“If we can’t get community empowerment, then who can?”

This is the content of my contribution to the hearing on the asset transfer to the Children’s Wood, a ground-breaking local greenspace and decades-long campaign to retain the space for the local community. After a long fight they are now on the cusp of receiving a 25-year lease for the land but have one final hurdle – to oppose a clause that allows the council to take back all or any part of the land to build an education facility.

It’s been four years since I spoke to the planning hearing on the development of flats on the site of the Children’s Wood and North Kelvin Meadow. Then I came to speak particularly on the biodiversity of the site and its importance in connecting people to nature.  I talked about its key importance as a place of inspiration for local people, children, teachers and future teachers, parents and grandparents, and, crucially, for other urban communities wishing to improve their own local environments.

Back then I worked for RSPB Scotland, particularly looking at how we can encourage precisely this community-led and community-empowered approach across other parts of the city to improve the quality of greenspace, community involvement, inclusion and outdoor learning. The Children’s Wood was an example of what could be achieved and RSPB saw could be used, not just across Glasgow, but across Scotland, and beyond to RSPB’s work across the UK.

This time I am here to speak to Question 2 on why the area is unique over and above the local playpark and the Kelvin walkway. And I this time I speak as someone working on climate change. I work on COP26 for Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, a coalition of 55 civil society organisations campaigning on climate change (which includes RSPB – as well as other conservation organisations, development charities, faith groups, trade unionists, student and community groups). 

I am here speaking in my own right, rather than on behalf of my organisation, but I see the links between what the Children’s Wood are doing, and the world that we need to make now, so that we can avert the worst of the climate crisis.

Glasgow has an extremely ambitious target to become climate neutral. 2030 is the date set by Glasgow City Council. That is only a little more than nine years away. If we are to achieve that target we need to start now. And this is where the Children’s Wood points us to the future.  The Scottish Government, in their recent programme for government, put an emphasis on creating “Twenty Minute neighbourhoods” where everything people need is within a twenty-minute walk.

If we are to reduce climate emissions in our city we need to look to creating more liveable places, places where people want to spend time and enhance people’s lives. The local community has created a multifunctional space used by all generations that hugely enhance the ‘livability’ of the local area. It provides place for exercise, socialising, growing food, volunteering, outdoor learning (both formal and informal), play, exploration, dog-walking, sport, arts, and ample opportunities to build community.  

The value of having quality flexible and multifunctional greenspace which is open to all was illustrated starkly by the coronavirus lockdown when people could not travel. The children’s wood and the North Kelvinside meadow came into their own, doing what they do best, being at the centre of the neighbourhood, reducing isolation, creating community.     

It is also an issue of inclusion – wild spaces and nature should not only be available for those who can travel out of the city, everyone should have access to these little pieces of wild close to where they live. And the vital importance of this can now be understood by us all – after the enforced months of lockdown where we could not travel.    

But the children’s wood isn’t just a place for leisure it’s a place for growing, growing both plants and people. And although we all support educational establishments, this is already an educational establishment. Schools and nurseries use it for formal learning and youth groups, clubs and families use it for informal learning.   

What schools and children get at the Meadow and Children’s Wood is not a closely managed piece of parkland or, Botanic Garden, it is somewhere wild, where children can dig for worms, build dens and find beetles in a rotten log.  They can climb a tree to get a birds-eye view and dig a hole to see what’s down there.  It is through these investigations that children develop a love and a connection to nature, and not through the formal play areas in our city parks.  What the Children’s Wood does especially well is that they have many organised activities and groups on site to help local people to engage with the nature of the site, which helps people from all backgrounds benefit.  

This place is not replaceable – once it is gone it’s gone

It was interesting to hear what the council had to say about outdoor learning provision – without very clearly acknowledging the work the community have done in exactly this area of work over many years. The council seem to be proposing to remake what is happening so successfully already at the wood, even to the level that they would propose putting in the same facilities – shelter, toilets-  that the community wish to put in, but for exclusive use, rather than as a shared resource and with far less involvement of the local community.

Most importantly this is an issue of ownership –  when I mean owned – I don’t mean in the sense of physically holding the paperwork after a monetary exchange, I mean in terms of an intimate sense of connection and responsibility. This is what is special about the Children’s wood, and is so different from other local greenspaces. Achieving a lease of the land is just the final step in this process of ownership. And this is why it is important to remove the clause – and to value the truly multifunctional aspects of this space, including education.

Even in the Dear Green Place, North Kelvin Meadow and The Children’s Wood stand out as special, because of what the local community have made of it.  

I see the Children’s Wood as a vision of what a sustainable Glasgow really looks like: and we need to learn from what has been achieved here and ask ourselves how we can make this the norm and not the exception and we shouldn’t be hobbling the community’s efforts through an unspecified, threatened clause that the land can be reclaimed by the council.

As they said themselves on twitter – “if we can’t get community empowerment, then who can?”

Just a little misap on a roundabout

The sun is shining and the patch of sky I could see through my window while working on the most dastardly home-admin tasks imaginable is a beautiful shade of blue. Just before I’d finished the critical tasks, the call of the outdoors became too strong and I determined to escape to my happy place, about 15 mins drive away, where the heather would be turning purple all along the winding edge of the Lang Craigs.

I called Tina and , on the spur of the moment, she joined me too and we set off along the great Western road, the sun blazing directly ahead. About 5 miles from home, in the middle of a roundabout on the A82’s dual carriageway section, our plans came to an abrupt halt.


With the screaming of metal on metal and the scorched smoke of burnt brakes we screeched to a stop in the middle of the roundabout in Drumchapel.

At first I thought it was another car that was making the noise and then, when it stopped and, after a moment, the horns started blaring all around me, I realised that it was me. The car was immobilised and no amount of revving the engine could persuade the car to move an inch forward or back.

I panicked and rang 999. “What service do you require” asked the woman at emergency HQ and that was when I realised I hadn’t even thought – “erm police please” I said and added in a stream of consciousness, “But there’s no danger to life here actually – I’m just sitting in a car in the middle of a roundabout”

I had just started to explain the situation and try to describe where I was when a police van came up behind us, put its lights on and pulled up just in front of my stranded car. “Wow that was quick” I said to the woman in emergency HQ “how did you know where I am?”

By this time Tina had managed evacuate the car safely and with Hugo the dog had trotted up to the van to explain the situation. I, meanwhile, had rung off the 999 call thanking them for their help.

It turned out that they weren’t the police at all “we just do the railways, we don’t do roads” said the man, who looked indistinguishable from a proper police man. They were passing on their way to some other incident.

The traffic had now slowed down to look at the spectacle and it was safe for me to clamber out of the car in the centre lane of the roundabout. The police van and its flashing lights had the opposite effect on some though who couldn’t help themselves revving their engine, hooting their horns and spinning their wheels as they passed – I imagined my teenager rolling her eyes and saying ”Glasgow Bams” in a weary tone of voice. Each of the policemen got into the car in turn and tried to move it. Unsurprisingly to me, it stayed exactly where it was.

I started calling my breakdown people. I knew I had some breakdown people, but couldn’t quite remember who they were. At one point their phone number had been written on a piece of paper and Sellotaped to the dashboard – or that might have been a previous car…. whatever…. It certainly wasn’t there now.

It was definitely something to do with my bank so I searched up ‘Bank of Scotland breakdown cover’ on the internet and called the first number I saw. After a while on hold, during which another set of police arrived, this time the bone fide police, and parked their miniscule car directly behind mine on the roundabout, and having given all my personal details to the call handler, almost down to the scale of my first pet, we established that I had called the RBS breakdown cover rather than Bank of Scotland. With obsequious apologies and thanks I rang off.

After a few minutes establishing that the first set of police had called the second set to deal with my problem then driven off, I called BoS breakdown and had a very similar conversation. No I didn’t know my membership number sorry, no I didn’t have my bank details handy sorry, I said apologetically just as a slew of cars jostled past hooting their horns. It wasn’t until I had opened up the banking app on my phone “I hope its OK if I put you on hold” (I’ve always wanted to say that to a call handler LOL! …) to look up my account details, that it dawned on me that my breakdown assistance was actually with the Coop bank and not BoS after all. By this time the police were losing their patience and they called the police pick up people just as I had managed to find the correct number to call.

We waited at the road side chatting about the joys of Glasgow policing of teenagers in parks – Balloch was on their beat and they related their tales of teens congregating in pandemic unfriendly hordes, while I wondered what my kids did on their regular trips to Balloch. Every now and again one of the police would get back in my car and just check to see whether it could be moved. It couldn’t. As we awaited the pickup vehicle one of the policemen retreated to the car to eat his dinner – the MacDonald’s that they had bought immediately before being summoned to my aid.

After 20 minutes there was no sign of the pickup vehicle but some further police had shown up – ah ha these were the roads police. They parked their large landrover thing in the middle of the roundabout along with the tiny police car and came over to get an update. We were just getting started when another of the screeching, wheel spinning, boy racers sped through the roundabout, revved past the two police cars and then stopped abruptly when a nearby pedestrian crossing light turned red and a family started crossing the road. “Aye-Aye?” exclaimed one of the roads police – “Let’s go” said the other as they waved the guy into the next layby and spent the next fifteen minutes booking him at length and in great detail (I presume).

After at least a further 20 minutes of waiting in which Tina got picked up, the rescue vehicle arrived with a driver that looked remarkably like the Anonymous mask man in matching top and bottoms fleecy fluorescent yellow suit (hood up). He was devastatingly efficient. The enormous truck was parked up, ramp extended and he was hammering plastic nylon wedges (sparks flying off the road) in under my back tyres all in a matter of seconds.

Next thing I knew, the car was on the rescue vehicle and I was issued with instructions – it would be at the depot just off the M74 at Polmadie, I would need to attend in person with cash to retrieve it. Hold on Hold on. – Aren’t we in a pandemic? – Aren’t you removing my means of transport to get to locations just off junctions of motorways? – Who on earth is taking cash only at times like this? – Look, can’t I pay you now by card or bank transfer (or even, for goodness sake, cash) and you just drop the car at my garage which just happens to be 4 miles along the road on your way back to the depot?

They were actually rather sympathetic and a lot of time was then spent on phone calls to ‘the boss’. The recovery guy tried first, then one of the policemen, then the recovery man again. No luck. My car was impounded. Can you at least give me a lift home (it’s also on the way). No can’t do that either.

So I’m left at a large roundabout between Drumchapel and Clydebank to make my way home. Look on the bright side Kat, it’s only 5 miles home. It could be worse – this could have happened on Rannoch Moor, and that would be a proper long walk home. But fortunately Tina very kindly came out to rescue me, and a very large glass of wine was waiting for me when I got home.

Of course that isn’t the end of the story because I’ve spent the whole day today intermittently phoning and then emailing the 911 Recovery centre in an attempt to work my way around the ‘come in person, come with cash’ rules. I sent photos of every document I own relating to the car, and my licence and insurance, and that seemed to go down Ok, and eventually they even sent me an invoice. By now the car had been in past 12pm and I had incurred a day of storage costs on top of my recovery costs. So it was a race against time to call the correct breakdown assistance company (it turned out to be RAC) and get the car collected before they shut at 4pm. That was when I hit the final and un-achievable hurdle. I could only get a pickup from RAC if I was there in person. I tried – but there was absolutely no way I could talk my way around this one. I had lost.

So tomorrow morning I will be heading off, again getting a lift from Tina, to Polmadie 911 depot to retrieve my car. Next time, perhaps it will be easier if I just stay away from cars and Tina and I just have a wee walk around Victoria Park …..

Isn’t the EU Marvellous? 

The very marvellous and wonderful EU has been funding an exchange programme for nature professionals in Scotland for over a decade and, this year, I have been fortunate enough to take part in a study visit to Finland. And here’s a blog of the experience …


 Arriving back in Glasgow in the same overcast drizzle as we left Tampere, and with an autumn chill in the air, I reflect on the similarities between Finland and Scotland. Certainly the weather had been very Scottish over the week of our visit – some rain, some sun, and a constant need to pack an extra layer just in case. The forests we saw, too, felt very similar to the remnant of Caledonian pine woodlands, with Scots pine and an understory of the familiar species: cowberry, crowberry, blueberry, the same mosses, and having the same timeless, almost sacred, atmosphere. On the days we visited the old growth forest national parks we could have been wandering in parts of Abernethy Forest, RSPB’s second largest reserve and one of Scotland’s largest fragments of Caledonian forest.

But it is the scale that is different. Whereas Abernethy covers 14,000 hectares, only around 4000 hectares of that is forest. And the Caledonian forests of Strathspey and Deeside represent an absolutely tiny fraction of the forest that once covered Scotland, with only one per cent of the original forest surviving. In Finland, however, the forests go on for hundreds of miles. To get to Seitseminen National Park we drove over an hour without a break in the forest at all. Finland is Europe’s most heavily forested country with forest covering three-quarters of the land area.

Most of Finland’s forests are managed for timber, whether owned by companies, individuals or the state and, in contrast with commercial forestry in Scotland, seems far more suited to native flora and fauna. Rather than dense forests of Sitka spruce with an understory shaded completely out and the chemistry of the soil changed by the needles, as we have in Scotland, the mix of Finnish native trees Norway spruce (Finnish spruce to the Finns), Scots pine and birch allows a natural fauna and flaura in the forests with natural understory trees and shrubs, berries and prodigious quantities of mushrooms.

“We have around 500,000 capercaillie in Finland ” said Tapio Vähä-Jaakkola, our host at a local hunting club, as our jaws dropped. My colleagues Chris and Molly from RSPB work on capercaillie and the population in Scotland is in a pretty sorry state, having dropped to around 2000, from an estimated 20,000 in the 1970s. Capercaillie populations are healthy enough for Finns to hunt tens of thousands of them a year. “Most of the capercaillie hunting takes place in Northern Finland”, Tapio said later. In the 10,000 hectares of forest controlled by the Metsästysseura Haukka Ry hunting club, they hadn’t shot capercaillie for many years “Last year we calculated that there were enough capercaillie for us to hunt two.” Behind him on the wood panelled walls of the Lodge a stuffed capercaillie hung by one leg, perhaps one of these two unfortunates.


photo by Claire Glaister

As we explored, we tried to see the differences from the point of view of a capercaillie. Apart from the scale of the woodlands, there was also a vast amount of blaeberry, capercaillie’s preferred food and almost no heather, which tends to outcompete blaeberry in the Scottish context. With only small patches of open ground and raised bogs where heather could grow it seemed that it couldn’t make headway in the forest, unlike in Scotland’s natural and semi-natural Caledonian pine woods where moorland generally surrounds the much smaller woodlands. RSPBs research has also shown that capercaillie chicks are vulnerable to chilling if there is a wet June when they are moving through vegetation, especially if disturbed, and Finland has a much dryer climate. The heavy declines of capercaillie in the 1970s and 80s in Scotland are attributed to the rise of the deer fence and, apart the motorways, which were flanked with deer fencing, we didn’t see deer fences, even where farmland abutted right next to forest.  


part of the raised bog boardwalk at Seitsemnien National Park

Everywhere we went, we met people who worked in forests or had deep connections to the forest. Of course our hosts, the three students Wille, Jussi and Kati, were studying forestry at the University of Tampere, but most of the people we had a chance to make conversation with also had their own forests. 

We had the privilege of visiting the small patch of forest that Wille’s father, Juhani Soininen, owned to talk about hunting the white-tailed deer (and to taste a particularly succulent slow roasted haunch). This species is native to North American and is a relatively recent invader, five individuals having been brought to Tampere by Finnish hunters in the 1930s. Since then they have multiplied into a population of over 100,000. Kati, another of our student hosts had spent the summer working in her family forest of 100 hectares close to where she grew up. 


Juhani Soininen offers round his plate of roasted venison

One of the most interesting conversations about forestry we had was with the owner of the house we were staying in. Tapio Rautaneva, his eye glinting, revealed that his father was one of the men who had brought the very first five white-tailed deer to Tampere, “He’s got a lot of answer for”, he said. He had also worked with UPM as a senior landscape architect tasked with making the forestry more biodiverse, while also keeping the commercial side healthy. He recommended felling in small units of 1-2 hectares and letting natural regeneration happen which turned out cheaper that clear felling large areas and also is far better for wildlife. He told us of felling done in the 1960s where thousands and thousands of hectares of forest in Lapland was clear felled. “There still isn’t any forest there even today” he said. 


When Tapio left the forest industry twenty years ago, frustrated at not being able to persuade the other forest companies to also do more for biodiversity in the forests, he took 100 trees from his own forest and built the very house that we were renting for the week, milling all wood on site to make everything, from beams and structural wood, to cladding and panelling. “I didn’t build the stair case though,” he said as we admired the handiwork, “that was done by a friend who is an expert in that”.

a fire pit area in Helvetinjärvie National Park. Wood is provided for the fire


Everywhere we went and whoever we spoke to, we found people with an intimate connection with their forests. Our guide at Helvetinjärvi National Park, Reine Kallio, explained how the forest holds a special place for Finns, and that they come to the forest alone to think and to spend time. When he was fifteen he had headed off into the forest for two weeks alone. We met a group of hunters going out together into the forest to practice for a championship for pointing dogs, with three beautiful blue Picardy spaniels and two Hungarian vizlas. They are out in the woods every weekend and some evenings, and it seems to be a very sociable experience. As we left the hunting lodge to head away we saw a family with two small children arrive and head off into the forest: the children wearing bright coloured waterproofs and clutching baskets for collecting mushrooms and berries. 

Our time at the hunting lodge demonstrated another commonality between Scotland and Finland, which is the need to control the numbers of herbivores. Despite Finland still having wolves, and lynx, species that were lost to Scotland in the seventeenth century, and over a thousand years ago respectively, these species are heavily controlled to avoid conflicts with people. “Wolves kill many hunting dogs” said Tapio, which people don’t like. We later learned that hunters in Finland use dachshunds (their legs being so short that they can never run fast enough to catch the deer) to find and herd the deer towards hunters, they will be out in the forest alone and the barking attracts the wolves that will sometimes kill them. “At present we have 300 wolves in Finland and if we were to naturally control the numbers of moose without hunting we would need 10,000” explained Tapio, “and wolves are kept out of the reindeer herding and farming regions of Finland entirely.”

  The combination of commercial forestry, the use of naturally regenerating forest when it is felled in small sections, and the low levels of predators, means that there needs to be a large number of white- tailed deer and moose shot each year. Traffic accidents are an issue too with 5200 traffic accidents related to white-tailed deer in 2017. Unlike Scotland, however, there are no full time paid stalkers in the country. This role is fulfilled entirely by individuals, like Wille’s father attracting deer to a clearing on his land using apples and oats, and shooting them from a hide, and by the hunting clubs. For example, the club we visited that has 10,000 hectares of forest to shoot in, had 150 active members and a target of 1000 white tailed deer for the year.
The membership of the club seemed healthy, but Tapio told us that there were more middle aged and older hunters now, with fewer young people getting involved. He speculated that there will be a need for full-time paid hunters in the future if the trend continues. 

Finland has a very interesting history, some of which we gleaned through visits to the Museum in Tampere and the Serlachius museums in Mänttä. They are proudly independent, having gained their independence in 1917 after more than a hundred years of being part of Russia and previous to that being part of Sweden. 

Our guide at the Gösta Serlachius Museum of Art, was very interested in comparisons of  Scotland with Finland and asked what we thought about Scottish independence (a question we dodged in the interests of group harmony). He told us a little of the story of Finnish independence through the art at the museum. “Finnish artists painted independence at a time when it would not have been permitted to write about it” he explained showing us a picture called ‘Finnish Soldiers in the War of 1808 – 1809’ by Albert Edelfelt, which depicts two young soldiers marching. He explained that the picture was interpreted as speaking about an independent Finland. 

Another painting that could have been painted in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, was also depicting Finnish independence, he said. The light was returning to the land as the clouds cleared to the right of the frame. “The Finnish artists painted Finland and wrote music as if she were already independent and this contributed to the formation of Finland as a nation” he said. We all vowed to listen to Finlandia in the minibus on the way back to the accommodation.

The last exhibition we saw, by American artist Matthew Day, was also the perfect note on which to end my time in Finland. This study visit has marked the my week of working for RSPB on a role leading on all aspects of connecting people with nature: education, media, visitor experience, fundraising. As I look towards the start of a new role working on climate change, the visit has allowed me space to think; to untangle the threads of my mind from the work of the last seven years and to allow me to get into the right place for starting afresh in an area of work that will be new to me. 
Matthew Day’s exhibition was challenging and themed around a post-apocalyptic world where humans have made the world uninhabitable. It was almost entirely unrelentingly grim, however the last piece, as you turn to leave, shows a colourful and beautiful scene. 


 In relation to climate change, holding on to a hope that we can change the future that is marked out as CO2 levels rise, is vitally important, and this is what I took away from the exhibition.


 Lastly, on a different note entirely, one very concrete learning point I am taking home is about the wonderfulness of Finnish sauna culture. Scotland, being a country of wet cold weather, long dark winters and lots of beautiful lochs, seems set up for saunas. And it seems almost unbelievable that Scots themselves would not have independently stumbled upon the concept. We were fortunate enough to have been introduced to Finnish sauna culture by our hosts, and were able to take full advantage of staying in accommodation right on lake Toutonen with a sauna in the garden (as well as one in the house). 


The camaraderie of a sauna, combined with the wellbeing of getting unbearably hot and then plunging into freezing cold lake water surrounded by trees and rocks and stars, is almost beyond description. I believe that sauna is something that Scotland should embrace and I have decided to pioneer the movement by building a portable sauna in a horsebox, to tour some of Scotland’s most picturesque (and freezing) lochs. Watch out Loch Garten, Loch Lomond and Loch Awe,  we are on our way …..

Thank you especially to our three student hosts who put in so much effort and work into making this such a memorable and wonderful trip: Wille Soininen, Kati Hautala and Jussi Hakala.



We were staying here: www.lomamokille.fi 

Let’s make Glasgow a bit more Amsterdam

The week before my Amsterdam holiday I saw a video on social media of a bicycle-priority roundabout: bikes zooming freely around, while cars gave way, clusters of cyclists gliding in formation around the curves, individuals peeling off to different destinations like the lead cyclist in the velodrome when they’ve had enough of leading the pack. It seemed like a special sort of utopia to someone who, on her daily commute, lays down the gauntlet to the buses, lorries and kamakazi taxi-drivers of Glasgow’s Dumbarton road. Or along Churchill Drive in Hyndland where a narrow strip of road painted green and purportedly a bike lane, has nose to tail cars parked in it and you are constantly on the look out for a car door opening road-side.


When I arrived in Amsterdam I was not disappointed by the sheer volume of bike traffic. In two minutes we counted ninety-five cyclists at 7pm in a not particularly busy part of town. That is 2850 cyclists per hour. Everywhere, thousands of bikes on segregated cycle lanes shot past in all directions with not a helmet, nor any lycra, in sight. A woman on a hefty cargo bike, with two kids in the box on the front and one perched on a makeshift seat on the panier rack, chatted animatedly to a friend on the bike next to her, their skirts billowing as they cycled.  Men in suits, teenagers in a chatty slow-moving peloton, women in summer dresses, a girl in a hijab giving her friend a backie. It was all too wonderful for words. And then I got out of the tram and reality struck, or rather I was nearly struck by an extremely fast-moving bike.

Bikes have priority over all other road-users, and the roads are set out to facilitate this, to the mortal danger of tourists who haven’t worked out the system yet. The buttons to operate the pelican crossings are located the other side of the cycle track, which is not subject to the traffic lights, so I have some sympathy for the cyclist who shouted a few choice expletives at me as I stepped right in front of him to press the button.   This priority for bikes and segregated cycke lanes physically separated from the car /tram carriageways on almost eery street meant that bikes are mass transport – virtually no one was in a private car.

After a couple of days of gingerly walking around Amsterdam in constant fear, expecting, at any moment, a bike to shoot out of nowhere to mow down my entire family, I decided ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ and we went off to rent some bikes. I would see what it felt like to cycle, wind in my hair, as cars, trucks, tourists and trams shuddered to a halt before me.

I dived into the melee: it was terrifying. Bikes were all around me and coming at me from all directions. Sometimes bike-lanes were one way, and sometimes two way. I hugged the kerb muttering ‘drive on the right, drive on the right’ as bikes came whistling past my left shoulder overtaking in the narrow space between me and the oncoming bike from the opposite direction. I was concentrating so hard on not hitting any of the other cyclists in my swarm that I didn’t notice the enormous intersection coming up ahead – I didn’t know what to do, cars were coming from left and right, and ahead and there was at least one tram. But the cyclists beside me and ahead of me didn’t even turn their heads – they kept chatting, or checking their phones or just plain cycling. I couldn’t stop anyway, there were 50 bikes on my tail so I put my head down and carried on against all my instincts. And the cars stopped. Like the parting of the red sea, a path opened up and we flowed right on through that intersection. I was ecstatic. Flanked by my herd we took junction after junction. As we came out of the busiest part of town and the cyclists thinned out I attached myself to a pair of teenagers who took it all at a leisurely pace which suited my slightly cautious approach, but when they turned up a different street I was alone and approaching another junction. I saw the cars coming towards me and I felt sick – I slowed and looked frantically around hoping another cyclist would appear to guide me through, but they didn’t. I cycled on with my fingers crossed and my jaw clenched, but as I passed the point of no return, the whole junction came to a stand sill and I cycled majestically through.

I tried to imagine what Glasgow would be like if they instigated a similar scheme of bike priority.  I pictured myself at the junction of Dumbarton Road and Byres Road sailing past on my bike as taxi, bus and LGV drivers waited patiently for me to pass (that took a bit of serious imagining). It seems as likely as a snowball in hell, but the Victorians certainly made Glasgow’s streets wide enough to accommodate the Amsterdam model, with segregated, priority bike lanes on all streets.  It’s the car parking on both sides of every road that precludes it, not to mention lack of political will.  And almost as if to make my point, when got back on my bike in Glasgow I discovered that Glasgow City Council had reconfigured the bike lane along Churchill Drive. Instead of a bike lane along the kerb and a wide carriageway, it now had painted parking bays all along the roadside (soon to become charged-for presumably) and a narrow bike lane painted between the parking bays and the, much reduced, carriageway. This seemed more of a pretendy bike lane, as it would be completely impossible for a bike and a car coming one way to safely pass a bike and a car coming the other, therefore making the whole system far more dangerous for cyclists.

If we seriously want to make our cities more livable, reduce climate emissions, and pollution we need to take this seriously. Amsterdam has shown what is possible, we need a sea-change of numbers of people cycling and that won’t happen unless we stop futtering about the edges of cycle policy and start thinking about how to make Glasgow more Amsterdam.

The Cairngorms in Nan Shepherd’s Footsteps

I am lying with my head in a spray of blaeberry, looking up at the twisted limbs of a Granny pine, my mind wandering over Nan Shepherd’s words that have just been read. “No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it.  As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid: the body melts, perception remains.” I wonder why my own ventures in the mountains aren’t punctuated more often by stops to observe, to lie down, or even to dose. Why is it always about the summit and the route? Why not stop to notice the baby pines pushing up the hillside, the spring of the lichens tangled in the heather, the sound of the rushing burn. And then I wonder whether there are many ticks in these parts.

I am with a group of people here to take part in the performance of ‘Into the Mountain’, a site specific dance work by Simone Kenyon, dancer, choreographer and artist.  She has taken her inspiration in the writings of Nan Shepherd, particularly her extraordinarily lyrical meditation on the Cairngorms written in 1944, but not published until 1977, ‘The Living Mountain’. Part of the experience is in the approach to the performance site in Glen Feshie.  We crouch to touch the ground, we listen to the changing tones of the Alt Ruadh, as Nan wrote, “The sound of all this moving water is as integral to the mountain as pollen to the flower. One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking.” We are one of three groups taking three different routes and converging on one point in Glenfeshie.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.

Simone invites participants to “walk out of the body and into the mountain” as Nan describes in her book.  We are invited to take off our boots and walk barefoot on the heather, to dip our feet into the mountain stream.  One of our group braves the rain to stand ankle-deep in a perfectly round basin in the rock.

The site of the performance is between two streams running parallel and we take our seats on the springy heather as a cluster of people in black waterproofs start to sing. Bright spots appear on the distant hillsides: glinting gold are five space blankets held by five dancers who then leap, gallop and zig zag towards us from all directions. The movements of the dancers evoke the wild place we are in and its nature and reflects passages from the book we have read on our approach to the performance space.

The choir’s music, composed by Hanna Tuulikki, is less song and more sound – evoking the wind and the water of this landscape. At times I hear bird calls in it: a red grouse or a the peeping of a wader, once, perhaps a black grouse’s bubbling gurgle.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.

Later at the Old Post office Café in Kincraig, where hot soup brings us all together at the end of the day to dry out, to warm up and to share our experiences, I meet Simone, and ask why she chose the site for the performance. She explains that she wanted the performers to see the lines of people filing, in their bright mountain gear, to converge on the performance spot. “It’s such a beautiful thing to see people in their lines on a mountain, I wanted to choreograph people’s own walks to the site” she says. Glenfeshie is also the site of an incredible transformation, as deer numbers have been brought down, Caledonian pine forest is regenerating and everywhere we see baby pines. The performance site set on the 600m contour will, in 50 years, be the point at which trees, dwarfed by the harsh conditions at this altitude, give way to the open hill.


The following day I head into the Cairngorms once again, Sgor Gaoith our objective. But our experience is changed by what we have experienced. We stop to sit, we lie with our noses in the lichen, at one point on the plateau my companion dozes off, we listen to the wind and the thin piping of a golden plover and later find a golden plover eggshell among the moss. We reach the summit eventually, but we have taken to heart Nan’s words, “To aim for the highest point not the only way to climb a mountain” in our journey there.


Into The Mountain, the first project of its kind, has been developed over the past six years by artist and choreographer Simone Kenyon, in collaboration with hundreds of women who live and work in the Cairngorm Mountain Range and Scottish Sculpture Workshop. Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.


Getting a Nan Shepherd view on the Cairngorms.


Nan may have said that heading for the highest point isn’t the only way to climb a mountain, but we went there anyway


Noticing an empty golden plover shell on the ascent we hoped the chick had harvhed successfully


getting a different perspective on the massive Cairngorms in these teeny tiny creeping azaleas


(Another) Good Day in the Office

You know the feeling when something turned out really well and you can’t stop thinking about it? Something where all the hard-work and moments when it nearly didn’t happen were worth it. And where, in the end, after a huge amount of team work and a couple of late nights, it all comes together and is simply amazing. And then you can’t stop feeling maternal and proud and saying to people ‘Have you seen this thing? It’s my baby and it’s amazing’.


I hope I haven’t built it up too much,  but that’s just how I feel about the 60th Anniversary Exhibition at Loch Garten to celebrate the pioneering work of Operation Osprey.


We had a tiny budget of £5000, which shrank further to £3000 once other essential items for the reserve had been purchased. Although Loch Garten isn’t strictly within my geographical area of work, as I cover the Southern and Western parts of Scotland, I’d offered assistance to a stretched team, and I had ideas. IDEAS!

car packed to the gunnels

While I was writing the interpretation plan for the reserve I was simply gripped by the stories from the early years of Operation Osprey: intrigue and mystery, goodies vs baddies, true heroes of conservation, boys’ own adventures and a military operation to protect the ospreys.

