First night

I slept my first night at the house this week. I brought a hoover to clear a space in the dust to lay my roll-mat and sleeping bag. 


The heating has been on fiercely hot to dry the floors and things out, so I opened every window in the house. When it was bearable I sat down to a packet of crisps with humous and a kit Kat. And a celebratory beer I had to open with a pair of scissors. 

 I slept like the proverbial log between being woken at intervals  by the crying of a sheep. 

The next morning when I emerged to use the hateful portaloo (soon to be gone) I found out what it was. A soay lamb was trapped in some brambles. It took a pair of work gloves and a pair of scissors to free it. It all felt rather biblical. 

  Later, as I sat and drank a coffee from a dusty mug (taking care not to agitate the grounds in the bottom  as I’d forgotten the cafetiere) I heard a sheep’s cries again. The same lamb was stuck in a different bramble. And an adult soay sheep was stuck in a nearby bush. .

I freed them and returned to the house. Much later I repeated the excercise again wondering what that wretched lamb would do if I wasn’t around to sort it out. 

I expect the lamb was wondering where I was when it was bleating pathetically all night to be freed. 


Builder saga again

I wrote this a few weeks ago but now the build has progressed far enough along the way for me to start looking up and posting a few blogs I wrote before.
Oct 2015
For the past three weeks the house has been forlonly sitting in its half plasterboarded state. Builder#4 went on holiday, (see blog) already 3 weeks over with the plaster boarding with no prospect of being able to complete even on his return. I postponed floor, kitchen, building control visit. There’s a possibility that Builder#3 will be able to pick up the pieces (again), but he’s on holiday too. And for three weeks.   It’s been total torture sitting about waiting to find out what is going to happen with everything on hold.
Well sort of.
Having to finish off this house and all the challenges that it has thrown up has coincided with some of the busiest times at work and in the rest of life. So the house anxieties rumble along in the subconscious, giving me a general feeling of disquiet, and rising to the surface from time to time, usually at 5am when I awake in panic and make a list of things to do before dropping back to sleep. But the rest of life crowds in to distract me, in some measure, from the irritations of waiting.
As if to create a looking-glass world where everything is sunshine, joy and beautiful vistas, in contrast to the humdrum toil, interspersed with panic, of house building, this has been a magical autumn of work visits to some of the most beautiful places in Scotland. It’s been a welcome contrast and a distraction to trials at the build with Builder#4 and the plasterboard.
My role in RSPB Scotland is more often than not about emails, slaving at a computer and meetings in airless rooms, but it’s not all like that and I’ve spent more than my fair share of time over the past couple of months at such uplifting places as Loch Lomond, Islay, Perthshire, Dumfries and Galloway, the Isle of Cumbrae and Loch Lomond again. It’s been amazing, uplifting, productive but, because the job doesn’t go on hold when you’re away from the office to run a workshop at Loch Lomond, or a site visit in D&G, getting all the other stuff done has been a little bit stressful.
But to top it all, This week has been the week of doom. This week I have to pull things together and sort out what’s happening with the house. I’ve sent a holding email to Builder#4 while I’ve been waiting until Builder #3 to gets back from holiday so I could decide what to do. However while they have been away the electrician pointed out that I need a completion certificate for the feed-in tariff claim and the FITs are decreasing 87% in January so I had to get a move on.  The renewables incentives come to an end in January, so if I don’t have my building warrant completion certificate by then It will be a bit of a financial disaster (it later transpired that the EPC is needed for the completion certificate – see blog).  However  it did work to put a rocket up the proverbial back-side to try and get things done.
It was clear in that pre-holiday debrief  with builder #4 that he would struggle to finish, so it all rests now on whether builder#3 can achieve it.
So, like freshly interviewed candidate waiting on the offer of that dream job, or starry-eyed teenager waiting on a phone call from the crush, I wait for the builder to respond to the  unseemly number of texts I’ve sent him. Up until the past few weeks I have managed to keep work stress and build stress entirely separate and compartmentalized. However with the time urgency added this week, it has started to get rather distracting.
However, in the spirit of nothing being lost to potential usefulness, even the bad stuff, it acted as a rather timely illustration in a training course I was delivering to colleagues that day, by coincidence, on stress and resilience.
In the end I resort to emojis – desperate measures-  one might say.
And in the end he calls. During the aforementioned training course.
Only half an hour after discussing the impact of external stressors on our resilience to workplace stress, mentioning, by way of an example,  how waiting for a builder to call could add to the already slightly stressful activity of leading a training course,  I excuse myself, leaving my co-trainer ably in charge for a few moments.
In probably the most anticipated and eagerly awaited phone call in the history of telephony (well perhaps not including that very first “Mr. Watson–come here–I want to see you.” phone call from 1876)   I discover that Builder#3 can indeed  come to the rescue. I’ll find out more when he goes up to the house on Monday.

A lot of rubbish and a good day

Today was a good good day. It wasn’t really because we got the heating working again, or because the plaster boarding is done and the stairs in, or because the electrician gave me the various documents I need for my FITs claim, or that I found out that we actually do have wiring in for the cooker hood, or even that apparently it isn’t a massive issue to actually get some lighting in the huge cavernous stairwell. 


It didn’t even start that well with yet another call to the floor fitter to put him back again*, which made me feel a bit bad. Fortunately I was jogging along the cycle path at beautiful Loch Creran at the time and could spend a little time ripping out baby rhododendrons which are recolonising the oak woodland there, which made me feel much better. 


