tanks and across the heather. The lighthouse cottages are ghostly shells with beds turned over, broken cupboards and some 1940s easy chairs we borrow to make our camp more comfortable
The route of the old railway bringing stone from the North quarry to the pier makes a rather unsafe footpath to the cliff we want to survey. Rusted iron and rotten wood bridges over rocky chasms give us visions of a Hobbit-style chase across crumbling stonework and we retreat to walk along the shore. We pass a cave strewn with dead rabbits, broken eggs and limpet shells where JM Barrie had once stopped to carve his name into the wall.
My task, when we reached the seabird colony on the steep cliffs that run from the north foghorn, round the west, and almost to the south foghorn, was to look for bridled guillemots. This part of the cliff is the only one that can be seen from the shore, and it is where the regular detailed counts take place. Bridled guillemots are the rarer form and they have a delicate white monocle around each eye. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack – but harder.
And then I find one. A beautiful creature to seek in my ornithological Where’s Wally? My colleagues count kittiwakes, guillemots, fulmars razorbills and then we get started on puffins. I used a little silver clicker that ticked satisfyingly in my hand with every count.
A bit of an antidote to all the stress.
After another stressful day of house shenanigans, finishing much later than I’d though due to having to sort out the MVHR disasters and mark up where the chimney flue can go.
Stopped for fish and chips at The Gathering and it was getting too late to go up a really big hill. so at 930pm I set off up Devils Staircase on the west hihhland way whih takes walkers over from Glencoe to Kinlochleven, and half an hour later I reached my lofty bed.
Views north to the Mamores, south to Buchaille Etive Mor and over Rannoch Moor.
Just what I needed.
Had a visit up to the house again on Monday and, at last, after a long haiatus things are really getting going.
When I arrived three men were busying about fitting the panels of 125mm insulation on the floor.
I was pleased to see that the racking panel wall was in at last – And the masonry wall behind where the stove will go. Fortunately Scotframe’s mistake in sending an additional supporting wall served to our advantage as the wall that was made to go there was badly warped beyond use and so the other wall they sent served in its place, with some adjustments. Pieces from the warped wall were canibalised to support the masonry wall.
We were actually able to utilize some of the tens of thousands of masonry ties that Scotframe delivered with the kit. I needed to get them ID-ed by the experts on Twitter as I had no idea what they were for.
(Apparently they are to tie a Masonary wall to a wood frame design.) so we managed to use about 25 out of the overflowing boxes (I am concerned that they reproduce while I am away as there always seem more on my return). I donated the rest of the ties to the builders – I hope they can make use of them elsewhere.
It was all looking good except that the hearth wasn’t in place. The amount of effort, I thought, and frankly blood sweat and tears that had gone into working out the hearth (link) meant I had a small panic when I saw them laying the insulation panels where the constructional hearth should be.
Builder #2 was supposed to put that in when they did the walls and it seemed that they hadn’t. Fortunately I was there at exactly the right time to make sure it wasn’t forgotten. The guys swiftly cut the Foamglas to size while I was out calling builder #2 and it was all pretty much solved in the time I had managed to get a signal.
‘Better shape up! ‘Cause I need a maaaaan. And my heart is set on youuuuu!’
And it turns out it’s an electrician I need (and a plumber, joiner, engineer, mason, general builder and everyone else). But today I’ve been sorting out the electrification.
As usual it’s my fault – the architect had recommended a book to buy and inwardly digest and keep with me every waking moment during the build
But somehow I didn’t get round to buying it and then forgot all about it. It came back to me in a flash of recollection this morning as I was trying to keep my head from exploding with the amount of information I’m trying to retain and brigade into some kind of order.
Builder #2 Stephen (the one doing the cladding and plasterboarding as opposed to the one doing the hearing flooring plumbing wiring) asked about electricity so I got into a fluster trying to sort it all out
Electricity is into the plot already (a wire sticking out of the ground brought in from the pylon about 100 yards away at great expense) but next is to bring it into the building and put on a cut-out (that’s a giant fuse in a box to the likes of me). Then I get a retailer in to fit the electricity meter.
Seems simple. But I had my doubts. When is anything simple?
But it turned out to be remarkably straightforward. For once things went to plan. I surprised myself in being able to find the documents the next door neighbour sent me when she installed both our electrical supplies together. I had a job number, which helps, and phoned the local office speaking to real humans. Turned out builder #2 had already arranged the cut out to be put in on 4th June and they gave me my MPAN number (whatever that is)so I could call an electricity retailer an arrange an installation of the meter.
What date? 4 July? Whaaaat. ? But if you waive your right to cancel we can do it in 10 days. Phew.
So that’s the electricity sorted (I think. In theory)
I am now the owner of a copy of ‘The Housebuilder’s Bible’. Or at least it’s in the post. I hope it arrives before I can muck this build up any further.
There has been a radio silence on the blog recently. Which happens to coincide with a few mishaps and problems (“yet more?!” I hear you cry). I didn’t want this blog to be a litany of disasters and moans, and retain the upbeat, good news and optimism-in-the-face-of-house-Armageddon attitude, but that has unfortunately resulted in zero material for the blog over the past couple of months. So here is a bit of honest-blogging. There isn’t a neat narrative and happy ending to this (yet).
One of the problems I’ve been dealing with is the aforementioned missing piece of structural metalwork. Another has been waiting for the large numbers of things to be fixed by the framers. It seems many were the fault of the timber frame company for not providing the right items at the right time and the framers have been doing extra work at the site to fix them (fortunately not at my expense).
But it is hard to work out why the wall dividing the kitchen-dining room from the utility room is still learning against the wall, happily warping in the damp air.
Those readers who have been paying attention will remember this wall and its mysterious imaginary neighbour had already been causing some consternation and much to-and-froing between the various camps of engineers on the project while we were in the final stages of getting the house translated from the architects plans to the timber kit. (See blog)
And despite all the back and forth to persued the timber kit company that one of the walls they had made a structural wall (a racking panel to be precise – tying together the house to stop it flexing in the wind, rather than holding up any beams etc) was not a wall at all – only the diving line between open-plan kitchen and dining room – both walls had been delivered and were sitting there.
Just sitting there warping (but the good side of having an extra wall I didn’t need is that I can use the one that isn’t warped – but is too short- in place and add bits on…)
There is also the issue of the windows. They have been fitted in the wrong place. It really is just too wearisome to describe here. You’ll have to wait for a bit of good news on this front before I dare to draw out a blog on this one…
There’s also the small issue of not having anyone to do the cladding for the house. I may have, in my trusting nativity, put a bit too much faith in the word of the framing company that they would be able to do the cladding as well as the frame erection. Anyway, when it came to it – the pressures of lots and lots of houses to put up – meant that they didn’t want to do the cladding in the end and I was left with scaffolding and a half built house and no prospect whatsoever of getting cladding on it anytime soon.
I started the search for a company to do the cladding. The brilliant builders who did the foundations are tied up with two or three builds and couldn’t manage within my timeframe (the time frame of “GETTITUP!!!-the-scaffolding-is costing-me-and-the-rain-is-pouring-in-bigtime”) and calls to umpteen companies and visits from a few resulted in zero companies who could start this calendar year.
Eventually a company from Oban have been up and looked at the work and pointed out a few problems I have (including the window problem) and have sent me a quote. I am readying myself with a stiff drink just in case before I dare open the document.
And to finish with, here’s a nice sunset (it really went all these colours) taken from the Holly Tree Inn where I have been buying more than my fair share of cappuccinos recently to escape wind and rain and lack of reception and low battery power. It’s to remind me that life is beautiful despite the tiny issue of a troublesome house build.
Have you ever spent all afternoon making a piece of ikea furniture and you sit back feeling rather pleased with yourself and, just as you set off to make yourself a well- deserved cup of tea, you see a large, essential and important element still lying on the floor. ‘Where the hell is that supposed to go? You shout in exasperation.
Remember that feeling?
Now imagine that you have a fully erected house and you are just starting to think of what colour to paint the bathroom*, when you look down from gazing up at your wonderful edifice and see a large significant looking piece of metalwork sitting at your feet. The kind of bit of metalwork that would hold a couple of beams and take a very significant role in holding a house in an upright position.
This is exactly what happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I was showing long-suffering husband the wonders of a house upright when he pointed to the piece of metalwork on the ground in front of the house. (It hadn’t been there the las time I was at the house).
We had just finished wondering to ourselves ‘where the hell is THAT supposed to go’ and started to search about for the number of the contractor, when our neighbour, the farmer, popped over to pass the time of day and ask whether we’d seen one of his free-ranging cows on her wanderings.
‘What’s that’ he asks, pointing at the metalwork
‘I was just asking myself the same thing’ I mumbled in reply.
‘Funny, we’ve got something a bit like that, but bigger, lying at the end of our track’
We headed over to his track and there lay an even larger piece of metalwork, one deigned to hook over one beam and take two more beams.
‘Oh dear, I think that must be ours.’
I could just about pick it up. With help I got it back to the house, took some pictures and emailed them to the contractor. I put the next stage on hold until we knew what was going on.
A week later I was back at the plot with the chap from the framing company.