And the nostalgia, the NOSTALGIA…..…those photos of the camp from the 1950s and 60s where they lived in and the caravans in which the ‘cook-caterers’  rustled up three hot meals a day (majoring on mince and tatties) for the watchers.   This was an exhibition just begging for the retro/vintage touch.  And how better to create something with a miniscule budget than to be scouring Glasgow’s numerous junk-shops and the famous Barras in search of vintage bits and pieces to create the exhibition. This was definitely a job for me.  


The Barras Market: the place to get absolutely everything

But before we could make an exhibition we needed the content – there was an archive of stuff at The Lodge (RSPB HQ) but we knew that they would be reticent to lend it to us. We needed an ambassador who could read the whole archive, sort the wheat from the chaff and advise on the key documents and objects that we needed for our exhibition.  But who on earth would have the time and inclination to do a task like this?  Enter Alice Shaell, a volunteer who had already gifted me her professional time as an ‘information architect’ to write interpretation for Loch Lomond. Alice became my ‘specialist volunteer’ and got started on the archive. She went to the Lodge and painstakingly transcribed key passages from the log-books, roping in her mother as an expert in 1950s spidery handwriting, and read everything they held at the Lodge.

We knew what we needed for the exhibition but it proved too difficult get them to Loch Garten safely and we were stumped.  What on earth were we going to do? An exhibition isn’t an exhibition without original artefacts to link the viewer with the past.


I found out you could still buy curtain wire. And it comes out of the same tin it did in the 1950s….

And then, a MAHOOSIVE box of documents mysteriously materialised from under someone’s desk at our Scotland HQ, full of Operation Osprey documents dating back to 1954. If I was feeling melodramatic I would say that, if this was ‘Exhibition: The Movie’ then this is the turn in the plot that happens when the protagonist has reached her low-point and simply can’t see a way forward.  It seemed that this box had been passed from trusted staff-member to trusted staff-member down the years and survived various office moves.  The custodian heard we were doing an exhibition and asked if it would interest us.    WOULD IT INTEREST US? DOES A BEAR POOP IN THE WOODS?


  We couriered the box to Alice and she read the lot. She found that most of the documents that were in the Lodge archive had an equivalent in our box and so the exhibition started to take shape. The stories of the heroes (the stories of the women needed a bit more research and digging), the letters and job adverts, the candid (and non HR compliant) comments about the quality of the volunteers, and the need for bikes without cross-bars, George Waterston’s planning documents for the 1959 season, and, most significantly, George’s report from that 1959 season when Ospreys bred successfully for the first time.


 So I got started at creating the set and layout for the exhibition and went out trawling the best of Glasgow’s ample junk shops. I wanted the set to look like the inside of the 1950s caravans of Operation Osprey – a white gloss-painted chest of drawers would contain the documents under Perspex, and vintage photo frames would house the photos of our heroes. And, in my mind’s eye I saw the kind of material you would see in a  1950s kitchen on an Operation Osprey theme. It would be sewn into twee cushion covers and curtains for the caravan windows.

My original thought that we’d be able to get an original caravan interior and use for the set was dashed pretty quickly but Jess, from Loch Garten, mustered a team of incredibly talented volunteers who created the bench seats in plywood and painted the chest of drawers.


 After an intense two days of installation, with further sterling work from expert volunteers (and a late night on a sewing machine by a very kind brand-new member of staff from Cairngorms Connect going WAY beyond the call of duty) we got it done.  And here it is, Please do try and get down to Loch Garten to see it if you can, it will be there until September.


The Women of Operation Osprey: Part 1

In preparing the exhibition to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of Operation Osprey, one of the most rewarding things has been uncovering the stories of the women involved. Women were in camp from the very beginning but their voices are, more or less, absent in the archive and accounts of the early days.

The first thing I read to get acquainted with the story of Operation Osprey was the 1971 account of the return of the Osprey to the UK by Philip Brown.  Two names emerged immediately as important: Betty Garden, a camp stalwart, and Isabella MacDonald, to whom the book is so charmingly dedicated.

“Miss MacDonald was a remarkable lady who foster-mothered scores of lucky children, yet still found the time to welcome so many of us who watched over the ospreys, with apparently inexhaustible kindness and a quiet encouragement that gave many of us renewed faith, strength and enthusiasm when the fates were against us”

I was intrigued, especially by Isabella as, despite this dedication, she doesn’t appear within the pages of the book apart from a passing mention. Isabella was the crofter of Inchdryne who gave Operation Osprey Base camp its home in 1959, hosting them until the mid 1980s, and her hospitality is a central part of the story.

My partner in crime in researching the stories for the exhibition, Alice Shaell, who kindly gave a great deal of her professional time in a voluntary capacity, found some correspondence relating to the constant battle to persuade Miss MacDonald to accept some payment for her hospitality.  The letters show how much respect and affection those at Operation Osprey held her in, and how grateful they were of the kindness she showed towards them.

Miss Macdonald letter

Alice and I went to visit Isabella’s niece, who now crofts the land at Inchdryne, and was still a teenager when George Waterston set up Operation Osprey. Marina Dennis is an impressive woman, having a lifetime in crofting, journalism and public service behind her, including twelve years as a Commissioner at the Crofters Commission. Still an active crofter, and young for her age, she writes a column for the local paper and is still involved in an advisory capacity in a myriad of things. Marina welcomed us into her warm, spacious bungalow and we sat by large windows looking over her croft, towards Abernethy Forest.

Marina told us that this land had been crofted by her family since they were cleared from the Braes of Castle Grant in 1809. What is now a patchwork of fields set within birch woodland and Caledonian pine was, back then, a boggy forest where Marina’s forebears would have had to clear the land, build a house, and start to create a new life for themselves.

We started by referring to her aunt as Isabel, as she is named in Brown’s book, and were immediately corrected.  “She was Bella. Everyone knew her as Bella” said Marina.  Isabella [pronounced Eye-sa-bella] had been a common name in the area, there was an Isa, an Isabella and she was Bella.  Marina took down a photo of her Aunt from the wall to show us. Bella, white hair swept back into in a black beret and wearing a navy dungarees was sitting on a grey Fergie tractor. A boy of around 15 sits on the plough behind.  Marina explained to us that was Billy, one of Bella’s foster children.


Miss MacDonald fostered around 40 children over the years, most of which came from Edinburgh and Glasgow. “She always took boys, as she thought girls were too much of a handful” said Marina; and, as the mother of two teenage girls, I nodded vigorously in agreement.  Almost all of the children stayed with Bella until they had finished their schooling and many stayed on in the area, including Billy.

She went on to tell us about how her aunt and George had hit it off as soon as they met, “The osprey nest that first year was on the common grazings” she said waving her hand towards the wet grassland dotted with trees a few hundred metres behind her home. The team had set up watches in a rough hessian tent on the common grazings in 1958. The account of the nest-raid from the logbook inventively describes the ground as, “a bog that was very boggy”.

“George was very good with local people” said Marina, “he really understood indigenous communities, and people round here liked him.  It was the same on Fair Isle” she added. George had set up Fair Isle Bird Observatory after the war, a decade before he started Operation Osprey.

When George was looking for a spot for Operation Osprey base-camp Bella offered a site not far  from her house at Inchdryne “It really was the spark between George and Bella that ignited Operation Osprey” said Marina. George had asked whether she could host base-camp and she said yes. “It was Highland hospitality, she didn’t do it for payment or any gain. It’s just how Highlanders are.”  And it seems from all the accounts of Bella from the archive that this hospitality was far more than offering a place to pitch camp, park caravans, and the all-important water supply; it was hospitality in the fullest sense of the word, offering volunteers and staff at Operation Osprey a kindness and open-hearted welcome that came from her extraordinary generosity of spirit.

When we left, Marina directed us to the spot Bella had allowed Operation Osprey to use for all those years.  In that quiet glade among the pines I imagined the bustle of base camp; caravans, canvas tents, phone lines and George’s famous Dormobile, and I thought of Bella MacDonald’s immeasurable contribution to the project and what a truly remarkable woman she must have been.



60 Years of Operation Osprey

Why would I be packing my car on a Sunday evening with a glass display cabinet bought from the Salvation Army shop for £25 packed with 4 large slabs of foam and 2 second hand pale pink textured curtains? And why have I crammed every nook and cranny of the car with junk shop finds? Inside a 1940s leather suitcase, belted into the passenger seat, is an expanding jewellery box lined with crimson velvet, six books on birds from the 1950s, four metres of curtain wire and a battered stove-top kettle.  An aluminium bucket jammed behind the driver’s seat holds a tea set of four flowery cups and saucers, and a rolled poster print of a pale green canvas frame tent in a pine wood clearing, a young man is lying on the ground by the tent looking up at the sky.

osprey basecamp from slide at SWSRO

This last item gives a clue as to what all these items have in common. The pine wood is at Loch Garten in Speyside, and the tent is part of the camp set up in 1958 to protect the Ospreys that returned to Scotland to breed following their extinction.  This year is the 60th Anniversary of their successful breeding season in 1959 and the assorted items of bric-a-brac in my car are going to become part of an exhibition at Loch Garten to celebrate this very special occasion.


The temporary exhibition will reflect the original camp that early Operation Osprey volunteers would have experienced; the caravans and the canvas tents, the eternal stewpot and the discomfort of the forward hide.    A document from 1959 shows that the camp had 3 kettles, two tin openers, four cups and saucers, but only two spoons, three forks and two knives.  Somewhere among the stash of goodies in my car is a full set of cutlery as listed in the stores inventory, found by sorting through trays and buckets of silverware and utensils in one of Glasgow’s fabulous treasure troves of junk and vintage.

stores list 1959 jpeg

We want to celebrate the Operation Osprey heroes from the early days, and also those of today, with this exhibition. The main hero is, of course George Waterston, who conceived, and led Operation Osprey (and, according to the stores list, lent the project 4 egg-cups, 4 dish cloths and a billycan outfit). However, all the way through Operation Osprey, to the present day, the RSPB, has relied on dedicated volunteers, supporters and of course our members to keep the show on the road.  The debt of gratitude that Operation Osprey owes to these ordinary and extraordinary people is represented in this document found in the archive. Along with this note, to Isabella MacDonald, who hosted Operation Osprey Basecamp and its many wardens, volunteers and cook-caterers from 1959, was a sheaf of correspondence discussing rent, with Operation osprey suggesting she raise the rent and she refusing.

Miss Macdonald letter

The exhibition will be in place from the start of May, and will showcase some of the original documents from the early days to give a candid and contemporaneous insight into the very early days of Operation Osprey.

forward hide from SWSRO slides

Buckets, Biosecurity and Bags of poo 

In the Shiant Islands, it’s nearly time for the fledging of the razorbill chicks and I have the amazing good fortune to be spending a week here as part of a sabbatical from my usual work place of Glasgow. I’m swapping a basement office with bars on the windows for a small archipelago of islands in the Minch with spectacular basalt cliffs and boulder fields crammed with nesting razorbills and puffins.
My two previous blogs on the island stay are Marooned with a Teenager and Geocaching for Rats .

My week begins in the rather less picturesque surroundings of the forecourt of a petrol station on the outskirts of Stornaway. I am here in a large shipping container with Charlie Main, the Shiants project manager, so that she can give me the most essential piece of island expedition equipment, the white plastic bucket.


Charlie gave me three buckets whose lids were labelled ‘carrots’, ‘eggs’ and ‘FRAGILE: horn speaker’. Each snapped closed with an extremely satisfying ‘clack’. Charlie explained the importance of packing all our food into the buckets to ensure no rats could sneak into our bags before the boat left the next day. I looked at the buckets and tried to imagine the mountain of shopping I had done earlier that day fitting into them, let alone the shopping list of food I needed to buy for the current project team in the middle of a 25 day shift on the islands.

I looked around the container, it was almost half filled with plastic buckets remarkably similar to those I’d taken, some piles reaching right to the ceiling. “They’re all the spare rat poison” said Charlie. I made a mental note to line my buckets with bin liners just in case.


Once in camp on the Shiants, the white plastic buckets are ubiquitous. There is no running water on the islands so we use one for handwashing, and one to catch the drips from the water container on the worktop, they are full of field equipment, food, bits and pieces. “The first winter of the project buckets were propping up the shelves in the cabin and we made a whole bed base out of them” says Jonny. Between the Bothy (the Nicholson’s house on the island, where we are staying) and the RSPB camp, directly behind, was a pile of 9 buckets wrapped in duck tape.


 I get my induction on the ways of island life from John, a veteran of one Shiants winter and three summers. Biosecurity is everything – preventing a rat re-infestation – and so we need to ensure that nothing edible remains behind that the rats could eat. It is vital that, were a rat were to make landfall, their presence could be picked up by the monitoring stations left around the island. Back in Stornaway Charlie had shown me the thick brown pucks, shiny and smelling strongly of chocolate, which are used to monitor rats, the early warning system for a new colonisation. Rats find the chocolaty smell irresistible and will leave their gnaw marks on the wax but alternative food on the island distracts the rats from the bait stations. This means that all compostable waste needs to be taken off island in yet more white plastic buckets.


John finishes my induction into island life by introducing the toilet facilities. It turns out that human solid waste can, rather unspeakably, also distract the rats from the bait stations so that needs to be taken off island too. This means that we will be pooing into bags for the duration of our trip. The setup is relatively sophisticated, the system was developed by a charity for their work in developing countries. John takes me into the small gap between the two portacabins where a little tent is pitched. A toilet seat that clips over the biodegradable bag suspended over a bucket. When you’re done you just remove the bag, tie a knot in it and put it in a white plastic bucket. “It’s important to remove as much of the air as possible” says John helpfully.


 I ask about how many white plastic buckets of poo they had removed from the island so far on their mission but, to my surprise, they haven’t been keeping a tally. “At one time we were trying to do a calculation of the weight of food we were bringing onto the island versus the weight of poo going off, but I don’t think we managed” said Jack, another of the Shiants team.


John nods towards the pile of duck-tape wrapped white plastic buckets behind the cottage. The Shiants Auk Ringing Group have just left and they filled an awful lot of buckets” says John. “We’re just going to have to start packing the poo down a bit tighter as we’re almost out of buckets.”

And suddenly I feel extremely glad that we have those extra multipurpose white plastic buckets.  We’ll all be able to avoid the squishing of poo bags into buckets.


* I later asked John whether the poo buckets are the same buckets you used for the rat poison” . “No, no,” he said “They don’t allow us to put anything in the buckets that had the rat poison in, not even poo”.


Marooned with a Teenager 

The second in a series of blogs written while marooned with a teenager on an island inhabited only by bird researchers and 180,000 seabirds. You can read the first here.

For a week I have had the immense indulgence of returning to my long-lost seabird fieldworker past in the most sublime surroundings of the Shiant Islands. Three pieces of rock rising out of the Minch and covered with a dense layer of puffins and other seabirds.

 This week is part of a quinquennial sabbatical (we only get four weeks…. don’t get too excited) and I am here to help out my RSPB colleagues while doing a bit of writing.


I’ve brought my husband, a proper seabird researcher who should be useful, and our thirteen-year old, who may be less useful. And we are trying to immerse ourselves in the life of the field camp.


Over the past week I have observed that many of the typical activities of a field worker on a seabird island should to be familiar to a thirteen year-old. It doesn’t mean they are activities that a thirteen year-old would deign to partake in, they’re not Fortnight, or the Floss, Snapchat or watching endless episodes of Modern Families, for goodness sake. In fact they are activities from the good-old pre-teenage years but, given we are miles from wifi and the means to charge devices, (not to mention running water and conventional toilet facilities) there isn’t much competition. So, for the benefit of those who have been in this situation, or are planning to take a teenager to a seabird island, here are our observations.

 Activity 1: Kittiwake productivity studies: Spot the difference with a bit of where’s Wally

We trek over to the other side of the island with clipboards. We have a laminated black and white photo of the kittiwake cliff with all the nest sites marked and numbered, a telescope and a packed lunch. The task is to find all the nests marked on the map and record whether they have chicks or eggs and how many. This is far from simple where there are over 100 potential nesting sites that were recorded at the beginning of the season. It turns out that, due to a misspent youth of kids comic spot the difference, Naomi is excellent at matching the faint lines on the photo of the cliff to the actual nests. ‘spot the similarity’ with100 of them to find rather than just the usual six.

 The ‘Where’s Wally’ skills come in when we are looking for chicks. It seems that it has been a very poor year for the Kittiwakes and we see only 9 chicks between the nearly 60 active nests. You need a bit more patience for this game though – chicks are often behind a parent Kittiwake, or underneath, and we need to wait until the adult moves. “Can’t we just throw a rock at them” asks Naomi.


Instead we play a whole round of ‘The Minister’s Bird Species’* and still two stubborn kittiwakes stay rooted to their nests, moving after a further 20 minute’s wait.

* an ornithological variation on The Minister’s Cat * (“The Minister’s bird species is an albatross”, “The Minister’s bird species is a Bullfinch” etc…)
Activity 2: Puffin productivity surveys: Feely box Russian roulette

This activity involves a high level of jeopardy, half of the nests are burrows on vertiginous and slightly damp grass slopes and you are wearing waterproof trousers, and the other half are in cavities between stacked boulders on equally vertiginous slopes. The idea is to find the bamboo cane markers and then lie down on your tummy and insert your arm as far into the burrow or cavity as you can. You are not permitted to wear gloves and your task is to feel for the fluff of a baby chick, or an empty cavity. We found that the teenager loved the excitement of reaching through a poo-encrusted burrow to see what she would find, especially when it is the fluff of a baby puffin.


The other element of jeopardy comes in if an adult puffin is in the burrow. If this is the case it is likely to take great exception to your hand invading their nest cavity. And as everyone knows – Puffins have very big beaks….


John and Jack, two of the RSPB team, locating the puffin burrows in the study plots.

Activity 3: Checking Rat Monitoring Stations: Geocaching
This activity is for all intents and purposes identical to Geocaching. You get a geolocation for a number of rat monitoring stations in an area and then use a GPS to find them. The monitoring stations are either plastic boxes with two holes, one at each end, for rats to enter by and baited by a puck of chocolate flavoured wax. The task is to find the box and check the wax block for signs that it had been chewed by a rat. You take away the old wax block and put in a new one.

 On the Shiants there are now permanent rat monitoring stations around the island where rats could make landfall if they reinvade, we checked those in two areas, an old settlement which was reletiveky straightforward and the top of the boulder field colony on steep grass and cliffs, which was rather nerve racking and we were glad that Naomi hadn’t want to join us for that.
Activity 4: Ringing bonxie chicks: Capture the flag

This is one of the most exciting games on the bird island. We didn’t play it in the full version on the Shiants, we just walked through the bonxie territories keeping a look out for chicks to see if we could find any. However we had previously played the full version, nine years previously, taking our 6 year old to help us find all the bonxie nests on Mingulay so we could ring the chicks.


The idea behind this game is you need to seek out a well-hidden and extremely fiercely defended great skua chick in a boggy grassland with cliffs on all sides. The chick will be motionless, hiding behind a clump of grass or within the heather and the parents will fly sorties around your head, menacing you with their deep and blood-chilling “karr-karr”. The close passes and terrifying dives increase in intensity as you reach your target.


The final activity is the best, according to the daughter. And this is the ride back on the RIB, back to civilization and wifi, back to phone chargers and sullen teenagers. I’m not sure we’ve made a seabird ecologist of Naomi quite yet….

Geocaching for Rats

This is one of a series of blogs from a stay of a week on the Shiants with a teenager, helping out (inexpertly) with some of the RSPB’s work in the islands and falling in love with a magical place. 

Today’s task was checking rat bait stations around Garbh Eilean (Rough Island). The island was declared officially rat free in February 2018 after the requisite 2 years since a rat was last detected. But the monitoring effort continues and a number of permanent monitoring stations have been set up on the islands. These consist of a cosy sheltered box with small openings to let the rat in and a round puck of chocolate-flavoured wax with a wire through its middle secured inside.

The rats find the chocolate smell irresistible and if they arrive on the island again will make their presence known through characteristic tooth marks left on the wax. Jonny shows us some examples of rat-gnawed wax blocks from their winter on the island spent with (initially) around 3000 rats. “We had these bait stations laid out in a 50m grid all over the island” he says “but now they are only there to monitor rats in places that they are likely to show up first.”


The team took DNA samples from some of the rats from the Shiants during the eradication. This is so, if rats are picked up by the monitoring stations, they can test whether they are a new invasion or come from a remnant of the original population that managed to hide out somewhere.


Jonny shows us photos of marks made by birds, shrews and mice and then we are issued with our GPS loaded up with the coordinates of each monitoring station and head off.


I’ve never done geocaching but it strikes me that this is a more socially useful version of that popular pastime. We are walking around,GPS in hand, looking for a box within which is an object. (In our case a wax block) and we need to take out that object and replace it with another object (in our case a fresh wax block)

  We are trying our novice geocaching skills on a complex slope of steep boulders, cliffs and slippy, dropping-slicked grass. The footholds in the grassy bits consist of tufts that have become regular perches for puffins and have become flattened and covered with poo. Every now and again a disused burrow makes a secure handhold if you jam your arm right into it up to the armpit. The boulders feel slightly more secure having good sharp edges to hold onto but every now and again a boulder shifts and you are keenly aware that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of boulders are balanced at an angle of 30degrees against a cliff that is still adding boulders to the pile each winter.


Fortunately the teenager refuses to come into the colony again (“the smellllllll. It’s just so discussssting”) so I only need to worry about my own wellbeing. We start up the GPS just before the scamble in to the colony. The GPS tells me our first monitoring station is only 2m away but there is nothing in the short cropped grass and crags despite a good search. After a while looking around we head down the scramble and, there it is, vertically below where we were searching.

This theme continues through the morning in the complex topography of the Boulder field. Several times we reach an impassable grassy slope or cliff face and have to back track precariously to find another route to get to our quarry. Eventually I declare this three dimensional maze to be too challenging for a pair of novices who don’t know the route and we retreat from the boulder field and head to the old ruined settlement at the other side of the island for another set of monitoring stations which the teenager romps through like she was born to be a rat station geocacher.

We had been tasked with checking around 20 stations, a fraction of the 300 bait stations the eradication team had in the boulder field alone. In perfect conditions we had found the steep slippery grass utterly treacherous and I wondered how the team had made their way across it in winter to check and replenish their bait stations during the eradication.  

Jack and Jonny, who were both there on the project since the beginning, are quietly understated about the privations of a winter on the Shiants. They would spend a week at base camp covering the rat stations on Garbh Eilean and Eilean an Taighe (House Island) and then a week across the kilometer of water stirred by fierce tidal currents on Eilean Mhuire (Mary Island). There they would stay in a single cabin secured down with straps to concrete blocks. “We went out most days” said Jack. “But when it was blowing more than a force 8 the rope access team couldn’t work as it was too dangerous”.


The rope access team were working on bait stations placed across the cliffs of the islands which involved one person abseiling down to them. “It was worse for the one left at the top” said Jack “they just had to be there in case anything happened and it was often very wet and freezing cold. At least the one on the rope was keeping active”


After two weeks on the Shiants the team would have a week in Harris with access to hot water on tap, central heating, flush toilets and Internet access. The teenager perks her head up at the mention of Internet access “where can I get Internet access?” She asks.

It turns out that she could possibly get a 3G signal at the very top of Rough island, around a half hour’s walk. “If you’re lucky” says Jonny.

Do you know that I actually took this photo with my phone while clambering around between looking for bait stations? I was pretty amazed when I saw the result. 

The Corncrake Survey

There was still enough light to read a book as I packed up a few essentials for the night ahead, tagging along on an RSPB Scotland corncrake survey. I would be picked up just before midnight and wouldn’t be back until the light returned again at around 330am. The last rays from the sun, which was skimming just under the rim of the horizon, cast a purple and pink glow, silhouetting three distant croft houses and painting the lochan beside my tent with colour. Behind me, to the south-east, the full mokoon hung over the distant mountains of Beinn Mhor, Beinn Choradail and Hecla. It would be a good night for it.  
South Uist is a land of water and sky, her thousands of pools and lochans range from those a few metres across to Loch Bi, a large brackish loch that divides the island almost in two and across which a causeway carries the main road northward. Looking at a map, there seems more water than land in South Uist, and the arrangement of islands and pools looks, for all the world, as though the divine had cut the intricate shapes of the lochans into the rock and then flung the cut pieces into the sea to form the vast archipelago of low lying islands East of Uist and Benbecular.

 On the west of South Uist, and all along the Atlantic coastline of Eilean Siar, the Western Isles, from Barra to the Butt of Lewis, are long white beaches, mile upon mile of fine white sand. Were the swimmer to turn and head straight out, the first landfall they would make (if they missed the islands of St Kilda and Rockall) would be Newfoundland. Look closely and you’ll see that the sand is not made of angled grains of silca, but tiny flakes of unimaginable billions of sea-shells, crushed by the fierce Atlantic and washed up on these shores over thousands of years. It is this shell sand, which covers not only the beaches but the whole of the west side of the island, which creates the machair (pronounced with a soft ch a bit like in ‘loch’) a unique, wildlflower-rich meadow habitat, which is now the last remaining sanctuary of the corncrake. This is where we would be tonight – counting corncrakes for the second of two annual surveys.


At 1145pm Ben was at the door wearing beige overalls and a beanie hat topped off with head-torch. We made our introductions and I hoisted myself inexpertly into the passenger seat of his Landrover Defender. “She’s 21 this year,” he said tapping the steering wheel affectionately. We set off slowly into the gloaming with our windows open and I leaned out, straining to hear the characteristic krkkkkk krkkkk call of the male corncrake, setting out his territory and shouting out to females to come and get him. This sound was once familiar in every county in Britain and Ireland, but with rapid farm mechanisation and a change to early harvesting crops, corncrakes have been the collateral damage and by the 1930s were absent from most of England and Wales and much of Scotland. The stark reality of modern farming with a summer harvest and machinery driven from the outside of the field into the centre in a decreasing spiral is that any corncrakes and their chicks are herded towards the centre where they inevitably meet their end.


“Crofting offers a much more corncrake friendly system of farming which is why the last corncrakes remained in these machair habitats” Heather Beaton, the conservation officer on South Uist, had explained to me earlier in the day. “Corncrakes love the machair which is sewn in a rotation, with two years of rye or oats for cattle food – and then two years left fallow.” The soil on these coastal crofts is very sandy and delicate so ploughing is very shallow and is very low input, with seaweed being used for fertilizer. In the fallow years wildflowers immediately spring up as the seed bank remains near to the surface and you get lots of clovers and vetches that enrich the soil for the next crop. It’s the vegetation of the machair that is so popular with corncrakes and they generally choose higher cover to call in which means they are seldom seen.


 We stop in a layby on the single track road at the first point Ben expects to hear a corncrake, he gets out a sheaf of large scale maps with annotations showing where corncrakes were seen on the first survey this year and in previous survey years. “We do two surveys a year as corncrakes will stop calling once they have paired up, but as soon as the females is sitting on eggs, he will start calling again in the hope of getting a second female, or even a third” he says. The period they are out of action for egg laying is about two weeks and so the surveys take place two weeks apart to make sure they catch corncrakes that were not calling during the first survey. We strain our ears to listen, I hear the contented sound of roosting geese on loch Bi, and the keeek keeek of an alarming oystercatcher but don’t hear a corncrake.


We move on, stopping every few hundred yards, switching off the engine to listen. Snipe are everywhere, their “chip chip” call rising above the bugle of the island’s few resident whooper swans. Every now and again the low vibration of a drumming snipe drifts over. One of nature’s strangest sounds, it’s made by their tail feathers rubbing together as they perform their airborne dance of climbs and dives. But still no corncrake.

We pass Ben’s own croft and he points out his fields which are home to his three cows and his sheep. In his yard are parked another two landrover defenders, a VW camper and two cars. “You can never have too many landrover defenders” says Ben “and anyway, they stopped making them so their value is going up really fast”. I ask if he’s planning to do them up and sell them and he says “I might do in a few years, they’ll be worth so much by then. Either that, or they’ll be a couple of piles of rust in a field” he laughs. He has a calling male on his croft but it is uncharacteristically silent tonight. We move on.

A few hundred meters later we hear our first corncrake of the evening – it sounds loud to me but Ben assures me it is still a couple of fields away and we drive on. We get out of the landrover just down the road and listen, it is definitely louder, and we pinpoint it roughly on the map, we will need to check it again when we drive down the parallel road and can hear it from the other side . This stop, start, listen, continues for the next three hours, getting a little too exciting when we stop on the main road and Ben shuts off the engine, which also cuts the lights. As we sit dark and unpowered on the main road I look anxiously in the wing mirror, checking for approaching traffic from the rear.

At one croft the corncrake has positioned itself between the croft house and a barn and had managed to create a natural amplifier by reflecting its voice off both buildings. We stand between, listening to the twin echos and feeling grateful that we aren’t the people trying to sleep in the house. By this time it was 2am, Sauchihall Street in Glasgow would just be getting busy.

Just past this house Ben shows me another field that is part of his croft. “These two fields came as part of my croft because the previous owner had bought these off an uncle,” crofts were originally designed to be too small to support a family, meaning that they would need to take paid work on the estate, often harvesting kelp, to subsidise their income so some crofters join crofts together for some economies of scale. But crofting is still only part of an income today: Ben works a couple of days a week for RSPB but also does work off-island from time to time.


We head down onto the MOD land, this land is shared by all the crofters in the township and use of it is decided by the grazing committee. There are agreements about what date cows can go on, what date for sheep and how many of each. This ensures the sustainability of crofting in such a fragile soil. When rockets are being fired into near-space from their common grazings, the crofters are paid a daily rate for their loss of use of the land.

“Oh no that’s the exhaust gone – did you hear it” says Ben suddenly. “I told you that you can’t have too many landrovers, I’ll need to use one of the others on tomorrow’s survey”. The lights blaze from all the MOD buildings but no one seems to be in. There’s some headlights coming towards us, and I look around the landrover at the pairs of binoculars, notebooks and detailed, large scale maps of the area. This could look a little suspicious. But the headlamps turned out to be two floodlights positioned by chance at exactly the right spot.


After mapping several more corncrakes, we are done and Ben drops me back at the tent. The sun hasn’t quite risen above the horizon, but it is almost light. A short-eared owl flits across the bog behind the lochan and the snipe join the other waders in their dawn flights. It’s looking like this is going to be a very short night.


The abundance of birds here is evident even before I’ve unpacked my things into my homely little camping pod in the corner of the Balranald campsite. My arrival is heralded by a duo of corncrakes scratching out their calls in the wildflower meadow, one on either side of the pod. A swallow repeatedly swoops past as I settle myself on the step at the front door, to watch a corn bunting perched only a few feet away on the stalk of a seeding doc, singing its jangling song while being harassed by a couple of house sparrows. The campsite is right on Balranald RSPB reserve and I’m utterly transfixed by the wildlife that is so evident all around me. After a few minutes in my trance I come to and realise that the swallow is desperately trying to get to its nest, which is directly above my head, built on top of the light fitting in the apex of the little hut.
I shift inside the threshold and watch them as they flutter in every minute or so feeding their nearly-grown chicks. Hopefully they will fledge while I am here. I lay on my back on the floor, head just inside the threshold, looking up at the nest from underneath.
The corncrake starts up again. And the second, and then a third. I’m surrounded. The camping pod overlooks the marsh – an exceptionally rich area of the reserve teeming with waders and full of wildflowers. Above me I hear the quiver of a drumming snipe and look up to see it frantically beating its wings as it climbs upwards and then plummets down as its tail feathers make that remarkable noise. I get the feeling it might take me a while to get unpacked.