What made it a good day was that I spent a very large part of it filling bin bags with rubbish.  Never has clearing up vast quantities of builder-detritus felt so good. Irn bru bottles and cans and crisp packets and wrappers. It’s was like checking under the 12 year-old’s desk after she’s shouted “I ALREADY TIDIED MY ROOM MUM!”. And to add to the joy;  plaserboard and half dried out buckets of paint and plaster and boxes of stuff that have been sitting about since the beginning of the build.


And why is that all so good? Well, certainly, it was a chance to clear out the last remnants of Builder4*, stick it all in bin bags and drive like a bat-out-of-hell to the dump, slipping in moments before they shut the gate and, with utter abandon, lob it all into a giant skip.

*combined with more detritus from the Builder3 joiners and the taper

But really I think it was the nature of the task. I’ve been spending pretty much every minute of everyday for the last three months organising myself, organising work, answering questions, making decisions, sorting out problems, organising the build, organising children and, when I’m away at the build or with work, organising the husband to organise the children.  It’s pretty exhausting really.  Life is usually pretty like that for me. I must like it that way, but this is taking it too far. To be honest, I think I have reached the maximum percentage of one’s brain it is possible to devote to this stuff without tipping right over the edge into a void it’s impossible to climb out of.  


So to spend the majority of a day simply sweeping and carrying and shifting, with a bit of singing at top volume to some 80s classics blasting out of the decorator’s very paint-spattered radio, was peace and blessed escapism. While the taper and decorator lunched downstairs conversation on The Jeremy Vine show turned to debilitating period pains and endometriosis.  I entertained myself with wondering what the painter would make of it when he came back after lunch.  


I loaded the pile of rubbish I had taken out of the house into my car with a great sense of satisfaction and started contemplating whether Builder 1 had been serious when he’d jokingly offered me a job.  It was after I’d shown him the deeply unimpressive shed panels I’d built following a bit of a tutorial from his son (during which I looked intently vacant).  Well perhaps he was joking. But perhaps he wasn’t.  

Yes, it could be a good life being a builder’s labourer.  Every now and again anyway (and if you can stand your snot being the consistency of chewing gum…)


* The heating has been off and the floors have had to be put back due to something that happened while I was up at the build last week.  The joiners were putting up the small wall in the kitchen and drilling through to affix to floor. It seems an underfloor heating pipe wasn’t in quite the place on the plan and they drilled through it.  When I came in Chris was chipping away at the screed floor with hammer and chisel to get at the pipe. Chris put his thumb in the pipe and I was reminded of the story of the dutch boy with his finger in the dam that saved the village.  I wondered whether Chris would be staying there until the plumber showed up.  He didn’t….The plumber came to fix it but couldn’t turn the heating back on again and forgot to let me or the heating company  know of the problem, so the floor is still damp.


Having EPC Difficulties

You really have to like filling in forms at this stage in the build. It helps if you have kept meticulous records and if your spreadsheet of all money related information hasn’t unaccountably disappeared off your computer.
Unfortunately I have been slightly remiss in backing up my computer and now I have had to go back to a version I last updated in May. Which, in the lifetime of building this house, is an awfully long time ago.
It isn’t just about the pain of paying bills and yet more of bills, it’s about keeping track of all the various paperwork, permissions, schedule of building control visits and other official things. It’s been a trying time for someone as uninclined towards forms and form-filling and crossings of ‘T’s and dotting of ‘I’s.
And it isn’t really helped that, last month, George Osbourne announced the decision of a huge cut to the feed in tarrif for solar electricity. After January payments will decrease by 87%. This has come really suddenly with the initial consultation published at the end of August, after we had installed our panels.  Kenneth the electrician first alerted me to how soon this is and how we really need to get a move on with everything.
To claim the feed in tarrif I need to fill in a form and attach screeds of documents. One of which is an Energy Performance Certificate.
Fortunately I already have an Energy Performance Certificate in one of my numerous files on my computer. I seek it out and breathe a sigh of relief. It looks OK to me. I show it to Stephen the builder who points out that the certificate number is 12345678. ‘It’s useless for claiming FITs’ he says.
As you can imagine I am rather puzzled. I have an EPC but it’s no use for claiming my Feed in Tariff. I call the architects. Matt explains that the EPC he produced was for building control purposes. It looks the same (apart from the registration number) but in order to produce an official EPC he would need to be properly certified to do them. He, and a few people in the office, have done the training but they are all waiting for their official certification to come through and that could take weeks, or months.
And even if they were certifyed it wouldn’t be a simple process to convert my EPC into a proper EPC. All the information would need to go into the official computer package and be done again.
I also need an EPC for my completion certificate and I asked whether the EPC I had was sufficient for that. I think the answer to that was no but, to be honest,  I couldn’t get my head around the process Matt was explaining to me about how his EPC becomes official for building control purposes via the whole building tender process and contract.
As readers of this blog will know, I’m not making anything simple for myself in building this house. And so I don’t have one contract with one builder to build it (get up to date here. And here. And here)
So I need an EPC for my feed in tarrif claims and for a completion certificate. I ask Stephen and there’s one company in Oban that does EPCs, I call them up and talk to a chap called donald. He explains they do EPCs for existing houses. It’s a simple process of visiting the house and making assumptions about type of construction and putting it into the computer package. It’s called a reduced SAP EPC. He’s not sure whether it’s valid for a new house but he can come and do one at my house as soon as it’s complete. He recommends I check that it would be valid for a new house.
I call the Energy Saving Trust. It’s apparently my energy company who deal with FIT applications. I call Scottish Hydro. Surprisingly I get put through to a human being straight away and without negotiating a ‘press one for accounts, press two for ….’ decision tree of epic complexity. I suppose one must be grateful for small mercies.
The man I speak to isn’t at all sure what I need and there isn’t anyone who can answer my questions. ‘We just type in the certificate number and press a button’ he says. ‘I didn’t know that they were any different for existing houses and new houses’
At some point in all this process, I also call Al, an architect who I only know from Twitter but who happens to be a neighbour in Appin. I’m on my way to the house at the time I call him and stopped for a coffee on the drive up. He helps me get my head around things.  I definitely need a proper certified certificate.
And will this certificate do for building control? I call my friendly building control officer. It’s straight to answer phone as usual. But one thing that is especially fantastic about my building control officer is that when you email him, he emails straight back. Usually within 15 seconds. The email may just say ‘Noted’ and nothing else, but it’s a comfort to know that your building control officer cares enough to email back.
I emailed him to ask and it seems building control needs a full post completion EPC.
This sounds more complicated than the certificate Donald had described. It needs to incorporate all the changes made during the build from the original building warrant and the air tightness test results. I think. (Please, dear reader, don’t take what I’m writing here as fact as I have spoken to so many different people who have said so many different things my head is swimming with alternative universes of EPC form filling)
So I call Matt the architect back. He has a colleague working in another practice who is registered and can do my EPC. And it will be valid for both building control and my Feed in Tariff. And apparently she can do it without visiting the house. I need to provide  all the updates to building control and the airtightness test. And, hugely importantly, she can do it in a week and cost-wise it was very reasonable. I am a happy woman.
So it seemed a good day in the main. Like watching a TV thriller and feeling the satisfaction of almost understanding how the plot fits together at the end. But not quite, and going to bed with a few puzzling questions that fit together in your head by morning. (That’s a very generous way of looking at the process of getting an EPC anyway…)