It turned out that the larger piece of metalwork was a shoe for the centre of the house to hook over a beam and hold up the beam that holds up the ridge beam.
It seemed to be rather a miracle that the house was able to stand up without it. The framers had bodged some hangers for the beams, which were holding it all together and which explained why the short beam at the top of the stairs was held in by nothing more than a few nails driven in at an angle.
Theres now a hanger on one side but the beam is still held up by nails on the other….
The other large piece of metal was a specially commissioned shoe to act as a retrofit to replace the original shoe which meant that it could be slipped over the existing beam, and under the other and bolted into place and wouldn’t necessitate the dismantling of most of the structure to put it in.
Well that was a relief (of sorts) the plan was OK-ed by our engineers, and fitted successfully. (with a little panic when I first saw it and thought it wasn’t installed in the right position – but it was, thank goodness). It could have been good to know about the issues in advance of coming across the pieces of metal scattered around the neighbourhood but it is, at least, one of the numerous issues sorted and dealt with.
And now I have a large piece of metal which I suppose I could sell on e-bay. Or have it as part of a very over-engineered bench at the front of the house. Something to remind me of the trials and tribulations, stresses and strains, hubris and horrors of building your own house.
* slight exaggeration
I’m bathed in a warm glow of light. The sky is more blue, the birds more eloquent. There is an ecstatic quality to the everyday, it’s all swimming in a haze of benign joy. It’s like I’m a little bit in love but not quite sure why and with whom.
I’m on cloud nine (or is it cloud cuckoo land?) The house is starting to come together.
I’ve been like this for a few days. It’s quite nice really. I’ve got other things to do – work, family, other busyness. But when I have a few moments spare I retreat back to this happy golden and sun-shining place.
It’s actually rather a novelty, given the stress and woe of the project recently. But, thinking philosophically, I recon you just cannot have the ecstatic highs without the miserable barrel-bottom-scraping lows.
It makes it all worth it.
And that’s why I’m going to enjoy it.
Time lapse taken from the south of all the site action up to Friday 13th March …
So excited about this video. This is an interim video just up to midday 10th March, but I’ll upload the rest when I have it! For those interested in how I did the time lapse – it was actually really easy. I used a Bushnell Trophy Cam on Field Scan mode taking one photo every 2 minutes between 6am and 5pm. This camera is waterproof and fixes onto a post or tree. I took out the photos taken on the days that no build took place and so this film is made up of shots from Wed 4-6 March and the morning of 10th March.
Heavy rain and strong winds were forecast again for Thursday and, as I sat in my Glasgow office, I looked out at the trees bending in the wind and heard the whistling through the telegraph wires, I thought of the guys up at Cuil Bay. The weather up there was worse – really horrific. Rosco and the team managed to get another layer of panels and roof beams up in a lull in the gales in the middle of the day, but things weren’t looking good.
I was feel a little miserable until I received a couple of photos from my neighbour showing how much they had managed to achieve. Wow. Look at this – and with that weather too!
On Friday things deteriorated further. The team heroically tried to get on the roof panels and managed four, but it was far too dangerous and they had to stop. The rain was torrential. They sent the crane home at 2pm as the wind picked up even further.
So we needed a crane for Monday. I already knew that the Oban company we had been using had the crane booked out all the following week, and the Fort William company was booked out the whole month building a school so I was at a bit of a loss. Dumbarton?
James from the company erecting the kit suggested I contact a company in Lochgilphead. They didn’t exist on the web, but he gave me ‘Harry the Crane’s’ number (as it came across from his contacts list).
Yes he could do it. (hooray!)
But could he be there at 8am?
‘That’s fine, we’ll just set off at 5am.
And No he couldn’t get directions to the plot by email.
‘I don’t ever go near a computer. Do you know how old I am?’
I checked the weather forecast. High winds all weekend and into Monday. A lull on Tuesday and then a full gale by Wednesday. Tuesday is the day! I confirmed the booking.
In the meantime my house is sitting utterly exposed to the elements and lacking a roof in torrential rain and high winds. Gusts of 99km/h forecast for Monday afternoon. I hope the house is still there when I get to the plot at 8am on Tuesday.
On Day two things started to turn around. I arrived at the plot at 915am in clear blue skies and a light breeze to find some of the panels already up and a house starting to take shape. It was a completely amazing feeling. Going from utter despair and wondering whether anything would happen to the house build actually starting.
The rock that arrived in a tipper truck on Tuesday evening and was deposited in a huge mound on the mud, had been put into two deep holes dug into the peaty gloop and we now had a crane happily sitting on a firm footing and some happy builders assembling the house at an incredible pace. Thanks have to go to our next-door neighbours who let us set up the crane partly on their mud (aka garden) along with all the stacks of roof casettes and white vans parked all over their drive.
The elation was a most welcome break from the woe and misery. I danced about on the plot, staying away from the crane, mud and air-borne wall panels as much as possible and shouting excitedly at the builders.
‘Building Timber kit houses must be the best job in the world!’ I yelled rashly, forgetting the utter hell of yesterday, as yet another panel slotted into position like a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle. It got too hot for my coat and waterproof with the sun beating down and the light glinting off the snowy slopes of the Ballchullish Horseshoe behind and I settled down with my computer on a mud and bramble hillock to watch the progress and download photos from time-lapse cameras I had set up to survey the progress while I was in Glasgow.
I had left the plot the night before, wet muddy and miserable, and heading back to Glasgow for work. Things deteriorated for me even further as the road conditions deteriorated. Since it had been snowing pretty much all day, even at the balmy shores of Cuil Bay, I decided it would be very unwise to try the Rannoch Moor crossing again, and so headed south via Connell Bridge to get to Tyndrum on the lower route.
The road conditions were fine but with large banks of snow on either side even in Connell and I drove at a sensible speed to Tyndrum where the roads were markedly worse. Snow was falling again and settling, and with few large vehicles on the road to plough a trail, I was driving on an inch of snow and slipping scarily about. In Crianlarich, I started on the road towards Loch Lomond but the roads were utterly deserted and the snow was still falling thick and fast. I made the decision it wasn’t safe to continue and turned back to Crianlarich (with some difficulty). There was nowhere to stop the car in Crianlarich with every car park and lay-by in a metre of snow, but eventually I found a snow drift to wedge my car into that took it far enough off the road and walked up to the Youth Hostel to find a bed for the night.
It was shut. All lights off and snow drifts all around. Seeing evidence of habitation leading from the car-park in the form of a neat furrow dug into the snow, I followed it and it led to a back-door. I rang the bell. It turned out to be the warden’s apartment and after a great deal of explanation about my predicament and an assurance that I would be no trouble, she agreed to open up the hostel for me. It was a blessed relief to have a warm room and a warm bed and 10 minutes later I was tucked in and fast asleep.
By 8am I was off on the road again, not south to Glasgow, but back north to the plot. I had special dispensation to take a day’s leave to try and get the build sorted out. And this is where things started looking up.
So as I sat on my mud and bramble hillock watching and planning and wondering how much it was going to cost me to pay for all those extra ground works, a man in a suit and a jaunty yellow builders hat approached me. Slightly surreally, he turned out to be a kitchen salesman from a firm in Oban and he was there to talk me into buying one of his kitchens for the house. Since I haven’t yet got confirmation from the contractors on who is going to slate the roof and clad the walls of my house, and while winter gales and torrential rain batter the west coast of Scotland, thinking about kitchens really couldn’t be further from my mind.
I stayed to watch the house grow with the first floor panels put in and the steel beams craned into position. A couple had 10cm holes cut into them to accommodate the MVHR system (mechanical ventilation heat recovery) but that’s another blog.
The guys worked fast and furiously and without ceasing until lunch when I was able to catch up with how things were going. They were even more cheery than yesterday, enjoying the weather, and making progress. ‘It’s going well but we’re a day behind’, said Rosco They would probably need the crane for Monday but I was to wait and see how things went. I wondered where one finds a crane at such short notice…..
I needed to get back to Glasgow to pick up the kids, and a friend’s kids, from after school club so I set off. No snow on the road this time, and even enough time to get a quick couple of runs down at a very snowy Glencoe mountain on the way back.
Right. I totally owe you a nice, positive blog like I usually do with a story and a happy ending….
Well I can manage something but perhaps not the happy ending just yet.
So far the story of the past week has all the elements of a ripping yarn: woes and despair, stratospheric highs, hope, tension and jeopardy, heroes, and some extreme snow sports.
This story starts in the snows of Rannoch moor as, yet again, I take the high road to cuil bay in yet another blizzard. This time it was – at last- to actually be there for the frame going up. All set. 730am Tuesday morning crane arrives, 8am frame arrives. Friday morning – house. Just. Like. That.
The phone call came at 430pm from the crane company. They had done their very first rece to the site at 420pm the evening before the 730am start and didn’t like the base to sit the crane on. Days of rain had made the ground sodden and the areas prepared for the crane had gone all wobbly- like a jelly. He wasn’t going to set up.