I’m here to spend a few days of a Sabbatical from RSPB – every five years we are fortunate enough to have the chance to work somewhere else in the society or for a BirdLife partner for four weeks to use our skills, or gain new ones, in the service of the wider nature conservation family. I am here in the Uists to look at how we interpret our visitor reserves, especially a new reserve we have in partnership with the community of South Uist at Druidibeg. But I also have a few days at Balranald to speak to visitors and learn about our work in the Uists and the special interaction of crofting and nature conservation which creates the most species rich agricultural landscape in Britain.


Later I get a chance to explore the reserve, a patchwork of croft land and common machair grazings with the most exquisite wildflowers covering every square inch of land. As I start the walk around the peninsular on the dune above a beautiful sandy bay (taking note that a swim in the incoming tide would be warmed by the hot sand) I look down and see a dead bumblebee. This is the Great Yellow bumblebee, probably the rarest animal on this peninsular – they are highly dependent on machair, the incredibly species rich meadow habitat that grows on the shell sand of the Hebrides, and Orkney. I take it back to show a few people on the campsite and then set aside to pass to the site manager. Everywhere on the walk are redshank, oystercatcher, lapwing. All these species have been fast declining in the rest of Britain but are still common on the extensive grazing systems supported by crofting.

 As I come over a rise a kidney shaped pool comes into sight, shallow and rocky-edged. There is a piercing shriek of a diving Arctic tern and I duck, but it wasn’t going for me, it’s after a small brown shape on the path ahead of me. The otter, slick with water from the pool, lifts its head to the tern, turns on itself and starts up the path towards me. Distracted by the tern dropping again and again almost onto its back, it isn’t paying attention to me and I lower myself quickly onto the ground hoping that it will walk right past me. But when it is 5 metres from me the otter suddenly turns and heads towards the sea, the tern still dangling, as if on elastic, directly above it.

After I had passed the Arctic tern colony, ducking frequently, stopping only for a good look at a fine Dunlin on a rock only a few metres away from me with beautiful black belly and rich brown scallop, edged wing plumage, I stop on a rock just off the path to watch the sea crashing on the rocks of the headland. All around me the grassland is short, and deep purple orchids, the Northern Marsh Orchid, grows in profusion. In the distance out to sea a black shape is moving towards me purposefully and, as it gets closer, I see that it is surrounded by a halo of mobbing terns and gulls. They have good reason to fear, the black shape resolves into that of a great skua, or bonxie. This large, dark brown bird is a little like a gigantic gull with sharper wing tips, and white crescents on each wing. They live less by piracy like other skuas, and more by predation. On a visit to Orkney a few years before I had seen the fearful remains of a puffin that had come into close contact with a bonxie. The little body had been turned inside out, its beautiful beak wrapped in its own skin and the breast muscle neatly cut away. But this bonxie had no intention of lingering at Balranald, it continued its course due North East, the gang of terns still in pursuit.







Remembering Teresa 

Tomorrow would have been Teresa Brasier’s 48th birthday and it seems the right time to reflect, over a breakfast of my first ever batch of home made marmalade (whisky of course), on what her friendship and loss has meant to me.   

I first met Teresa in 1997 when I arrived in Glasgow as a new PhD student and she was working for an orchestra, and I last saw Teresa 10 days before she died at the start of December in her small miners cottage in Leadhills, where she had lived for a decade.  

 She left a legacy in so many people’s lives and hearts, but I want to write here a little of the legacy that she left me. I think that, what stays with me, above all, is the experience of life and death as two facets of a whole: her determination to live life to the full, while accepting death as part of life. And how her experience of death was transformed by her deep and active faith in God. 

I was fortunate to be able to spend some special moments with Teresa over the past year, since her cancer returned in a much more aggressive form. We’d had regular lunches, walks, when her health allowed, and even spent some time up north with her and her partner Mary in their favourite place The Holy Tree Inn, somewhere we had discovered as a warming haven after visits to our bothy. Teresa was inseparable from her beloved black lab Poacher, except for the times I’d seen her in hospital when, instead of a snoring dog and a bookshelf of single malt whiskies, she would be surrounded by a crowd of friends sharing stories, anecdotes and a packet of biscuits. You’d always know where Teresa was in the hospital because you could hear the laughter.   

 Teresa left behind her so much joy and such a legacy. When she moved to Leadhills and heard that the instruments of the Leadhills Silver Band were sitting unused in the Miner’s library, she decided to re-establish the century old tradition. Bringing together beginners and seasoned experts, seven year olds and seventy year olds she brought back to life the historic instruments that had, for years, lain silent. She raised the money needed for new instruments for the band and conducted them until she became too ill to continue. She and Mary worked together to help deaf children learn and play music, and she also worked as a councillor and facilitator. 


Teresa lived the last year of her life as she’d lived all her life – completely to the full. She saw friends, and had many an adventure with Mary: they took an autumn trip to the Canaries, flew in a tiny plane to Barra landing on the beach to visit friends, returned to her favourite places, took a camper van adventure on the Western Isles, and of course, participated in many a communal whisky tasting, always posted by either her or Mary on social media for us to enjoy vicariously. And she printed out the pictures in a photo-book she had beside the sofa labelled ‘Memories’.

   I, meanwhile, was in denial – how could someone so full of life not be alive anymore?


She held a 50th birthday party in Wanlockhead village hall preceded by a service of thanksgiving. “But you’re not even 48 yet” I said. 


I continued to be in denial visiting her in hospital while she was participating in a trial of a new drug, and when, following a sudden downturn in her condition, I visited her still groggy and in the high dependency unit after an emergency operation. Her hand that I held seemed somehow transparent, her voice little more than a whisper and she was very weak. But this was the outside, on the inside was her characteristic enduring strength and a remarkable acceptance of the situation, she was confident of where she was going. 


Spending time with T in those final weeks was an incredible privilege, like being invited to glimpse into mysteries way beyond us. Teresa opened a box full of frightening stuff and didn’t find any fear in it. She was so at peace, lived with such faith and had such confidence in what comes next she simply emanated that to those she spent time with. Sitting with her on the sofa, praying with her or just sitting together, would be like seeing a flash, just out of the corner of your eye, of incredible light and then turning to find the ordinary and earthly.


Two weeks before she died, a mutual friend was looking after her at home and I went over to visit a few times over the course of the weekend. 


We sat and read through some liturgy, praying and singing. It was a beautiful time. It seemed to me that heaven was stooping very close. You could reach out and almost touch it. 

“You missed a career as a vicar” I joked afterwards as we had a cup of tea 

“I know. God was calling me for a long time and I never heeded the call and now it’s too late” she said sadly, thoughtfully resigned to the fact. We sat in silence for a while after that.


When I visited her that last time she was extremely frail but very much herself, down to earth and matter of fact and rooted deep in her faith. We talked about Christmas and her plans and then she asked me if I’d like to have her skis. 


We’d had so much fun together skiing in Scotland and even once in the Alps.

   “I couldn’t take them Teresa” I said “what if you want to use them again?”

   “Kat” she said looking at me half exasperated “just take the skis. And boots. I’ll not be needing them!”

She then asked her brother, Stephen, who was staying for the week, to fetch them for me. I took them obediently, just as I had taken her last pot of her dad’s home made marmalade when I’d seen her the week before. 


On that visit our friend Catherine was making her a marmalade on toast in her own earnest and perfectionist way, ensuring the butter was just the right thickness and the marmalade was spread right to the edges.


Meanwhile, I was musing on how much I love homemade marmalade, “My parents used to give me marmalade and now they don’t” I wailed.

  “Why don’t you make it yourself?” she’s asked perfectly reasonably. As you can imagine I didn’t really have a good answer to that. 

Tired of waiting for the perfect slice of toast and, never backward in coming forward, Teresa said “Just give me the toast Catherine!” then bent down awkwardly and got her other jar out of the cupboard and gave it to me.

I didn’t want to take it “you might want it Teresa, I feel bad taking treats from a sick person”

“Take the sodding marmalade Kat, she said patiently “I am not going to eat it all”.


I took the marmalade and said I’d be back the following Monday. On the Sunday she sent me a voice message saying she wasn’t well enough to see me and on the Tuesday I received a phone call telling me she had died. 


On the day of Teresa’s funeral we drove south from Glasgow and the southern uplands rose on either side of the motorway with the huge arc of blue sky above. As we gained height up to Leadhills, the thin smattering of snow on the hills became thick drifts by the side of the road. We parked on the main road, not daring to stray far from the route of the snowploughs.


In the peaceful burial ground on the edge of the village, deep in snow and encircled by the rounded forms of the North Lowther hills, we said our goodbyes to Teresa and my younger daughter, Teresa’s goddaughter, left her a snow angel. 


The very next day my we took Teresa’s skis to Glencoe and had our earliest season’s skiing since we’ve been in Scotland. The sky was still blue and the snow lay as thickly as I’d seen it in December (I got a couple of new scratches on the skis though – souvenirs of a special day you might say and which Teresa would no-doubt have approved of) “Teresa would love this” we agreed. And I felt that she was somehow there with us. That it all fitted. 


Writing this, something that Julian of Norwich, the 14th century nun and mystic said after a vision of talking with Christ came to mind. 


“All will be well, and all will will well. And all manner of things will be well”


And I did decide to make marmalade at last. Why wouldn’t I? And I put a few giant slugs of single malt whisky in there too (Islay if you’re wondering). 


Why indeed not? Life’s too short. 

Girls are wearing the trousers (at last)

This week we had a letter home from the school, it looked like any other letter the schools sends home to us, this one was entitled ‘Scottish Standardised National Assessments (SSNA)’. Unusually I read the letter immediately, rather than relegating it to the ever-growing pile. It was the usual stuff around updating us on the developing assessment system for school children in Scotland and then, to my surprise, came a very significant announcement thrown in at the end. Our children’s school was lifting their ban on girls wearing trousers.


The school which has stoically held out against the march of progress and female sartorial emancipation was, at last, changing its policy. I actually felt rather emotional. When my younger daughter, who hasn’t worn a skirt or dress since she was old enough to say ‘no’, was about a year away from moving up to secondary school I had a conversation with her. I had heard that other parents and pupils had failed in requests to wear trousers and I was worried. There would be no chance at all that Natalie would be able to wear a skirt – the most upset I had ever seen her was when someone was trying to get her to wear a skirt or a dress, when her identity as a shorts wearing, football playing, wear-a-tie-on-a-smart-occasion, sport-loving girl is squeezed into someone else’s idea of what her identity should be.


I explained that there were two options for us: we could start our own campaign and get the school to change; or we could send her to another school where she would be able to wear trousers. I have to admit I was kind of relishing a bit of a fight, a chance to deliver a small blow for justice and equality. Having delivered many a campaign through work and in my spare time I already had the campaign strategy worked out in my head and it even had a name “Operation Girls Wear the Trousers”. But it would be hard work, could take a while and would mean that Natalie would be in the spotlight and would need to be a full partner in the project.  


She was all for taking on the school – ‘let’s change it’ she said, and I did a little dance. It seemed to me that this should be a relatively easy campaign to win. I looked up other cases of parental challenges to schools that refused girls to wear trousers (and those where boys had campaigned to wear skirts) and they all had something in common, if they went as far as lawyers getting involved, in every case the school had backed down before it reached court on legal advice that the case was unwinnable. This meant that there was no case law on the subject, however I read clear guidance from the Scottish Government to schools that there should not be gender specific uniform policy, and (utterly ignorant on matters of law) surmised that, if Natalie showed up at school in trousers and the school sent her home, thus denying her an education, they could be breaking the law in the form of the Equalities Act 2010 (Scotland) and I could justifiably call the police.


However this was the stuff that would be rolled out if all else failed, the final stages of our campaign. At the moment we needed to get everything else in line – first a direct appeal to the school and then, if that failed, drawing local councillors, MSPs and the media into the campaign. Natalie did some ground work and wrote to all the councillors standing in the local election and asked their views on girls being allowed to wear trousers to school. She had a great response and offers of help with her campaign. Then we heard back from the school, they would meet with me and Natalie to discuss the issue.


We showed up to the school office at the allotted time, Natalie very smart in her primary school uniform: dark shorts (she always wore shorts then), smart shirt and a tie, short back and sides.  The Deputy Head invited me in, for now Natalie would wait in the office. After the starting pleasantries and explaination that Natalie would never, could never, wear a skirt he said thoughtfully, “So….Would you say that this is a gender issue?” (pronouncing ‘gender issue’ in the same, half whisper that Miranda would use when saying ‘sexual’).

‘If you mean that Natalie is a girl who wants to wear trousers and she isn’t allowed to because she’s a girl. Then yes I would say it is definitely a gender issue’ I was thinking, But I said “What do you mean by ‘gender issue’”

   “Erm….what I mean” he said delicately “is whether there is a …erm…gender identity issue”

   “Well Natalie is very happy, she plays football, she wears trousers, climbs trees, hangs out with boys, she’s happy being herself. You could say she’s a tomboy”.

   “Well in that case school policy clearly states that she will need to wear a skirt” was the reply. 


I was a little floored at this so tried to clarify that Natalie absolutely wouldn’t wear a skirt, it just wasn’t a possibility. She couldn’t bring herself to, it just wasn’t, well …it just wasn’t her.


But the policy was immovable. She would just have to wear a skirt if she was attending the school.


   “So you are saying to me that I need to tell Natalie that she’ll just have to wear a skirt, no discussions, unless she wants to be a boy. In which case she can wear trousers?” I said.

   “Do you really think that telling my happy, well-balanced eleven year old that she will have to become a boy if she wants to keep on wearing trousers is in her best interests?” I asked, getting perhaps a little shrill as I thought through how that conversation would go. 


How ludicrous, I thought, that we cannot allow the possibility of a trouser-wearing girl; that someone who wears trousers must actually secretly want to be a boy. We are in the world of 2017 where some of the world’s most powerful people are girls in trousers: Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkle. For crying out loud I wear trousers all the time, half the female teachers at the school wear trousers and I am supposed to go home and talk to my daughter about whether she actually wants to be a boy. Even Enid Blyton, hardly the most feminist of authors had a tomboy character in the Famous Five books, the short-haired, shorts and sensible shoe-wearing George.


   “Well, when you put it like that” said the Deputy Head “I suppose it does sound a bit strange.” We brought Natalie in and chatted about her ambitions and plans. She was determined to attend the school she explained because it had such a good reputation and she wanted to be an engineer, or an accountant or perhaps an architect. She chatted a bit about football and why she always wears trousers or shorts ‘just because that’s what I wear’ she said.

We went home, Natalie having had a good meeting, me having had an extremely draining and stressful one, and awaited the verdict. It arrived in a week, bearing news that yes Natalie would be able to wear trousers at school. What a relief. But also a disappointment that it was the end of our campaign. We had won the battle for Natalie to wear trousers, but we hadn’t won the war and I thought of all the people that would come after us having to have that awkward, strange and potentially damaging meeting. However now we had nothing to fight against. I assured Natalie that if she wanted to campaign when she got to the school I would roll out Operation Girls Wear the Trousers with glee, but until that moment, the campaign plan would be mothballed. 


I was still waiting for that opportunity when the letter came through. First I was really happy; I cried a little; I was filled with relief for all the girls and their families that would come after us that wouldn’t have to go to ‘that meeting’*. And then I laughed and laughed when I read those three paragraphs again, slipped in nonchalantly at the end of a letter about something completely different. To announce the news that they were belatedly entering the 20th century, they had chosen to use archaically 19th century language. 


 ‘Some may see trousers as modest, comfortable and practical’. Eh?!!? Do all the others think trousers on women are shockingly provocative? Like women riding astride a horse rather than side saddle, or going out without a chaperone?


And that conference where they met to discuss emerging practice? A friend was wondering about what that conference agenda contained…


“After a short break for luncheon Miss Euphemia Fotheringay-Burnett will discuss “Trousers: comfortable, practical and modest – but not the only option”


Finally, there’s that extraordinary last paragraph where they seem to suggest that allowing girls to wear trousers could be a slippery slope to boys demanding to wear skirts, as if women wearing trousers is some new experiment and hasn’t been common in society for considerably more than 70 years.


And all this in a country where a skirt is the national dress for men. I simply give up….


However I feel Natalie and I won’t be able to hang up our campaigning sensible shoes just yet. As Natalie’s 15 year old sister gleefully reminds her on a regular basis, next year, while the boys are timetabled basket ball coaching, the girls will do cheerleading. It goes without saying that this is anathema to Natalie… I can’t help feeling that compulsory cheerleading for girls may be the next bastion of sexism in the school to fall.


names have been changed to protect the innocent….

*I have, since, discovered another family from the school who had ‘that meeting’ and, judging by their description, it had a similar content to ours.  
I know many, many pupils and parents from the school have campaigned for the right to wear trousers over many years.  Please feel free to add your own experiences to the comments section. 

Cayoning in the Cold

There are, perhaps, more sensible things to do on a wet morning in early April with a fresh sprinkling of snow on the summits than to head to a waterfall rushing with meltwater and fresh rain and plunge in. 

However this is the Easter holidays and I had two teenagers and an 11 year old to entertain. A morning of canyoning should keep them occupied, I thought, and even perhaps tire them out.


We all felt pretty cold when we arrived to the Vertical Descents barn in the woods at Inchree falls, just by Onich. Although, with hindsight, that was nothing. I refer to what the 13 year-old said as we returned from the adventure “If anyone complains of being cold ever again I will say ‘you don’t know cold. You haven’t been canyoning at Inchree. I really KNOW cold'”.

Vertical Decents have two bases in the area: Inchree where they do canyoning and Kinlochleven where they deliver canyoning and a couple of other activities. We were presented with wetsuits (wet being the operative word) and invited to take part in the undignified struggle to get them on. After a good fifteen minutes of straining and groaning and wailing and a bit of lying exhausted on the ground, we’d made some progress but, as the only adult in the party, it seemed to be down to me to get everyone’s neoprene socks on, which was the worst bit. 

When we emerged, somewhat warmer from the exertions, and feeling like seals ready for a fishing trip under the sea-ice, I found out we had the wetsuits on inside out. ‘Sod it!’ I said. ‘We’re not taking them off.’

The neoprene jackets that zip right up into the hood came next and, with help, I managed to get the zip done up, which pretty much prevented me breathing and rendered my sports bra utterly pointless.  
Danny, our guide, took us to get kitted out with helmets, harnesses and buoyancy aids “What’s the shiny black plastic over the bum?” asked the 11 year-old. 
“It’s to stop the wetsuit being damaged as you slide over the rocks” said Danny. “And to keep the poo in and the rocks clean if you get really really scared”, leaving the kids wondering whether he was being serious.  
I borrowed a pair of wet trainers from ‘dead man’s wall’, around 40 sets of trainers hanging on a board. 

“Someone took a brand new pair of Nikes out of a box and then left them here after canyoning” said Danny. “People come up from London or Glasgow with more money than sense”.

“We’re from Glasgow”, piped up the 11 year-old. And at that moment I was certain I had more money than sense, as it dawned on me that I had just paid a lot of money for the privilege of struggling into a wet wetsuit and have someone shove me down a freezing cold waterfall.
We walked up past the falls to the point at which we got into the raging torrent. Dog walkers looked at us pityingly as we passed. The series of waterfalls was simply spectacular and in full flood. 


The kids took to the water like a row of ducklings. I followed squeaking involuntarily (and embarrassingly) as I hyperventilated in the freezing water. The first couple of obstacles were to get us into the groove: being swept across a plunge pool in the current and then sliding down a water chute on a rock face and into a pool. The kids went for it with gusto. I somehow got stuck and ended up dangling on my back between Danny’s legs, rather helplessly trying to get a purchase on the slippery rocks. 
Next there was a little scramble down wet rocks (tied on via Ferrara style you’ll be pleased to know) then edging along a rock blade above another waterfall (not tied on you’ll be horrified to hear). As I wondered whether the children were safe, out of the corner of my eye I saw someone fall, hit the water and disappear. I screamed, frantically checking to see which of the precious children were lost forever. They were all three looking back at me, wide eyed, wondering why I was screaming blue murder. It turns out Danny had jumped in and he bobbed back to the surface at the base of the rocks looking cheery. 
After a couple of obstacles my 11 year-old, (who happens to be rather lacking in body fat) started to feel chilled and after half an hour or so was so cold I needed to take her back to base camp. We clambered up a semi vertical bracken slope and headed back to the barn. The two thirteen year-olds continued valiantly onward, full of glee and shrieking joyfully as only teenagers can.

  This isn’t us. But it’s a nice photo from the web
Once the 11 year-old was safe in the barn colouring in and eating chocolate with Ellie, who (wo)mans the base camp, I hurried back up to the falls to rejoin the main party. I’d missed much of it but got an amazing view of the kids doing the zip line down the main waterfall in the series. 

We then swam across the plunge pool and sat behind the waterfall. I should have been grinning and feeling pleased with myself, like my daughter, but I was actually just rather worried about the children. 

Once back at base we were back to grunting, straining and wailing as we wrestled once again with the wet suits. 
“In all my time working here,” said Ellie, “I’ve never come across people who make so much noise and drama out of getting into and out of wet suits”. 

Damn right, I thought, and resolved that next time canyoning should be segregated into adults in one session and children in another. Because it is hard to enjoy yourself when you are constantly worrying about your kids (and other people’s kids). And it’s easier to help children with their wetsuits when you are warm and your hands aren’t curled into solid frozen claws. 

And to add to all that I’d also put a minimum body fat index on those taking part.  

Vertical Descents 

Broomhill Community Land 

This morning, on the way to work, I popped into the hardware store. It wasn’t for the usual light bulb “erm… I can’t remember type it is, what did I get last time?” or washer “can I just get one of those?”. No, it was for a pile of paper dating from 1976 (and 1955) which could be the start of a community-led plan for use of some land in Broomhill. 


After a long campaign from parents and many others, we have managed to secure the rebuilding of the Broomhill school. The school has been on two sites since the Annex was built as a ‘temporary’ measure in the 1950s. It was still in use until last year when construction on the new school started at last, 60 years after the temporary prefab was built. 


The school will, once again, be on one site and the land where the Annex is, will become vacant.  


This is a great opportunity for creating a resource for the community and so a project to look into the options we have for the site has just started.  


We only just have a name ‘The Broomhill Project’ tag line ‘Annex: What Next?’ And we haven’t even started collecting ideas and opinions from the community, but when I tweeted about the plans things started to get interesting. 


Turns out these are potentially quite interesting documents suggesting that the land was given over from park to school on the understanding  that it would be returned to use as a park afterwards: see this extract  

However there is an awful lot of impenetrable legalese in these pages and a lot more paperwork as well so it’s probably hard to draw conclusions yet. Suffice to say, it’s all a pretty good start to the project and that’s all before we have even properly got started. 


Over the next few months the plan is to speak to as many groups as possible around Broomhill to gauge ideas and then start working up options and business plans. We’ll be looking for people with specific skills to input to the project too. Soon we’ll have a website with information and mailing list and ways of getting in touch (look out for us at the school summer fair). But in the meantime, if anyone can translate these documents into words of one syllable, that would be much appreciated. 


Losing it (again) 

I’ve got quite used to losing bikes. It’s been a theme in my life for the past 25 years. I’ve left a bike in Balloch after a meeting and only realised when I was getting off a train in Edinburgh; I’ve lost more than one bike after a night out at university because I forgot where, in a vast array of parked bikes, I’d left it; I’ve had many stolen – mainly through leaving them unlocked- and one I’d locked up and someone just picked up and walked off with.   

But that was the old days, now I have a Brompton and I don’t let it out of my sight. It really is the apple of my eye, long wished-for over many years for its ability to fold up. I can take it onto any train, even those that only accept bike bookings, and on buses and even into shops. (Though obviously you wouldn’t need to take it into a shop  if they weren’t so sodding valuable- you’d just lock it outside). 


But the joys of having a folding bike are slightly tempered by the challenges: imagine ‘Mr Bean’s Brimpton Bike Commute’ and you’ve pretty much got the picture of my daily struggles. There’s a strict order to do all the folds, rather like origami but without the easy-to-use instructions. If you do something wrong it just doesn’t work and you have to fold it up and start again. So if I’m in a rush, feel like I have an audience, or in mid-conversation I inevitably do it wrong.  


A few weeks ago I was visiting a friend in Edinburgh and we walked together into town, me pushing the Brompton and chatting away. Just at the top of the Mound we parted company and as I prepared to get on the bike she asked where my helmet was. “Oh dear I must have left it in Glasgow,” I said, “but don’t worry, you only really need a helmet if you’re a total idiot and fall off, because if you get run into by a bus or a lorry you’d just be dead anyway and a helmet won’t help you”

“Right. Ok then” said Jo uncertainly as she turned to wave goodbye “be careful!” 


I waited for the dense crowds on the Royal Mile to clear and then mounted my bike to take to the steep hill down the Mound. I pressed gently down on the right pedal to start and then the handlebars collapsed over the front of the bike and the front wheel folded around at right angles to the direction I wanted to go in. I went flying over the folded handlebars, hit the road and rolled over. 


Scrambling out of the tangle, part bike part human, some horrified German tourists helped me out of the path of the oncoming traffic. They seemed a bit traumatized and extremely concerned for my wellbeing while I, on the other hand, was more concerned to check whether Jo had seen the incident. Once I was sure she was’t doubled over laughing at my famous last words and posting it all to Facebook, I turned back to the Germans. No I wasn’t hurt (only a little), yes I was fine, no I didn’t need to go to hospital, yes the bike is supposed to do that (just not when I’m riding on it). Then I asked them the all important question “So what did it look like?”


“You flew through the air” said the German woman “like a stunt man”. 

 Reassured that I was more Mr Bond than Mr Bean, I reassembled the bike, tightening the joints I had failed to in the excitement of chat with a friend, and cycled off. 


But this blog is supposed to be about losing bikes, not falling off bikes so back to the subject. 


Despite the care and attention I’d given my beloved Brompton since I bought it second hand from a bloke at Hamilton Station, my tireless folding and unfolding to take it into work, shops, meetings, my attention somehow lapsed and I ended up leaving it on a train. In my defence I was distracted with ravenous hunger and an altercation with a vending machine at Dundee station. It wasn’t until I was home that I realised it was still on the train. The horror. The realization that I had, yet again, lost a bike. The heavy sighs and rolling of the eyes of long-suffering husband. 


A check of the timetables suggested the bike was now well on the way to Edinburgh and there was no point to returning to the station. It was also nearly midnight. 


So what does a girl do? I called lost property but it was, of course, shut. I could have gone to bed and thought about it in the morning but it was my BROMPTON. I tweeted a desperate tweet into the twitterverse. 

I didn’t expect to hear anything. I just couldn’t face the ‘not another bike’ face of the very long suffering husband (who has lived through double figures of lost bikes over the years). 


Then, suddenly and against all the odds, a tweet arrived. “I’ve got your bike” it said. I hardly believed it. It turned out to be the guard on the train I’d been on and she would pass the bike to a colleague coming back to Glasgow. I could pick my bike up from him at 2:10am. It was too good to be true. I raced around the house looking for wine or chocolates to give to the guard but could only found a pack of macaroons hidden behind a box in a kitchen cupboard. I set my alarm for 130am and had an hour of fitful sleep. 

When I arrived at Queen street having negotiated Sauchiehall street at 145am, dodging between hundreds of taxis and trying not to run over drunken revellers spilling all over the street, the station was all shut up. I wandered around until I found a sliding door I could prise open and found the station deserted except for two police officers. 


“How did you get in here?” said a burly station employee who appeared as the train drew in “you managed to pry open a door? An’ with the Polis here an aw”


And all of a sudden I was joyfully reunited with my bike. I tried to hand over the macaroons but the guard refused to take them. I tweeted profuse thanks to the  Dundee train guard who was now off-shift and headed home. 


The next day Ruedi was extremely surprised that I had actually managed to retrieve my bike but rather perturbed at the loss of some macaroons he has secreted away. I directed him to the car, “The guard wouldn’t accept them” I explained. 


“Oh” he said, a little puzzled, fetching them and handing them back to me. “Happy Anniversary.”

Vending Machine Venting

Right. This is going to be a rant. A hypoglycemic rant as it goes. A veritable raging hangry rant.  

I’ve just found out what the most effective way of getting a hungry person off on a rant. It’s a vending machine that just eats money. Yes it swallows it whole and refuses to regurgitate a snack. A vending machine in a station late at night with no prospect of nutriment between here and Glasgow. (With here being Dundee). 

 And not only that, Ladies and Gentlemen, a jobsworth station employee with his jobsworth flourescent tabard and his hipster beard. 

 It’s the perfect storm. 

 So I put in my £1 in and it swallows it. I exclaim to noone in particular that the machine has stolen my money and a man standing along the platform looks round and says “it stole my money too”. So we drag the aforementioned station person over to the machine and he says “not my responsibility mate”

 “But it’s swallowing everyone’s money” said the man. 

 “Can’t do anything about it mate. I can’t touch the machine” says the beard. 

 “You could put a sign on it” I suggest. “It would stop that guy chucking his money into it” I say, pointing at another man with his coin poised over the slot. 

 “DONT PUT YOUR MONEY IN THERE” we shout at him in unison, he looks startled and scuttles away. 

 We turn back to the station employee 

“I can’t touch the machine, it’s not station property” he says. 

 “Would you be able to touch it if you wanted to buy something from it?” I ask, genuinely interested in his philosophical position. “What about if it were about to fall and crush your granny, could you touch it then?”

 “I can’t help you” he continues increasingly desperately. 

 “Ok” I say “How about you just stick a wee notice on it. You don’t even need to touch the machine. Just stick it on with blue tack or double sided sticky tape.” I am beginning to get slightly manic in my sugar-deprived state.  

I decide to take direct action and switch the machine off at the wall. 

  “You can’t do that” the station man says

 “But you haven’t touched it and I solved the problem of you being complicit in this fraud”

 He switches it on again. 

 I spot a couple of policemen with a group of drunken football fans and march over to get their legal advice. 

 “Is the train station responsible if that machine is committing fraud? And they know it and refuse to shut it down or label it out of order?” I ask. 

 But I don’t have time to hear the answer. The train has pulled in and I have to sprint up the platform to fetch my bike and jump on. Switching the vending machine back off again in the dash. 

 But just as the train fires up to leave I spot a man with a beenie hat and a forlorn looking collie dog on a lead by the vending machine. He has switched it back on and is poised to put some money in once he has decided on an item. I throw myself back to the closing doors of the train and shout. “STOP. Don’t put your money in there.” He turns to me with a look of mild surprise then turns back to contemplating the crisp selection. 

“No it will swallow your money. I turned it off to stop people doing it”. 

He now looked as folorn as his dog, “Really? Will it definitely not work? I’m so hungry I actually feel like putting the money in anyway.” He said as the doors closed and the train pulled away.

 By now I really REALLY need some food. But what are the chances that there will be a snack trolley on board. 

But miraculously there is. And I even find enough cash, despite the criminal vending machine, for a packet of crisps and a twix. 

  Back at my seat as I munch happily away I contemplate submitting the conundrum to Radio 4s “Moral Maze” to solve. I imagine Michael Burke’s soporific voice 

 “And today on Moral Maze we are discussing the agency of an out of order snack machine. 

Stay tuned in while we put the case to the panel”








  Kat 24/11/2017 

The mysterious case of the disappearing clothes. 

It’s not often us conservationists get to dress up and go to a fancy meal in an extremely fancy hotel. And that’s what makes the Nature of Scotland awards so special: a fabulous meal with sparkling company and wearing shoes that certainly wouldn’t be practical for the day-job. 

It’s always a memorable event but this year will be memorable for another reason: between arriving at the venue and leaving a few hours ago, I have somehow lost my clothes. Not the clothes I am currently wearing I hasten to add, the clothes I had arrived in before changing into my finery.