So after a long day at the build and a long drive back in the dark and a day on the phone working out my EPCs and all the other paperwork (amendment to building warrant, Renewable Heat Incentive etc)  I was chatting with Husband over dinner and a few medicinal glasses of wine.

He asked how things were going at the house.
‘Well. Ok I suppose. But I’m having some EPC difficulties.
Husband looked mildly puzzled.
‘So….. What exactly do you mean when you say EPC?’ he asked
I began to explain the blaringly obvious in painful detail when it dawned on me that EPC is common parlance to behavioral ecologists, but one that I’d totally forgotten in the years since my PhD. It stands for Extra Pair Copulation
I have to admit that I don’t think I stopped laughing until well into the next day, such is my juvenile sense of humour.  I suppose it’s only fortunate I wasn’t thinking of my biologist past during my day of sorting my EPC difficulties or I may well have not been able to hold it together on all those serious and important phone calls.


Hearth-ache (n.) /hɑːθ eɪk/

The pain and stresses of trying to work out where to place your stove and constructional hearth in order to comply with impenetrable building standards documents and reams of technical sheets from the stove company.
Matt the architect was effecting a very successful poker-voice on the phone. But I just know he was thinking ‘I told you so’. He might not have said it out loud but I know if I was him I would be singing raucously to myself ‘I told you so i told you so ITOLDYOUSO!’. Fortunately for me, given the misadventures on this project, every professional involved with this project has remained entirely discrete on matters of how they think things are going, and Matt is fortunately of that ilk.
This conversation was an attempt to discover a miracle substance I could use to make my constructional hearth. It had to be an insulator, have a really high compressive strength and also be non-combustible.  The internet couldn’t provide me with many ideas. The stove company suggested a mixture of perlite and concrete. But I couldn’t find any figures on how insulating this would actually be.

The first decision, of course,  is whether you actually need a constructional hearth in the first place. This depends on the stove, and the temperature that the area under the stove will reach. The stove manufacturer will indicate whether you need a constructional hearth and, for our inset stove, we did. More about choosing the stove here.

And the reason that I would have been chanting ‘told-you-so!’ At top volume if I were Matt?  Well it was because in his original designs the concrete floor was laid on top of the insulation. This would have meant that the constructional hearth (at least 250mm  non combustible material under the stove) would have had insulation underneath. And cold bridging would not be a problem.
Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 21.58.39
With the insulation and concrete reversed (for the very sensible and pragmatic reason that it was recommended by the builder and it made it considerably easier to get the house built) it was a bit more of a challenge.  What I needed was a material that could form part of the constructional hearth but was also an insulator.
Fortunately Matt had an idea – try Foamglas he said. I called the very helpful chap at Foamglas who talked me through the various types and what would be best for my situation.
We decided to get 100 deep Foamglas to maximize the insulation (it has roughly half the lamda value of kingspan) and then allow the screed to fill in the space so it was 80mm thick. A 50mm concrete slab on top of that would give the belt and braces for building control of at least 125mm concrete under the stove.
I bought a box of Foamglas sheets and also a box of Foamglas perinsul- to go under the masonary wall that was to go at the back of the stove. Peninsul has a really really high compressive strength so can go under even load-bearing walls.
foam glas
An engineer friend was kind enough to do some calculations for me on the back of the envelope and, although he said that Foamglas sheets with a compressive strength of xx would be plenty strong enough to support a masonry wall and certainly the stove, it would be sensible to use the perinsul with a compressive strength of 3200 for under the masonry wall.

The size of the constructional hearth and the superimposed hearth was the other puzzle. The question of using the manufacturers instructions (generally German building standards for a German stove) or Scottish Building Standards. And to confuse event further, the area of the superimposed hearth is not the same as the area and position of the constructional hearth.