I sat on the Moor and made phone calls. To the company putting the frame up, to the kit manufacturer to try to stop the transport of the kit – too late it had already left – to Ronnie the digger driver. Trying to pursued the crane company that all could be well with some steel plates. Trying to work out what to do. The snow got worse and after an hour I had to leave the land of reliable reception before I was snowed in there of the night.
Yes I know – a bit much just for me, even after the day I’d had. In fact I was stocking up – If this house actually happened, some people were going to deserve some presents. I’d also baked a whole tin of cakes to butter up the builders. But I do admit to sneaking one for me in that lay-by on Ranch Moor (desperate measures…)
I still didn’t really know what was going to happen until 7pm when our first hero of the story, Ronnie the digger driver, called me in a miraculous moment of telephone reception and said that his boys would get stone from the quarry at 6am and he’d be on site at 7am to dig the holes so the crane could get in for 8am. It actually took me a while to realise that this is what he was saying as I can only understand every second word these construction-industry types say as there seem to be hundreds of technical terms for what is essentially bits of rock of different sizes. When I worked out what was happening I went all weepy and made a rash decision of who would be getting the whisky.
But all was not well.
No crane (it didn’t bother setting off from Oban as they had some snow – they eventually sent it at 8 and it didn’t arrive until 940am, two hours late).
No rock – the guys had been to a couple of quarries that morning and all were snowed in. Ronnie did as best he could with what he had available – steel plates and extra gravel.
And then two articulate lorries arrived at 830am and were all ready to go sitting in a narrow layby on the tiniest single-track road and presumably charging by the hour.
When, eventually, the crane driver arrived, he didn’t like what he saw and refused to set up.
And then the weather took a huge turn for the worse. Gales and horizontal snow.
And so, in the midst of mud, despair and torrential rain, another hero emerged. Rosco (Sunday name Martyn, or so I was told), the Glaswegian in charge of the band of four responsible for getting the frame up went to speak to the crane driver.
I don’t know what he said but it wasn’t long before the crane had found a place to set up to unload (although it wasn’t suitable for the build). Periodically Rosco aimed a bit more pep talk at the crane driver for good measure to keep things going. Rosco’s arctic russian-type furry-ear-flap-hat even managed to rival my knitted moose hat for silliness.
I gave everyone a cake.
The first up um-ed and er-erd, sucked in his teeth and wandered about the tiny turning area looking sceptical. At this point the tension got too much and I took myself off to a cafe. But when I returned, after a bit more motivational chat from Rosco the lorry driver had not only made it into position, they had unloaded and he was reversing. The turn they effected in the area he had was phenomenal.
And it was still raining. And blowing. And snowing.
The unload happened slowly, the stacks of panels being deposited in the thick gloopy mud around the plot and all over our next- door neighbour’s drive. Rosco had talked them into letting us put all the roof cassettes, and a load of other stuff on their drive and park our two vans, leaving a postage stamp area for the neighbours car. I went to thank them profusely and gave them a bottle of wine.
I spend the rest of the afternoon while the rain lashed down and the wind blew ‘visiting’, ie keeping the neighbours updated on movements and when the road would likely be blocked. Fortunately this activity kept me out of the rain and due to the friendliness of the neighbours I was furnished with cups of tea and even a soup, oatcakes and cheese meal. The spirits of the amazing chaps on site seemed unsinkable as they toiled tirelessly on.
We had a small triumph at the end of the day when one of Ronnie’s team arrived with a tipper truck full of, what I now know is called, Type 1. and we all waved good bye as I headed back to Glasgow, wet and muddy but with a small glimmer of hope that things would be better on Wednesday.
If you are concerned that no stratospheric highs nor extreme snow sports feature in this blog, you’ll need to tune in to the next installment in which despair turns to ecstatic joy (but don’t get your hopes up, it doesn’t last…)
I thought things were bad before, but now they are just too awful for words. I’ll try and catch you all up with blogs, but it’s been so hard to keep up with all the crap-ness that is happening. In fact I have switched to a video-blog as it is easier to record what is happening when I am rather lacking in good news to report.
I drove back up to Cuil yesterday evening after a few days last week and the weekend up here. The frame arrived today. Here is my video log from yesterday to get you started before I start on he woes of today….
We’re just back from a short ski tour on Ben Lawers and it set me to contemplating what a different beast Scottish skiing is from its more refined Alpine sibling. Especially when watching Swiss hubby, so stylish and wiggly on a Swiss slope, pick his way precariously down the hill. We had been planning to park at the Ben Lawers car park but, as a local farmer told us as we were stuck in his driveway for half an hour figuring out how to put on our snow-chains, they don’t clear the road since a snow plough got stuck one year and could only be retrieved six weeks later.
Instead, we parked near the farmers house (once we had got the snow chains on and stopped blocking the man’s drive) and skied up a farm track onto the hill via the sub-arctic mini forest of Ben Lawers National Nature Reserve on the way – spotting my largest ever group of Black grouse as we ascended.
So here are my six essential skills for Scottish skiing.
1. Negociating bracken fields.
There are few Scottish hillsides without thickets of dead bracken waiting to snag your ski tip and offering a miriad opportunities to dislocate your knee. At times like this style goes out the window in the interests of self-preservation.
2. Skiing with a raging tailwind.
The classic Scottish combo of skiing down with a gale force wind at your rear and the accompanying wind-scoured ice interspersed with pockets of deep, drifted powder snow means snow plough is your friend. It also means you’ll get a chance to use those spare gloves stashed in your rucksac when your main pair blow away.
3. Negotiating hidden obstacles.
There won’t be any base to the snow so under every frosty countour is an obstacle waiting to snag your ski while you travel forward with surprising momentum hoping your ski comes off before your knee is wrenched off.
5. Skiing farm tracks.
Often the best way up onto the open hill and back. But can have stones close to the surface – keep skis level, skim over those stones, imagine floating across them. Yes you can ski right over the muddy cow footprints and tractor tracks but DONT BREAK or your skis will be scratched to smithereens.
6. Know your snow.
As an instructor advised a friend of mine doing a ski course in the Cairngorms ‘There are four types of snow’.
There is White Snow – the stuff we all know and love but which can be few and far between on Scottish slopes. There’s Grey Snow: you can ski on this but be careful, it’s slippery. There’s Brown Snow – that’s heather – also fine to ski on but can slow you down suddenly so watch out. And finally there’s Black Snow; don’t ski on that, it’s rock and it will hurt your skis.
So with these wise words and an entreaty to carry pretty much everything you might need for a week in the wilderness on your back (even just for a day out at Glen Coe Resort) I leave you. As another friend suggested, Scottish skiing needs a rebrand, “Calling it skiing just misleads people who’ve been to the Alps – they should call it ‘extreme Scottish snow-sports’.”
Tee hee hee! So much adolescent humour to be had around arranging the construction of a timber kit.
So the good news is that we are getting there. Part one ‘subterranean works, concrete and pipes’ is nearly complete and part two ‘The Erection’ is about to begin.
We have a date for delivery (23rd February) and it’s all starting to come together. The date’s been put back a coupes of times though – I don’t want you to think this is going smoothly…
Firstly back in August we had a date for delivery in September. But we couldn’t start on the build before we had a building warrant and we couldn’t apply for a building warrant before we had the calculations from The timber frame company engineers.
Building control can’t be gained in a month, even once you get all the paperwork done
……. so we had to put back the erection.
Secondly you can’t erect a frame without a foundation and we couldn’t build the foundation without a plan from the timber kit company. The architects had drawn a foundation plan but The kit company make a specific plan for our builder to work to. The plan maker couldn’t make the plan until the engineers had done the calculations and the builder couldn’t build until he had the plan.
And building foundations can take some time to build
…… so we had to put back the erection.
Thirdly, I noticed (which I should have noticed before) a BT phone line right across the plot. It was only when I saw it stretched over the foundations, right above where our dining table and kitchen work top would be, that I realised just how in the way it was.
I called BT OpenReach about getting it moved.
Timescales? ‘Within 25 working days we’ll have someone out to you.’
‘Oh. Five weeks? But then it will be all done?’
‘No that’s just the surveyor, once he’s done the report it’s up to 90 working days to get the work done.’
‘You mean it could take up to five months to get this line moved?’
…..So we had to put back the erection
At this point Scotframe got in touch. They wanted me to take delivery of the windows for the house. Delivery where? To our barren windswept building site with diggers and holes in the ground? The vast and valuable, probably-most-expensive-component-of-the-house windows?
It seemed that they had ordered the windows right at the start of the process back in August: Before they had made the engineering calculations to allow us to apply for a building warrant to put in those self-same windows, before they had drawn the foundation plan so we could start building them.
I started by looking for possibilities of places they could go. However the space our neighbour the farmer had in his barn wouldn’t allow a forklift in to deliver them. I looked into building our shed/bike storage early but it would have got in the way of the kit erection. Then I thought ‘this is silly, they took delivery of the windows months before it would have been possible to make the kit (even without the BT line issue)’. And miraculously the Timber kit company found somewhere to hold onto them until now.
I think we are finally on track though. But I suppose it will be wise not to speak to soon.
I’ve never needed a crane before and I don’t think I’ll ever need one again but I need one more than anything else just now.