When I went to change back into them for the dash to the train they weren’t in my bag. “Why wouldn’t they be here?” I thought, indignantly. Surely someone wouldn’t rifle past my wallet to steal a pair of brown trousers and a top I got 5 years ago from the Salvation Army shop. 

Truly a conundrum. I thought my way back through the evening. I’d arrived in work clothes and gone straight to the toilets to change so I went back to check. The toilet I’d changed in was engaged. I waited. But time was marching on and the last train to Glagsow was going in 15 minutes. I contemplated shouting over the door “Erm excuse me. Have I left my clothes in there?” Then I thought better of it and sprinted off for the train. I stopped on the way out at reception to ask if any clothes had been handed in.

 The concierge kept a totally straight face as he received the information and then turned to a colleague saying “this lady has lost her, um, some, well, items. And wonders if they have been handed in” 


“My clothes” I quickly clarified in case they thought it was something worse. But no-one had seen them. I dashed off.

Fortunately I hadn’t lost my comfortable boots with my clothes as there would have been no sprinting in those shoes: skyscraper platforms. A type of shoe I have neither worn before nor owned (the extent of my previous high heels experience extending to a vertiginous one and a half inches above floor level). 

No, these completely unsuitable and almost unwearable shoes actually belong to my 14 year old daughter who, having discovered it was a black tie event, poured scorn on my choice of shoe. 


“You can’t go out dressed like that mum.” She said, perfectly horrified, in almost the same tone I’d use as she struts out to a party in a lacy midriff-bearing ensemble. “See those shoes, they are just awful. Mum” she says “Awful granny shoes. Yuk”


Well what else will I wear then? I blustered. 

“Theeeeese” she purred appearing cradling a pair of ridiculously high black suede heels.


I squeaked at them in parental shock, demanding what they were and why a 14 year old owned them. My daughter recoiled theatrically.  “My babies” she said defensively as she stroked the shoes like a Bond villain with her cat. “And you certainly won’t be borrowing them them.”

It needed a bit of negotiating but, eventually, after agreeing to pay for a new dress for the school Christmas dance, I got to wear the shoes. 

 Still musing over the whereabouts of my clothes I ran, Cinderella-like, in full length party gown (heels in bag) through Edinburgh in fear of missing the last train. And on the platform, when I arrived in a whirl of stress, I found three people from my table at the dinner. We greeted each other and I casually commented that I wished I was wearing the clothes I’d arrived in but couldn’t find them. 


“Sooooo. You mean you’ve lost your clothes at the hotel?” Asked one of the women slowly, as if to make sure she caught what I’d said correctly and then everyone fell about laughing. 

“Oh I found some clothes in the ladies loo” piped up another woman. 

“When I came in to the toilet there were two women discussing the clothes.” She said “one was asking ‘Is it just a coat?’ And the other said it was definitely a full set of clothes. And socks.”


She said that the three of them were musing over how on earth someone’s clothes got to be in a toilet cubicle and what had happened to the owner. 


“I thought we should take them to reception as lost properly” she said “but then we thought – what if the owner comes back for them and they aren’t there? So we left them. They’re probably still there.”

And perhaps they are still there… It’s now late and the party is over. I think I’ll need to make an awkward phone call to the hotel in the morning to try and retrieve them. The explaining is going to be fun. 










Summer and Autumn in the Engadine 

St Moritz isn’t just for skiing. There is so much to do when the snow isn’t around. Here are some ideas.

screenshot2019-01-31at12.41.43 photo from ponteresina.ch

Lej da Staz 

This lake, a picturesque 45 minute walk from St Moritz Bad, is one of the most beautiful lakes in the area. Each season has its own attractions. In autumn, the larch turns yellow and nutcrackers, the specialist bird of these forests, and red squirrels are especially active searching out pine kernels and hiding them for their winter food. In summer the lake is a perfect swimming hole with a small beach and rustic wooden changing rooms. The old pier is a perfect spot for sun bathing and throwing yourself off, there’s even a plank for diving.

In winter the footpaths are cleared so you can walk in the forests even after heavy snowfall and feeding stations for the birds and stocked with seed which you can take for a donation in the honesty box. The coal tits and marsh tits come and feed from your hand, sometimes two or three scuffling for access to the food. Created tits are never far away and even sometimes come to your hand too.

 The restaurant/cafe at Lej da Statz is open all year round and has an ample terrace and sun seating where you can drink in the view (and a local beer)
It takes around 45 minutes to walk from St Moritz Bad to Lej da Staz. Take the path along the lake shore (either way around the lake) and it is well signposted.

You can either walk back to St Moritz bad by a circular route around Lej and then continuing around St Moritz lake the other side. Or you can walk on through the forests to Ponterisina. Either way will take around 50minutes.

Milli Weber House 

Milli Weber was a children’s illustrator and artist and this house, built a century ago by her brother and father, was her life’s work. It is covered with murals she painted, with walls, ceilings, furniture and and even an organ intricately illustrated. The house has collections of her art, and an intricate dolls house. It’s an unusual and interesting place to visit. It is only open Wednesday – Sunday afternoons and it it is best to make an appointment.

It’s a 30 minute walk from St Moritz bad or 10 minutes from the station.

Mountain Biking 

St Moritz has been developing its infrastructure for mountain biking over the past 10 years. On the mountainside above the town are plenty of trails including three downhill ‘flow trails’ of varying difficulty. Take the Corviglia mountain railway up or, for those who like a fitness challenge, cycle up the tracks via Salastrains and the top of the Signal gondola. More information about the Mountainbike highlights here

There are a huge number of trails through the woods in the valley for those who want a more relaxing bike ride and a stunt track in Pontresina for testing your skills.


You can hire bikes and get all the local information from Engadine bikes at the roundabout just at the end of via Salet and turn right.

Interactive map.
Via Ferrata

These climbing trails with fixed gear, ladders and protection give more of a thrill to the experienced walker’s mountain experience. Bring your own gear or hire the requisite helmet, harness, via Ferrata slings and gloves at the Diavolezza Gondola.
At Diavolezza there are two via Ferrata of two levels of difficulty which take you to the top of a prominent rocky peak just above the top station and below the towering, glacier clad mountains of Piz Bernina and Piz Palu.

 There is another via ferrata at Pontresina which takes you up cliffs to a point 15 minutes walk from the cafe Languard where you can take the chairlift down or walk down on paths.
You do these climbs at your own risk. Please follow local advice as to when they are open as they can close if there is an early snowfall.
Pontresina also has mountain guiding for those who are not familiar with the mountain environment

Amazing views of the Piz Benina and Palu and their glaciers. There is a gorgeous sun terrace at the mountain restaurant and lovely walks to two small peaks nearby – Munt Pers which is around an hour’s walk and Sass Queder which is only 30 minutes. You can also walk down the mountain past a couple of stunningly beautiful mountain lakes which takes around 2 hours.

A guided glacier tour will take you down onto the Morteratsch glacier and bring you out at the railway station to take you back to St Moritz.

Swimming lakes and walks in the woods. 

There are two lovely lakes for swimming to the west of Lake St Moritz. They are shallower that Lake St Moritz and so get warmer. Lej Marsch is close tho the road and so gets busy but Lej Nair is around a 15 minute walk into the woods. The trails through the woods are great for walking or cycling and are well signposted.


Water sports 

Lake Silvaplana is ideal for watersports and the Maloja wind, which blows regularly in summer from around midday until sunset,  ensures perfect conditions for kite surfing and wind surfing. You can rent windsurfers and get lessons at Windsurfing Silvaplana and learn to kitesurfing at the Swiss Kitesurf School


On St Moritz Lake a few minutes walk from the flat there is a yacht club where you can hire sailing boats.

From the Visitor Book

We had a family from the USA to visit Sula recently and when I looked at the visitor book today I found the most wonderful account of their stay. I have transcribed it here as it has so much great information about things to do in the area (and much further afield – Americans must be used to long journeys as it wouldn’t have crossed my mind that Culloden would be a day-tip from Sula – but it turns out it is!)


– by Maureen Minard.

(The Vegetarian Salmon on Facebook)


We dragged a 7 year-old and a 4.5 year-old from the US for a week in the Highlands and could not have chosen a more perfect house for our home base. The kids loved the shared bedroom, the yard with the patio and wild-flowers, the sheep and the beach. The parents loved the view and the wood burning stove and the fire pit, the convenience of the kitchen, the view, and the location of Sula on Cuil Bay for day-trips.


Sunday we arrived later than expected, after a slow morning at the Edinburgh Hertz and some distracted driving on the way here – so much to see it’s hard not to stop here and there and why not stop for an early dinner at Oban Fish and Chips? But it was “Good Scottish Weather” the entire afternoon anyways, with grey skies and intermittent rain.


We were rewarded with a clear and sunny Monday, to explore Glencoe Village and ease the kids into hiking with a stroll round Glencoe lochan (the 4.5 year old shared his snack with the ducks, against the parental advice, and the entire pack of ducks soon knew of his generosity and stalked him around the entire lake).


Tuesday we ventured up to the Highland Folk Museum, which was a gorgeous drive and a wonderful reward for the kids to explore Scottish life at different points in time through experience rather than just seeing objects behind glass. Building the framing for a cottage and having a teacher grade cursive handwriting in a one-room schoolhouse were the biggest hits with the kids. We stayed later than expected so the kids had a late snack/early dinner from the museum café on the ride home and the parents had another lovely dinner at Sula after kids’ bedtime followed by a sit by the fire pit and a visit from one of the neighbour’s sheepdogs.


Wednesday we were blessed again with clear blue skies and we took advantage. You’re never going to get to a summit with small children, so instead we took a gondola ride up and then a short hike to a peak below Ben Nevis. Stunning views from the mountaintop of the surrounding area and we could see the top of Ben Nevis. There’s mountaineering and ropes courses for those with older children. In the afternoon, a trip back down to Oban for a distillery tour (highly recommended) and a few bottles of their excellent whisky. [not sure how you got back to Sula after a few bottles of whisky …Ed (!!)]


Thursday, poor planning on the part of the parents meant no available tickets on the Jacobite Stream train and one extremely disappointed 7 year old Harry Potter fan. So instead it was a drive out to Glenfinnan to at least see the viaduct and the monument to Bonnie Prince Charlie coming ashore for the ’45 (useful for the following day’s planned trip to Culloden). Then a long drive out to the abandoned castle of the seat of MacDonald Clanranald – Castle Tiorum on Loch Moidart. Well worth the trip, in spite of all the single-track road driving to get there. And we timed low tide perfectly so we were able to walk out to the island and explore. On the way back, with some luck and quick-thinking by the parents, we were rewarded with standing on a bridge west of Glenfinnan as the afternoon Jacobite train steamed by underneath – partial parental redemption.


Friday morning we packed up the car early – a pair of binoculars for each child – for the trip to Loch Ness and the search for Nessie, followed by a walk of Culloden battlefield. Stopped for lunch at a nice café in Drumnadrochit. Just past the ruins of Urquart Castle (car park was so full, so visit cancelled). Nessie remains unseen, despite the kids’ best efforts.  We got to discuss many mature topics about war, politics, religion, and the Highland charge, at least with the 7 year-old. The little one just wanted to be carried around the battlefield. A long drive back with naps by all but the driver and an unplanned dinner at the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe that was so good, plans were made for a return on Saturday.


Saturday included a deeper drive into Glencoe – to the end of the single–track road to Glen Etive made famous by its beauty and its appearance in “Skyfall” (four miles in at the bridge). We also dug up where Hagrid’s cottage had been built, by a tiny loch neat the Glencoe cottages as further penance to the 7 year-old Harry Potter fan. Lunch down in Oban with old friends who were also visiting Scotland this week. And then back to the Clachaig Inn for dinner. A post-dinner impromptu scramble up some rocks outside the Inn prompted the kids to announce they love climbing (after several complaints about “hiking” and even “walking”) So we’ll be passing through Glencoe again on our way out Sunday, weather permitting. Of course it’s not until the last day of being surrounded by some of the best hiking/climbing in the world that they finally break through.


Scattered throughout the week there were also trips to the beach (rocks and jellyfish and crab-shells) dramatic presentations by kings and queens from the pallet ‘thrones’ at the firepit, and communing with the nearby farm animals (games of guessing which field the cows would be grazing in, and chatting with the sheep each day as we left and returned – those with ‘spectacles’   (horns curling round their eyes) being the most popular, followed by any young lamb.


The kids loved the house and the parents did too. With only a week, and even with each day chock-full of activities, there is still so much to do and to explore. You have a wonderful location, a gorgeous house, and a design of the house that mould make anyone jealous.


We cant wait to be back to the area, and to Sula if possible Kat, you’ve built a wonderful home. We were extremely lucky with the weather this week, but we also juggled the activities each day to accommodate. There are some comfortable sofas, a nice fire, and a glass of whisky each night [writer’s own …Ed] to review the next day’s plans after the kids are asleep. Stocking up on food at the Ballachulish co-op saved us from eating out too much (we packed a lunch most days).


We had a life changing/life –fulfilling visit to Glencoe and the Highlands, and throughout it all Sula was our anchor. We hope everyone who stays here can have a similar experience.


July 2017








Wildflower meadow

The garden that, during the build, and for months afterwards, was a total mudbath is now a beautiful meadow. I thought I’d share some photos.  

I haven’t managed to found many before shots as it just looked so awful I didn’t take photos. But here’s some just after the digger had been to smooth it all out and it looked not too bad. 


We planted Scotia Seeds wildflower seeds. Flowering lawn and pond edge mix. Also wet meadow for the wet bits. Somehow I madly did it months and months before the fencing was done (see blog) do it is now pockmarked with cow footprints on all the ‘lawn’. Which is annoying. 

 And here is Jamie the farmer making the fence at last back in March.    
This is just an interim photos as the grass grew in early spring. 

But here it is now. Beautiful! 








Grousing with the Family 

I usually keep Facebook for observations on family life, anecdotes of personal disasters and tales of losing my wallet/keys/phone. It isn’t somewhere I usually post political comment, keeping that for Twitter. Last week, however, the publication of the report on 131 satellite tracked golden eagles showing that a third of them had gone missing in suspicious circumstances drove me to Facebook. It wasn’t long before the extended family had picked up on it. “Something to discuss at the family gathering on Saturday?” posted a cantankerous relative, highlighting it to a cousin who works in the driven grouse business.  

He was probably hoping for a repeat of a discussion at a similar event, five years previously, when, sat at a trestle table in a large marquee, he had watched while the cousin and I had an animated argument pitting conservation against driven grouse moors.


We nearly missed the opportunity to revisit that discussion, when, just before setting out, I realised the family railcard had expired and renewing it seemed to be beyond the capacity of the ticket office. After a lot of faff and an aborted attempt, it became clear that wouldn’t happen. Following a moment of horror when we found they couldn’t sell us tickets to England either, and some very quick thinking we managed to buy tickets to Carlisle and scurried to the train like shrews on amphetamine.  


The journey to Derbyshire seemed even longer than usual given that I had spent much of the week up in Speyside for work. Grouse were on the menu there too in the form of discussions about Capercaillie conservation. There was anxiety that the heavy rain that welcomed our visit would affect the young chicks, which are prone to waterlogging for a couple of weeks after hatching.


At our destination, with children swarming all over a small playpark, I fell into conversation with my cousin, not over our differences, but over our mutual concerns for baby grouse. He was concerned that the wet weather would be doing the red grouse chicks no good either. We shared tales of early mornings watching black grouse leks and it turned out that he could do a very plausible impression of the bubbling sound of a lekking black grouse and that both our hearts are lifted by the sounds of displaying waders. 


We talked about my experiences earlier that week in Speyside where I had been fortunate enough to visit Glen Feshie estate, where deer numbers had been reduced to a level that was allowing the natural regeneration of the pine forests, and trees were advancing in all directions, and wildlife with them. How could grouse estates create a more realistic experience of nature on their moorlands, I asked. Perhaps there would be fewer grouse but there could be more of other wildlife for people to enjoy. But before we could explore this further, as it is so often in circumstances where children outnumber adults, something vitally important interrupted the conversation. 

There really was so much more to talk about. Perhaps we will just need to pick it up again on Facebook.





Letter to Sainsbury’s CEO 

This evening I read that Sainsbury’s  supermarket are moving towards creating their own standards and away from the Fairtrade mark. The pilot is with tea and the Fairtrade Association is concerns that it waters down the  principles of Fairtrade, especially in community empowerment where, instead of communities receiving the Fairtrafe premium direct to decide how to spend it, the premium will be retained by Sainsbury’s foundation and spent by them on projects.

There is a petition to sign here.
But from my own personal experience. There is nothing that gets things done more effectively than a barrage of emails and letters to senior figures. So I have written emails to the CEO Mike.coupe@sainsburys.co.uk  and the Chair david.tyler@sainsburys.co.uk.

Here is the letter and below the response from the CEO and my reply to him.

25 June 2017

Dear Mr Coupe
I am a very long-time and loyal customer of Sainbury’s supermarket. Although I try to shop in local shops as much as I can I have been going to the XXXX, Glasgow store for my supermarket shopping since I moved to the area as a student 17 years ago. I like that Sainbury’s was one of the first supermarkets to stock Fairtrade and I always choose Fairtrade tea, coffee, bananas, sugar and other items like Fairtrade wine from time to time, also buying it from our church Fairtrade stall.
As someone with an interest in how we, as consumers, can have the most positive effect on the world- through trade with developing nations and also minimizing impacts on the environment – I am aware of the huge positive effect that Fairtrade has had on the livelihoods of small farmers and communities in the developing world. I don’t think it is exaggerating to say that I was absolutely horrified to read that Sainsbury’s will be abandoning the Fairtrade mark for your own standards. This decision betrays both an organisation that has steadfastly for decades worked to better the livelihoods of those creating products for consumption in the global north, and the farmers and cooperatives themselves.
I am asking you, as CEO to reconsider this decision.
Although it will be a huge deal for me, I have decided that if this decision is not reversed I will no longer be able to shop at Sainsbury’s.
Many of my friends locally also shop in Sainbury’s and I will be talking to them about my concerns.
I urge you to reconsider.
Yours sincerely
Dr Katherine Jones

Reply from Mike Coupe 26 June 2017

Dear Dr Jones
Thanks for your email. I’m sorry you’re disappointed with our recent decision regarding our tea and I welcome the opportunity to address your concerns.
As you’re aware, we’ve announced a new approach to sustainable sourcing that is aimed at helping our farmers and their communities meet the increasingly complex challenges of the 21st century and improve their quality of life, at the same time, securing the future of the UK’s most popular products.
Please be assured our Fairly Traded tea pilot gives farmers all the benefits that they receive through Fairtrade, as well as some really important added extra commitments and support. Along with the same level of funding they will also have longer-term relationships and receive expert advice and practical support on the ground. This will help them build resilient and sustainable businesses for the future.
By guaranteeing the minimum price for their tea crop, as well as a social premium for their investment along with building longer-term relationships, individually-tailored advice and practical support, the pilot of our Fairly Traded scheme aims to boost tea farmers’ resilience and ability to adapt to face these challenges. This will ensure a better quality of life for their workers and communities too.
Sainsbury’s Sustainability Standards use existing standards like Fairtrade as their base, but add to this starting point incremental enhancements that fill the gaps in these existing schemes to ensure we and our suppliers, farmers and growers are addressing all of the important Ethical, Economic and Environmental issues.
I would like to confirm we are the biggest Fairtrade retailer in the world and will continue to be so. Even without tea, this is a pilot project on one product. The purpose of our Fairly Traded Tea pilot is to build upon the Fairtrade model and, by using our wider experience, offer our tea farmers more to empower them to build resilient businesses and communities. We will be monitoring this project very closely and have no current plans to extend the pilot further.
I’m grateful to you for taking the time to contact me, giving me the opportunity to explain our position.
Yours sincerely
Mike Coupe
Mike Coupe | Chief Executive Officer

Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Ltd | 33 Holborn, London | EC1N 2HT

Reply to Mr Coupe 27 June 2017 

Dear Mr Coupe
Thank you very much for your swift response. I have posted it on my blog alongside my original letter.
In your letter you emphasise Sainsbury’s commitment to Fairtrade and, indeed, this is one of the reasons that Sainsbury’s has been my supermarket of choice for 17 years (foregoing the considerable benefits of a loyalty card in favour of shopper anonymity).
However the letter doesn’t address the reasons for the change. The Fairtrade Foundation has expressed concern that the standards your supermarket are putting in place reserve the ‘premium’ to the Sainsbury’s Foundation to distribute rather than giving communities the decision making powers over the money they make. This goes against Fairtrade principles of community empowerment.
When a supermarket sets its own Fairtrade standards and governance structures it also opens up the possibility that standards could be watered down further in future, for the sake of profits or from pressure from shareholders. The Fairtrade mark gives shoppers the confidence that an independent body, one that has shown longevity and commitment to the small farmer coops it supports, for decades, has audited the product.
Your move undermines the Fairtrade movement as you are the biggest buyer of Fairtrade goods, and with tea presumably being just the start of your plans. I feel let down by a retailer who I considered to one of the more ethical food retailers.
I cannot see how this will help either shoppers or yourselves as ditching such a well recognised brand as Fairtrade will confuse shoppers who are looking for high quality products that can also do some good in the world. It will also hugely damage your reputation in something that you justifiably have a unique selling point in – your support for Fairtrade and ethical principles.
I urge you to reverse your decision and reinstate the Fairtrade mark for your tea and not to publicly rule out  extending the scheme further .
Yours sincerely
Katherine Jones

And the response:

Dear Dr Jones

Thanks for your further email to Mike Coupe, I’ve been asked to reply on his behalf.

The tea suppliers, farmers and growers who supply Sainsbury’s have welcomed our engagement and the discussions with them on this initiative and we are working closely with them as we build the pilot. I can only emphasise that those suppliers and farmers within Sainsbury’s supply chains, whether that’s our dairy farmers in the UK or the parts of tea sector in Africa and Asia that we are working with, have to be our focus, and doing what’s right for those farmers, their communities and our customers.  We aim to bring far more benefits to them and their communities, this is a cost neutral programme for us – we are not making any savings.

I understand your concern around the empowerment of these farmers, however there are a number of views on what empowerment means in reality. From our perspective the most empowered communities are those that are the best informed, connected and up to date, able to access the best information, and those that are supported to decide upon and produce the best investment plans.  Empowerment comes from longer term commitments, and as a consequence the ability to make longer term investments, providing more certainty in what I becoming a more uncertain world.

All of the social premium will be ring-fenced transparently for our producers and only available for them, for their investment plans, created and owned by our farmers. By working with experts on the ground and with the independent guidance of our Sainsbury’s Foundation Advisory Board, we will be further challenged to ensure our farmers and their communities have had the best support and that they build plans that will deliver sustainable and resilient communities and businesses.

There are a plethora of certifications across hundreds of products in our stores and our Sustainability Standards will recognise and build on these as opposed to diluting the progress already in place, they have been co-authored and peer reviewed by our key suppliers, producers, industry experts and from more than 50 independent organisations and we have benchmarked in recognition for over 70 existing standards, frameworks and programmes. They ensure we are covering the full breadth of social, economic and environmental issues, further using data to support benchmarking, continuous improvement and the sharing of best practice. Participation in the Standards framework will also provide our suppliers, farmers and producers with cutting-edge information to help identify, measure and manage all aspects of their own unique businesses, and to ensure resilience in the face of escalating global challenges. These insights will enable farmers to develop strategic action plans to improve their business performance and the well-being of their workers and communities. Far from adding to any confusion, the new Sainsbury’s Sustainability Standards, across 35 of our key crops and ingredients, could make it even simpler and easier for our customers to understand. We will be supporting the introduction of our pilot with comprehensive information available for customers and as these products won’t carry the Fairtrade logo, (which has been stated as a well-recognised mark), are confident in ensuring our customers have all the information they need.

Thank you for the time you’ve taken to further share your concerns. We have committed to sharing transparently the work as we move forward, we will ensure that we increase the level of transparency and disclosure around our investment activity and the progress we make, in the belief that we should be judged on our results.

Kind regards

Jessica Wilcock | Executive Office
Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Ltd

Collateral damage in the Brexit conflict

From Scotsman 27 March 2017
Last week a small parcel arrived addressed to the husband. It sat by the door forlornly, Husband assuming it was a birthday present which he shouldn’t open. After a few days, when we couldn’t work out which relative it could be from, he opened it to discover his EU/EEA residency card.

This is the first stage of Husband becoming a UK citizen, not that he wants to, but because we fear for our family life. Despite 20 years living in Glasgow, married to a UK citizen and with two Scottish children, Brexit throws our never-questioned security into uncertainty.

My anxiety over our family’s security in this country started, not with the turn in the polls towards Brexit in mid-june, but three years before when Switzerland voted in a referendum to come out of the Schengen agreement.

No free movement of EU citizens into Switzerland would mean no free movement of Swiss into the UK and I became worried. Husband started inching his way towards complying with the bewildering and, as time passed, more and more complex, requirements to apply for citizenship. He took the “Life in the UK test” or as we like to call it, “The date of the Battle of Bosworth Field test”.

Playing mock tests in the evenings he always triumphed, while I would sometimes scrape through. When he took the test he was done and out before they had finished registering the other participants.

Then came the English test, the equivalent of the oral part of a GCSE English exam. For someone who teaches niversity courses in English, edits English language scientific journals and whose main language in the house he has shared with his family for 18 years is English, this is obviously ludicrous.

Next was the application form, a challenge even to our combined form-filling expertise. It was immense and needed spurious information like every single time he’d been out of the country since he moved here.

It was a long time coming and so we were overjoyed, and very relieved, when we opened the parcel, “Well it did turn out to be a birthday present” we joked “victory at last”.

But what a Phyrric victory it is: we have won Husband the right to stay in a country in which he has had the right to live for many years, and we are celebrating the security of knowing that he can live in his home, with his wife and children.

All over the UK 3.5 million EU/ EEA citizens will be experiencing the same worries and insecurities as us, many will be jumping through the ludicrous hoops, deliberately put in place to make becoming resident in Britain as difficult, stressful and hard to achieve as possible, and many will be leaving, not seeing a future in Britain.

This is all a completely unnecessary tragedy as EU citizens become pawns for brokering favourable terms for Brexit.

Beloved partners, irreplaceable parents, treasured friends, esteemed colleagues: these are the collateral damage.

 Kat Jones is passionate about Scotland’s wild-places and wildlife, she works for an environmental NGO and lives in Glasgow.

A walk through St Moritz with an IKEA armchair 

It would have been good to have a camera with us to record the occasion. Myself in the lead carrying an Ikea armchair and an ancient standard lamp through the streets of a swiss ski resort, brother In law in tow with a giant 1980’s TV, of the type that is deeper than it is wide.   

At first the armchair seemed easy to carry, I’d slung the lamp across the arms and carried it underneath down the steep street. Then it all got a bit awkward, the lamp started slipping to the side skewing the weight forcing me to compensate and making it worse. Soon the lampstand was dragging along the cobbled pavement. After a couple of times dumping the chair violently on the ground and slumping into it and two sets of counting myself to 60 twice “don’t put it down til you reach 60”, I reached the bus stop, to the bewilderment and bemusement of a group of ski-bling clad Italians, waiting for the bus to take them into the centre of St Moritz for a bit of glitzy apres ski. 


I set down the lamp and the chair and collapsed into it. Neal put the TV set down in front of me and there we sat waiting for the bus as locals and tourists gawped and giggled. We were clearing out some of the items amassed by the Swiss husband’s family over the past seventy years since his grandfather had bought a flat in St Moritz in the 1950s.  


In the rush to get the detritus out of the house and onto the bus before the dump shut I hadn’t thought to bring my phone to record this strange recreation of a 1980s living room among the rush-hour traffic of nose-to-tail four wheel drive Porsches. As the bus arrived, packed with skiers and skis, husband arrived with a dining chair and a bedside table and sister with a rucksack full of crockery and a wheelie case full of tablecloths and a rug; just what we would have needed to perfect the look of a pop up art installation. But the dump shut in 30 minutes and we needed to get there. 


Julia looked reletively normal (rucksacs and wheelie case) and boarded incognito at the central doors. In contrast I looked exceedingly odd and managed to cram the chair into the back doors just as they closed. The doors shut on the chair pushing it against a woman who was crammed in the corridor. She looked around and her look of annoyance changed to incredulity as she saw what had squeezed her leg. “Would you like to sit down to recover” I offered. She burst out laughing. 


Yet more people got on at the next stop. I offered an elderly man who boarded a seat. “I’d love to but I’m getting off at the next stop and if I sit down on that I don’t think I’d get up for two hours” he said. So I sat in the armchair and looked out of the glass folding bus doors through the legs of other passengers, at the views over the lake. It was frozen and ice skaters and walkers were out in force. A bunch of teenagers were playing a game of ice hockey. 


The bus was crawling through the rush hour traffic. The clock ticked by. We had 30 mins before the dump closed and the traffic was stationary all through st Moritz town centre. It’s always like that in the afternoons: nose to tail four wheel drive Porsches and BMWs. It’s the equivalent to the Italian ‘promenade’ but in cars. A local man had told us that there are some locals who drive up to the dorf in the afternoon just to have a look and see what the traffic is like.


A lady in her 80s wearing a mink coat and lipstick in a bright cerise asked whether I could move the armchair so she could get off at the next stop. We decided to get off the bus too. 

 ‘It’s just a quick walk through the centre then down the escalators’ I told my sister as we dismount, me in reverse carrying the arm chair. 


We started making our way through town, shoppers and skiers parting when they saw me staggering along under the armchair, view dangerously obscured on the crowded, cobbled, icy streets. We took two steep flights of stairs through a shopping area filled with jewellers, designer interiors shops (everything you could want for your home made entirely of antlers – a Christmas tree, chairs, coat-stands, chandeliers) and art shops (anyone for a bejazzled portrait of Donald trump. Or a diamond-encrusted take-off of the Mona Lisa?)

 We panted past Jimmy Choos, Bulgari and on to the Palace Hotel, the headquarters of bling in the town of über-bling. This year the hotel is decked out with a planetary theme for its Christmas decorations, huge floodlit planets hung behind the hotel. A steam-punk-style space rocket with strobe lighting had landed among the Rolls Royces and Bentleys. I dumped the armchair opposite the palace hotel and slumped into it for a quick rest and a view of the lights.

 “How are you getting on?” asked my sister. I flex my arm muscles, ”Knackered”. A woman who had stopped to admire the decorations was giggling, she was British. “It looks just like you’ve set yourself up to wait for the Gucci sale.” She said. I looked behind me, I was sat right between Gucci (full on pink and orange sequin dinner suit, and Andean Blanket with too-short arms masked by foot long yeti-fur cuffs) and Dolce and Gabana. We chatted about swiss second hand shops being too choosy to take our 1980s furniture collection. “It’s all too snobby here” she said. 

  But time was marching on and we needed to get to the dump. We headed past Pucci, a bunch of shops with DJ-clad shop assistants holding trays of Champagne, and a shop selling Maseratis which was laid out like a boutique fashion emporium. We reached the top of the escalators, four vertiginous flights sweeping down through the hillside to the lake shore via four stories of car parking inside the mountain. I looked down the escalators holding my armchair and felt a wave of vertigo as imagined the carnage if I dropped the chair. 