I could write reams of utterly boring blurb on calculating the size of the various hearths so I’ll spare you that (there a bit more in this blog). But I’ll tell you that I did read the building standards documents, and the stove technical documents, to within an inch of their lives (I even had to call the German offices of the stove manufacturer to get the answer to a couple of my questions that the stove retailer couldn’t answer) and eventually managed to get my head around them.


In the end I had a plan. It was all a bit time-dependent, as usual, as Builder#1 was about to put the underfloor heating and screed floor in.  But, of course, nothing is simple when you are piecing together lots of different builders to do different bits of the build. Builder#3 was to put in the masonry wall that would be behind the stove and mortar down the Foamglas before the floor came in. I called him a few times just to be sure it was all go.


I arrived on site one Monday morning at the very moment that the insulation was going down with a membrane on top, ready for the screed coming in the next day. The first thing I noticed was that the masonry wall was in, with the Foamglas Perinsul underneath, but the Foamglas for the hearth wasn’t there and the Kingspan insulation had already been laid down.  The plastic sheet was just being laid down and stapled up the walls ready for the underfloor heating and the screed to come in.


Fortunately it was just in time and they took a saw to the Kingspan and the Foamglas and put it in (phew). The screed came in over the top and then a 50mm concrete slab cut to size went directly under the stove.


That was bit was not without mishap (what isn’t) but it all went in well and now the stove is in and fits and I am glad I went through all the Hearth-ache of working it all out. If anyone else wants to put in a constructional Hearth, I’m your woman to ask…..well perhaps not.


Here’s the definitive blog on the stove

Fired Up, then Burned Out: the excitement and exhaustion of choosing a stove

It was supposed to be a masonry stove. Being married to a Swiss I’ve spent quite some time in Swiss houses, old and new, that are heated by tiled or plastered masonry stoves. tiled stoveIn a tiny and ancient log cabin built by the cow-herds taking their cows to high pasture on the alps, a half-way overnight stop in a meadow in the forest, there was a small tiled stove with a bench to warm your bottom on. In a new house built by parents of our friends, a masonry stove bisected the space in the corner of two rooms and a corridor. Logs were loaded from a door in the corridor, burnt short and hot morning and night, and the heat circulated through a maze of masonry within the walls of the stove kept the house warm all day and night. brick oven

Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a masonry stove? A thermal mass in the middle of your home warming from the heart, somewhere warm to snuggle against? So we found a spot right in the middle of the house for the stove and I started on some research. Getting a masonry stove in the UK is evidently rather more challenging than in Switzerland where it is quite standard. I spoke to a couple of people who make stoves, but getting plans for something that would be likely to make it through building control seemed a distant prospect. The process of building control already seemed to be dragging on practically for ever, with waiting for Scotframe to get back to us. I decided to just put in for building control with a basic stand-alone stove made of soapstone so we could at least get started on the building. Then I started looking at alternatives that would give us a stove set into the wall.

I started looking at stoves. An issue was that the space allocated to the stove was quite restrictive and I needed to find a stove that was relatively slim and also and also had the possibility of the flue coming out of the side, so we could keep the flue run going through the cupboard in the upstairs bathroom which had been allocated to it.


It was a bit of an ask but I discovered Spartherm stoves were what I was looking for as they had a heat storage device called a Helix, for taking heat out of the hot flue gasses and storing it. This also meant that the flue could come out of the side of the helix so it would fit into the space allocated for it. I started with a local stove company, The Scottish Stove Company in Croftamie. I needed help on working out the constructional hearth and distances between the stove and the flue as my head was just about popping off with all the complicated guidance and figures. Trying to find out the distance between the centre of the stove and the centre of the flue when attached to the helix was a feat of determination. The distances weren’t on the technical documents for the stove or the helix and, even when I called up the company in Germany (nearly having to enlist the husband to speak German) they couldn’t locate the measurement I was looking for.

IMG_8992So despite me calling the Scottish Stove Company numerous times and popping in a couple, they weren’t really able to answer my questions so I shifted to Kinross Stove company who had the option of an engineer to come out to site which was helpful. I was, by now, at the stage of the build where I had gone from trusting, unquestioning ‘they are all professionals and know what they are doing’ to a position of blossoming control freakery. When I received the diagram from the stove engineer I sent it back twice due to mistakes (firstly a misprint in one of the measurements, and secondly because the sketch assumed we would have the superimposed and the constructional hearth the same sizes, when I had asked for the minimum size of each). I then discovered, when getting Jamie the MVHR fitter to move his pipework slightly to make way for the stove flue, that the stove engineer hadn’t allowed for one of the rafters in the roof SIP panels that was square in the way of the flue run. The flue needed to be at least 50mm from this rafter.


Jamie and I spent a while marking out on the floor the various constraints on where the flue could go: Masonry wall at back, joist at front, rafter in roof to north and extent of cupboard containing the flue to the south. It left a tolerance of 20mm at each side of the flue for where it could go. I went back to the stove technical details, it seemed that it would fit, but I wouldn’t be sure until the stove arrived.


Marked out on the floor – the hatched area is the flexibility for the stove flueIMG_0706
And look! It miraculously fits

When the stove arrived it was massive. It came with two massive guys; Matt from Poland and Verek from the Czeck Republic. They were among the most efficient, practical, polite and effective people I have ever encountered. They’d solved the problem of how to get the hefty stove into the house round the piles of plasterboard on the floor in 10 seconds flat and before I’d even noticed, it was in the house.