With this project turning proper self-build with me as defacto project manager (or, as I tend to call it, chaos manger) I have needed to set my hand to such things as getting cranes and scaffolding. I thought this would be utterly straightforward. But I am gradually learning that almost nothing is.
I’ve got a date that the frame arrives. 23 February. 8am. It rolls off the factory floor and off on a huge lorry to Lochaber. I need to have a crane ready and waiting for it at 730am and a full setup of scaffolding built and then, over the next three-four days, the building goes up. Doors, windows and all.
I sought out some names to contact to get them booked in. ‘Be patient with scaffolding guys’ was the advice, ‘they’ve been hit in the head by too many bits of metal’….
Easy peasy. I’ve got two quotes coming from scaffolding companies (or at least I should have a second one coming but their email address is nowhere to be found on the web and the one he gave me over the phone doesn’t work).
Then I called the crane company but all their cranes are booked out for a school build until March. Eeeek. And where are there any other cranes? Oban. Well at least that’s not too far away. What if they are busy? That will be the central belt then. Oh.
I have taken to calling the crane folks on a daily basis -it’s joined the morning routine- kids up, twitter, breakfast with Radio 4, packed lunches, bike lights? Check. Helmet? Check. Ten layers of clothing? Check. Call the crane people? Check.
At least they have me on the radar. But they have only one crane driver and according to an unattributable source ‘a crane out of the Burrell collection’. But let me tell you, a crane out of the Burrell collection is better than no crane at all and I am going to keep on calling.
PostScript: this morning I called and it was all sorted out. A crane and a crane driver £50 an hour is mine from 730am on 23rd February. Phew.
And because I really am more comfortable with birds than machinery here’s a picture of a real crane
I thought I just had one engineering firm on this project.
I know they are my engineers because they send me bills. And they send me reports and stuff. They came by at the very beginning and charged me loads of money to peer down some pits that Ronnie the local digger-driver had dug (They did more than that actually – they also made a lovely detailed contour map of the plot and told me about the water table and where the rock was)
It was really only this week that I discovered that there are actually three lots of engineers working in my project.
I need to write this blog if only to get my head around what happened on Friday.
We are in the final stages of getting a building warrant for the upper building (we’ve had the warrant for the foundations for ages and they are, in fact nearly built) and the SER certificate from the engineer was the final thing we needed. On Friday all the documents came through but there was an extra foundation wall or two in the diagram from what we are in the process of building. This, as you can imagine, is not a negligible difference.
Look here the foundation walls as we have them
This probably should have created general panic from me but this came on one of my working days, which contain enough panic and chaos of their own. I’ve managed to compartmentalize life and work so one doesn’t bother the other too much during the 9-5pm, so, instead, I felt a rather distant unease, as if viewing the horror from a far-away planet.
In fact we’d been through something like this before – underneath that lovely screed in the part-finished foundations photo is a beautiful strip foundation. (But that’s another blog…)
It turned out there are engineers working for the timber kit company and still more engineers contracted by the timber kit company. And these engineers don’t seem to talk to our engineers.
Fortunately the architects flagged up the discrepancy to me and I pointed out that our architects could have been working from an earlier plan. With much difficulty we got hold of the various engineers and got things sorted. Or rather the archticted did, I don’t really know what happened. All I know is now that the engineers from the timber frame company sent back some annotated drawings and all is now well with the foundation plan as we have it. Well until the next thing goes wrong anyway.
I suppose it might have been an idea to get site insurance before we had the foundations more or less complete.
We’ve have third party liability insurance on the plot since the beginning (a extension from an existing policy that we have for a woodland – it’s miles away but it cost us no extra to have the plot on the policy) so I think I had that box ticked in my mind and thought no more about it.
It was only when I was trying to work through the box-ticking exercise , which is seeing if you qualify for an interest free loan to install renewables, that my mind was tweaked: having self-build insurance was one of the ways to prove that you were a self-builder to enable you to get the grant.
‘Oh. Self Build insurance? Ah. Better get some’
So I spent the morning in the phone to various companies. Mostly to sales folks
Them ‘What kind of heating will the house have”
Me ‘air source heat pump’
Them ‘can you explain?’ (I do my best but perhaps go too far into the idea of a reverse fridge and the principles of squeezing a gas to make it hotter and confuse her)
‘Well I’ve never come across that before’ she said at last.
Another hadn’t heard of SIPs (structured insulated panels and the kind of construction we are going for with the kit house). She had it down as ‘unconventional construction’ and said that they probably wouldn’t be able to insure us (later when I sent accompanying documentation she did send a quote)
But one company, BuildCare, put me straight through to a reassuringly expert sounding man rather than going straight into 20 minutes of asking my personal details. I am not sure whether it was his gruff North of Aberdeen accent but I imagined he was straight off a constitution site and seemed to understand my totally ameteurish descriptions of everything and translated it into builder-speak for the forms.
That all seemed so simple and now I have a couple of quotes (two people I was dealing with – seemingly from different companies – Zurich and SelfBuild appeared to work at the same company and worked at neighbouring desks) so much for looking about for the best price..
Now I have reams of forms to fill in and I seem to have to register as a developer. Some questions seem
A bit hard – my project manager? Eeeek. Contracts? Eeeeek eeek.
One of the questions I was asked by every insurance brokers on the phone comes into stark contrast ‘Will you be selling the house once you have built it?’ …. Eh? ‘Surely no one goes through this just so they can sell it?’
I’ve been meaning to write this for a while. It was going to be a story. But there’s so much going on and so I thought I’d just post some photos of the progress of the foundations.
Mid June. Nothing started. But I walked across Scotland on a sort of birthday pilgrimage. And popped by to see the plot and the work at the plot next door while I was at it.
This was going to be a post about a family trip to the Enchanted Forest, the light show in the FCS forests at Fascally near Pitlochry. However I didn’t anticipate the demand for tickets and, by the time I got around to booking, there were none left.
Our enthusiasm for an evening in the woods was undiminished by missing out on tickets so we decided to hold our own Enchanted Forest experience in the woods near Blair Athol. It may not have had the 600w floodlights, the artists, the lighting designers, and Creative Scotland funding, but I am sure it was a close approximation.
We entered the woodlands fringing the Tilt through a gap in the wall and wandered down an avenue of beech trees. Everything seemed changed in the light of our three small torches. We shone our lights onto tree bark and lichen, lit the small tumbling waterfalls of the tilt and looked up at the canopy of beech leaves. All looked different, strange, especially when the children started making hand shadow wolves and giant emus on the canopy above.
Motes of dust and the odd falling leaf shone white in the beam of our torches and, surprisingly for a chill October night, mosquito-like insects and the odd moth fluttered around. We tried to attract a moth in by shining our lights onto a patch of bright, reflective lichen on a tree trunk.
We sat on a bench, switched off the torches and watched as a lone car passing along the nearby country lane sent shadows skidding through the woodland. The 11year-old made us listen in the dark to the woodland’s sounds.
Heading for home a giant Gruffalo shadow rose out of the path ahead. The 9 year-old’s woolly moose hat was caught in the beams of our torches. Inspired, we played with creating scary shadows for a bit and then retreated back to base for cake and hot drinks.
We’ll keep Enchanted Forest on the to-do list for another year, but I can’t imagine that it could be any better than this. Could it?
The Highland folk museum is my kind of museum, one with no endless corridors and stuffy rooms of glass cases. One where, instead of sullen guards reminding you not to touch/keep your kids under control/not to slide down the banister, there are knowledgeable interpreters, dressed up and in character, ready to enthuse children and adults alike in Highland history.
1. The sweetie shop
Kirks stores is a traditional shop with all the traditional sweeties: aniseed balls, soor plooms, barley sugar. And they sell them by the quarter.
2. The school house
We always race here first. It’s near to the entrance but there must be something inherently attractive in a 1940s classroom with a teacher brandishing a leather strap who is only strict with the grownups and gives the kids good marks in their handwriting tests using pen and dipping ink.
4. The Black house Village
Right at the far end of the site is a reconstructed township from the 1700s. Here you can meet Highlanders and sometimes even a redcoat. On our recent visit we got to try traditional basket making with an expert and watched a skilled weaver creating a tweed from wood dyed using bracken (she was extolling the various uses of pee in creating textiles, but I think they may have used a more modern fixing agent this time…)
5. The Old Kirk
An example of an early prefab. Built in the 1890s, apparently churches just like this were sent all over the empire. But it’s not so much the story of the kirk but the unaccompanied Gaelic singing playing inside that I go for. I could sit and listen and contemplate happily.
Or click here
But mainly I get dragged off to the cafe, shop and playpark.
There are lots of things to like about Blair castle: the gardens are stunning, there’s a tame bagpiper on hand to provide the atmosphere, the arboretum contains some spectacular trees, and, should you want to walk, rather than learn about the Duke of Atholl, his private army and vast wealth, you can walk along tumbling Highland streams in colourful mixed woodlands.
Another thing is that the castle and grounds are actually open most of the year unlike many of Scotland’s visitor attractions. It is only shut from end November to the end of February and it opens again over Christmas and new year.