 Julia set off with her bags and I waited on the lift – reminding me of Roald Dahl’s great glass elevator, as it moved on the slant. Unfortunately, Unlike the eponymous elevator it moved at a snails pace. Just as it arrived Neal and husband arrived with their loads. “Our bus stopped in town and chucked us all off saying the traffic was too bad he wasn’t going any further” said neal. Did that happen to you? “Erm. No.” I said “we thought it would be quicker” we turned round to see our bus, at last free of traffic, pass the top of the escalators heading to the station. “Ten minutes to closing time” I yelled as they launched down the escalators and I leaped into the lift which had eventually arrived, past some emerging tourists. I am *not* carrying this armchair back through St Moritz if they are shut I thought. 


Julia was way ahead but she didn’t know where the dump was. She’d reached the train station and was running around asking people where the dump was. But in a town devoted to the needs of Bling, hedonism and tourism, nobody knew where such a prosaic place as the town recycling center was. She jumped onto a waiting bus to ask the driver but found he didn’t speak English. 

“Where’s the dump” she said urgently 

“Yes I go to the dorf” he said 

“Not the dorf the dump”

“Yes yes get on the bus. I go to the dorf”

“Does anyone speak English on this bus?” She wailed and two Chinese tourists piped up “we speak English”.

But it turned out they didn’t know where the dump was and they didn’t know what dump was in German. 


Eventually someone on the bus calmly pointed out a sign for the dump and Julia shot off in that direction just as ruedi Neal and I emerged from the underground car park sprinting – as far as one can when laden down with home furnishings. 


I trailed behind on the final furlong. I tried putting the armchair in my head but the seat cushion dropped down over my eyes and then fell out, nearly tripping me up. Neal was way ahead, manhandling the TV set I couldn’t get my arms around, let alone lift. Ruedi with bedside table and two chairs was already at the finish line. But Where was the standard lamp? Wasn’t I supposed to have that? I looked around vacantly, thinking back to when I’d last seen it. It was back at the bus stop, where we had made up an impromptu living room.


But there was no time to contemplate a future behind bars of a swiss jail for fly tipping, we needed to get to the recycling centre. If I didn’t make it in time I wouldn’t be carrying the chair back across town and up to the flat. I would definitely be doing some intentional fly tipping. 


But we had made it .The place was still open, a highly organized affair (as one would expect). Two workers met us and helped us divide our spoils between piles and skips according to type. Incredibly, the TV joined 7 other old fashioned analogue TVs in their own area. 


“Either it’s months between pick-ups from this recycling centre, or there an awful lot of people are doing house clearances over Christmas” said Neal

“Perhaps people got new TVs for Christmas” suggested Jules. 

Neal pointed out that if someone was going to get a new tv they would have got one by now. 

We wondered what had caused the demise of so many of st Moritz’s elderly. 


Relieved of out loads we practically skipped home along the lake. Much later that evening over dinner we related our adventures to my parents, who had declined the offer to join in with our load-bearing magical mystery tour when we’d bumped into them on the bus. 

“Where’s the lamp now?” asked Jules. And then I remembered. It was still at the bus stop. It would have been there for hours drawing comment from Swiss, for whom finding a lamp at a bus stop would be highly irregular.  


“You’re going to prison for fly tipping” chanted the children, who delighted in imagining what would happen to a person who committed this most heinous of crimes against the Swiss people. 


I went down to the bus stop after dinner to collect the lamp. It wasn’t there. 


The British relatives wanted me to report it stolen. “You should pre-empt them and say it’s been nicked, then you’ll be safe. 


Swiss husband suggested that staying completely anonymous would be safest “Don’t report it, they’ve probably picked up the lamp and already registered it as a crime”. 


We never found out what happened to the lamp, but it gave us plenty of entertainment – the rest of the evening was passed in happy discussion about how the police would be examining CCTV footage of a four people carrying the dog-eared contents of a living room through St Moritz.


A classic ensemble of Napoleonic coat crossed with Papa New Gineau Bird of Paradise cape, twinned with camo jodhpurs. 

The Tale of the Camembert

Since the house was finished I haven’t blogged much. Perhaps I need the therapy less, perhaps I’ve found other things to do. I hope I haven’t lost my blogging mojo, though. And that is why I’m making myself blog again. 

In the absence of a house build to generate funny situations and stories, I have found that real life more than amply fills the gaps and, over the past few months I have amassed a glorious variety of ludicrous situations to share. 
I’ll start with a little one from recently. 

We’re driving north for Christmas with a ripe Camembert. It’s a vital part of the Christmas cheese platter (baked with honey). The Kids started making vomiting noises as soon as they got in the car. We’d only managed to make it to Sainsbury’s to fill the car with Christmas food shopping and were just about to pass home again on the way out of Glasgow when I couldn’t bear it any longer and we pulled over. It seemed it was either the Camembert’s company we’d have for Christmas or the 13 year old’s, so I started trying to locate the cheese while parked in a side street in a Glasgow suburb. 

An avalanche of shopping and items packed for Christmas exploded from the boot of the car. Packing is my least favourite activity and mostly we divide labour in the family so swiss husband does the packing and I do things I’m good at like organising the trips. Adventures and holidays. 

The kids pack for themselves and have done since the age of 5. There’s a few anecdotes in that… Mainly around what one does on a winter holiday with a suitcase full of toys and summer clothes and no pants or socks. 

Anyway, in aid of efficiency I’d just shoved everything in. If I’d have taken the pile of wellies and trainers and a panier out and started with the boxes the pile would have been more stable. But we ended up with a load of boxes leaning outwards and bags of shopping full of bottles on the top. 
Despite the mess that the contents of the boot had made on the wet, puddled road, only one bottle smashed and it was the lemon chili sauce. I picked it up and looked about for a bin. There was none to be seen and so, not knowing what else to do, I sat in the passenger seat, hands covered in chili sauce holding the remains of the sauce in the upside down bottle with the bottom broken off. 

Turns out that chili sauce with lemon is an extremely effective deodorizer. And while I sat there, trying to remember not to run my eyes or put my hands near my nose or mouth, the children stopped complaining about the smell. It was either that or the laughing. 

Or it could have been the placebo effect because as soon as they discovered I hadn’t actually found the Camembert they started complaining again. When we stopped at a service station so I could dispose of the chili and wash my hands they bought an official smelly forest air-freshener. 

It was one of those Christmas-tree shaped things that dangle from the rear view mirror of taxis and which makes everyone except taxi-drivers feel distinctly queasy. I wiped the chili off the outside of the bottle and, instead of putting it in the bin, I tucked it into the seat pocket. I needed something to deodorize the smell of the forest fresh   

All went well until a stop for dinner at the Drovers Inn. After an hour sealed into the car, the combination of the Camembert, the Forest Fresh and the chili had fermented into an explosively stomach-churning pong. 

We opened all the windows, and drove, wind in our hair, ignoring the threat of frostbite in our extremities. From time to time the children would complain of the sub-zero windchill and we would close the windows. We’d last five minutes until the smell started to build up again to unbearable levels. 
When we reached Sula and unpacked, the Camembert was refused entry and stayed outside in the mailbox. Since we are still waiting for Jamie the farmer to put up a fence around the house (materials were bought in June) we are at the mercy of Jamie’s band of marauding border collies who pop over a few times a day to check whether I’ve put out a bin bag or some other tasty titbit out by mistake and rip it apart leaving a trail of rubbish in their wake. I put the Camembert out of the way of dogs (I thought). 

When Christmas Eve came it was time to cook the Camembert for a wee party we were having for the neighbours. It had been knocked off the mailbox but I was relieved to find it still in one piece, untouched by the band of dogs. It may have smelled like something had died long ago while in the box but baked, it was really tasty. I resolved that the discomforts of the journey was worth it and went to bed. 

But the Camembert hadn’t had its last word. 

In the morning the 11 year old came downstairs. I was cleaning up the party but the rind of the Camembert still sat on the kitchen worktop where it had been the night before. Daughter look one wiff of it and ran over and vomited in the sink. Between comforting the daughter and cleaning her up, I took the remains of the Camembert out into the garden and buried it. I took the cardboard and plastic wrapper that had been around the Camembert out of the bin and buried them next to the Camembert. 

RIP Camembert…. and my New Years resolution is no Camembert in 2017. For the sake if my family. 

















More Boring Electricity and Heat stuff

Doing a reading for my Renewable Heat Incentive has made me do a few calculations and see how the energy use in the house is going.

We don’t have a realistic winter season to look at yet (here are the calculations I made), as much of the time when the heat pump was on, we had it on full, drying out the house. I could only turn on the MVHR when the work in the house stopped, due to the dust, and so I always had at least one window open until we switched the MVHR on in April.

However we now have a realistic summer. I turned the heating off in the house in April/May (I forget the date) so the following heat calculation is just for hot water. The house has stayed quite happily at 20degrees since April despite having no heating on.


Date Heat meter reading Electicity used for heatpump Total Electricty reading Solar generated
1 Sept (approx) 0 0 0 (May 2015) 0 (Nov 2015)
5 April 8870 3406.5 4024 817.6
13 August 10392 3846 5015 2215

So over the summer period (131 days)

We used 991 units of electricity in total (paid 14 p per unit)

  • 440 units of electricity for heating (47p per day)
  • 551 units for the rest of the household (58p per day)


We generated 1397 Units in solar electricity (we were paid 12.8p for – £1.36 per day)


I really cannot work out how the energy we use when the sun is shining is calculated though. Does this go on the electricity meter….


Who knows. Who cares.


A game of Evasion Bingo. 

“That shed had better be built” I thought meanicingly as we headed north on a warm, but overcast evening at the start of this week. If it wasn’t then I might just be forced to commit some act of bodily harm on Stephen the builder. Despite my great hopes to see everything done, it turned out to be in exactly the same state.  I let Stephen know my sentiments. 

 It’s been an inordinately long time since this wretched shed was supposed to be built. It was all going to be so simple to start with. I’d simply build it myself out of all the scraps of left over house stuff from the build. There was pretty much enough material to build a whole mini house in wastage, so a shed should be easy. Problem was – I had no idea where to start, the last time I’d built something I was in a CDT class and the object of my efforts was a pencil box. Despite being rather proud of the glide on the sliding hardboard lid, I’d managed to drop CDT when I was 13, and even back then I don’t think I knew what the acronym stood for, let alone showing any particular aptitude in the subject.


So, more than a year, ago when Stuart and his people were laying the Underfloor heating and the screed floor I casually asked one of the guys, who was busy arranging a sheet of plastic over the kingspan insulation, how to build a shed. He directed me to Stuart’s younger son who, I was told, was fresh out of joiner college and would be delighted to explain it to me.


We stood by the concrete base that Stuart had laid for the shed and Stuart’s son talked and gesticulated towards the concrete plinth. I understood (most) of the words he was saying to me but I really couldn’t understand what he was trying to communicate. There was mention of forbietoo and dwangs and sixhundredmill centres. He was talking about laying things flat on the concrete, while I was trying to square that with my innate knowledge that a shed stands up vertically from its concrete base. So there I stood listening intently, words buzzing about in the ether between us, nodding sagely, but with a face that was completely blank.



“Can I video this explanation” I asked. At least I could then listen back and try and work out what on earth he’d said without having to show myself up as utterly clueless.


Now I should probably explain to those who think I must be irredeemably stupid that I’m honestly not. I’ve got a good degree from a good university (in fact I’ve got a collection of degrees from a collection of universities) and I manage to get by in gainful employment. But none of this gives any help in understanding how to make a shed.


Fortunately though, overnight, an insomniac child sorted through all the disparate and strangely shaped pieces of information in my brain and formed them all together into a complete picture. I awoke, as if from a vision, with miraculous understanding and a calling to build a shed.


The (seemingly obvious) key revelation was that, when Stuart’s son was pointing at the concrete base he was referring to making panels of wood out of forbietoo (four-by-two) which start out flat on the concrete (when you make them) then form the shed when you put them together.


I sorted through the pile of leftover wood and found loads of four-by-two which I measured up and, with the assistance of husband and kids, fashioned four frames for the shed. We ran out of time, and they were left, in a stack over the concrete plinth.


To effect the next stage I needed more people power. It was obvious what this shed needed: A girls’ weekend. A whole weekend staying at the back settlement bothy, drinking prosecco and red wine and walking out to Cuil bay each day for shed building duties. It would obviously all be done after a couple of days so I set up a time lapse camera to capture the appearance of the shed. Then I filled my most enormous rucksack with food and drink and dragged some of my good friends, none of whom had any more idea how to build a shed than I did, to a bothy in a bog.


There was a lot of potential for partying and relaxing in beautiful surroundings but there wasn’t time for that – there was a shed to build. We arrived and the first job was to attach a bit of wood to the concrete base to screw the frame to. I’d seen the builders do this so I knew we had to do it. I wasn’t sure what size bit of wood to use, but found one I thought would do (it didn’t). We readied the drill, then instantly lost the relevant drillbit. It simply disappeared. We searched about for it for ages then I went to make coffee. My parents showed up to help, we still couldn’t find the drillbit. Dad brought out a drill that should probably have been retired 20 years ago from his car and started on the concrete. We stopped for lunch.


We hadn’t achieved even a fraction of the progress I’d been hoping for by this stage of the day and the weekend continued in that vein. There was fun, and larks and tea which is illustrated very well by the time lapse video (which mainly shows the tea breaks – with various luxury biscuits and a few homemade cakes).


The shed panels went back on the concrete plinth and, this time, we covered them with leftover plastic sheeting. It would be a while until we’d have another chance to build the shed- Autumn was nearly over and we didn’t want a newly constructed experimental shed going straight into the challenge of winter storms. Shed building would need to wait ’til Spring.


Over Winter I gradually lost my shed building mojo. Self conciousness conspired with pragmatism to convince me that I should pay a professional if I wanted a shed this side of the heat death of the universe.


I asked Stephen. Yes he could do the shed but No he didn’t want to talk about it until the house was finished.


The house dragged on. And on. Christmas passed, we got building certificate in March and I had started formulating plans for the housewarming (with the shed and bike/bin store playing an essential part as the performance space for my ceilidh band) But the shed build seemed further and further away. Eventually Stephen seemed willing to discuss the shed. “Just send me a drawing of exactly what you want” he asked. I drew a sketch on the back of an envelope and sent him a phone photo of it. Jake, my friend with the Morven sawmill cut the cladding from local larch and I wanted to use some of the structural wood left from not building the second porch. I hid my homemade shed panels round the back of the house to save having the piss unrelentingly taken by the joiners.

IMG_0551By April it looked like the shed might start imminently. Jake pulled out all the stops to get the wood to site despite no Corran ferry and having to take a massive detour. I fed him a quick dinner and he was off again. Then no progress. I don’t want to bore you with the ins and outs of a total lack of shed-build progress. But in summary: No shed. Still no shed. A bit of shed. Stalled shed. The explanations over why no shed appeared and why no people turn up are actually far more interesting. A game of evasion. With a counter game of persuasion.

In fact, for your entertainment, I have made a game of Evasion Bingo. Anyone who is working with Stephen at the moment might want to play.


There’s also a corresponding game of Persuasion Bingo , where I work my way through various tactics to get Stephen to come and build the shed.


Evasion and Persuasion. It’s probably some kind of arms race a behavioural psychologist should do a PhD on.


But eventually, inevitably probably, the shed made infinitesimal progress. When I arrived the day before the midsummer housewarming party, that important milestone for the build, months past the date that everything should have been well and truly done, I was livid when I saw the half built shed; boiling, hopping mad.


However, When I wandered into the part-built structure I noticed that it was made up of my own shed panels. Those panels I’d made back in September, nearly a year before, and completed during the girls’ weekend workparty, had actually been used by the joiners. My rage was soothed slightly by the aura of smugness that was starting to spread out from me like the Readybrek glow. Real joiners had actually used the shed panels I’d made. I wondered how much I should be charging for my labour.


But despite that activity back in May/June it’s now the beginning of August and the shed still isn’t done. We’ve had an unusual level of action on the shed front this week though, with joiners on site for two days in a row. Perhaps my threat of bodily harm for Stephen actually had some effect. Or perhaps it’s reached the stage when he just wants it over and done with as much as I do. Either way, it could actually be finished soon.

It is Friday now. Five days since the first paragraph of the blog, and the shed is, indeed, finished. There’s some clearing up to do around the shed and, in between sawing left -overs for firewood, picking up nails to chuck away and chucking bits of scrap wood on the fore, what dos we find, but that errant drillbit. I love it when a story comes full-circle. 

 Evasion Bingo:

stephen bingo 2.jpg

Persuasion Bingo:

stephen bingo 1.jpg





Existential Angst

Just recently I’ve noticed a little bit of existential angst creeping up on me.  I usually don’t have much time for existential angst. Literally I don’t. Every second is filled with things to do and, if it isn’t, then I jolly-well find something to do. 

It’s either that I don’t have many inner demons, or, by the time they have elbowed their way to the front of the queue of ideas jostling for attention, all brainpower is called away to solve a serious problem (like how to collect Child A from Scouts and Child B from circus skills, while simultaneously being at a meeting in Edinburgh, and with husband away on fieldwork.) I really am awfully effective at displacing worry and angst with Things to Do, People to See, Places to Go.


And I really haven’t time for existential angst figuratively, too.  Well, what’s the point of existential angst anyway? Does it get things done? Yes OK, it might have been somewhat important to poets and philosophers and artists and the like for millennia, but I’m not sure it’s really my thing.


I don’t suppose Archimedes would have got very far with my attitude.  

 He’d have got right out of that bath in disgust at time ticking by while he soaked, and gone out and got someone to build him a shower, rather than uncovering mathematical truths of the universe. 

I have a good friend from University who is the embodiment of existential crisis. Where, for most people, a quick ‘How are you?’ is simply part of the opening pleasantries before you get down to the serious business of chat, to him it is the whole objective of the conversation.

“How are you?” he would say

“Fine, How are you?”

“No I mean how are you Kat. How are you Really?”

“Erm OK? … Everything’s good.” I reply, not having really stopped for 10 seconds to interrogate whether my assumptions that I am a happy, well balanced person living the absolute only life that I could ever want to lead, are correct.


“But are you really happy Kat.” He would continue. “Kids? Do kids make you happy?”

“Erm. Yes?” I reply again. Well, what is certain is that they make me too busy to ever doubt that I am happy, and if they are not keeping me busy, they are making me laugh like a drain.


My, usually unsolicited, advice would be along the lines of: Look, XX, pull yourself together, make the decision: get married/have kids/ keep the job/do the thing, and for goodness sake stop fretting about whether there’s some other utopia that would exist if only one could stay in a perpetual state of indecision and non-commitment.



However, despite the busyness and the displacement activities, recently the questions of when, and if, I was going to move to the house, have been increasingly unavoidable.  Over the period of building the house I have had many moments of self doubt and a fair bit of introspection ‘Why oh WHY am I doing this??!!’ I would wail at times of stress ‘Why did I start on this project of monumental hubris??!’


To survive these moments of doubt and stress I kept telling myself that I’d soon be living there. Yes I would. Of course I would. Why on earth would someone put themselves through all the pain and discomfort of building a house if they didn’t intend to actually live there right away? It just doesn’t make sense.


But the children had indicated their distinct attachment to Glasgow and the conveniences of a train into town for a visit to Claire’s Accessories or Forever 21 or whatever, (and football club, skiing club, ruby/swimming/ squash for the other one). Not to mention husband’s job.  It would evidently be a while before we could move.


I looked back at my first blog to revisit why I started building the house in the first place.  It wasn’t actually that informative as to my motives, but it did indicate that, even when Sula was just a twinkle in my eye, I knew I couldn’t really live there in the short term.  So the question became, how am I going to spend as much time at Sula as I can, even if I can’t be there all the time just yet?


Around the time these thoughts were surfacing, I started working on something new: a huge project to conserve the western Atlantic woodlands, a unique and rare habitat that remains in pockets along the western seaboard of Scotland, Wales and England, our Celtic Rainforest.  I was called in to sort out the people aspects of the project and ended up taking quite a bit of responsibility for the project as a whole. After a while of working on it, I sat down and looked at the project area on a map. The core areas in Scotland were a large chuck of woodland all up the West side of Loch Lomond, all of the Morven peninsular, and a site at Ballachulish, just down the road. It all came into sharp focus for me that Cuil Bay was at the epicenter of the Scottish part of the project. 


I volunteered to do a secondment to develop the project, not particularly because of the geography of the project areas, but because I was inspired by the habitat, and what the project had become since I had been working on it – the potential and the possibilities for restoring some fabulous, magical woodlands across some of the most beautiful places in Scotland and Wales.  The plan was that, were we to get the first stage of the grant, I would fulfill the development manager role, taking the project to the next level.  I started thinking about spending a couple of nights a week up at Sula and renting it for holiday lets the rest of the time.  Surely a good compromise until the family could be persuaded to move.  It was also a very good solution to the problem of having built myself a monument to my own audacity and feeling rather guilty about it.


 This takes us up to the far more serious crisis of angst which surfaced a few weeks ago, just before the referendum on membership of the EU. The polls had turned towards Brexit for the first time and I moped about, worried and wan, shouting at the long-suffering husband for not filling in his citizenship application years ago (he’s one of those pesky immigrants, taking our jobs and our women…).


As well as trying to hold things together in the face of a potential Brexit Armageddon, and the imagined imminent deportation of the Swiss husband, I was also trying to get the ruddy shed finished. The builder had vanished in the manner of the Cheshire cat; leaving behind nothing but an annoying grin to remind me that I will never ever be free of him, because this shed will never, ever be finished.


Eventually, after many messages and calls, he called me back, as usual at the very moment I am least able to communicate the vast to-do-list off the top of my head; in this case at the nadir of my Brexit crisis. He proclaimed that Europe was lost forever and we might as well wave goodbye to prosperity, justice, human rights and all that. Surprisingly it didn’t make me feel any better.


 Since then we have had the referendum result. A resounding ‘Stay’ in Scotland but overall a ‘Leave’ for the UK as a whole.  I usually try and keep this blog a politics-free zone, but this is something that has been deeply affecting.  To my surprise, I found myself weeping in the street the day after the referendum when two Germans I had just been giving directions to asked what I thought of the result. I ended up hurrying off, my 13 year-old daughter in tow shouting “MUM! Pull yourself together mum!”

It was only when I reached for my wallet in a nearby coffee shop where we went for a restorative flat white, that I realised I was still carrying their map and guidebook.


“MUM!” said the daughter “Honestly! those poor Germans arrive in Scotland and instantly have their guidebook and map nicked, its not a good impression to give them of Glasgow”


I may not be everyone’s archetype of a Glasgow criminal, but there I was, holding a defenceless tourist’s precious German language guidebook. They’d arrived the morning after the Brexit vote, to a country of people waking up, as if from an epic binge, with a shocked realization of the irreversible damage that had been wreaked during the night. And then they were mugged by a woman for their guidebook.


But the certainty of knowing, after the initial disbelief, denial and grief, turned out to be marginally less painful than the dreadful waiting. In typical character I started doing things. Husband was harassed further about citizenship, a visit to an immigration lawyer was booked, and the process of filling out an 85 page form followed by a 42 page form, and amassing piles of associated paperwork, was started.


Along with the referendum came the knowledge that the grant to save and restore those beautiful western Atlantic woodlands, ridding them from that immigrant invader, the rhododendron, was never going to happen. There was no need to wait to finish the application process, nor to spend 8 months developing the project. It would go the way of the millions of pounds of EU funding that Scotland receives every year.

This was heartbreaking too, but it also gave me the impetus to get the house sorted out for renting. I put it on AirBnB and instantly got bookings. Loads of them. In fact so many I had to stop as I didn’t have a cleaner sorted out, (or that [expletive deleted] shed finished.)


The first guests arrived on Monday, only 30 minutes after the joiner had left the building, and an hour after I’d concluded discussions with one of Jamie the farmer’s daughters to do the changeovers for the house. The garden looked like a horde of ill-informed pirates had been digging for treasure, and the guests arrived an hour early, just as I was frantically and ineffectively ironing a pillowcase (the first ironing I’d done since ironing my graduation gown while I was still an undergraduate).


After these first visitors leave, we’ve some Americans coming, then the architects on a team building trip to see the house. Then, after that, Australians, and then more Americans. Oh and a family from Walsall.  There won’t be that much time for me to mope about Brexit, or having built a beautiful house that I can’t live in, and that’s the way I like it.  If there is a miniscule, vanishingly small and very selfish upside to the turmoil and pain of recent weeks, it would be that, since the pound fell so sharply against the dollar, the cost of a UK trip for Americans has come right down. So I’m just awaiting the influx of Americans to book Sula for a last minute break to Scotland.




And the Germans?  Well don’t worry about them. I had been advising them on the best restaurants in Glasgow to take their son for his birthday and insisted that they couldn’t leave Glasgow without a visit to the Ubiquitous Chip, a Glasgow foodie institution. Assuming they had followed my advice, which I’d given so emphatically, I popped along to The Chip that afternoon with the guidebook and map and asked whether they had received a booking. It turned out that they had been there only an hour before to book themselves a table, I left their guide and map with an apologetic note.


Later that week I received an email from a Dr. Prof. Jur. Harry Mueller (these Germans like their titles) thanking me for the advice on the excellent restaurants and offering to advise me on the best restaurants, museums and galleries of Hamburg if I ever wanted to visit.


I suppose I’d better get over there before they close the borders.

 Look were actually finished!


What I’d do differently

You know how I said I’d never ever do something like this ever again?   And that building a house isn’t something that I’d wish on my worst enemy?

Well, I don’t feel like that any more, or at least not all the time.

I suppose the bad experiences fade and you just have the good stuff left. It’s like forgetting the hard slog, exhaustion, frozen extremities, fear and exposure, and the long slog down in the dark of a day winter mountaineering in Scotland.  Somehow, the next week when someone asks you if you want to go out to the hills, you only remember that moment when the sun burst through the mist of fog crystals on the summit, so that the air sparkled with delight, and not the hellish rest of it.

That’s not to say I’m about to build another house. No no. That is absolutely not going to happen, I’m just saying I don’t wake up in the night any more wondering why I started this thing. It’s probably a good moment to share some of the things that I would change if I were building the house again (gosh, imagine what a nightmare that would be? Being made to start all over again on a massive task that you’d only just survived the first time round…aaargghh)

So here we go, I don’t think this can be a definitive list, but here’s a selection.


Over the winter I went through a phase of cringing when I saw the huge white gable of the house shining like a beacon across the bay.

I’d really wanted that whole main section of the house and gable to be clad in larch, which would fade to silver grey and blend with the hillside but the planners wanted the main part of the house to be harled in white. Going back further our plan was to have the whole house clad in larch, but it was clear from planning that a combination of wood and harling would be more acceptable. We ended up switching the harled and clad sections over, reducing the area of wood cladding to about a third of the area of the house.

Half way through building, when I was having that terrible nightmare finding a company to do the cladding and I found out that the harled cladding system was going to cost around twice the price of the wood cladding, I wished we had pressed the case for wood cladding harder. When the house was complete and the scaffolding came off, I wished it even more, especially with seeing how the wood section is starting to blend so beautifully with the surroundings.

Waiting months and months for the curtains for the huge windows downstairs and up didn’t help (and not having a ladder long enough to actually put them up). In the absence of other things to fret about, I worried about how my house shone like a beacon across the bay for hundreds of miles to the south.

However, now it’s summer and the trees are in full leaf, the house stands is screened from the bay and I’m starting to get used to the harling.


Being the proud owner of a stairwell atrium 

All the other things that annoyed me at various points in the build are getting less annoying. Even that enormous high 7.5 m stairwell which was such a pain to make airtight, plasterboard, decorate, and which I will never be able to clean the windows of, is actually quite picturesque and uplifting to live with. The omission of a light on the stairs (it really is crying out for one of those huge dangling spiral chandeliers to match the space) doesn’t bother me anymore either.

I actually noticed the lack of light early on, while we were plaster-boarding, but I was so caught in the nightmare of Phil (Builder#4) and contemplating how to sack him, that I couldn’t face the strain of liaising between him and the electrician to get it fixed.

Anyway, it’s all settling in. Though next time, in the interests of economy, I’d leave the atrium out of the house and use the space for something useful.

But don’t fear – I have a plan for that atrium. When the dust has settled and I feel I can countenance working with a builder again, I’ll build a giant shelf in the stairwell as a little tree-house/den for me. It will have a book-shelf and two bean bags, a ladder I can hoist up in case of emergency, and an amazing view through the massive window (which I would now actually be able to clean) up to the Ballachulish Horseshoe.


Technical blah blah: Heating system and Biodisk. 

There’s other annoying stuff like finding the heating system had two cylinders instead of one, thus taking up the space in the drying room allocated for boot racks and such.   And the biodisk septic tank having a white protuberance that sits in the middle of my garden and whirrs. Both of these irritations are down to me not asking enough questions at the start of the build and just letting things happen – the architects specified the type of biodisk, and Stuart, builder 1, recommended a local company for the heating system. I


I’m getting used to the low buzz of the heat pump but I still can’t work the really complicated user interface. I’m convinced someone should a have been able to invent something a bit easier to work.

Of course Stephen the builder had lots of say about how much better the heating system is in his house, as he does about almost everything else too. (For those who don’t know the whole story, Stephen came on the scene late on in the build and saved the whole caboodle from disaster – twice – however the payment from my side appears to be to have the piss taken for various bad decisions I made, and to hear how much better the house he built himself is. It’s really a small price to pay to be honest.)

I feel I was more involved in the whole MVHR and wood burning stove planning and installation and I’m much happier with how they work (despite the little hole-drilling mishap).

We moved the MVHR exit and intake from the roof to out the back and that works really well. It means you can’t see it and It’s also on the north side of the house so when it’s warm in the house, it provides quite an effective method of cooling (not as effective as opening the doors and windows of course….).

Shape and Space. 

It only occurred to me once the house was built that having a 1m x 2m sticky-out bit at the back of the house, that allows for the turn of the staircase, was a rather inefficient use of space. Given the extra difficulties of making the house the shape it is at the back, with a complex roof arrangement, it’s likely that it would actually have been cheaper to make the house an extra metre bigger all across the back, which would also mean I’d have a bigger hall to throw my muddy wellies around in.

And, if I’m feeling extra picky. I’d have left an extra 50cm at the front of the house. So I could walk all round the dining table without having to squeeeeze past the chairs. (but that’s being unreasonably picky, to be honest).


Paying attention

Another thing that happened because I wasn’t quite ‘on it’ at the start of the build was cold bridging under the doors. If I was building a house again I’d be far more with it from the very beginning. I seem to have two modes of operation: lassez faire, delegating and trusting people to do their job, and control freakery. To be honest, I think I’d have put in a bit more control freakery at the start of the build to make sure everything was going to plan. I would obsessively check things; I would print out the plans hundreds of time and distribute them to absolutely everyone, irritating them by pointing out things that were obvious to them already.

If I’d have done this then I wouldn’t have a 200mm section of breeze blocks right under the wood floor on the thresholds into the house. The architects had a plan that had the breeze block foundation dropping down where the patio doors were to allow for some insulation to prevent cold bridging. It wasn’t immediately clear to me from the diagrams and it was actually only when I felt the cold coming up from the floor by the patio doors, once the whole house was finished that I placed the cross sections side by side and worked out what was supposed to have happened.


It is a little frustrating that I did actually pay for one site visit for the architects after I took over project management and it was at the point the timber kit had gone up. There had been a hiatus in the work while I scrabbled about for a builder to do the cladding, having been let down by the framing company. Stephen had just taken on the job and had pointed out that the windows were in the wrong positions and would need taking out and refitting. He was on site that day to meet the architect, and I’d asked Matt whether there was anything else wrong that we should sort out. He was standing right by the patio doors when he’d said, the rest looked ok.