I buzzed about them measuring and getting in the way, the amount of thought that had gone into the position of the stove was mind-bloggling so I was determined it went in the right place. The flue didn’t quite fit through the allocated space so Verek got out his angle grinder. Sparks flew.

By the time I had left the flue was through the ceiling and exactly in the position allocated to it (phew!).

The air supply was also attached successfully, to my great relief. While we were doing the foundations the position of the air supply for the stove was a bit of an after thought. The house is very well sealed and has a Mechanical Ventilation Heat Recovery system for ventilation so the stove needs to have its own air supply. The stove burns in its own column of air, sealed from the rest of the house, coming in by pipe under the foundations and going out of the flue. It was almost the last thing that Stuart needed when making the foundations – the question of where the air supply should come out. Eventually it was decided and we sent the plan. But Stuart mistook the position of the flue for where the air supply should come out and it was something I’d been a little worried about ever since. It turned out that, for the stove chosen, this was actually a far more suitable spot for the air supply than the one we’d specified.Untitled

The installation went so smoothly and Matt and Verek were brilliant. I had emphasised the importance of sealing up the envelope of the house once the flue went in and it worked perfectly with coordinating with the slater who fitted the flashings and they sealed up all potential for air coming into the house from the outside world.

Altogether, despite the sheer torture and mind-churning preparations and planning I did for the stove, the installation turned out to be calm and smooth-running, apparently free of mishaps.  My recommendation to the Kinross Stove Company? Get Matt and Verek to advise on which stoves to fit and sizes and stuff before they arrive to save people like me’s head exploding messily as they try and work it all out from building control manuals and inadequately dimensioned technical drawings.
IMG_0702 IMG_0703 IMG_0704 IMG_1270

Builders and Building Blog (part 3)

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.

IMG_0456For 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.

pied wagtail eggs in house

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.

pied wagtail chicks in a house

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

IMG_0743But 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.

The scaffolding came down last week showing a beautiful sight. Stephen himself seemed really pleased with the result. It really did look lovely.IMG_1249


Building and Builders Blog (part 2)

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.

IMG_9827-0.jpgStephen 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.

IMG_9913-0.jpgWe 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.

Next episode – link

IMG_0447 IMG_0450

Builders and Building Blog (part 1)

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.

IMG_7733The 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.

IMG_7794So 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.

IMG_7737I had to look elsewhere for the cladding.

Next episode


We have that phone line at Last – but what about everyone else?

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.

photo by Stephen Campbell

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.

Stood up again

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.


(Not) Building the shed

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

Joy and Cladding 

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

and meanwhile….IMG_1203Important note: It was mainly spreadsheets and powerpoint inside, with a wee bit of  flip-charts on the beach

Holiday Horrors

Look. Here’s how it is.

It’s builder holiday season at the moment. Both Builder#3 and Builder#4 have jetted off to the other side of the Atlantic for weeks (not together I assure you) and things are not too good.
Before Builder#3 left he completed everything on the list encompassing (broadly) the outside of the house: the wood cladding, the building the porch and the base for the heat pump as well as the and fire boarding. Everything was hunky dory. Happy me.
Builder#4, on the other hand, was supposed to have finished the plaster-boarding and taping and even the painting before he went on a week holiday in mid September. He always had a schedule he would cite at me when I grew anxious that he wasn’t making progress.  He sounded convincing even though forward motion seemed to be painfully slow.  It certainly didn’t help that he didn’t seem to be up at the build much – mainly 2 and a half day weeks towards the end, and the occasional 3 and a half day week. He took to coming to the build on a Tuesday during a critical period in September, when Mondays are the only days I can get up to the house. After two weeks like this I switched my working week around to coincide with him on site. I didn’t get much communication about how things were going. I got thumbs up emojis when I asked for information.
He came back from his week of holiday with only two weeks before another holiday, this time of two weeks. Yes he would get things done. I stressed the urgency: I had a week booked off work, which I need to do months in advance otherwise my diary fills up with back-to-back meetings that can’t be moved. We’d planned to be away on holiday as a family that week but I decided to stay to get things done and spend the week up at the house while the family frolic in mountain meadows in Switzerland eating fondue and drinking süsse, a sweet and slightly fizzy, lightly fermented grape juice.   I had arranged for lots of things to happen that week; flooring and bathrooms and lighting and kitchen and etc etc.  it would distract me from the fondue and the süsse, and besides, the house needs to get done.
I unfortunately couldn’t make it to the build on the Monday in the middle of those vital two weeks to check progress. I sent anxious texts and I called, never getting through.
He was going to be done by the Friday and would go on holiday on the Tuesday the following week, however as the time approached he said he’d be up on the Monday to finish things.  That didn’t sound good. My final text on the Thursday saying ‘Is all on track to completion by Monday? am getting a little anxious about it.’ Was replied with a ‘All is good’
When I arrived at the build on the Monday I was shocked with how little progress had been made. And when I mean shocked, I mean pretty much bowled over, knocked for six, whacked in the face by a cricket-ball.  We were miles and miles off being ready. And time had run out.  I walked around the house, and then I walked down to the sea. Sitting on the shingle as the sparkling waves drew my eye out into the bay, I watched the strings of gulls spanning the grey-blue water to Balnagowan like white bunting. I thought about all the many things I have to be grateful for, I thought of other things; anything else. But there were things to sort out and so soon I was crash-landing back into the painful reality of the present.
I went back to the house. We had a chat: we went through the outstanding list of work, which was rather long. He had lost people who had agreed to help with the build and was effectively operating as a one-man -band. He agreed it would be hard for him to finish it alone. I would look for someone to take over the work.  He started packing up straight after lunch and was gone by 3pm. I immediately called Builder#3, could he help? He possibly may be able to, but as I knew already, he was going on holiday too, and for nearly three weeks.
So this coming week I have various things booked to happen. I will cancel them. Builder#3, despite being on holiday, sent his guys in to look at the extent of the work still to do. But it’s hard to escape the reality that he’s away on holiday and that, if I were on holiday, I would be feeling pleasantly detached from the woes of someone else’s house build.
And my holiday? Well I was feeling a bit miserable about that. No holiday, and having to cancel things at the build. I arranged a bothy adventure with a friend who has a mission of visiting and photographing every bothy in Scotland (see his blog and wonderful photos). And also, so as not to exaggerate the enjoyable qualities of my holiday without the kids, I arranged a massive decluttering of our house facilitated by someone I know who runs a cleaning company. It turns out, that when she’s in her professional capacity, she is a terrifying TV-Style decluttering dominatrix (and hopefully just who I need to sort out my hoarding problems). But it’s going to be painful.
Well that was the plan until we got out the passports for travel and discovered that younger daughter’s passport expired in July. And, although you can get an adult passport in 24 hours, it takes a week to renew a child’s passport.
So perhaps two disasters can work together for good….. I get to spend the holiday with the family.
However, if positivity starts to blossom, I should remember that I still have that decluttering booked. And I still have those wake-in-the-night-in-a-cold-sweat, everything’s on hold, plaster-boarding worries to sort out.