We wandered into the grounds by mistake having walked from where we were staying in Blair Athol, along the gorgeous path by the Tilt and arrived, by way of an avenue of beach trees, at a statue of a well-built Hercules at the highest point of Hercules walk and overlooking the beautiful and well-kept walled gardens. The children had decided what they were doing today and it had, apparently, not included a walk. They packed their own lunch and two rucksacs full of note pads and reading books and other things and dragged us off to leave them somewhere while we went on one of these hateful walks we keep dragging them on. In the end we left our voluntary Hansel and Gretel in Diana’s grove, the 2nd Duke of Athol’s tree collection, where the adventure playground proved an irresistible draw, and headed up-stream, away from the castle grounds and into the woods.
We managed a couple of hours, interspersed with update phone calls with the children, walking through autumnal gorge woodland of bronze-turning beech. Below us the Tilt cut and polished its way through the grey metamorphic rocks. A couple of Bridges draped with thick moss added to the atmosphere.
On our return we listened to the children regale their adventures in the woods, heard how wet their feet were and then listened to the moaning as we marched them down the spectacular avenue of limes away from the castle and to the wonderful cafe of the Water Mill in Blair Athol village.
I really can’t imagine a better place to be late afternoon on a bright October day. In fact, I don’t know why I haven’t seen this spectacle before.
I’m standing on a balcony overhanging a plunge pool into which is falling a river of rushing water. The shape of the building around me seems to amplify the sound of the waterfall and the rush of water even drowns out the sound of my older daughter singing Katie Perry songs to herself.
Above and all around are trees turning auburn, golden and copper wearing densely moss-draped boughs. And to top it all, the most spectacularly enormous salmon are throwing themselves into the rushing torrent, falling back, and trying again.
or Click Here
The Victorians really knew how to do things and The Hermitage must be one of the best. They took an already spectacular setting along the beautiful tumbling Braan and it’s fabulous falls and added some of the New world’s most spectacular tree species (although the creator of this landscape can only have imagined what it would look like in 2014), built an arching stone footbridge just below the falls for the perfect view.
And, to top off any Victorian’s to do list, added a Greek-themed grotto, to view the falls from their best angle. Ossian’s Hall, as it is called, is shaped to capture and amplify the sound and, when I first came to the Hermitage 16 years ago my (now) husband blind-folded me and led me through the building into the balcony, which was an incredible experience as it sounded like I was walking right into the midst of the waterfall. Unfortunately, in the interests of preserving the building, the National Trust for Scotland has now had to put a glass wall up between hall and balcony, which reduces the impact a little.
The falls are an impassible barrier for the salmon, which are trying to get back to the site where they were released as parr by the Salmon fishery. This makes it both a fabulous place to see the spectacle of the salmon migration; and a poignant experience, knowing that these magnificent animals will never make it to the Shangri-La their genes and sense of smell is telling them exists just beyond the waterfall. It was the first time I had witnessed it and it left me utterly speechless.
And if you can drag yourself away from the falls, the woods are stacked full of moss, lichens and fungi and some of Britains tallest and most spectacular trees. Just past the waterfall is another uniquely Victirian conceit, a hermits cave. Built into a couple of huge shist boulders it has a stone bench set into the wall inside and two round windows. Perfect for hobbit make-believe. It’s hard to spot if you don’t know it’s there.
If you continue the walk up the Braan for a couple of miles it will take you to Rumbling Bridge where you can cross and walk back through the woods on the opposite side if you want a longer ramble.
I know I have been known to say this before but it is the perfect Autumn day out.
Glasgow City Council have put about a quarter of the area of my local park, old blaes pitches, now lately grassed over and quite riddled with puddles, up on a commercial property website to seek bids.
It isn’t the first time locals have had to fight a change of use for that area – it was proposed as a car park for Scotstoun Leisure centre a couple of years ago- a proposal that was seen off by local campaigners.
However this time two community groups seem to be gearing up to fight each other over the use of the pitches. Friends of Victoria Park propose a community orchard for the nearly 7 acre site, and have been at the forefront of fighting commercial plans for the site – getting a turnout of 200 people to a local meeting to discuss council plans for the Park.
Another group – Broomhill sports club (BSC) – a club for local kids that runs football and netball training for all ages from P1 and operates out of various venues but has no home of its own, is also interested in using the pitch. They have proposed all-weather pitches, changing facilities and a cafe for the site which will be self funding and available for schools and other groups to use at other times.
The options are being very much portrayed to the community around the park as an either/or choice. Only one or the other can prevail.
The two groups have, apparently, tried to come together on a joint proposal but talks broke down. My analysis, that may well be wrong, is that the demographic of friends of Victoria Park is generally older without children still at home, and they prefer the quieter orchard proposal, whereas the BSC propose a model covering the whole area to maximize the area for sport, a building for changing rooms etc and to allow it to have economy of scale that would allow for it to cover costs, which would allow no space for the orchard.
Both groups are expert campaigners – they know how to raise profile and attract the media’s attention. The recent demonstration in the park against commercial use of the park got a front page mention in The Herald newspaper and BSC recently had an article talking about their long term plans for a stadium close to their west end roots (I’m wondering whether this is the Victoria Park proposal or some other place)
However there is a danger that, while two groups vie for local attention and council agreement, the actual local community around the park become confused, disillusioned, and distracted from the reality that the council is intending to use the park for commercial reasons. There is no one community position to coalesce around and many people shy away from disagreements locally and would rather stay uninvolved.
There is room for a third view. One where there is space enough for an all-weather football pitch, but not on the scale envisaged by BSC, but also for a community growing space and orchard. The old blaes pitches are vast, seven acres is far too big an area to have a manageable sized community orchard or community growing space/allotments. But also occupying the whole area with sports pitches and associated buildings, especially on the scale suggested by BSC would be too much for the park environment, and much of the area could be lost to community use.
Why can’t we have both better sports facilities and a community orchard? Let’s campaign for both. And let’s have a cafe too – some commercial activity is surely a good thing- we could knock through the fence separating the brilliant bowling/golf/tennis area and link the sports pitch up to be minded from there and convert and extend the little brick building by the bowls/tennis courts into a cafe and nice(r) toilets.
If we can get these two effective and influential community groups working on what would be best for the community rather than polarizing opinion around two, not mutually exclusive, options then we will win. If the two groups are set to fight each other, we are in a prisoners dilemma situation where the only winner will be the council who will find it far easier to get their commercial interests through.
I have written to my councilors and here is what they think …..
Here is land campaigner Andy Wightman’s view on Victoria Park as common good land
Also – why not let me know what you think – I have made a little survey. Please take the survey here.
Building has started at Cuil Bay. It seems a bit of a miracle (and this is just the first stage – the groundworks) but the digger actually made the first dig into the soil on 12 September. We might not have even submitted building control for the main bit of the building yet and have no view further than getting these foundations done while the weather is still dry. But we have STARTED BUILDING!!
the ground conditions are apparently pretty ideal says Stuart our contractor from SECarmichael Building, the slate bedrock is about a meter below the surface in most parts of the plot. It’s only in this south east corner that the bedrock is at depth and we’ll need to stick a load of concrete in.
Apparently the neighbouring plot which was all dry and level and perfect-looking before the digging started was all gravel and sand underneath and whole truck loads of concrete needed to go in to stabilize enough for the foundations. On the other hand, my plot, that seemed all boggy and wet and was wall-to-wall rush and puddle, is apparently the better site with bedrock right underneath.
It’s certainly encouraging to know that all that bogginess was actually because the water had nowhere to drain to due to the bedrock.
I’m clinging to the good stuff especially with the long journey this has been and that it is, by no means, anywhere near the end.
Well it was slightly annoying to loose the car keys. But the train journey back to Glasgow from Mallaig has been wonderful. It is one of the world’s great journeys and I can see why. As I yelled ‘wow look at the amazing view’ ‘it’s the Harry Potter viaduct’ and ‘Britain’s highest mountain’ the kids sat and read the magazines I had bought them as the necessity of the five hour train journey ahead started to sink in.
It’s not the first time that I’ve lost a car-key, or indeed all sorts of other important items like wallet and house keys, but it’s the first time for a while it has necessitated drastic action. I’ll be on the 820am train back to Mallaig in the morning with the spare.
However perhaps it’s a fitting ending to a weekend visit to see a piece of music which has encompassed the whole experience, especially the journey.
The concept of a piece of music exploring the imitation of birdcalls in Gaelic song fascinated me since I heard about it last spring. Being an ornithologist (or a lapsed one at least) I was captivated when I first heard Gaelic songs for bird calls on a soundpost at Kilmartin museum, and the thought of a piece of music written for performance on Canna seemed irresistible.
Now, as I said, the peripheral stuff – travel, accommodation, feeding – were an integral part of the event. And if I were organising an ideal weekend trip away it would look pretty much exactly like this did: a remote and exquisite island teeming with wildlife, camping by a beach black with basalt sand and overlooked by an ancient and crumbing bastion on a tower of basalt columns; a start to the event in a marquee filled with scones and cakes of all kinds; and choice of tea coffee or whiskey (I admit to scrounging a second dram); and ending with the camaraderie of a bonfire on the beach until the early hours. It also included a rousing sing-along to ‘the rattlin’ bog’, but I think that was entirely spontaneous….