For the patio doors in the siting room, which I found I wasn’t using at all, Stephen and I decided to just put in some kingspan and an extra windowsill on the threshold and convert it from doors to a window. The other one, I’ll live with.


The Final Item in this list, decision making, is a biggie and I think I will leave it til the next blog.

A day at Springwatch 

After a run of three years at RSPB Minsmere, it’s the last week of the last Springwatch at the reserve and I’ve had a chance, with some of my colleagues at the RSPB, to visit the set and find out some more about how the phenomenon, which is Springwatch is made.


To Springwatch’s millions of devoted fans it may seem like a relaxed and casual event, kicking back in those chesterfield sofas, but Springwatch is anything but. The presenters may exude the calm of the proverbial swan, gliding along on the surface, but beneath the water, a massive and well-oiled and expert machine is frantically paddling away.



There’s a village of people on site at RSPB Minsmere, 120 people decamp to the site for the three weeks of transmission, and take up most of the local accommodation. Four massive trucks housing the outside broadcast equipment jostle for space with tents, marquees, truck diners and gazebos.

 “It costs me a million pounds to rent those outside transmission trucks for the month of Springwatch” says Tim Scoones, executive producer, and the man behind the show, who is showing us around the site.


He takes us into one of the monster trucks which will hotfoot to Glasto after they are finished with Springwatch, then Wimbledon, and every must-see sporting and cultural event after that (it’s the very truck that makes ‘Strictly’ for goodness sake!)

 Before us is a bank of screens pulsating with action: nests and eggs and, of course spineless Si (and Stephen Fry). It’s like a control centre for …. well ….like a control center for the biggest outside live broadcast the BBC does.

“Springwatch is different from all those other shows” says Tim, explaining the ambitions and the sheer brass neck of Springwatch.
  “There are thirty live feeds coming into the main truck, with six at any one time recording”. Tim has story developers watching those screens intently 24 hours a day, ready to catch anything exciting, new or unusual. “we take our inspiration from Big Brother and from the news. These guys are making the stories as they happen”.
I ask what happens if they can’t switch one of the live cameras to record in time. “We have to be ready all the time” says one of the story developers. “If we don’t we can miss something spectacular”. They give an example from the previous day where they had an adder predating on one nest box and, at the same time, a stoat coming into another. They simply couldn’t get to the record buttons in time.
There’s a live broadcast about to start “we like to think of it as Test Match Special meets rolling news” jokes Tim as he ushers us out of the truck to continue the chat.
Tim explains more about quite how innovative and seat-of-the-pants Springwatch is. “There’s no autocue” he says, “This is what makes springwatch different. There’s no script, we are remaking the show as it goes out”. The presenters have a cacophony of voices going on in their ear-pieces as they speak; someone telling them countdowns to items cutting in or out, another person telling them what item is next, or that they need to cut straight to a hatching, or some other exciting happening on one of the cameras “When something happens live like that nightingale singing last night, we just cut straight to the camera and the presenters just have to carry on”.

  They are constantly changing items, cutting items and lengthening items as the show goes out. It’s a wonder that Michaela, Chris and Martin sound as relaxed and unruffled as they do with all that happening around them.
Suddenly a producer appears at the door of the truck. “Breaking news!” he says “those sparrowhawk eggs are hatching”. He pops back into the truck only to appear seconds later with more breaking news.
There is simply never a dull moment on the set of Springwatch.


Later that day we get a chance to see Chris Packham in action. We are part of the audience in Unsprung, standing rather self-consciously around the set trying to ignore the cameras getting thrust right into our faces and hoping that a close up of our faces won’t make it into live TV.

The show is funny, slick, and a bit tongue in cheek. We clap, we cheer, we groan at the rubbish jokes, we boo (when Chris Packham criticizes a fantastic photo of a swimming adder), and before we know it we are shuffling off-set and back into the evening sun of RSPB Minsmere.


We leave awestruck by the energy, the devotion, the skills and the teamwork of everyone working on Springwatch. Our day may be over but Chris, Martin, Michaela and the whole oiled machine of BBC staff still has a run though of the show and Springwatch itself to go before they finish up for the day.
I’ll certainly be watching Springwatch with new eyes, and a large helping of awe and admiration when it goes out from RSPB Minsmere for the last time later this week.

The digger arrives 

As I predicted two weeks ago, this turned out to be the longest run of dry weather in recent years. We’ve had so many days of sun on the trot without a cloud in the sky I’m beginning to lose count.

  And the reason I knew that the weather would go on and on? I’ve just planted a lawn. And ever since I’ve planted it there has been blue skies from end to end of scotland, despite forecasts to the contrary. In fact, what was once a deadly swamp that would swallow wellies before breakfast and whole diggers if it got the chance, is now cracked and dried out like a dry riverbed in the Sahel.  

I’ve been waiting months (yes months) for Ronnie the digger man to finish off the landscaping around the house. To start with the land was just too wet. And then other things got in the way. But, in the end, on Friday, Donald and a digger arrived. I was rather late on site and he’d already buried all the large rocks I’d heaved out of the garden and into a pile to be given more productive life as a rockery. 


 I’d planned for the garden to look like the surrounding landscape: wet meadow, yellow flag-iris, alder, a pond and a bank behind the patio perhaps a rockery. As I waved my hands around the garden saying where mounds of earth should go Donald said “Ach. You don’t want a garden all lumpy and bumpy, you want it all flat and straight like a central-belt garden.” 
And then he lined up the edge of the drive dead straight with the house. Stopping every bucketload or so to check the line, closing one eye and looking through a small gap he made between his palms, just to be sure. I was being his assistant, moving the planks of wood he was using to keep a straight edge and using a spade to tidy up. I wasn’t very good at it because whenever the giant toothed and terrifying bucket came anywhere near me I sprinted off to take cover. 


He dug me a beautiful pond to the most exact specifications with shallows for flag irises and gentle sloping sides. And even left me some piles of topsoil (after my special pleading for a garden with topography) to create a bank around the side of the pond and behind the patio. He shifted a pile of enormous boulders taken out of the site during the excavation for the foundation, across the site to form the base of my bank and rockery and deepened my moat/drainage ditch. 


As Donald worked a steady stream of locals came by, thinking it was Ronnie McColl, to ask when he was coming by to do work for them. Seems like I hadn’t been the only person in Cuil waiting on a digger. 


Donald seemed keen on everything being proper Scottish. Over coffee he reeled off a list of musicians who weren’t proper Scottish (and comedians). I hate Billy Connelly and Capercaillie, he said, that’s all disgusting stuff, awful, too fast, not proper Scottish music. “What you want to listen to is”, and he reeled off a list of names, very few that I had heard of. 
I wrote down the unfamiliar names on a bit of newspaper sitting on the worktop planning to look them up that evening.
‘That Oban live, that’s disgusting’ said Donald. But what about Skerryvore, they’re good though aren’t they? 

‘No they’re disgusting’ 


I wondered what he’d think of my ceilidh band, made up of a motley crew of parents from the school who scrape a ceilidh together every now and again to raise money for local causes and have some fun. And who play an arrangement of bear necessities and a spoonful of sugar for the Virginnia Reel. He seemed OK with that, but wasn’t taken with the idea of doing it to Disco Music. ‘Modern Music is disgusting,’ he said. ‘Unless it’s the Carpenters’ 


I tried to impress him with the Scottishness of my lawn and meadow mixes that I was going to plant once he’d finished with the garden landscaping. “Scotia Seeds – all the seed comes from Scottish provenance flowers” I said as I showed him the list of species and where they come from. But as soon as I looked at the ingredients I saw that all the seed comes from Angus, Fife, Invernessshire, and had a quick panic “There’s nothing from the west highland there” says donald just as I noticed myself. 
My dad said the same when I see him the following weekend. And he’s a botanist. The only solution to this dilemma is obviously for my dad and donald to wander around cuil bay’s meadows in the autumn gathering seed for me to plant. 


As soon as Donald was done I started raking the area to be seeded and sowing my flowering meadow mix for the area in front of the house and my wet meadow mix (for the ditch) and kept my kind edge mix for when the pond edge was ready. 

And now I just need to wait for the rain. But it looks unlikely to come for a while, or at least until all the seeds are eaten by that little pied wagtail who keeps pecking about in the dirt. Probably getting her own back for me evicting her from the nest hole she used last year in my half built house. 

A walk and a coathanger accountant

Part 2 of the Glen Affric Blogs.

See here for Part 1. 


Morning dawned grey and damp. The cloud sat along the base of the hills about a ten minute walk from the youth hostel.

“We could always do just the one Munroe and see how we feel” said Jo.


“There’s bound to be a cloud inversion with blazing sun on the summits” said I, ignoring all possibilities that we would do less waking than we had committed to when we were planning the trip.


We got packed up and headed off, straight up the back of Glen Affric hostel on an excellent path. A couple of men had arrived late and pitched their tent between the main military green corrugated iron hostel and the nearby dorm. They were finishing their packing and headed up just after us with enormous rucksacks. Their plan was to do a few Munros and sleep high, then complete the set the next day. Our plan was to do the same but return to the comfort of the youth hostel for the night.

  Despite my natural inclination to conversation and chat, my plans for the trip had been a quiet, contemplative pacing the hills to free the mind of clutter. This clutter had accumulated during a long period of being over-busy, over-stressed and not having enough visits to the wide open spaces of the hills. Jo, my long-suffering walking companion, on the other hand, sees long walking trips as a chance for lots of chat and catching up. So once we fell into step with the other two walkers (there was no getting away from them, I tried an onslaught of speed but I slowed eventually and they caught up) Jo was in her element, chatting away.


As we traversed the peat hags, just before the final ascent to the coll I overheard the conversation that one of them had driven from Essex via Warrington to pick up the other and then straight through to Glen Affric – and I had thought we’d been in the car for ever coming up from Glasgow.


‘What do you do in Essex?” I asked “I am an accountant in a firm that sells coat hangers” he said.

Well. What do you say to that? I’d never before had the opportunity to make conversation with an accountant from Essex working for a firm selling coat hangers.


“Erm. Do you like it?” I asked

“No I hate it but l can’t leave” he said.

I asked him why not and he told me about the generous benefits that he gets with the role.

“I get free petrol for my own use, as well as work” he said triumphantly, “it helps when you love the mountains so much and you live in Essex”.

No doubt, I thought, but then immediately wondered why he didn’t just leave the job and move to Scotland which would, at once, solve both of his problems. “We get as many free coat hangers as we want too” he continued.


But I wasn’t in a life coaching mood, I had come to find wildness and I couldn’t get to wildness until people and chat and the stuff of civilization, especially thoughts about coat hanger manufacture, were left behind.


We continued on our separate way when we reached the coll and the day began.


The sun started to shine through as we reached the top of the first Munro, An Socach. A misty brightness, as if the light was within the cloud around us. Directly above we could make out a pale, chalky blue but the sun couldn’t burn though to reach us. I imagined that, with another 10m of altitude we’d be in broad sunshine looking down all around us on a sea of cloud with a few of the tallest mountains poking through.


Munro number one done, we wandered down the gentle broad ridge to a coll littered with small peaty-black pools. The two mountains beyond were behind a couple of smaller peaks, and Jo had started talking about possibly fitting in a fourth, Beinn Fionnlaidh, which was utterly miles away.

 I was happy though. The path rose at a comfortable angle across the slope and the sun kept breaking through. We even had a bit of phone contact with the outside world for the first time since stopping in Beauly for lunch. (Where Jo had spent part of the meal whispering “I think I know that woman from school” and “but I haven’t seen her since then” and “should I go and say hi?” Until I had said (rather too loudly) “if you don’t go over and say hi to her then I will!” She did turn out to be an old school friend of Jo’s in the end)


Anyway. The hill was lovely. There was snow. And sun. And those fantastic shattered stone pavements on the summit ridge. I’d got to the point of thinking about nothing in particular, and had started noticing things, like lichen mapping out whole continents on a piece of ice-smoothed rock, and slivers of silver layered through the schist, when I tripped on a bit of rock, coming down really hard on my knee. It was properly, awfully and excruciatingly painful and I lay on the snow in the foetal position screaming intermittently like a  hoarse siren. I could hear Jo in the distance, as if through glass, saying “take your time Kat” and then my own personal opiate supply kicked in. I lay there motionless and silent on the snow wondering when Jo would come over to see whether I was dead. And then I wondered absent-mindedly, if I wasn’t dead, whether a helicopter was going to come and pick me up.


It turned out I wasn’t dead. I just had a grazed knee.
I made a mental note to increase the level of sympathy towards my children when they graze their knees in future.

This was a very strange house with door and window almost on the summit of Mam Sodhail.

It took two dressings and a handful  of jelly beans and then I was back on my feet and we headed to Munro 2 of the day. I had no pain, it was a miracle, I almost ran to the top.  Jo pointed out that the sun was out and it had got quite warm, melt-water was trickling down the hill from the remaining snow on the ridge. I declared it ‘taps aff’ and said we shouldn’t miss out on Munro 3 because of my knee.

“It doesn’t hurt at all at all” I said.


We reached Mam Sodhail and sat down by the an extremely well constructed and enormous cairn for a snack, not expecting to see anyone. But a couple were just approaching from the other side. I hastily put my top back on, and then my knee started to hurt.

The couple regaled us with their experiences of coming up and over the melting cornice, “no we didn’t have any ice-axes” they said. Jo and I paled, as we looked at the route they’d taken. My knee was throbbing. Better get back, said Jo sensibly, and we decided to leave Carn Eigh and Beinn Fhionnlaidh for another expedition. As we walked along the ridge we looked back and saw the woman standing right up at the edge of the cornice to pose for a photo. We stayed watching long enough to be sure we didn’t need to call for the helicopter, or try and effect a rescue, and then we headed back to the Youth Hostel.


Postscript: the sore knee developed two pleasingly large scabs which are currently in the process of sloughing. (Is that the correct word for scabs? I certainly feel like I’m sloughing them). Lovely.






















“This should have been the easiest house in the world to build”

So you’ve heard my opinion on building a house ad infinitum over the past few years and now, it’s probably the turn of the builder to have a say. Months of pestering Stephen to write a blog hasn’t had any effect and so it’s going to be an interview format instead. I’ll try not to colour it too much with my own thoughts, but given that, when I listened back to the recording, it was largely me talking, that could be hard. I’m no Graham Norton by any means.   

I’d lined up the kind of questions I thought would get me some interesting answers, and illuminate something of the process of the build from the point of view of the builder. 


I get started: “Why did you take on a half built house when lots of other builders had turned me down?”


“I thought, ‘that looks easy, I’ll do that'” said Stephen. 


I tried again, “What were the low points or problems with the build” I asked. 


“None really, it was pretty straightforward. Your house should have been the easiest house in the world to build”


Oh…. This was shaping up to be a rather tedious blog where I come out looking like a total numptie. I tried another tack. 


We spoke about the best builds he’d done and he reeled off a list: “That one on the island in Oban Bay for sale, a big house in Easdale, the one in Benderloch, (that’s for sale too at the moment for 1.3 million I’ll send you the particulars…) my own, twice”. 


I’d already used the joke that the new house in Oban Bay is for sale because they got his final bill so I leave it and press him on the question, “But which one is the best thing you’ve built? Is it your own house?”


“No way, of course not. You know yourself, building your own house is really awful” 


“Really?”, I ask, amazed, “even for a builder?”


Stephen built his own house between dealing with all the other projects he was working on “I’d try and be done by two and then come and work on the house until eleven, and sometimes four in the morning towards the end”


But did he never get to see his family? “The kids would be in bed by seven and I’d go back out again to the build”



Stephen has been building for 25 years, starting when he was 16. I do a quick calculation on my fingers “Forty one! same as me!” I say triumphantly and ask why he decided to go into building.



“I didn’t have any qualifications, my dad and uncle were joiners, it was the thing to do, it was in the blood” 



I think back to my early career. I didn’t have my first proper job until I was 27 after a year out either side of university and a PhD. But why did I become a biologist? Because, well, my parents were biologists, I even went to the same university as my parents. My sister took the same route too. I certainly didn’t have a better reason for choosing my own career. 


We move onto the subject of working with people. He has certainly had worse clients than me. Much worse as it turns out. 



“Sometimes I can’t actually speak to them,” he said “and then I just send the boys in and stay away. Once when someone was really bad I had a Polish guy working for me and I just sent him in and told him to pretend he didn’t speak English”.


Now I can tell you, that I have certainly put the hours in to try and be good to work with. I was pretty desperate at the time Stephen appeared on the scene, I’d just called every builder in the phone book from Fort William to Oban, even the one who friends suggested I didn’t touch with a barge-pole. In fact the whole past year can he summarized as a major Stephen charm offensive: getting stuff to site on time, attempting (and failing) not to be too in-your-face, paying bills really quickly, being generally charming. Why do you think I wrote so many nice blogs about Stephen? In fact I don’t recall a charm offensive as prolonged as this since I met the long-suffering husband.  


I ask something about what I’m like to work with, hoping to elicit a positive comment. Nothing. 


So how does he decide whether to take on a job or not? “I make up my mind about whether I can work with someone within the first few seconds. And if I don’t think I can work with them I don’t take on the job”



It’s a bit awkward asking about yourself so I leave the obvious question hanging and ask “What’s the first thing you remember about my build?” 


“It was the panicked answerphone message I got on the Friday. You just sounded really desperate” he chuckles. 


He brightens further with chat about the highlights of the build which all revolve around the incompetencies of Builder#4 who I will name Phil for the purposes of this blog. 


“The highlight? – It’s got to be Phil’s caravan and tent and saw” he said in answer to the question and collapsed in laughter. “And then there’s the fridge full of beer. You know a builder’s good when he gets his priorities right, and the fridge of beer was the first thing to appear on site”


He went on “Then there was the business card – ‘landscape, Joinery, Deliveries'” I start to feel uncomfortable remembering all the horrors of my poor decision making. 


“But the best has got to be the day the boy burnt the sausages for breakfast and they all packed up and went home.” He said. I wilt. 



Stephen described, with glee, the time sheets his team put in when they started on the interior work after Phil had left.  

sorting Phil’s Shambles —– 8 hours. 


“He really looked like he was doing it for the first time” said Stephen. “And when someone is that bad, it makes everyone else look really really good” 


“It was funny when they didn’t arrive until 1130am one day when the rugby was on, saying they were on a landscaping job til late the night before, and went straight for a snooze in the caravan. They were still in there when the boys left that night.” 


Stephen pauses for a moment to chuckle, “the next morning when they emerged they went straight to the Holly Tree to watch the rugby and, when they got back, they said there wasn’t much point getting started so headed straight back to the central belt”


At this point I had been transported back to the full horror of the Phil episode. Aren’t we done yet? I wonder. 


“Seeing you hit rock bottom”  

Eh what? That doesn’t seem like a highlight. 


 But appeared that it was. 


“Phil really broke you, you were totally defeated” said Stephen: twice, just in case I didn’t hear the first time. 


“Actually,” I say, feeling the need to defend myself, and point out my resilience and stoicism, “the worst bit was having to talk to you about it to sort everything out”. 

(And that’s a fact. That bit was truly and utterly awful)


When things were bad, I didn’t even talk to the long-suffering husband about it. I didn’t want to. It was all too dreadful. I’d get home, after the two-hour drive back to Glasgow with the 90s club classics turned right up in an attempt to drive out the house-build ‘drag-me-down’ vibes with the ecstatic feel of a rave in a field, and Husband would pass me the wine and put on the iplayer. Everything would suddenly be right with the world. 


 “You can’t build a house without wine” said Stephen, evidently from plenty of bitter personal experience “Can you imagine what it would be like without the wine? You need wine. God, we’d all be dead without the wine.”


I told him the story of the sacking of Phil, done, as I do many things, to minimize conflict and just get it done as painlessly as possible. I spent some considerable time that day getting Phil to accept that he couldn’t finish the job and to take all his equipment and caravan off site. (Throughout this awkward conversation the, already rather physically imposing man, towered above me. “Shall we sit down” I said, Phil sat on a step ladder on top of a pile of boards “are you going to sit down?” He’d asked “no I think I’ll stand” I said). Once everything was offsite except the ruddy saw and the ruddy fridge (minus the beer unfortunately) I followed up with a phone call to finish the job. 


Yes I suppose it did rather break me, I admit. 


“It’s hard sacking someone” says Stephen pensively. 

“Yup. I’m finding it a bit difficult to think about it even now” I say. 

The interview had become a house-building therapy session. “It must have been hard,” said Stephen, “There’s probably some wall gone up there”.


“Why did I make such a useless decision to go with Phil instead of you for the interior work?” I wail. 


“You just need to go with your gut instinct but you probably didn’t do that” said Stephen sympathetically. 


I wander off into thinking about a management training I was at a few years ago. We were discussing personality and how people make decisions. According to the psychologists, people like me usually take decisions intuitively and instinctively (tell me something I don’t know…), but when they are under heavy stress they can start to take decisions in a different way, trying to use more rational approaches, which usually means they make bad decisions. I pull myself away from the looming cliff of introspection and back to the task in hand. 



“Hold on Stephen. Who is the interviewer here?”  


It seems that I’m not the only person Stephen has seen in a defeated slump. “People are usually like that when they come to me. The whole process of planning and building control does people in, it takes years and they just want the house built.” 


And it’s not just the clients who can have a hard time. Later in our discussions Stephen tells me that even he can have a bad time at it. “Sometimes you get a job that really breaks you, you just have to tell yourself that it will be over soon and get on with it, but if it’s a house build, it can last a very long time.”


I ask if he liked reading the blogs I’d written about him. He brightened considerably, “I love it” he said. “People keep asking whether I’m builder #1 #2 #3or #4.”


According to Stephen, Lots of people around Oban read the blog, “the partner of your planning officer, he reads it.” He said (Oh….. I thought about the blog I wrote about our trip up to fort william to charm the planners and my toes curled gently under the table.)

“Everyone does.”


 I do know that my building control officer reads it – he emailed me to say so after I’d written a blog about him (eliciting another slight curling of the toes) 


 The joy of writing about the build has been that Stephen has always been very blasé about what I write about him. I always sent the blogs to him to make sure he was happy. “I really don’t care what you write” he would say repeatedly “Say whatever you like.”


 Once I mused, on Twitter, about the writers block I was suffering as a convenience of worrying about the builders reading it. 

“Fire on, I’ve got my own blog ready for when the cheque clears” came back the response from Stephen.    

 And that was when the idea of a guest blog from the builder, and the architect, and anyone else who fancies sticking an oar in, came about. 


And, of course, that is how I come to be interviewing Stephen. 



Conscious that the product of the interview thus far hasn’t made me look particularly competent, I go fishing for something that could save my reputation. Was there anything I did right?


“When you filmed the cow in the next door neighbour’s garden, that was funny”. Stephen was referring to the morning when Jamie the farmer came over while we were talking about what to do about the porch. 


“You’ve caused me a load of @&$@ing grief Kat” said Jamie. Oh dear, I thought, what could it be; the articulated lorries coming down the ridiculously small road and trying to turn in his drive? The piles of detritus all over the landscape related to my house build? The gaping potholes that seem to get bigger every time another truck, transit or lorry zooms down the track? Apparently not, it was the time lapse video I’d made of me and a few friends trying to build a shed and which gave a view of the neighbour’s garden. “The neighbours saw it and there was one of my @&$@ing cows in there eating their hedging plants. They were straight on the phone to me last night” he said. We all fell about laughing. 


Funny, Stephen, yes. But IT DOESN’T ANSWER THE QUESTION. was there anything I did right during the build?


“Well you’d actually make a very good project manager” he said eventually, when pressed. 


Really? In what way?

“In the way of being really good at organising people, finding someone who knows how to do the job and getting them to do it”. 


Well, knock me over with a feather. I didn’t expect that to come out of the interview. My job here was done. 

 There was one last question I really had to ask. One that had been bothering me since the start of the interview. 


“Seeing as my house should have been the easiest house in the world to build, and nothing in it was a problem for you, did my epic charm offensive have any effect or was it just totally wasted effort?”


Hummmmm. As I suspected, it seemed that all my efforts to be charming and good to work with were rather unnecessary, and probably went unnoticed. I looked rather downcast. 


“It didn’t go unnoticed.” said Stephen “The boys appreciated the chocolates, well, the ones that didn’t fall in the mud.”


At Christmas I’d made special whisky chocolates for all the people on site – the filling was melted white chocolate mixed with Glenmorangie. There was an awful lot of whisky in each of those chocolates and everyone got four in a home-made box. (Well not everyone, two boxes fell in a huge puddle when I got out of the car so Eddie the tiler and I scoffed all of those after we’d rinsed them under the tap). You don’t get much more charming than that, but no-one ever mentioned it

But whether or not the charm offensive was necessary, effective, or even noticed, It probably was essential for my own entertainment and well-being during the build. When you’re building a house, you think about it every single day. Every day. And that means you need to think about the builder every day. This can become somewhat debilitating if you are having difficulties with your builder. Thinking about Phil always made me irritable, downcast and miserable to be around.  


Very early on I accepted that I was just going to have to think about Stephen quite a lot, so I might as well see it as one of the good things about building my house. Especially when the good things are rather few and far between, consisting of writing the blog and inventing new ways of making splashbacks and shower screens, and nothing much else.  


Stephen is very aware of the huge importance that he and his team have in the lives of people building a house. 

“We become a major part of people’s lives, we recognise that” he says “and working with interesting people is always part of the attractions of a job”. 



There were just so many absolutely hateful, tedious or just downright soul-sapping tasks that I had to find a way to make myself want to do. Who wants to spend a sunny Saturday choosing bathroom stuff? Or having to give list after list of things to do to the builder. It’s just not fun. There are about a million things I could think of that I’d rather be doing than building this house. For some reason, actually finishing the house was never much of a motivating factor in itself, I had come to terms that I would be building the house well into the distant future and was simply looking for ways of making the process more bearable. 


I have found, over the past few years, ways of persuading myself to do tasks I don’t want to. I’ve actually got quite good at it now, I can even fill in a reporting spreadsheet, if my life depends on it.  


I’ve found that it’s people that motivate me, not tasks. So I always need to have a person that I’m doing the task for. If the task isn’t for a specific person then I need to imagine one. For example, when I write some interpretation, a leaflet or a press release at work I need to have my audience clearly in mind in the shape of a real person. And I can only tidy and clean the house if there’s someone coming for dinner (I sometimes plan a dinner party simply because the house needs a tidy). A deadline, real or invented, always helps too. 



When it came to the house, the charm offensive has certainly kept me occupied and entertained, and it has given me another reason for writing the blog, providing me with a muse from time to time (who evidently liked reading blogs about himself). But importantly it provided the motivation for doing all those painfully annoying things you need to get done to build a house. Like getting some essential component of the house to site by a certain date, or hassling Scotframe yet again to do what they said they would.



In fact, the whole fun of building the house, pretty much the only good bits, have all been the bits where I’ve worked with brilliant and effective people. Not just Stephen, but also Stephen the stonemason, Jamie who installed the MVHR, and Stephen’s team, especially Eddie who was the only person who didn’t seem to object to having his photo taken; Stuart the builder who did the foundations, and numerous others, including the architects and Tom (kitchen) and Jake (wood) who I’ve known since University. On the other side, the worst bits are when I’ve worked with difficult people: Phil being the only one that springs to mind. 

It’s only because of those people that, despite the problems and difficulties, building Sula has actually turned out to be a hugely enriching experience. 

Where on earth did that poetry spring from?

This is the end of a second day of walking the mountains of Glen Affric, and my mind has, at last, stopped racing and has started to slow down. Two days of pacing the hills steadily: mountain tops the goals but also the means to an end, working out the thoughts constantly running through my mind and freeing up a little space. The constant plod of foot after foot on the uphill imposing rhythm on thought and time to think each one away.  

John Muir wrote beautifully about the human need to connect with nature in the mountains.

 “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”

Our National Parks, (1901), chapter 1, page 1. 

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Muir quoted by Samuel Hall Young in Alaska Days with John Muir (1915) chapter 7 

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a long stretch of time in the mountains. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to work only two days a week for a whole year. The children were young and in nursery three days a week (so we could keep the space open for when I went back to my ‘proper’ job again). Once a fortnight I would take myself off to the hills to walk. 

It’s now down to one visit a year to a real wilderness space, a few nights bivvying alone in the hills and evening or day hill walks when I can fit them in. But this is a rare and special time in a place far from road, house and phone signal. 

It’s taken a long time to get to a state of not thinking of anything in particular; not my to-do-lists; not conversations to have and projects to begin; not worries about this and that, and to start to notice the world around me. It’s taken two days on the hill 9 hours a day with Jo, my long-suffering mountain companion. 


On these very rare occasions that my mind is actually clear, sometimes I just think about nothing at all, and sometimes I have ideas, make decisions or set out on flights of fancy, but this time, for the first time, some poetry has come out. 

I’ve no idea if it’s any good, I’ve never written poetry before. I don’t even read poetry. But here it is. Each with a photo of the place that inspired it.  





Gettaway to Glen Affric

Heading north. As Scotland’s political commentators, journalists, politicians and activists settled down for some rest after their election night exertions, I was driving past the heather clad and snow-streaked mountains of the Drumochrer pass, with a friend, listening to the radio analysis of seats won and lost, and wondering whether we’d need an ice axe. Blissful isolation of four days in Glen Affric lay before us.

  As we drove past Tiso I suddenly had second thoughts about my pannier rack, which I had rigged up to the bike with a shoe lace and a fruit shoot lid. I stopped to buy some heavyweight cord. The pannier rack came from a previous bike that bit the dust and was deposited outside the bike shop in the sky (also known as the Glasgow a bike station, a social enterprise project that gives bikes new life and also trains people for work). It wasn’t until later I realised I’d left a perfectly good pannier rack and mud guards on the bike and set off into the dark and rain at 10pm to remove them before someone else helped themselves.
It was this, hard won, rusty and ill-sized bike rack that I had been trying to attach at 8pm the evening before our great adventure was due to begin, improvising with what I had in the house. I had actually thought of it earlier in the day and taken it to a bike shop which proclaimed that it didn’t fit as I am still using the kids bike borrowed from my daughter a year previously (in fact it was the day after my previous bike was declared past help). However, even though he wouldn’t fit it, he gave me a couple of screws and I got the bottom fixed onto the frame near the hub. The rest of it waved precariously back and forth as I cycled home to see what I could attach it with.


Materials were sorely limited and so an old shoelace from a pair of long grown-out-of pumps had to do. The fruit-shoot lid was to stop the prongs of the bike rack moving forward past the seat when I braked. A previous itteration involving a bit of wood with two holes in, stuck out too far to be comfy while riding.

 I bustled about the house ineffectively, trying to pack but mainly looking for things that I’d lost. The husband was nowhere to be found when I needed him to help me find the bike pump, or some plastic bags, or my ice axe (should we take it? it could be icy on the mountains, or, actually, should we leave it? It will be a right pain to carry in?).  Eventually I found him in bed

It turned out that it was the only quiet place in the house where he wasn’t being asked to do things. “Am I being annoying with all the packing stuff?” I asked “just a bit” he said.

The rack seemed attached well enough as we set off, loaded up with plenty of luggage, into the glen. After a lengthy debate in the car about the state of the mountains, we decided to take the ice axes. Every mountain we approached seemed snow free “Look, that’s fine we won’t need it” Jo would say, until we passed it and looked back from the north, at the icy peak when we’d say together, “No let’s take them, better to be safe then sorry”. This continued almost the whole journey.