The Openreach emails….

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)

Hi Kevin
How did things go yesterday? The electrician says he saw you on site.

What is the next stage?

17 August 2015

Hi Kevin
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

Hi Kevin
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

Dear Kat

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

Dear Angus

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.

Portaloo Humour

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.  


A bivvy in the Hidden Valley

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. 


Airtightness nerdery and yet another disaster. 

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)

Bathroom showrooms of despair

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. image1-1

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)

IMG_0456 IMG_0458

A tale of four Builders. 

And now – a few blogs that have been sitting in my drafts for a while.  To begin, here’s one from August…

A quick guide to my builders ….

Builder #1 did the groundworks: foundations, drainage septic tank and is coming to do the landscaping and final stuff from drive etc. he also arranged the slater plumber electrician and underfloor heating and screed for me.

Builder #2 is Scotframe’s contractor for putting up the timber kits

Builder #3 has done the cladding and porches, firebox and a few other things

Builder #4 was doing plasterboarding and stairs…. (postscript: and now Builder3 is doing plaster boarding and stairs and everything else…)

‘It really isn’t how I would recommend building a house’ I said to the other customer in the builder’s office, ‘ in fact I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy’.

The other customer had come in to ask Builder 3 for a quote for building a whole house, but his wife was just looking for the kitchen. Builder 3 had looked round at me and asked whether I’d recommend piecing together lots of different builders and trades to build a house. Ho Ho, how we all laughed …. (in that way that you’d better laugh or you just might cry)

I was there in Builder 3’s office to discuss a few things. His company is doing the cladding of the house, the only person who could actually do the work in the timescale needed after Builder 2 let me down. And he’s also building the porches. So we had a bit of planning to do for that, but I also needed to discuss the fire boarding around the wood burning stove – which is inset into the wall. His company isn’t doing that piece of work. For reasons I am puzzling over, I gave that job, and the internal plaster boarding stairs etc, to another builder.

Builder 3 had already demonstrated a great interest in the stove type and set-up and had put a similar one into his own house, Builder 3 had done a great job of moving all the windows into the place they should have been in the frames (after a mess up by builder 2 – which Builder3 had noticed when he came to visit), Builder 3 had demonstrated his attention to detail in spades, And had gone beyond the call of duty in helping get the electricity supply in – although, come to think of it, that would have been a total disaster had Builder 1 not stepped in (but that’s another story related to me not double checking there was going to be someone site that day and then being in meetings all day unable to take calls…). So why would I switch to yet another builder?

Well, as I have mentioned before, builders seem quite busy around the area at the moment. There is so much building going on, it has been hard, in the rather ad hoc and ill-advised way I am building the house, to get people when I need them. And when someone is the only person quoting for a job, they know they are the only person quoting for a job, and you know as little about building as a house as I do, there is always the niggling worry that l would end up spending extra money (and I’m already haemorrhaging money like a bankrobber’s escape vehicle with the doors left open). So I had an idea. A friend’s partner is a builder, he lives in East Scotland, but perhaps he will look at the quote and tell me if it is roughly right.


So Builder 4 looked at the quote. He asked me a few questions, visited the house and said he’d do it and gave me a better quote. He would be living on site with the team, working long days, he said, and would get it done quicker. I was almost swayed. I didn’t ask if he knew what to do about the stove (despite the vast numbers of hours I had spent reading and researching about the right kind of stove and the stupendous complexities there appear to be). But the final thought was that I’d been finding it rather hard to pursued Builder 3 to make the hearth in the way I wanted it.