But of course these were just the bookends to the work itself. We sat on folding chairs or cushions on the dirt road by the old pier and waited in silence (yes even my children) for the performers in dark tweed dresses and scarlet neoprene to begin. I used to be quite good at bird song ID but this really challenged my knowledge. The programme, containing a reproduction of the hand written scores and translations of the Gaelic which could have helped me was buried deep beneath waterproofs, plastic bags and other russtley things in a very rusttley bag. This was the kind of silent expectant audience where a single creak from a buttock moving on a chair would draw looks like daggers from those about. I decided to forgo the cheat-sheet.
Each movement was preceded by a sound recording evoking a habitat and bird assemblage: a machair with calling waders and skylarks, a seabird colony with guillemots, shags and fulmars, and mountain slopes ringing with the haunting and bubbling calls of manx shearwaters.
As the sound of a gull in full defensive mode swooped across the loudspeakers my husband and I instinctively ducked; two field seasons in a colony of 50,000 pairs of gulls makes you wary like that. I was excitedly elbowed in the arm when he realised that the next movement was on a theme of gulls (we met in a gull colony). The sound of the guillemots took me back to a summer spent in the arctic below an enormous colony of auks. Happy days
The singing beautifully imitated bird calls as the singers placed themselves about the shallows, rocks, or up behind us, depending on the habitat they were evoking. The sound soothed, washing over in waves, the feeling akin to lying on a real machair looking up at the sky and hearing the waders display above, or laying belly-down peering over at a seabird colony, smelling that ammonia smell of dried guilimot poo (I love that smell). When I recognised a call in the music I felt elated. The kittiwake ‘Hu-ru rui’ was a recurring theme as was the cry of the oystercatcher, an ululating ‘Pil- il-il il il il il’. I feel I would have so much more to gain on another listen.
Later around the fire we shared experiences of the piece, among other things (including an artist’s response to the killing of the first sea eagle to fledge from the East Scotland reintroduction). Everyone I spoke to had connections to the arts, most had been to art school and were practicing artists. They seemed to have a very different experience of the piece to me, none seemed to feel the need to know what sounds were representing which birds. When I met one of the performers on the ferry homeward and enquired as to whether I might have heard a curlew in the piece (which on inspection of the programme I think was a gull’s laughing cry), she confided that she didn’t actually know which sounds were which birds, she had learned the music and read from the score.
There were evidently far fewer ornithologists in the audience than musicians and artists and, as I walked through the woods and up to the heathered escarpments above with the family later, listening out for the birds we could hear, as we always do, I pondered on a theme I have pondered before. I wondered whether there is more enjoyment in being able to name the species we share our surroundings with, than in simply enjoying a natural sounds for their own sake. Does being able to know how many species are singing, what they are and why their sing, and how they live their lives enrich ones enjoyment of the chatter of a seabird cliff, or the uplifting sounds of a woodland in spring?*
I do go along to arty things when I can, but I often feel that I don’t quite ‘get it’, the time I went along to see Hertzog’s ‘Antarctica’ at the GFT leaps to mind: I sat utterly bewildered as I saw, around me, the knowing nods and of a generation of students from the Glasgow School of Art oozing understanding. But this time I did feel that I got it, in fact surely this was a piece where ornithologists could enjoy it just as much as the art people. (And, presumably to a Gaelic-speaking ornithologist it would be even more enlightening). Perhaps I’m just always seeking understanding, because that’s what I like, I’m a scientist after all and finding out how the world works makes me happy.
The work was perfect, just as it was, of course, but I just couldn’t help wanting to take all those artists there on a walk to see and hear the real thing: the oystercatchers, the gulls, perhaps a night walk to hear the manxies. Probably because it’s my job and passion to get people excited about nature and because, for me, a performance like that drives me, at least, to want to find out more about the birds and about the Gaelic.
Canna, for example, is a real conservation success story. In a superhuman and vast effort, the NTS has freed the island from rats, while conserving the endemic Canna mouse, and Manx Shearwaters and other ground and hole nesters are starting to recolonise. A tremendous good news story in the midst of so much bad news for nature.
I am starting to see the advantage of losing my car key, we have been forced us to throw ourselves further into the experience of the journey as part of the piece, returning on the train via the wild landscapes of Morar, Lochaber and the vastness of Rannoch Moor and then gradually decompressing through the oak and birch woodlands of Loch Lomond and Loch Long until we started to enter the towns of West Dumbartonshire, and, only when we were ready for it, arriving back in the city. A far more enriched experience, especially with a glass of prosecco, than driving through the landscapes focussed on the road, head down….
Now I just need to get that train back to Mallaig with the spare key….
For information about the performance and a video click here
* (however any metaphor with art breaks down irretrievably on a cursory interrogation….)
We had an unscheduled trip to in-law land this week. As the world travelled to Glasgow to enjoy the sun, the atmosphere and the Commonwealth Games, we travelled to Switzerland for absolute torrential, end-of-days rain. Our intended holiday plans were to stay in Glasgow, and the curse of the smartphone meant I could keep up with the fabulous wonderful and swelteringly sunny goings on in that fair city while we’ve been gone.
The commonwealth games isn’t really making waves here, but the Independence referendum seems to have made the news. My Swiss isn’t the best but I’m ok at eavesdropping and today was listening in to a conversation about the Indyref. Two nonagenarian relatives were expressing incredulity to Swiss hubby that Scotland could possibly go it alone.
I found it a little surprising that someone from Switzerland (population 7.9 million; land area 41, 000 sq km; mainly covered with mountains and lakes; no seaboard at all; fiercely independent) could pour scorn on the prospect of Scotland (population 5.2 million, land area 78,000 sq km, much of it made up of mountains and moorland, plenty of seaboard) being independent.
Now I am loathe to come down on one side or the other definitely and in public, but it seemed like a strange to hear an argument against independence coming from a Swiss.
Despite being a natural contrarian, in the interests of familial harmony I managed to prevent myself from pointing out that it was only 150 years ago that the Swiss had one of the lowest incomes in Europe.
Figure from ‘When did the Swiss get rich?‘ R Studer, LSE
It has been Swiss independence from ruinous world wars, and independence from banking transparency that has led to Switzerland becoming one of the richest countries in Europe.
Now obviously I don’t think that secret banks and corporate tax shelters (nor the right-tending and generally illiberal politics*) should be the way forward for Scotland, but I would certainly commend a few things: their localisation of taxes and decision making, to canton level and further, to commune level being one. Cheese and chocolate being another.
Switzerland does tourism extraordinarily well, their mountains and lakes bring in visitors by their millions. However looking at the figures I was surprised to see Scotland holding its own: Switerland’s tourism industry brings in 15 billion francs* (£9.8 billion) and Scotland’s brings in £11 billion** (goodness knows whether these figures were calculated in the same way….)
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. While I am writing this, twitter is alive with the buzz in Glasgow for the Commonwealth. I really am looking forward to getting home.
* Federation of Swiss Tourism (2012) Swiss Tourism in Figures
** Deloitte (2010) The Economic Contribution of the Visitor Economy: UK and the Nations
*** and the ‘if it’s not banned, it’s compulsory’ approach
After such a wonderful cycle to Ballachulish we wanted to do some more of route 78 and so, since we were at the beach at Tralee, Benderloch, I arranged to cycle north with the kids for around 10k to meet my husband with the car at Loch Crearen to finish the day.
It started off nicely with a short section down the old railway starting at the old Bendeloch station. However after about 100yrds the disused railway continued, looking inviting and hung either side with drooping tree boughs, but was fenced off, while the cycle track took a dogleg and started to follow the main road on a separate and parallel track.
The ambitions of cycle route 78 to follow the old railway is brilliant and, it would surely be one of Scotland’s best cycle routes if that ambition could be realised. However it is evident that the route’s creators and visionaries have come up against many land-owners who have refused to allow the cycle track to continue along the obvious route and so quite large sections have needed to be made on alternative routes, sometimes in fields adjacent (as in Glen Duror to good effect), and in many places alongside the road. When the railways were closed, land across Scotland, and indeed the UK, was practically given away to the landowners rather than being held as strategic routes, and so it irks somewhat that some landowners are not cooperating in the process of creating this beautiful cycle route.
I don’t mind cycling on an off road cycle track alongside a main road. I do mind if that cycle path peters out entirely and I am informed that it continues one and a half miles further along the busy Oban-Fort William road.
Now, I am a hardened Glasgow cycle commuter, daily doing battle with rush-hour traffic along Dumbarton road, but the thought of heading out onto that road where cars were doing upward of 60mph, and numerous scary overtaking maneuvers of caravans/campers/trucks happened as we stood there, was not attractive. There was simply no way on earth we could go any further with the kids.
My phone battery was on 1%, I texted the husband then the phone battery died. We contemplated our options. Either there would be an unusual confluence of circumstances (a) he had his phone with him, b) his phone was on, c) his phone was charged, and d) that he was paying attention to it) and he’d get the text, or (more likely) he wouldn’t. We waited a bit longer than the amount of time it would take him to reach us if he got the text and then headed back to Benderloch.