 My ice axe stuck out from my pannier like one of boudiccas wheel sythes “you’ll do someone a damage with that” said Jo. Thoughtfully I tied a trainer onto it.
The track to the youth hostel is 8 miles along what was billed as ‘passable by mountain bike’ on the website we looked at.

“It’s not going to take us long”, said Jo, “I cycle 7 miles to work every day and it only takes me 35 minutes, how long can this possibly take?”


 Turns out it could take a rather long time. My experience of mountain biking extends to my daily commute negotiating the potholes of dumbarton road and a “bonding” trip with my god-daughter – then 11- which involved her screeching with joy down a steep path in some woods in Dumfriesshire and me pushing my bike gingerly down behind her. I was ok on the uphill but skidding uncontrollably down loose gravel interspersed with larger rocks was a bit hair-raising, although after a bit I started to get the hang of it. The shoelace holding my pannier on broke a mile or so into the journey. “Ah ha.” Said I, reaching into my pocket, “This was just the occasion I expected and is why I bought that cord”.  But it was no where to be found.


Facing the prospect of a difficult journey ahead, it was then that the true value of the ice axe became clear, and I took off the strap and used it to reattach the pannier.
We continued on our way, pushing the bikes over slippery rocks in streams and up steep sections with eroded rocky surface. Only last week I’d watched a video of Danny Macaskill mountain biking the Skye ridge. It was certainly harder than he made it look…. I mentioned this to Jo. “He’ll have a proper mountain bike though” she said “and I bet he didn’t have full panniers, a half bottle of whiskey and an ice axe when he was cycling the Cullin ridge”.
 It was a fair enough comment, I was on my daughters bike ‘it’s too small for me mum’ and Jo was on her city commuting bike. Perhaps it really was only our lack of appropriate equipment that was preventing us zooming like athletes along this stony track. Although it’s worth crediting the daughter’s bike with successfully seeing me round the Bealach na Ba circuit (600m of ascent to the pass in driving sleet, snow on the road at the summit   and then another 40 miles and loads and LOADS more ascent) the previous Easter.
Eventually we arrived two and a half hours after we’d set off. One of the clips holding a pannier to the rack fell off only 200m from our destination, but, once again, the ice axe proved its worth and the loop of the strap made a temporary mend.


 The youth hostel, Britains most remote, was clad in corrugated iron painted millitary green and we arrived to a fine welcome and started getting to know our fellow hostellers. One was a woman, recently retired, making a food drop for 13 day across scotland trek she was starting the following week. She would be alone, dropped at start by her husband and camping, bothying and hostelling on route.


“You’re my two daughters” she laughed, a few minutes into our conversation. Her daughters are also called Kat and Jo.


Then there was a filmmaker couple who had taken the sleeper from London and were walking from Strathcarron to Inverness. Sue told us about making a film in a sea cave as the tide rose and fell. She would stay in there with the camera floating in a dry suit for 7-8 hours at a stretch. “It was magical, amazing, so peaceful” she said.


A cyclist bombed past at speed, up the Glen to a broken bridge and then back to the hostel where I was just getting the G&Ts out of the stream, where I had put them to cool. He was out on a quick evening bike trip. So far, out from the car park, up the glen  and back to the hostel had taken him  45 minutes. “But look he’s got a proper bike”, said Jo. “And no luggage”.
 By contrast, a group of eleven self-confessed “old farts” had even more trouble than us on the cycle in as they had brought four kegs of beer, two boxes of wine and three bottles of whisky in on a specially constructed platform attached to a kids tag-along bike. To add to their pain, one of their pedals had sheared off on the journey. They were up from Reading on their annual walking trip and intended  to combine Munro Bagging with drinking.


But despite the bonhomie in the hostel, people took to their beds early, the objective on everyone’s mind was the mountains and we had the prospect of a good weekend ahead.

 This looked like an inviting bench with a view as I pushed my bike up an especially rocky section of path…

  ….but turned out to be part of an old, decrepit bridge 

The boring bit …

I’m due a proper contemplative look back at the past few years. A thoughtful assessment of the whole process of building a house. But given the speed life is moving at the moment, I’m finding it hard to sort the velux blinds (that I ordered the wrong size) let alone sit down in a quiet place for a few hours of contemplation. 

So in lieu of that, I’ve been doing some meter readings and calculating things. It’s been a trying time for Adrian the heating engineer as I have been trying to get my head around the system, and calling him with puzzled questions, but I think I’ve now worked out which of the four metres is which and the various false alarms about energy use have been put to bed. 


It’s worth noting that these figures are perhaps not that indicative of the house in normal use because 

1. It covers just the winter months Oct-end April

2. Much of the measurements have been during the build when the heating was on quite warm to dry the house out but not much hot water was being used. 



The space heating and hot water is delivered by a heat pump (and solar gain is providing a really good level of heating when the sun is out). In this allegedly temperate coastal climate (though you wouldn’t know it judging by the outside temperatures today, the first day of May, and the snow on the hills) an air source heat pump is supposed to be quite effective as the air temperature doesn’t drop too low very often. 


We also have solar panels on the SW and SE facing roofs and large Southwest facing windows for solar gain.    

 So here’s all the boring ol’ figures….

Since October, when the heat pump went on, we have used 

3406 units of electricity (EM1) to run the heat pump (it has its own electricity meter). Which cost us 14p a unit, making a total cost £476.84 for the electricity to power the heat pump 


With this energy we generated 8870KWh of heat (HM1).


The equation used to calculate how much we should be paid for the Renewable Heat Incentive is, for some reason,


 HM1*0.97 -EM1 

which means, with a RHI of 7.51p/KWh this gives us a payment of £369 for the total period. 

Our solar electricity meter tells me we have produced 817.6KWh since it was commissioned in November. 

Which at 12.8p/KWh (which I think is our payment rate but I’d have to wait for the payment to come through to double check) I think will have brought in £104.65
The electricity company also assume that I export half of what I use and pay a fee of 4.88p/KWh for that. 
This means I should receive £124.60 payment for the electricity I have produced over the winter since November.  


So the total calculation is 

476.84-369-124.60 = negative 16.76 (i.e. A profit of £16.76)


So, if I’m not counting other use of electrical energy in the house, I’m managing to get my heating for free/make a small profit. 

However, to complicate matters, some of the electricity made by the solar panels will have been used to power my heat pump (or other electrical appliances in the house like MVHR that are on when the sun is shining), as electricity generated while electricity is in use in the house is used rather than exported, but still receives the payments. 


It’s hard to know how much of the energy I produced has been used but I can calculate a maximum and minimum. As a minimum this is zero and the maximum is that all of the energy I produced was used which means I would have saved buying in 817.6 KWh of electricity saving another £114.5 (at a cost of 14p per unit). 

This means that the cost balance was between £16.76 and £131.26 in my favour. Which strikes me as good, given that it was taken over the winter when heat demand will be at its highest and solar energy will be at its lowest. 


I’m looking forward to looking again at my meters after the summer to see how things stack up then. 


However, the point of building this house was to be all green and smug and eco and, although compromises needed to be made over the process, it’s really the carbon emissions from space and water heating I think I ought to be minimizing. So how do we do in this regard? 


The total electricity use minus that generated by solar is 2588 KWh. The estimate of carbon emissions from electricity is 0.496kg CO2/KWh *

Therefore my space and water heating between start October and end April (seven months) has produced 1.3 tonnes of CO2. I’ve been trying to find the datasets to compare this against and I ought to have access to them from all my previous carbon counting efforts. It won’t come as a surprise to you but it seems all my posts but one on travel have been lost, which isn’t very helpful. However from recollection the average house emits 6 tonnes CO2 per year so this seems ok. I’ll update the calculations after the summer. 


Apologies if that was stupendously boring, but my guess is that if you have actually made it to the end of this post, you have an unnatural interest in things related to energy and carbon emissions, so I am hoping you enjoyed it. 


You may also want to point out schoolboy errors I have made in my calculations. Please feel free to use the comments box!


* ref: Energy Saving Trust http://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/corporate/our-calculations


Getting stuff done 

Today I was storming. I was like Kat on fast forward. I was totally on fire.  Before I’d even had a coffee I’d peeled all the sticky protective film from the sliding door windows. And painted half of the bits of wood the curtain rails are mounted on. As I painted, mind configuring and reconfiguring my monstrous to-do list,  I thought how I am not really suited to the care, attention and exactitude demanded by the tasks of painting and decoratorating. I just hope I never have to undo any of those screws ever again. 


As an aside; Have you ever wondered why MDF doesn’t just come in white? It comes as a rather icky off- grayish white anyway, so why on earth can’t they make it white and save everyone a load of bother? 

I drank my coffee while balancing on the toilet cistern. But after nearly over-balancing a couple of times while trying to reach the wood, I calculated that it would only take a minute to fetch the step ladder whereas it would take me an hour to clear up the mess if I dropped the paint from this precarious position (and that I would take considerably longer than that to recover from plummeting into the toilet pan). So I went to get the ladder. 

The windows and doors were open to bring some of the lovely morning inside, but the backing track was not the singing of birds or the gentle waving of the leaves, it wasn’t even the constant annoying low hum of the heat pump or the MVHR or even the irritating whirring of the biodisk.  It was the dulcet tones of Jamie the farmer rounding up the cows with a vocabulary that would make Malcolm Tucker blush. 


A few weeks ago I’d been in the garden chatting with Stephen when a wall of swearing like I had never heard hit us like a tsunami, swept past us and up towards a terrified looking white van driver standing paralysed at the gate. He had made the mistake to open the gate and not shut it, or shut it when it should have been open, or perhaps drive through it when he should have waited for the cows to pass by. But neither he nor I could work out what he should do as the tirade of swearing accompanied everything he did. So he stood there like a rabbit caught in the headlights of one of those huge American juggernaughts, sometimes jerking this way or that in an attempt to resolve the sutuation. 

After the first coat was done I thought I’d have a proper look at the new curtains for the triangle window. They have been specially made to the right shape and I have been rather enjoying the challenge of working out how to hoist them up using a cunning pulley system.  


One evening, as a distraction from the more disturbing parts of a thriller we were watching, I made a working model from a cardboard box, a plastic bag, some wool and a whiteboard marker as a makeshift pulley. The curtain pleasingly lifted when I pulled the wool. 

Curtain down…
  Curtain up… Da-Dahhhh

 I was excited to see how things would work in reality.  I looked about for the curtain hooks. Nowhere to be found. I’d forgotten them, which was especially frustrating given that I must have bought some on at least two seperate  occasions.  so I held the curtain up to get a view of what it would look like and found it was too short. 

Disaster. It was made specially, but Shona the curtain maker must have been working to the dimensions of the recess I have, rather than the curtain dimensions. I could hardly lift it anyway but I managed to stuff it back in a bin bag to take back to Glasgow.  

 Next was another layer of paint and then a trip to the hardware store for masking tape and something to help me put a giant sticker on a window. I came back with one of those rubber paddles that window cleaners use. 
Then my piece de resistance. The window sticker for the glass on the sliding door. 

What I achieved was to put what was effectively a completely massive and giant mobile phone  

 screen protector onto a large bit of glass. The last screen protector I put on my phone only got three large bubbles. Oh, and a few smaller ones. Well, to be honest, there was almost more bubble than stuck-on screen saver. 


 But, with the help of my window cleaning squeegee and the urgency of not having had any lunch yet, I did it. (one small bubble). Now this was properly fun, better than painting, better than curtain hanging. I needed to share my joy  with another human being. I dashed outside yelling at Jamie the farmer who was at the cow pens just behind my house.  I told him how clever I’d been and how he must come and see. 


“Actually I’m a little busy at the minute” he said in an understated fashion as he held a cows neck and tried to get a syringe into her mouth “and by the way Kat, you’re totally [expletive deleted] wired to the moon”. 


 Wired I was, and over the next two hours I sewed some off-the shelf curtains together to make one the right size (may have to do one of them again as it just didn’t line up), painted the skirting thing on the stairs (and painted it a second time) and hung some curtains. No time for lunch but fortunately there was a large bag of kettle chips in the snack drawer which had somehow escaped the hordes of scavenging teenagers who were at the house over the Easter break. 

 Then there was trying to read the heat meters and organising things and clearing up. Cleaning the windows and putting up the rest of the curtains and blinds would have to wait. I had to get back to glasgow.  I had a child to meet, feed, take to scouts and then get to a committee meeting about getting use of some land for the community by 730pm. 


I eventually screeched to a halt in front of our house at 728pm just as aforementioned daughter had tired of waiting for me, got her sister to give her dinner and was starting to take herself off to Scouts. In the end I managed to take her to scouts, get to the committee meeting (even more wired to the moon after belting down the A82 at speed -unfortunately for the other four at the meeting) and even get back to scouts in time to pick up a pile of them and distribute them to their various houses.  Quite a productive day really. 

Here are some more photos of things that have happened since the last blog a while ago.  

 We have a patio. Lovely lovely and the sun is shining all the time at the moment.    

Just look at that geology on Ardnamurchan – a giant ancient volcano. Thanks to British Geological Survey mappers I now can look at geology every time I’m in the bathroom. I should put a laminated key to the colours in the drawer for people. 

 Fused glass splashback by Lucy Head stuck on at last. 

Look. That’s Cuil bay there. Lots of interesting geology round and about.   
  Patio nice view. That’s going to be a flowerbed there. And the missing metalwork is going to be a corner bench

Cold and Canyoning 

There are, perhaps, more sensible things to do on a wet morning in early April with a fresh sprinkling of snow on the summits than to head to a waterfall rushing with meltwater and fresh rain and plunge in. 

  However this is the Easter holidays and I had two teenagers and an 11 year old to entertain. A morning of canyoning should keep them occupied, I thought, and even perhaps tire them out. 


We all felt pretty cold when we arrived to the Vertical Descents barn in the woods at Inchree falls, just by Onich. Although, with hindsight, that was nothing. I refer to what the 13 year-old said as we returned from the adventure “If anyone complains of being cold ever again I will say ‘you don’t know cold. You haven’t been canyoning at Inchree. I really KNOW cold'”.

Vertical Decents have two bases in the area: Inchree where they do canyoning and Kinlochleven where they deliver canyoning and a couple of other activities. We were presented with wetsuits (wet being the operative word) and invited to take part in the undignified struggle to get them on. After a good fifteen minutes of straining and groaning and wailing and a bit of lying exhausted on the ground, we’d made some progress but, as the only adult in the party, it seemed to be down to me to get everyone’s neoprene socks on, which was the worst bit. 


When we emerged, somewhat warmer from our exertions, and feeling like seals ready for a fishing trip under the sea-ice, I found out we had the wetsuits on inside out. “Sod it!” I said. “We’re not taking them off.”

The neoprene jackets that zip right up into the hood came next and, with help, I managed to get the zip done up, which pretty much prevented me breathing and rendered my sports bra utterly pointless.  


Danny, our guide, took us to get kitted out with helmets, harnesses and buoyancy aids “What’s the shiny black plastic over the bum?” asked the 11 year-old. 


“It’s to stop the wetsuit being damaged as you slide over the rocks” said Danny. “And to keep the poo in and the rocks clean if you get really really scared”, leaving the kids wondering whether he was being serious.  


I borrowed a pair of wet trainers from ‘dead man’s wall’, around 40 sets of trainers hanging on a board.  

“Someone took a brand new pair of Nikes out of a box and then left them here after canyoning” said Danny. “People come up from London or Glasgow with more money than sense”.

“We’re from Glasgow”, piped up the 11 year-old. And at that moment I was certain I had more money than sense, as it dawned on me that I had just paid a lot of money for the privilege of struggling into a wet wetsuit and have someone shove me down a freezing cold waterfall.


We walked up past the falls to the point at which we got into the raging torrent. Dog walkers looked at us pityingly as we passed. The series of waterfalls was simply spectacular and in full flood. 

The kids took to the water like a row of ducklings. I followed squeaking involuntarily (and embarrassingly) as I hyperventilated in the freezing water. 


The first couple of obstacles were to get us into the groove: being swept across a plunge pool in the current and then sliding down a water chute on a rock face and into a pool. The kids went for it with gusto. I somehow got stuck and ended up dangling on my back between Danny’s legs, rather helplessly trying to get a purchase on the slippery rocks. 


Next there was a little scramble down wet rocks (tied on via Ferrara style you’ll be pleased to know) then edging along a rock blade above another waterfall (not tied on you’ll be horrified to hear). As I wondered whether the children were safe, out of the corner of my eye I saw someone fall, hit the water and disappear. I screamed, frantically checking to see which of the precious children were lost forever. They were all three looking back at me, wide eyed, wondering why I was screaming blue murder. It turns out Danny had jumped in and he bobbed back to the surface at the base of the rocks looking cheery. 


After a couple of obstacles my 11 year-old, (who happens to be rather lacking in body fat) started to feel chilled and after half an hour or so was so cold I needed to take her back to base camp. We clambered up a semi vertical bracken slope and headed back to the barn. The two thirteen year-olds continued valiantly onward, full of glee and shrieking joyfully as only teenagers can. 


 Once the 11 year-old was safe in the barn colouring in and eating chocolate with Ellie, who (wo)mans the base camp, I hurried back up to the falls to rejoin the main party. I’d missed much of it but got an amazing view of the kids doing the zip line down the main waterfall in the series. 


We then swam across the plunge pool and sat behind the waterfall. I should have been grinning and feeling pleased with myself, like my daughter, but I was actually just rather worried about the children. 


 Once back at base we were back to grunting, straining and wailing as we wrestled once again with the wet suits. 

“In all my time working here,” said Ellie, “I’ve never come across people who make so much noise and drama out of getting into and out of wet suits”. 

Damn right, I thought, and resolved that next time canyoning should be segregated into adults in one session and children in another. Because it is hard to enjoy yourself when you are constantly worrying about your kids (and other people’s kids). And it’s easier to help children with their wetsuits when you are warm and your hands aren’t curled into solid frozen claws. 

And to add to all that I’d also put a minimum body fat index on those taking part.  



Back Door Blues 

This started as a blog. But as soon as I’d written: ‘it was a door, but it’s not a door anymore’ I knew the genre had to be country and western. Not sure what the tune is, but it would fit to plenty of country tunes I recon. 
Apologies for the following …..

Back Door Blues 

It once was a door
Open onto the heath*
Then I felt the cold floor 
From the breeze blocks beneath

Ohhhoooo …. The door
Just isn’t a door

Oh it once was a door
Open onto the heath
Then we found the wood floor
Wouldn’t fit underneath

Ohhhoooo …. The door
Just isn’t a door


Oh it once was a door
Open onto the heath
Then I felt the wind blowing raw
From the leak underneath 

 Ohhhoooo …. The door
Just isn’t a door

Oh it once was a door
Open onto the heath
But it just wasn’t convenient to have a door there as it got in the way of the layout of the sitting room 

Ohhhoooo …. The door
Just isn’t a door

 So it’s no longer a door  

I’ve admitted defeat 

It’ll be fixed shut for evermore 
With a sill and kingspan beneath


Ohhhoooo …. The door
Just isn’t a door


* it’s not a heath, it’s a bog/moor. Which is a bit like a heath but wetter. 



Remote Roofing

It’s not as if I haven’t got enough to do. Because I have. However, if there was ever an outside possibility of boredom setting in, it has now been eliminated.

The roof at the wee bothy we co-own with 4 other families, is leaking. And of course it’s not a simple job. The bothy is a 40 minute walk over bog and moorland from Cuil Bay, has no electricity or other mod cons. In other words it’s a task that needs yet more organisation. IMG_9062
I discovered the leak during an attempt to convince our city-loving thirteen year old of the joys of country living. I’d invited two of her school friends and their mums up to Sula for a girls’ weekend. We had a ball in the evening and a rather late night and then, to blow the cobwebs away, the plan was to drag everyone across the bog and moor to the bothy to check on it after a winter of fierce storms, and to light a fire and have a brew.

Helen, one of the mums, who it transpired owns over 100 pairs of shoes, and wasn’t a regular visitor to the wilds at weekends, had lent her wellies to her daughter and so walked across burn and bog in a pair of patent leather designer boots. Rain drops splashed in pools of sphagnum and water dribbled down our hoods (those of us that had them) and into our eyes but, despite the weather, spirits were high and the 13-year old delighted in showing her friends the secret spots, the rope swing and the wildlife of the place she has known since she was a baby (which of course was the whole point of the expedition). 


She still managed to put on a scowl, however, when I pointed out how much they were enjoying themselves.

So that was how we found the leak,  and that was how I acquired a new organizational task to add to the existing list of Sula-related organizational tasks.

There’s certainly one advantage in building a house. I now know a lot of people with skill-sets I hadn’t encountered before.  I thought of our roofer. He’d done a great job on the roof at Sula but always seemed to be off somewhere exciting if the weather was good (more recently he told me he’s a downhill mountain biker, which might have been what he was off to do). I only met him a couple of times but when he finished I distinctly remember thinking “Ah yes that’s a quality roof.” And then feeling rather downcast that I probably wouldn’t have to call on him again for another 30 years. (He happens to be a rather handsome roofer)
IMG_0450So when it came to finding a roofer who could come out to a remote bothy with no electricity and no loo and a long walk from a road he sprung to mind. Later, he told me that he often stays at the tiny ski hut in the car park at Glencoe, which is apparently even more basic than our bothy (except you can drive to it).

Robert responded to my email query almost immediately, yes he’d be delighted. (Hooray)

So that’s how I came to be exerting all my energies rowing an aluminum dory on a mirror calm Loch Linnhe under leaden skies. I wasn’t supposed to be rowing. Husband and I were supposed to be motoring along in relaxed fashion to fetch roofer and roofer’s kit but we forgot a vital item for the outboard – the funnel for the oil. I dropped husband on the shore to fetch it and started rowing- we were already late. I ended up rowing the whole way, determined to get there first. I didn’t quite win. But I think I held the moral victory. I certainly looked like I had expended the most effort.


We headed back to the bothy and roughly two hours after pushing off in the boat we were putting up the scaffolding tower we keep in the barn for occasions such as this.

Turns out the roof was generally sound and it was a simple job to put a couple of slates on and some lead flashing. So, far too soon, it was time to pack up the stuff and wave goodbye to Robert once again.

However, it turned out I’d see Robert much sooner than expected. In fact it was later the same weekend. We were skiing up at Glencoe in perfect conditions with my sister on Easter Monday; powder snow and bright sunshine. There were no queues, our cheeks were burning from the speed and and the sun, and the children were in charming mood, belting out 80s power ballads on the lifts. All was joy and wonderfulness.

We came across Robert in the lift queue and chatted about the sheer fabulousness of the skiing. My sister joined us a few minutes later


“This is Robert who did the bothy roof” I said by way of introduction.
“Oo. Is this the sexy roofer?” She said immediately, in her inimitable style. (Don’t you just love siblings? She might be a Professor now, but some things just never change…)

 The route to the top of Spring Run

Fortunately I am not the type to get embarrassed easily (or surely the cuilbay blog wouldn’t have got very far). A couple of years ago our, then, seven-year-old, exasperated after I’d called over to someone I thought I recognized one time too many, asked me “MUM do you NEVER get embarrassed?”.

No, fortunately I wasn’t embarrassed. I just thought, “This will make a good story” and filed it in a box named ‘Blog’.

The view from the top of the lifts



A tune for Cuil Bay


I don’t know whether anyone has written a piece of music for Cuil Bay before – I’d be surprised if they haven’t because it’s such a beautiful place.  But now it definitely has its own tune. And I’ve put it together in a video with a load of photos I’ve taken on my phone over the last year which pan around in a really cheesy way. I hope you’ll forgive me and it doesn’t distract too much from the beautiful melody.

Cuil Tune by Stuart Killbourn


It was written during a get together of the ceilidh band a week or so ago up at Sula. We may only have three bedrooms but we managed to fit almost everyone and their families in somehow, with one family staying in a wooden wigwam nearby in Duror; 13 sleeping over and 17 for dinner. Stuart the mandolin player wrote the tune.


I’m not sure whether I’ve told the story of how our band got together on this blog so that will need to be the next blog.


The Self build: An amateur psychologist’s analysis

Last week, in the monthly meeting with my team at work, We did one of those psychological tests that tells you what kind of team-worker you are. I usually have a healthy scepticism about that kind of stuff,  but a friend recommended it and I thought it could be good for us.


It was rather like one of those questionnaires you see highlighted on the front of an issue of Cosmopolitan lying in your dentist’s waiting room. The one you pick up because you just can’t stop wondering “Well what Disney character AM I most like?” or “So what IS my superfood/compatible dog breed/ ideal male jawline?”.
However this quiz has apparently more basis in research and psychology and is called the Belbin Team Role Inventory. It’s supposed to help you see what roles people play within the team.
We all filled in a quiz sheet earnestly, added up the scores and then chatted about what it revealed.
It turns out, rather unsurprisingly for me, and for the people in my team, that I scored ‘null points’ in the team roles of Monitor Evaluator and Implementer. However, in the category I was convinced I’d score lowest, Completer Finisher, I actually achieved one solitary point, which pleased me beyond measure.



It doesn’t need me to explain to you that being rather challenged in these three areas is probably not a help when you reach the final stages in a build.


Or, come to think of it, at any stage in a build.
The Implementer is systematic, organized and does what needs to be done, not just those tasks that are most exciting. OK. Well let me think. There might have been a little bit of unsystematic thinking in the project (see here).

The monitor evaluator is prudent, a good critical thinker who makes shrewd judgements and is immune to getting over-enthusiastic. Hummm. Yup. Quality of decision-making may have been somewhat questionable.

The Completer finisher is orderly, conscientious and doesn’t start what she can’t finish. Right. Well, I suppose I admit I may have been neither orderly nor conscientious, but I jolly well am determined to finish this thing.

So given that all these seem pretty useful traits for getting a house built, and they are about as far from being me as it is possible to get, I’m actually left asking myself how on earth I have managed to get this far?
It turns out, also rather unsurprisingly again, that my highest scores were (jointly) Plant (rather a pleasing name isn’t it?) and Coordinator, with Resource Investigator trotting along as a close second.
 Being a Plant (innovative, creative, unorthodox and having ideas lacking in practical constraint) may explain why I have not really enjoyed much of building a house, except telling the stories in my blog, and thinking about the splashbacks –

 Gannets on dibond in the downstairs shower, 

fused glass from an artist for the en-suite, 

and a geological map on Perspex in the main bathroom. 

But it could also explain how I got started on such a ridiculous project in the first place (by throwing aside thoughts on the practicality of the idea).  Had I been a Monitor Evaluator this project would definitely not have got off the starting blocks.


I’m not sure I recognise myself entirely in either the plant role or the Coordinator (calm, confident, good at delegating, trusting and controlled) but I certainly have found that tackling problems calmly is the way to go. And I have stayed calm through some really big problems (eg  here and here )

 Perhaps it was the Coordinator in me exhibiting, what my quiz sheet tells me is the distinguishing feature of coordinators, ‘causing people to work towards shared goals‘ that did it. And the delegating. Who knows. Or perhaps the Resource Investigator in me (extroverted, enthusiastic, curious, communicative – ah that sounds more like it…) finding the right people and resources for the project?

 Whatever. I suspect that the conclusion of this exercise is that there are many ways to skin a cat, or indeed to build a house. And people do it according to their own personalities and inclinations and with a greater or lesser success.
But one conclusion I can come to, having worked through and discussed this Belbin quiz with my team, is that if I had been able to draw on the diversity of talents in the people I work with, building this house would have been a whole lot easier, and more pleasurable.


However, to state the bleeding obvious, it hasn’t just been me working on this house (or it really wouldn’t have got anywhere at all) everyone in the project has contributed with their different approaches and personalities, from architects to builders, engineers to electricians. And one of the reasons I have managed to keep going in the face of my own natural inclinations is because of the people working on the project. It turns out it really has been a team effort, and I couldn’t have done it alone.

Fun Projects: artists and architecture  

Every now and again work is just amazing. And this week was one of those times – quite a few projects are coming to fruition and things are generally getting exciting.
This morning I was meeting with some Strathclyde Product design students at RSPB Scotland’s reserve at Lochwinnoch. They’ve been working for their forth year project on a structure for a new viewpoint which was created during some recent habitat works. It was so exciting to see how their designs have progressed from our first discussions. 

 The priorities for the designs are that it is an interactive space for families to use, but could also be used to quietly view wildlife and also could be a sheltered meeting point for walks and for school groups.
They had some great ideas that will work really well. Love the rope screens to look through and the modular slottable screens. And the living willow wall.

My budget is somewhat frugal for the construction work so the idea is that some of our talented Lochwinnoch volunteers put the structure together so the students are thinking carefully about design and materials. We also have a lot of larch trees to come down on our Wood of Cree reserve in Dumfries and Galloway which will do really well for the in-the-round posts to hold the interchangeable screens. We’ll look at whether we can also use it for the timber for the structure too. 

Then, this afternoon, I received some photos from the reserve manger at Loch Lomond. Oyster Eco are refurbishing a trailer we were given by SNH, an exhibition trailer rather like those they’d try and recruit you to the army in on Buchannan street. It was a bit of a catch actually. And I’m pretty pleased I bagsied it for Loch Lomond before anyone else did.  

It’s going to be clad in timber and set in the new car park at the reserve. There will be a wee kitchen inside where volunteers and visitors can get a cup of coffee, and there will be interpretation about the reserve. However bagsying the trailer, getting it to the reserve and generally waving my arms about what we’d like it to be for is pretty much all I’ve done. (Apart from a bit of input on the interpretation for inside). But when I got sent the pictures I felt very proud. It feels like my baby despite me not putting in much of the work. Perhaps it’s what being a Dad feels like.


Then we’ve got a team of four Strathclyde architecture students working on another project at Loch Lomond. A look out point a very short walk from the new car park where people can sit and contemplate, picnic or play. And it will be the start of the new pathway we’re planning around the bluebell wood. It is nearing the end of the design stage and it will be built and in place by May to complement the wee visitor facility. Again, most of the actual work, apart from having the initial conversation and getting them involved, and giving them my ample opinion, has been done by Paula and the reserve team.


Then there are the artists in residence about to start at our Mersehead  reserve near Dumfries.

 I have two PhD students from the Scottish graduate school of the arts and humanities taking part in a funded internship project as part of their PhDs and will spend a month living in the volunteer accommodation at the reserve.  My colleague Fiona will also have an artist in residence  working between Glasgow and our Inversnaid reserve, a spectacular piece of western Atlantic woodland and mountain along the eastern shores of Loch Lomond 

At Meresehead we have Roseanne Watt, a poet and filmmaker with a special  interest in cultural history and peoples stories. Her PhD is based in Shetland , where she is from.
Catherine Weir is a digital artist especially interested in stars and unnatural light and landscapes. Studying for a PhD at Glasgow School of Art.
And in Inversnaid we have Luca Nascutti , a sound artist.  He has who created electronic sound prices incorporating natural sounds which he performs in specific places with dancers.


This project started as a conversation around a giant fire of pallets on a beach in Canna (see blog about the trip) where I had gone to see Hanna Tuulikki’s work ‘away with the birds’. It turned out most of the people there were artists themselves and that’s where I made contact with Dee Heddon, who was involved in the graduate programme at SGSAH. And yet again, I may have made the first contact, but again it was Fiona who did the work to set up the project.
I took ‘my’ artists to Mersehead for a recee in December. The weather was stunning and the reserve enchanting. I am ridiculously excited about what will come out of these collaborations, despite a certain level of rather dyed-in-the-wood scepticism from some of my colleagues.    