As previously reported, the ‘hearth-ache’  of trying to calculate where the hearth needs to go to satisfy building standards, limits over coridor widths, and to make an insulating constructional hearth, has been quite trying. On the day the stove was arriving I didn’t quite trust that the slab for the stove, which would mean we would have 125mm concrete under the stove, would be there and so I stopped into B&Q at 7am to buy an emergency back-up concrete paving slab and a few backup backup concrete paving slabs. While I was sitting by the sea (it being the only place with mobile phone coverage) and waiting for the lost stove guys to call (“I’m up a track at a locked gate and I can see some sheep and a mountain, do you know where I am?”), Builder 3 turned up in his van with the concrete slab I had asked for. It fitted perfectly. I decided not to mention all the emergency slabs in the back of my car.

So without properly thinking about it, and throwing intuition to the winds, I went with Builder 4, and ditched Builder 3. Although we’d all have to play happy families as Builder 3 would be working on the outside cladding and porches and Builder 4 on the inside. Fortunately that seemed to work OK, except Builder 4 would go home every time he perceived there would be some clash – e.g. moving the scaffolding – or if he was waiting on some work done by someone else (but omit to tell me or them what was needed). And even when there were no mitigating circumstances he would only be up on site for three days in a week (sometimes four).


It also became clear that there was a big question mark over how to sort out the stove. He wanted me to tell him how to do it and given my brain had already practically exploded trying to work out the constructional hearth stuff I wasn’t really in a fit state to work out the firebox stuff. When I said that Builder 4 had explained to me how to do it but I couldn’t quite gather the stoic determination to recall what he had said. He said, why don’t you get Builder 3 to do the work then?

Fortunately Builder 3, despite having being dumped for the new builder, was generously willing to help advise on various things, including the stove, which is why I happened to be in his office that morning lamenting my hopelessly naive way to build a house, and getting his advice on how to build the ruddy thing.


With the clarity of hindsight, see  blog, it is very apparent that taking up with Builder4 was the worst decision I made during the build. Probably even worse than  the decision to build the house in the first place.

Eventually I decide to bite the bullet and do something about it. I call builder3. ‘Look this is awkward’ I say, ‘but you know I dumped you for another builder? And it’s not quite working out with him, and I was wondering how you’d feel if I asked you to do some more work.’

Fortunately builder3 has a sense of humour.

So that’s Builders#3 and #4 covered. So what happened to Builders#1 and #2 then?


Well I would have loved for Builder#1 to do the whole build. Nothing is a problem for Builder#1. Need foundations finished by a certain date in the most torrential rain and horrific conditions? Don’t worry it will be done on time. Need someone on site to meet the man from building control at short notice? No problem, even though he’s not really involved with the build any more. Need someone to bring a telehandler to site to unload the plasterboard delivery? He’s there. Electricity company turn up on site to install a cable (next available date in 6 weeks) and no-one’s on site? Don’t worry, he’ll magically show up and get it sorted.


Until recently, ‘Ah, yes’ and ‘that will be fine’ were pretty much the only things that Builder 1 said to me. Occasionally, he would make suggestions on changing some part of the architects spec. But largely it was left up to me to warble away naively about stuff I know nothing about (namely building a house) in the silences. He’d agreed to doing the foundations, as he was working on the neighbouring plot at the time, but they had too many jobs on to take the build any further. From time to time I’d plead with him to come back to the building site, but to no avail. But despite not being able to take on the big jobs, he has been happy to help along the way, arranging the slating, plumbing and electricity and the underfloor heating and flow-screed.

And Builder#2? Well suffice to say he’s not being invited to the house warming party.

Openreach saga update: part 3

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 of destiny

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.   

This build may have been about problem after problem after problem but this was a case where all that planning and drawing sketch after sketch appears to have paid off. 


The stove was the right size and the flue fitted through the ridiculously small allowance for it. 

  here’s all my calculations on the floor to show where the flue needs to go


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.  

Our stove fitters were up a track by a locked gate ‘in the middle of no-where’. But eventually they arrived on site and proceeded to be unbeleivably efficient. 


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. 

Openreach Saga part 2

I had only posted my letter to the CEO of BT Openreach on Tuesday morning (and to my blog Monday evening). But later that same morninI received a phone call from an engineer in the Galaheilds office. He had heard I needed a line installed and was passing by when in Fort William the next day and would pop in to see the site. 

He didn’t have any information about the request as my apparent order number didn’t seem to be on his system. But he’d come out nonetheless. I got his email address and phone number (a massive step forward) and hope started to grow in my heart. 

I was somewhat flummoxed. How on earth could my letter (not yet picked up from the post box, and my blog (tweeted to my modest Twitter following ) receive such an immediate response? I called Stephen the builder who I’d called previously to see whether he had the local number ‘Oh you’ll never get that number’ but he’d also said he knew one of the local engineers and would check with him what was going on.  He hadn’t yet spoken to his contact, so he wasn’t responsible for the miraculous movement. 
  Ten minutes later I found out when the next door neighbour (also a self build) called me to ask about how I was getting on with openreach. Her son had seen the blog and she had called Openreach’s emergency line before 8am to ask that the line they have been waiting on for months got installed at the same time. 
It had an immediate effect. Men on the ground in 24 hours. They arrived, and our very dedicated electrician was there to receive him on, what proved to be, a flying visit. He dropped some cable and was gone. 
I emailed the engineer and heard nothing. When I checked my emails I had received a posting on my blog from Anon (email …?!) but posted from a BT server with this website 
Appearing to give the magic number I was supposed to be calling. For Scotland this number happens to be  0800 141 2650 I called it. Held on until a recorded voice clicked on it told me the number was for builders and developers only – well includes self-builders too… So I held on past a few more rings. Then the voice clicked on again. 
‘The person you are calling cannot take your call right now and there is no voicemail.’
To be continued….