Fortunately there was Ben Lora Cafe and Books to keep us occupied and the sun was shining. We wondered how long it would take for hubby to realise we were gone.
We all had a drink and a snack, time dawdled. We bought newspapers and magazines to read. Two of the hourly buses passed to Balcardine and I regretted not getting on one of them. We contemplated hitch hiking up the road, and still he didn’t appear.
The man clearing tables asked if we were ok. ‘Sounds just like me’, he said as I explained that it probably hadn’t crossed hubby’s mind to check his phone and that, if he actually had it with him, on and charged, it would be a miracle ‘I never have my phone on, drives my wife crazy’. He helpfully offered to charge my phone.
By 530 pm and an hour and a half of waiting later, we were all getting a little bored. ‘They’re closing its road tonight at 10pm for roadworks’, I thought, ‘I wonder whether Ruedi will come back to look for us in time, or whether we’ll have to kip down here for the night ….’
‘He’ll probably come back when he’s hungry’ said the man.
I went inside to pay and the woman at the counter told me that her husband never has his phone on either. She has an anaphylactic reaction to stings and she told me that, when she’s out for a walk and has forgotten her epi-pen, she often muses over, were she to get stung, how long it would take her husband to notice she were gone. ‘Probably not till the next day’ she said ‘perhaps at breakfast time’.
We giggle about husbands for a bit and then she said ‘Mind you, the shoe’s been on the other foot’ and told me her story. One evening her husband didn’t return home and she didn’t think anything of it, when he still wasn’t back the next night she assumed he was visiting his mother and it was only when his mother called to speak to him, she started to wonder where he was. It wasn’t until he’d been gone five days (‘FIVE DAYS??!!’ I echoed incredulously) that he returned as if nothing had happened. When she had finished shrieking ‘where-the-hell-have-you-been-I’ve-been-worried-sick?’ It turned out that he’d been over in Sheffield for work but had omitted to tell her the plan.
It seems that things could be far worse than waiting two hours in a comfortable cafe garden in the sun….
And when did we eventually get rescued? At 6pm hubby eventually turned into the car park. After waiting, and wandering along the shore, and reading, and snoozing he had, at last, started to wonder where we were and had turned on his phone to see what time it was (…dinner time…?)
Cycle Route 78 is entirely off road from Cuil Bay to Ballachulish and much of it is along the old Oban- Ballachulish branch line which shut in 1966. The plan is to extend the cycle way off road all the way to Oban but there seem to be some difficult negotiations with land owners along the way (see part 2 of the story) and so there are some bits that are still on the main road.
However the route we took on day one of our family cycle adventures was one of the nicer routes I’ve done and perfect for a bike with the kids, about 7-8 miles each way.
We started at Cuil Bay and cycled along the minor road to a crossing with the main road which took us through fields and across a beautiful new wooden bridge curving elegantly over the river Duror.
Cycling past banks of foxgloves and meadowsweet, the path wove between fields and then onto the old railway, through cuttings and under a viaduct that must have once taken a road or another railway. In Duror a panel told of the connections of the area with the Appin murder the inspiration for Stephehson’s classic novel ‘Kidnapped’. A cycle up the glen would have taken us to the birthplace of James of the Glen, the subject of that most infamous miscarriage of justice.
Passing Duror campsite and some gypsy caravan glamping we were back on the disused railway again, following the contours of the vast shoulder of Beinn a Bheithir, the Ballachulish Horseshoe. The track leaves the railway to climb up for a splendid view of Loch Linnhe and the architectural copses of trees on the Ardsheal estate, before a, rather-too-steep decent takes you to the Holly Tree hotel (the perfect stop for lunch and a swim) and then back onto the old railway now running along the shoreline.
The views arcross to Ardgour and Morven were divine, and later there were views of the pap of Glencoe and hints of larger mountains behind in the cloud. We made a short detour up into the forest at Letir Mhor to see the monument at the spot where Colin Campbell was murdered.
While we stopped for water we were passed by two ladies on low-slung trikes. Each was holding an umbrella spray painted silver. Kit and provisions were piled on to the back of each bike and while one had a pack of warburtons sliced bread bungeed to the top, the other trailed some Tibetan prayer flags.
The final four miles of the route is alongside the road from South Balachulish to Glencoe. Amazing views of the mountains of Glencoe looming ahead was rather distracting given the very fast and busy road the track runs alongside. However, all in all it was a perfect family cycle ride. We rode back for a very deserved dinner and swim at the Holly Tree.
In a bit of a contrast from last week when I was at RSPB Mersehead getting unreasonably excited about some camera trap footage of a mouse bouncing out of a badger set with a stick in its mouth and cooing over a cute little wood mouse caught in a mammal trap set in a stick-pile, this week I am at war with mice.
We arrived with joy and anticipation at the bothy for a week of repose and communing with nature. Our usual 40 min walk extended to one and a half hours by me having to stop every 15 minutes to take a rest from my Herculean rucksac, carrying in the provisions for a week. We arrived to find mouse droppings everywhere: tucked into corners on the fish box shelves, scattered on the kitchen surfaces perched on their fishbox units and all around the piles of fish boxes that make for seating.
After a burst of uncharacteristically enthusiastic wiping and disinfecting of surfaces we climbed the ladder-like staircase to the sleeping platform above, where more mouse droppings lay on the wooden floor where I was about to lay my mattress.
In the night there were shufflings and crashings loud enough to keep me awake for a while. It sounded like a family of mafia mice, or those rats out of the animated film Ratatouille were helping themselves to the food I had lugged in at much personal effort. However When I tried to take them by surprise by switching the torch on suddenly I saw nothing of the perpetrators. In the morning my newly wiped surfaces were covered in mouse poo and, in the final insult, a solitary poo sat atop the sponge scourer.
Tonight I have a couple of mouse traps at the ready. They were bought from the local hardwear store after a 2 hour round trip, and I am sorry to say that, this time, they are not your ecologists’ Longworth Traps with friendly escape hatches for shrews. No. I am afraid to say that I am a frightful mass of contradictions and these traps are the ones that go SNAP.
It certainly seemed like a good idea a few months ago: Let’s get more people engaged with nature using equipment and gadgets more often used for science and let’s train up my fellow people engagement staff at RSPB in the South and West of Scotland.
It seemed less clever as I travelled down to RSPB Mersehead reserve contemplating the inescapable fact that technology seems to sense my anxiety and ignorance and immediately stops working, that vital pieces of gadgets go missing when I am anywhere near them, and that even having to set up a projector and laptop to give presentation can leave me feeling sick with fear.
However we had a boot full of gadgets: go-pros, camera traps, a digital microscope, and some bat detectors; as well as some of the more traditional scientific kit of an ecologist: moth traps, small mammal traps and butterfly nets. We also had a few experimental things: a variety of recipes for treacling for moths, some ink footprint traps and a drone.
The participants came from across the RSPB’s South of Scotland region, all working in face-to-face roles with the public and the idea was a kind of do-it-yourself training. We would all contribute our experience on using the gadgets and also the kind of activities you could use to create an event, or activity to get people ereally excited about nature.
I managed to secure the help of a couple of our RSPB ecologists who could give us the low-down on things such as camera trapping, moth trapping and mammal trapping. All the rest was down to us.
The idea of the training had been born in an evening, night and morning spend in a tent with the family near to RSPB’s Loch Lomond reserve where we were partaking in the Big Wild Sleep Out. I had been involved in planning and arranging the event but wasn’t due to be helping deliver it and so I went along with the family to take part as it sounded like just about the most fun one could possibly hope to find. And I wasn’t disappointed. It was like being in an episode of spring watch, nay, it was like being Chris Packham himself.
We went bug hunting, set moth traps and camera traps, heard bats through our bat detectors, baited our mammal traps then finished the evening with a campfire, stories and marshmallows. In the morning we rose early for some bird ringing following by checking the traps. It was so exciting seeing what you had caught in your mammal trap and with the camera trap. My younger daughter’s camera, set under some bird feeders, discovered a hungry hedgehog snuffling around the peanut butter bait. We were hooked.
I wanted the training to recreate the feeling and excitement for people and so those who could be persuaded, camped out in the garden of beautiful RSPB Mersehead. Although, with all the distractions of teeming wildlife, there wasn’t a lot of time for sleeping.
The first night, clear and deathly still, we walked down to the shore, the air still so warm we were still in t-shirts at 11pm. There was no need for torches, the sky to the north was still bright. We were thrilled to see a barn owl quartering the wet grasslands in search of food. Later on, however, while asleep, I was less thrilled to be shocked awake and bolt upright, by the bloodcurdling shriek of the owl who appeared to be resident in the tree right by my tent.
We set the camera traps, the small mammal traps and an embarrassment of moth-traps (no fewer than three mercury vapour lamps within a few yards of the tents) and then we started on the moth treacling/sugaring. Everyone you ask seems to have their own secret recipe for attracting moths. So I decided that what we needed was a battle of the moth mixtures.