BT Openreach AGAIN!

installing a simple BT line to a new property? Hellish.

Letter to their CEO sent today and also emailed to high level complaints

Thanks to 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 StreetLondon, WC1H 9NP 

Dear Mr Garner

Order Number HMNAAZZ04502760469[1]

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. 



Yours sincerely 


Day 3 – Going home

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.

Ailsa Craig – evening day 2

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 

Ailsa Craig – Morning Day 2

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.



Ailsa Craig – Day one

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 

 I am on Ailsa Craig as party of an RSPB Scotland group surveying the islands bird, plant and invertebrate life. We make camp in the midst of the industrial decay then set off for our first task. 

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.   



Solitary un-confinement 

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. 

Action stations. 

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.  

  Then as soon as that was done, the plastic sheet went down and insulation around the edge of that. Blink and you’d miss it at the rate they worked. 

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. 

  Here’s the poor guy sawing up the insulation to make room for the Foamglas insulation

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. 

By the time I left, the underfloor heating was being laid 
Plan is, the Glen Almond screed comes in over the underfloor heating and also over  the Foamglas to form the constructional hearth. 

That’s the plan. 

It’s happening on Thursday so I am trying not to be stressed and just let it happen. 

Monday starts the plumbing electricity the MVHR and the cladding.    Unless there is a crisis in the meantime that is. 

It’s Electrifying!

‘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. 

  Plumbing and electrics comes in a week in Monday. This means that all the things I never thought of and didn’t know about are coming up to bite me. 

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. 

Ending the Radio silence – I hope….

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.

IMG_9940Just 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.

IMG_8911 IMG_8910 IMG_8906 IMG_8905 IMG_8903 IMG_8902 IMG_8901

The mystery of the missing metalwork

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.

A piece looking just like this.

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.

IMG_9775Theres 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

The agonies and the ecstasies

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 of the build so-far

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.


Timber kit day 3-4: in which things go pear shaped again ….

IMG_9210-0.PNGHeavy 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.





Timber kit build day two: in which things start to look up!

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.

build day 2 - panel 3

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.

curl bay - snow and cows

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.

the black mount from ranch moor

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.

self build cuil bay

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.

skiing at Glencoe



The Timber kit arrives

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.

Things seemed bleak. I popped into the coop and bought a bottle of single malt, and a few bottles of wine.

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.

Dawn broke hopefully; calm and cold. No snow thankfully and the sun was even trying to come out when I arrived at the site at 730am.

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.

Next difficulty was getting the articulated lorries in and out. Three of them.

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…)




Things really are going to Hell in a Handcart now….

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….

Six Skills for Scottish Skiing

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.

4. River crossing:
Skis in one hand Poles in the other. Hop from snow covered rock to icy boulder. Simple.

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’.”



The Erection is in sight

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 NEED a crane

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


How many engineers does one project really need?

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.
IMG_8114.JPGLook here the foundation walls as we have them

IMG_8774.PNG…and here’s the Scotframe Diagram the builder was working to …. Identical

….and here’s the final ‘thank-goodness-it-wasn’t’ Engineer’s diagram that arrived on Friday

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.



Self-Build Insurance

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?’

The foundations go in

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.

IMG_6696.JPGMid 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.

IMG_6903.JPG July: still no progress but a lovely few days at Cuil Bay in the holidays


IMG_7665.JPG Start of September and the work starts. What was once a bog turns out to be a perfect building plot with bedrock right near the surface. Except in this corner which needed some concrete.


IMG_7733.JPG End of September we visit and it starts to feel like we are getting somewhere.


IMG_8115.JPG End October the screed has gone in and the walls complete and that is where it has stayed. Anytime now the concrete slab will go in, in preparation for the frame arriving!

The Real Enchanted Forest

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.

IMG_8016.JPGOur 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.

IMG_8018.JPGWe 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.

IMG_7980.JPGWe 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?


We LOVE the Highland Folk Museum

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.

It is also an outdoor museum and laid out on a site a mile long with significant buildings, from curling hut and tailors, to railway halt and farmhouse reconstructed and relocated at the site.

There’s simply too much to properly fit into a day and so here are our top suggestions of things to see

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.

3. The curling hut in the woods
I’ve got a soft spot for curling huts (we happen to live opposite one in Glasgow) The woods are great for a picnic too – all Scots pines and blaeberry beneath.

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…)

IMG_7939.JPGAgainst the council of the weaver we went to speak to the redcoat and regretted it when he tried to join the kids up to the kings army.

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.



A fine day out at Blair Castle

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.

IMG_7901.JPGAnother 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.IMG_7905.JPG
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. IMG_8007.JPGThe 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.

IMG_7902.JPGWe 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.

IMG_7911.JPGOn 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.

The Water Mill is a 400 year-old working mill, bakery and cafe with delicious cakes and scones, lunches and homemade bread.


Autumnal Trees and Leaping Salmon at the Hermitage

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.

IMG_7883.JPGAnd, 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.

IMG_8006.JPGThe 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.

IMG_7878.JPGAnd 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.


The Battle for Victoria Park

20141010-233116-84676947.jpgGlasgow 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.


We’re building!

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!!
20141006-151830-55110223.jpgthe 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. 20141006-152239-55359121.jpg 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.



Canna, Gaelic birdcalls and a lost car key

20140901-215643-79003568.jpgWell 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.20140901-214240-78160454.jpg
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.

20140901-224152-81712946.jpgAs 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….)

Missing Glasgow and a Swiss debate on Independence

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.

20140728-001854-1134521.jpgFigure 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