Everyone brought their own in jars or made them up on the stove, the heady fragrance of red wine, sugar, ale and banana wafting through the centre. They were delicious (the ones I tried) even the one that had been sitting around at RSPB Loch Lomond for a few weeks – apparently it had improved as it matured. If the moths had any sense they would be starting to queue for a taste of this moth ambrosia.
While we waited for the moths to gather we headed down to the dunes to look for Natterjacks toads. Natterjacks are our rarest amphibian and you need a licence even to go looking for them, touch them or photograph them. So we were incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in an official natterjack survey with our ecologists. They only come out at night and so, in midsummer, it has to be pretty late to see them and it wasn’t until past 1130pm that we found our first animal, a female, and one, according to the individual dorsal wart pattern, that had been caught by the team before.
It was an incredibly brief night before we were all up again on a (not quite) dawn walk, chatting through games and ideas to engage children with listening to and learning birdsong. What struck me was how differently people hear birdsong. The chiff-chaff which, for me, is a simple ‘chiff-chaff-chaff-chiff’ was, to one colleague, ‘a little girl skipping along with pigtails’ and another ‘a bouncing ball’
I got everyone to listen to the skylark and describe exactly what they heard and there was an amazing variety of descriptions, the best of which was ‘a video game shoot-out killing the aliens’
We picked up the camera traps as we passed; a couple by a badger set in the woods, and one on a gate post past which everything bigger than a rabbit would have to move to get from the field into the woods.
Back at base we opened moth traps, and mammal traps, looked at camera trap footage and ink print traps. We had deer, a badger, a fox and a tiny mouse that dashed into a badger sett entrance only to bounce out a few seconds later carrying a stick three-times it’s own length in its mouth.
The excitement of seeing what the results of your own camera trapping had brought was really palpable. The camera which was only few yards from the tents captured some great footage of a fox and some stills of a badger.
Later we played with a digital microscope which projects highly magnified images to a laptop screen, the go-pro cameras and our area reserves manager demonstrated the drone, a quadcopter, which creates incredibly stable ariel images and video.
When I arrived back in Glasgow that evening, utterly exhausted, a fox passed me in the street. Unconcerned, and in broad daylight, It hopped off the pavement to let me past and then eyeballed me when I briefly stopped. I pretty much ignored it and went on my way. Perhaps I should set up a camera trap here to rekindle the excitement of having wildlife so close in the city.
PS. The moth treacling mixtures might have tasted delicious to me, but the moths didn’t seem to like them. All we found, when we came back after the natterjack survey, was a red tailed bumblebee slurping the mixture off a tree.
So now I am in charge of building this house what is the plan?
Well…..It may be because I am totally naive and know absolutely nothing about building houses but it seems to me that the process of building the house comes in three simple sections.
Firstly the ground works, foundations, drainage and pipes and stuff.
Secondly: the frame. We are getting this made by Scotframe. It will have doors, windows, internal walls staircase, insulation and all, all prepared in the factory. It gets erected on site to wind and watertight in four days (FOUR DAYS?!) It then just needs the cladding and slates on.
Lastly: By then you’ve basically got something that looks like a house on the outside and you need all the stuff done on the inside: heating, wires, flooring, bathrooms, kitchen.
Does that sound right to you? It sounds simple enough doesn’t it?
Look I have organised loads of stuff in my life. Once, when my youngest was a baby I arranged for some fallen trees on Arran to be transported back to Glasgow, made into a boat by the amazing Galgael and then sailed back to Arran where it circumnavigated the island stopping at four ports on the way to different festivities and events. I keep the family logistics running, I run the Naseby Park Cherry Blossom Festival, at work I organize everything all the time. When I have a few moments free I invent new things to organize to fill the time like complex multi-day walks following a massive birthday celebration or a business doing ceilidhs to disco music.
I think I should be OK with building this house. I hope …. Watch this space.
Well that did turn out to be a good walk.
In fact it was such a good walk it deserves its own name. I shall call it The West High-Mountain Way. That’s after the fact that most of it generally followed the route of the West Highland Way except that it took the route over the biggest mountains we could find (and had a little detour via a very nice hotel too)
I conceived the idea for the walk back in July (see this blog post) and amazingly managed to do everything planned. Accompanied by one dear friend all the way and by others that dropped in for certain days, it took us from Loch Lomond to Cuil Bay via 9 munroes, 6000m of climbing and around 70km over six days.
“You seem to be in a great hurry,” said a man with a thick German accent as I brushed my teeth while filling my water bottle in the Glencoe YHA kitchen “Do you have some information that the mountains will disappear today in a sudden movement of the tectonic plates?” I tried to explain that I had a taxi due as I ran to the fridge to retrieve my faithful companion the French cheese, but it’s hard when you have a mouthful of toothbrush.
In the end the taxi was late and before we could get into it my Dad had appeared to join us for the day. He’d left Dundee at 6am but it was too late for me to cancel the taxi. In the end I travelled with the taxi driver and Jo travelled with my Dad, the two miles to the car park at Ballachullish. Dad had tried to pursued the taxi driver to take us up as far as the school but he was unwilling to run the gauntlet of the Glen Coe mums on the school-run (and I suggested that an additional 300m in a vehicle was a rather negligible distance compared to the traverse of the Ballachullish Horseshoe that we were planning.)
Beinn a’ Bheithir, the Ballachullish Horseshoe, towers over the entrance to Loch Leven, its vast granite west flank dominating the skyline from Cuil Bay. The rounded shoulders of the great mountain rise from sea level up to two munros, Sgorr Dhearg at 1024m and Sgorr Dhonill (1001m) linked by a great ridge. The geology of the mountain changes very distinctly between the two main summits – the east is quartzite, a hard, white metamorphic rock and this forms a delicate, white curving sharp ridge with steep scree slopes falling into the corrie below. The west mountain is granite, warm, red and rounded and forming a pile of scrambly blocks and boulders rising up from the ridge to the summit and then a wide lumpy and knobbly plateau with high level lochans. It would have been tricky terrain to navigate if the cloud had come in.
As this was the last day of our walk from Loch Lomond to Cuil Bay we took the most linear route over the mountain. Most people walk the horseshoe from South Ballachullish to start and finish at the same spot, but we set off from the field just south of Ballachullish primary school and headed through a field of sheep, over a fence and into a trackless and near vertical bog. There was lovely cotton grass, and sweet smelling bog myrtle but there was no path.
I had been planning this walk since last summer and this wasn’t my route of choice. I had planned to ascend the beautiful steep and scrambley ridge that starts a bit further south of the primary school and rises almost directly to the summit of Sgorr Dhearg but my dad had other plans. He had been on the internet, he had printed out detailed maps on matt photographic paper (I’d recommend this actually). He had gadgets and he had annotated his map with GPS grid references on the line of best route, in case of poor visibility.
And so we went with his route.
We fought onward up the ever steepening heather and bog myrtle slope, me rapidly losing my sense of humour and wondering why one of the most popular mountains in Scotland speared to have no path up it whatsoever. Fortunately, just before we had a family crisis, Jo found the path, cutting across the slope above us and all was saved.
Once on the path the ascent was superb taking us onto the skyline giving fabulous views inland to the mountains of Glen Coe and the Mamores and westward out over Loch Linnhe and into Morven and Ardgour. Dad is a botanist and enriched the walk with talk of alpine plants (even though the mountain didn’t have some of the species he was hoping for). As we reached a wide part of the ridge at around 550m we came across an area of tiny, and entirely flat juniper bushes, growing to an altitude of only 2cms. I learnt a few other plants too – alpine ladies mantle was all over the place and, once the geology changed from quartzite to granite, so did the botany. There were little patches of fern growing between granite rocks which has the curled appearance of parsley, and indeed, this was the parsley fern.
At one point on the ridge dad disappeared over a precarious cliff perched over the top of a vertiginous scree slope. I scurried to the edge to check he was alright and found him bent over a patch of tiny white flowers. Starry saxifrage apparently. Other botanical highlights were the dwarf campion, and the exquisite dwarf cornell.
We wandered over the knobbly granite landscape until we came across a surprisingly large lochan at 750m altitude (obligatory swim) and then about a kilometre further on we started down the steep hillside, following dad’s carefully laid out trail of marked GPS locations, leading directly to the treasure of the Holly Tree Inn. It was here that the real botanical highlight of the day came. A celebratory, end-of-six-day-walk Gin and Tonic made with the wonderful Botanist gin from Bruichladdich Distilery on Islay.
I borrowed the gin bottle from behind the bar for a Botanist playoff. Could dad tell us the common names of all the ingredients embossed on the glass bottle in Latin?
We started the day in a bit of a fluster, running down the road from the Glencoe ski area, takeaway coffee cups sloshing their contents all over our sleeves. We needed to catch that citylink bus hurtling along the main road from Glasgow to Uig. Fortunately we had a friend on board who’d got on at 7am in Glasgow to walk with us for the day and he asked the driver to stop as we panted down the track.
We would have been on time, except for my desperation for a morning coffee. The cafe didn’t open until 9am so I had tried various avenues: firstly I found the mobile number (thanks google) of the contractors I’d given my hobbit hole to in the night who were away with their truck, I assumed seeking breakfast. It was the least they could do to get me a coffee and a bacon roll from wherever they had gone. Continue reading