We had a meeting at the end of last week about what will emerge from the artist in residence programme and how to distribute and promote it. A germ of an idea formed. A pod with audio visual equipment to immerse you in another world, that we could transport from city center location to out of town shopping mall to leisure centre, inviting people in to view and to hear the artworks produces at our reserves, to bring the essence of RSPB nature reserves to people, where they are in our cities and to inspire them to visit or to pique their interest in finding out more.
So where will I get this pod from, that will need to go on the back of a small trailer, or fold down into something we can put in the back of  a van?


Well, in the absence of SNH getting rid of any more trailers, in the near future, I think I’m going to need to call, very nicely, on Strathclyde university again to lend me some of their very fine students for a project next year.

Postscript: What has happened since I wrote this blog?

Roseanne Watt wrote some poems on her artist in residency and made three films. Links to the films are below.

This year (2018) Roseanne was awarded one of Britain’s most prestigious poetry prizes, the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award, which was announced at the Edinburgh Book Festival.


Catherine Weir’s pieces ‘Reported Sightings’ and ‘Atlas’ can be seen here. and her blogs about her experiences here.

The structure designed by the product design students for Lochwinnoch has been constructed by volunteers at the reserve and is proving popular with families and birdwatchers alike.

The structure for Loch lomond created by Marc Hillis is now in place

photo 2 - lol structurephoto - Loch lomond structure

The Visitor Hub at Loch Lomond has been in use for three seasons – see the photos.

lol visitor hub 2LOL visitor hub

A later Artist in residence Susanna Ramsay at our Loch Lomond Reserve created a film poem and a projection of her poem at the end of the woodland at the reserve at dusk which was really really special.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOf1tfpYFUA

The woodland dusk walk and film experience is reviewed beautifully here.




Nighttime Nest boxes

I love a deadline, whether manufactured by me for the purposes of  getting something done, or for real. In fact sometimes I just can’t do things without the urgency of a deadline. And it seems that putting up nest boxes is one of those tasks. 


There have been two nest boxes sitting outside my house since May last year. One was a house sparrow terrace I’d been given as a birthday present at least a year previously, and the other was a nest box I’d made of cladding off-cuts designed to go in the eaves of the house.


I’d had a burst of nest box enthusiasm when a pied wagtail and a housesparrow had nested in the half-built house and we’d had to seal off their nesting cavities at the end of the breeding season (see blog).  However the enthusiasm was followed by an extended period of lassitude. (I should say there has only been lassitude on the nest-box front, I’ve been being pretty busy getting things done in other avenues). 


However things changed this morning. When I got up and wandered down to make coffee a wagtail was sitting right outside the window chit chit-ing at me. As if to say “Where’s my nest hole gone?”.  I went outside and a jay flew over the garden carrying nesting material, a robin sang in a baby alder tree and the world seemed to be bright and new. “Where’s my nest box!!” it was wailing at me, “and you work for RSPB Scotland and you haven’t even followed your own advice you hypocrite”. 


So the urgency was established. Nest boxes must go up. Yes they must. They must. But…. The summits were cloud free, and there was no wind… Glencoe skiing was calling. Nest boxes had to wait. 

 Daughter finds an innovative way to achieve the traverse to the top of ‘Spring Run’


And that is why, as night fell, and I felt the ominous deadline of needing to get these boxes up before the birds started anew prospecting for nestboxes in the morning. I was up a ladder. 

I’ve hammered a few bits of scrap wood into the beautiful larch porch too. They might not be pretty but I hope the wagtails will find the sheltered spot and set up home. 



Now I have such a lovely home, I’d like it to be a welcoming place for wildlife too. 


Losing it. 

I’ve been holding it together pretty well for the past year while building this house. And actually far longer than that. I didn’t lose my wallet in 2015 or 2014 and I don’t think I lost it in 2013 or 2012 and probably all the way back to 2010. I did lose my phone last year and my house keys a couple of times over that period. Oh… and I dropped my work keys right in front of the front door of work one night (I no longer have a set of work keys…) 


But I’ve been about as together as I’ve ever been with respect to keeping my belongings with me over the past few years. It’s all been military precision and ship shape and Bristol fashion compared to the chaos of my University years. 


However it all seems to have gone to hell in a handcart in the past month. In the past five weeks I have lost my wallet four times. Twice on trains to work meetings (returned via station lost property both times) and then once somewhere in the vicinity of Ballachullish, yet to be found. 

Yesterday I made a temporary wallet out of duct tape and put my third set of brand new cards into it. This was a wallet I wasn’t going to lose. I had a meeting in Balloch followed by a meeting in Edinburgh. It was all going well, an effective meeting and all on time for the Edinburgh meeting. But when it came to cycling from Waverley to the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh I realised I had left my bike in Balloch.  And when, after my RBGE meeting, I discovered I’d lost my wallet yet again I had a moment of despair and a flashback to my university days. 

While I was at University I went through nine bikes in nine terms. A couple were stolen, a couple just broke down irreparably, one I wrote off in a head on collision with another bike – front wheel hitting front wheel with such force that my bike buckled, my head made contact with the head of the person on the other bike and I was transported, I remember not how, to Addenbrookes hospital to be treated for concussion. One was jumped on by a fellow student disappointed in love (referenced in previous blog).  And at least twice I simply lost the bike. 


There are a lot of bikes in Cambridge and, when you’ve got a lot of different places to go and people to see, and things to organise and essays to write, keeping track of where you left your bike can be a challenge. 


Fortunately this time at least I knew where I’d left the bike. It was locked up at the station in Balloch and I was due back there the next day for another meeting. So nothing lost. 
However it filled me with despair that I had only had possession of those last bank cards less than 12 hours before I lost them again. 


I turned my entire bag out in one of the Botanics glass-houses after the meeting. As the fact that my wallet wasn’t there sunk in, I heard a beautiful bird-song, that sounded like a robin but a bit different. I looked about and noticed sitting almost on my foot a beautiful robin singing gently to me from inside his little body – not the full-blown-beak-open song I’m used to. It certainly cheered me up. That and the bright yellow papaya lying on the brown earth of the glasshouse, which I picked up to smell to check it was real. So, not the total end of the world then, in the big scheme of things, but to add insult to injury, my return rail tickets were in that duct tape wallet too and I needed to get home for a significant family occasion. 


Simple, I thought, I’ll just blag my way through the barriers at Waverley. After all, while traveling alone in Peru during one of my ‘gap years’ immediately before my PhD, I’d blagged my way all the way back to the UK from a Andean village called Caraz where everything I had with me was stolen: bag, tickets, money, passports, everything. All I had was six bread rolls in a plastic bag that I had just bought. I managed to get back to Lima, find a place to stay, negociate police reporting, replacement passport, replacement tickets, and everything else through pure blagging and persuasion. It was a bit stressful but I did it. However the folks in Peru must have been a bit more tender hearted than the Scotrail guys as there was absolutely no getting through that barrier without a ticket.

Caraz to Lima: that’s a long long way to go with nothing but six white bread rolls in a bag  (google maps tells me it’s 300 miles) 


Eventually I found out that there was a mechanism by which someone I know can buy me a ticket. But they can’t just call up or do it online, no. They actually have to go to a station in person to make the transaction (and pay £10 extra for the privilege). I called long-suffering husband. When he had stopped laughing long enough for me to issue him with instructions on how to release me from Waverley station I went to find a place to charge my mobile. I found £1.20 in small change at the bottom of my bag and went to see what kind of comfort that could buy in M&S food while I waited. It turned out to be one minuscule packet of honey roasted salted cashews. 


I’m rather puzzling to myself why I’m having a spate of losing things now, when the house is nearly completely finished as I surely can’t be as stressed as I was before. I suppose it’s because things I’ve put off are now all crowding in demanding to be done and  work has been even more demanding and rewarding and challenging and wonderful than usual. 



I think the prescription has got to be the following: 

1. Finish everything with the house once and for all – there’s too many odds and ends to keep track of at the moment. 

2 Stop organising new things whenever I have a small breather and a little space to think. 


3. Get a bumbag/wallet that hangs around the neck of the type you’d buy to go traveling on a gap year. In fact, come to think of it,  exactly the item which I had, the day my bag was stolen in Peru, left in my main rucksack, rather than had attached about my person. 

Plus ca change. 

The bad dream is nearly over 

I went upstairs to check how things were in advance of the building control visit. The carpets were 20cm deep in sawdust and wood shavings. The detritus led to the cupboard in the bathroom which houses the stove flue. I opened the door and found that it was no longer a cupboard but had undertaken a Narnia-esque transformation into a long corridor stretching to infinity. On either side of the corridor were fitted thousands of cupboards along the walls at eye height. 


“Wasn’t that nice of the joiners to do that?” I thought to myself, “It should help with sleeping space for the March visit of my entire ceilidh band and their families.” 


 But despite being pleased at the departure from the architects plans, (and departure from the laws of physics) I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been nice if they’d cleared up the mess. 


I went back downstairs to find even more mess. The joiners and builders must have been having a massive party. Gigantic bottles of red wine littered the floor, crisps and snacks were everywhere. It wasn’t quite teenager-party-standard trashed, but it looked like some serious partying had happened and… the building control inspection was due any minute.  


It took me a while to shake myself awake after the alarm went off and realise that it was just a dream and that I should be getting ready to head northward to the real building control inspection. I shot out of bed and got myself together. 


I’d actually been entirely confident that we’d get the building warrant. Or, at least I had been, until 10pm the previous evening when Stephen texted me, obviously anxious to manage expectations.    

“Let’s see if this might be the first” I replied*. But all of a sudden I didn’t feel so confident. I kept imagining what could go wrong. Any number of things sprang to mind as possibilities. And then there was the option that Stephen knew things I didn’t. 


I couldn’t leave Glagsow until the kids had left for school that day so I wasn’t up at the house to check that the final things had been done until 1115, 15 minutes before The Inspection was due. I arrived to find that the downpipe on the porch still didn’t connect with the drain.     

 Fortunately Grant the plumber and Grant Jr, the plumber’s apprentice, were on the case. Stuart (builder#1)’s son turned up at 1125 to deliver the drain cover and it was all done by 1130.   

  I raced around the house to check the few things I knew were outstanding: was it definitely less than 140mm between door and ground level? Yes, but…. I wasn’t at all confident that this interim solution would pass.   

Did we have a barrier on the landing window?  Yes. Stephen had been up the day before to install something. But it looked pretty temporary, especially as it was nailed on with four solitary nails. We’d have to wait and see about how that went down. 

 I put up a print out of the sustainability certificate on the wall (weirdly you just print this off the internet by inputting how sustainable your house is – try it yourself – it doesn’t seem to be ground truthed like an EPC is so I’m not really sure what the point of it is, you just choose your level of sustainability from a drop-down menu.) And I stuck up info a statement about the waste water treatment. 
I checked the drying room. We’d had to change the light fitting when we installed the hanging drying rack but the inset light still hadn’t been installed. I hoped Tony wouldn’t notice.

Just that minute Robert the electrician showed up – I wasn’t expecting him. He started work on the light and it was done just as Tony arrived at 1140am.  

We started with the drains test – grant blocked off a pipe and pumped a plastic bulb – it looked rather like taking someone’s blood pressure.   

Mr Building Control seemed satisfied but didn’t like the look of the drain, as the type 1 on the driveway had fallen into it. I’d need to get that cleared before he could issue a certificate. 

We headed upstairs and he reminded me that I should have bought an extendible velux window opening device … Arggggh. Annoying. That was sorted within the hour by a visit to Amazon.com.  
And lastly. We needed a 100mm high barrier on the ramp to the front door. Ah ha. That’s what the strange bit of wood was that I removed just before Mr Building Control arrived. I retrieved it and put it back where it was. He wanted it screwed on.  

Other than that he was happy. So we were left with three minor things: screw on the wood – done in a few seconds, buy an extensible rod – done before the end of the building inspection, and clear the drain (a marginally bigger job) 

So does that mean Stephen was unduly cautious? Did I manage to do what Stephen hasn’t in 13 years of building. Well I certainly think so. (Because they were such tiny things, weren’t they? and I couldn’t have possibly known that the type 1 had fallen down the drain while Ronnie was doing the drive that week). Stephen tells me it doesn’t count until I actually have a completion certificate to wave about. But I am claiming a personal victory anyway. 

After all the excitement of The Inspection and some planning for my splendid garden shed, I headed to the hills. It was a glorious day, and the Pap of Glencoe was calling. I watched the sun set and then headed down to the Clachaig where, entirely by good fortune, I found Geoff, my photographer/artist/bothy bagger friend (him of the virtual art gallery blog and 100th bothy party) who’d had a day in the hills and was about to head back to Edinburgh. He’d already agreed to take some photos of Cuil Bay that will become the splashback in the main bathroom so this seemed the ideal opportunity to get him to actually take them. The weather was set fair for the following day so we made a plan and headed back to Sula. 

* To be completely accurate and knowing Stephen will be checking,  my first response was actually the following   

Postscript: 25th February. A clean drain and a completion certificate. Pretty good really even though I say so myself. But special  thanks to Stephen of SEC Joiners and builders, and Stuart of SECarmichel Builders, and also to Kenneth and Robert of Fergusson Electrical, Ronnie Macoll, Grant Laird the plumber and many others. Especially the patient and long-suffering husband.     


  A photo at last of Stephen. 


Storms, mud and a pair of pyjamas 

Last week I read an article by Dani Garavelli in the Scotsman suggesting that, rather than pouring scorn on mums doing the school drop off in their pyjamas, we should hail them as counter cultural icons. I’m always one for the the non-conformist approach and idly wondered what people would think If I wore my pyjamas into the office. 

I thought nothing more of it until today. Today has been the 1034th day of consecutive rain on the west coast of Scotland (to my reckoning). And not just a bit of rain: torrential floods, teeming cats and dogs, bucketing. All around Sula the rain sits in puddles, the mud is monstrous. 

We spent the day varnishing windowsills and doing other useful stuff until I couldn’t bear being cooped up inside any more and headed off for a run in a break in the rain. By the time I started my run it was torrential again and, with needles in my face and an ice cream head, I set off into the headwind. After 5 minutes I was soaked through, after 20 a drowned rat would have lent me his towel. 

I headed back to the house to change. The afternoon activity was burning yet more cardboard and waste wood with a few bits of chair and tree that Jamie the farmer had dragged out of the burn as Storm Henry gathered.

Ronnie the digger-driver had excavated us a moat, perhaps more conventionally referred to as a drainage ditch.  I recklessly headed across the garden to investigate how it was working.  It was running with water, which was good, I sunk in nearly to the top of my welly, which was less good. 

I managed to extract myself, with difficulty, and then spotted a stray bit of insulation that had blown into the farmer’s field. I crossed the moat to grab it and sunk in way over the top of my right boot. I tried to rebalance and the other welly went in over the top. As I pulled at one welly and then the other I sunk deeper and deeper into the mud. My shouts for help went unheard. (later I discovered that husband couldn’t come to the rescue as I’d borrowed his shoes to go to the car to get my wellies and left them there.)


 I considered taking my wellies off and crawling to safety but then I remembered how polar bears walk on thin ice – spread your weight- I reached over to the insulation and used it to kneel on while I pulled my wellies out. 


So that was the second outfit rendered unwearable. Pyjamas was all I had left; a good reason to stay inside and buckle down to being useful. It wasn’t until most of the way through the drive back to Glasgow that Dani’s article came starkly to mind. 


I needed the loo. 

As we drove down Loch Lomond side I started weighing up the options. 

How bad is it to go into a service station and ask to use the loo while wearing pyjamas? Quite bad. 

What about the one with an M&S where I actually know the location of the loo and wouldn’t have to ask? Worse.

I remembered that I was also wearing my Icelandic jumper inside out (put on in a hurry in the dark while rummaging in the boot). Even worse. 

 How about a lay by? But it was still pouring with rain. 

What would Garavelli do? I thought. Actually I didn’t care. I wasn’t wearing PJs and an inside out Icelandic jumper in public. 

I remembered the magic toilet cubicle in Balloch. One of those automatic booths that rinses the whole thing down once you’ve been. Genius. We pulled into the dark car park, and I sprinted to the booth and back. Mission accomplished. 


The beneficial byproduct of the episode is that I don’t need to try wearing my Pyjamas to work. I’ve realised I’m just not counter-cultural enough to brazen it out. Just yet. 

The last days. 

The end is nigh. 

It really is. We are in the last days of the build and I’m feeling antsy, annoyed, impatient, and uncharacteristically pedantic. It’s like being two weeks past your due-date and no sign of baby. Except this baby is at least four months overdue. 

My day-job’s been frustratingly busy, the builder has been even harder to get hold of than normal and every time I go up to the house the progress seems infinitesimal. 

Last weekend up at the house, hoping to see it all done and ready for the very last little bits of taping and painting, I found plenty to add to my annoyance. Which wasn’t helped by anxieties over the return journey to Glasgow into the teeth of Storm Henry and its forecast 80mph winds. 


Over the long process of building this house there have been plenty of serious and challenging issues: a missing piece of structural metalwork, big holes drilled through a main supporting beam, windows in the wrong places and badly installed. All, I am pleased to report, I navigated with measure and calm.  But finding that the hole in the ceiling where the electrician had moved the dining area light hadn’t been filled with plasterboard and then spotting, a while later,  that the hole awaiting a light in the utility room had been filled in instead sent me into a tiny boiling rage. 


 It was made infinitely worse when I discovered that the work done to ameliorate a weird bit between the bottom of doors and where the screed started had breached the airtight envelope and now the force of storm Henry gathering his fury for the afternoon climax was blowing into my living room from under the wooden flooring. My tiny rage intensified and I shouted at an imaginary Stephen as I stomped about the empty house. 

 “The whole sodding point of building this house* was for it to be airtight” I wailed.  

“I want an energy efficient house. And I want an airtight house. And I want one now” 

 * update here:

The trials and tortures of planning and building this house that I had endured over the past three years all was wasted on the second-last day of works in the house. I was miserable. 

One eggy-bread-fried-cheese sandwich later I felt I had things slightly more in proportion and I sent the photo and airtightness woes to Stephen. The next day the Oban road was closed due to a fire at the Appin garage and the A82 over Rannoch moor was closed to high sided vehicles. I left into the wild gale, passing two articulated lorries and a van on their sides in the bog on Rannoch Moor and wondering whether the end really was nigh. 


The next day I managed to speak to Stephen on the phone about the various crisies. He laid my mind at rest; the membrane was in the incorrect position and it was now right. They’d do what needed to be done to make it better. It hadn’t crossed my mind before, but I think it must be the builder equivalent of bedside manner. Whenever I speak to Stephen about some earth-shatteringly horrific house-related disaster or worrying niggle, I come away feeling far better about it. It’s hard to pin down how he does it, but I suspect it’s a combination of agreeing with me, and suggesting a solution to the problem, or suggesting he has a look at it, but I think it is something that all builders should be able to do. 


I was chatting with a GP friend  later that evening.  She had spent the day being the examiner for a cohort of new doctors wanting to become GPs. They were being tested in role play situations with actors to see whether they would make the cut as GPs. Essentially it was a test of bedside manner, and many failed it. I wondered whether there was the equivalent for builders…


But bedside manner or no, I need this house airtight and airtight it shall be. (And the air is still leaking in on the latest update). I may be the last person you would associate with pedantry, but pedantic is what I plan to be on this one. Scott the architect would be proud of me.  



Community land in Broomhill

Seeking people in Broomhill, Glasgow to join a group to investigate possibilities for community use of the old Broomhill School Annex site. 


See email below if you are interested 


ReplyTo: Alex Cross <a.l.cross@btinternet.com>Subject: Use of Broomhill Primary School Annex land post school rebuild

I have recently been talking to the Broomhill Community Council about the potential for the land that will be released by the rebuild of Broomhill Primary School (currently annex buildings). This presents an opportunity to take control of the land either by ownership or renting in order to develop a community facility that would be of benefit to Broomhill area.
I am looking to see if there is enough interest to get together a team of around six to eight people who are willing to give some time in order to come up with a number of options for the land with a view to putting together realistic plans for the use of the land. We would then start to investigate what lies within the realm of the feasible and how we could put together a coherent and potentially successful argument for the case to gain control of the land for the benefit the community.
A good example to draw on is the recent community effort to run Portpatrick Harbour – link for info, hopefully this wouldn’t be as complicated!

This is just an e-mail to try to garner interest, I am in the difficult position of not having many e-mail addresses or contact details for Broomhill residents so I am going to rely on electronic word of mouth. I have sent this to you as someone who’s contact details I do have, I would ask you to pass it on to anyone you know in the broomhill area and if they are interested could they e-mail me at a.l.cross@btinternet.com; the intention would be to get together anyone interested at the end of February for an initial meeting to chat over the possibilities.
Thanks in advance for your help

A Cross


Form Filling for Fun 

Stephen always calls at the most inconvenient times. He doesn’t answer his phone, or texts, or emails. In fact he is almost impossible to get hold of, so when he calls I behave as if it might be David Attenbourough on the phone calling me to say he’s retiring and they need a front-woman to travel the world and talk calmly to camera while an angry gorilla makes warning charges in her general direction. 

Today I am cycling through Kelvingrove park on the way to work but I manage to answer the phone while in motion. It proves rather dangerous to try and negociate crowds of primary school children wandering towards the school gate while trying to hold a conversation about building a house so I dismount.

I’m beginning to think it might be a deliberate ploy to catch me off-guard without my list of essential things to hand (the only thing keeping me somewhat on track in this build). Anyway, it’s a very effective way of making sure I can’t think of many, or even sometimes any, of the things I’m supposed to be telling him. It doesn’t help that I am far too easily distractible with chat about other things so effectiveness seems doomed, especially as I haven’t met Stephen on site for a very long time. 

The house might seem done but it isn’t. There’s this and that to do and I need curtains, landscaping, shed and lean to thing that will be a wood store/bike shelter, but officially a bin store. And I also need to pay people (including Stephen). All this takes yet more money. SURELY NOT MORE MONEY???

But before I spend any more money I need to claim back my VAT and before I can claim back my VAT I need a building warrant. And for the building warrant I need an EPC (done!!!) a Form Q (see below) and all sorts of stuff to be sorted. I ask Stephen when I should arrange the final visit from building control. 
“When it’s all done”. He says. 

This, if my experience so far is anything to go by, could be forever or it could be never. 

So I gather together all the documents I need to send to get my building control certificate and I arranged a visit from Tony the building control officer three weeks hence. 

And it shouldn’t be that hard. There’s only a few building-control-critical things that need to be done. This drainage pipe is one.      

 Whether we need a step at the back another. And a barrier at the turn of the stair. And a few other miniscule things like a sustainability certificate stuck in the utility room, and a notice about the wastewater treatment. 

I have taken to calling the house phone to see what’s happening at the house – it gives a bit more information to me since the flow of information direct from Stephen more or less ceased. Peter was there and let me know what was going on. He was putting in the thing on the stairs in Pine. PINE? IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE OAK. I yelled to myself in my head and immediately texted Stephen. He actually got back to me straight away for a change and aquiesced after an emphatic text or two. Peter would take it out and It Would Be Oak. 


   …and doesn’t it look nice in oak?


I gathered EPC, electrical and fire alarm certificate, Form Q, heat pump certificate, and a few other bits of paper and filled in the form. Then I sent it recorded delivery. 

There was a lot of impenetrable guff on the form. Read the following and decide if you are a relevant person. Was I a relevant person? – I decided that I may not know whether A or B were true but C certainly was. I am a relevant person. isn’t it nice to feel relevant?   


Form Q

This is apparently a form where my engineer certifies that my house isn’t going to fall down, which seems rather brave of him. He wanted detailed information and evidence about the windows and how they were installed and about the Juliette balcony, which only had to go in to satisfy building control when we found that the windows weren’t how they were supposed to be. (Grrrrr again Scotframe).

I was supposed to have evidence of how the windows were attached in place (fortunately I took a photo of a window before the plasterboard went on to get the size of the windowsill so I had that). 

I get all the bumpf sent off for the FormQ and get started on the VAT claim so it’s all ready to go. 

Much of the text was indesipherable by normal human beings and was designed to make the most anally retentive pedant want to chew their own arm off. I plodded through receipts and invoices and piled them up till I had a file 2 inches thick. 


So now we have the paperwork ready to go and a deadline for everything to be done. So where is the form filling fun as suggested in the title? Has it been fun? No not really, I just thought I’d better write about some of this boring stuff and wanted to try and make it interesting. Besides, I like a bit of alliteration.  
Postscript: it’s now 6 weeks sis ve I wrote that blog. I have my completion certificate. But I don’t yet have my VAT refund. 


Gannets in the Shower

Last week, after visiting the house, I got all gushy thinking that, at long last, the build is over and I may never see the joiners again. I even called the house phone to express my undying thanks to a rather embarrassed joiner in case I didn’t get another chance. This week that appears to have been an over-optimistic and premature farewell. 
Progress has undoubtedly been made and it feels that I may be gaining territory from the builders. The carpets are in, I’ve hoovered up new carpet fluff, laid down my sleeping bag and turned on the MVHR again (apparently I’m not supposed to have it on if there is loads of dust). It’s starting to feel that upstairs is nearly my territory. 

  The skirting is more-or-less all on, the painting more-or-less all done, and yet there still seem to be countless things that aren’t quite done yet. Downstairs everything is still covered with sheets and cardboard and a layer of dust and doesn’t really feel ‘mine’ yet. I fried my vulture-shelf salmon fish cakes with the feeling that I was cooking in someone else’s kitchen, gingerly lifting the cardboard off the cooker to use it and putting it back afterwards. I wasn’t expecting the kitchen sink to be functioning, but it was, and the shower door was on at last* and complete. Joy Joy. I might go and have a bath, I thought. 


 I’ve been looking forward to having a bath in the new house for ages. Our current house in Glasgow, where we’ve lived for well over a decade, has the coldest bathroom I’ve ever been in, apart from perhaps the shower block at the campsite we frequent in Arisaig. 

  It also has a rather unreliable hot water supply since eight years ago I inadvisably installed a combination of solar hot water panels and a back boiler on a wood burning stove as the main ways to heat it. You can have as many hot baths as you like when it’s a blazing summer day but, when you would actually like to luxuriate in a warm bath, after a cold cycle home in the pouring rain, for example, the water is disappointingly tepid.  


However my desire not to clean the bathroom that would inevitably be messed up almost immediately by some other work that needed doing overcame my desire for a bath and decided to use the gannet shower instead.


  Two 1.5 m high gannets skypointing, printed onto dibond. I am not tilings biggest fan (perhaps due to the speed mould grows in my damp, frigid, bathroom) as you may have gathered so I thought about alternatives. I can’t think of anything worse than plastic faux marble shower panels of the type you get in youth hostels, ones you press and they dent then bounce back. There are probably all sorts of other shower panels you can get these days but I loose the will to live almost immediately on entering any kind of bathroom shop or showroom so I never really got past seeing a few I absolutely loathed. 


In the end I found inspiration in my job working for RSPB Scotland. I cover all the people side of their work including interpretation and visitor experience and we make most of our outdoor interpretation panels from dibond. If it stands up to 10 years in a damp woodland at Loch Lomond with one of the highest rainfalls in Britain, why wouldn’t it work in a shower?


I started looking for photos. First landscape ones (though the clues in the name there – I needed a very vertical image and landscapes tend towards the horizontal) a fabulous photographer friend sent me a few images I could use, but all either didn’t have a strong vertical aspect or weren’t high enough resolution. 

  It was about this time we set upon a name for the house. We both would have loved Balnagowan, the name of the island just off Cuil bay, a gull colony, which makes it special as my PhD was on gulls and husband still studies them. However that name was taken. I fixed upon the next island down, Shuna. The kids wanted the name of a bird. Their choice, Curlew Cottage or something of that ilk. Husband was lobbying for something related to gulls (Larus? Herring Gull House?) We had reached an impasse. 


Suddenly I came up with the answer- Sula – the old Latin name for gannets and also the old Norse name (and current Icelandic name as we found out from friends over Christmas). Despite saying lesser black back gull is my favourite bird, out out of loyalty, it is really the gannet, the most elegant, beautiful, graceful bird in the world. See blogs from my summer visit to Ailsa. 


It just worked. Everyone agreed. And the subject matter for the shower panel was simultaneously decided. I remembered husband had a talented wildlife photographer turned PhD student in his research group and so I asked whether he had any photos of gannets. And he did, which he generously let me use. And the rest is history. We’ll have to see how the dibond stands up to the rigors of being a shower panel. But in going to start with its first initiation and we’ll see how we get on. 


* We’d been awaiting replacement hinges for the shower, which is why it took a while to get the shower screen up.  I’d ordered a left hand door thinking it opened from the left, when it actually meant that the hinges were in the left. ‘No problem’ thought I, I’ll just swap the hinges. The whole shower is identical for left and right opening, it’s just installed upside down. The only bits that’s different are the hinges. I called Victoria Plum. ‘No we can’t just send the hinges up’ said the woman in the all centre ‘we’d need to replace the whole shower screen.’

‘But it’s only the hinges I need’

‘We don’t stock the hinges seperately’

‘The whole shower screen is installed already, what would happen is you would send the screen from the south of england to the north of scotland, I would take out the hinges, pop the old hinges back in and send the whole thing back  down south again.’


‘So can’t someone in your warehouse just take the hinges out and send them?’


I asked the same thing in a couple more ways and got nowhere, she evidently didn’t have the power to change anything, nor would she put me on the phone to anyone who could. 
Exasperated I took to Twitter. And within seconds Victoria Plum tweeted me to let me know that they had called the warehouse and there were some spare hinges and that they would send them up to me. Free of charge.   


Another small victory. 


Three cops in a boat (Chapter 2)

Chapter 1 of the saga is here.


Chapter 2: in which the party are stormbound and someone abandons ship. 

I was aware of some of the sterotypes about policemen. However, never having actually met one in a social context before and, not being one to judge by sterotypes, it hadn’t crossed my mind that I wouldn’t want to spend a week in an area 3m by 2m with three of them.


They turned out to be really nice guys individually, but in the evenings, the conversation had a tendency towards the unbearable (for a bleeding-heart liberal woolly-jumper-wearing save-the-whales leftie like myself). It was mostly about cars and boats, which was harmless enough, but interspersed with right-trending pontificatons about the welfare state, tree-huggers, and the invasion of foreigners. I found conversational companionship with Willie, the retired engineer.

Robert, the captain’s brother, was the most opinionated and also seemed to do most of the cooking. We had delicious three course meals, and cooked breakfasts all created from the tiny but perfectly formed galley, and I didn’t have to lift a finger. It was a highly unusual situation. Fair to say that on the first day while we were at sea, and before I had started my travel sickness meds, there wasn’t much chance of me lifting a finger, it was all I could do to sit staring at the distant horizon without vomiting. However I wasn’t even allowed to wash up, or fetch things from around the cabin. It was a novelty to start with, and then it started to get irritating. Connor, meanwhile, seemed to have an unattainably high standard for on-yacht cuisine. There was a constant and debilitating low-level of sniping between the brothers.

We had changed the planned route due to horrific weather forecasts and decided to head down the east cost to Inverness, then along the caledonian canal, to Fortwillian and to Mull from there. Our first port was Wick and we arrived in a large swell and onshore wind taking some skilled piloting from Conor. It was certainly hairy stuff and added some thrills to what was, otherwise, an uneventful day. As soon as we arrived it became apparent that we wouldn’t be leaving for a few days as the swell prevented us getting out of the harbour and the wind wasn’t due to change for a few days. We were stormbound in Wick.


The sailors on board were doomladen. I was elated. A chance to spend some quality time in my natural habitat (land): to run along the cliffs, a take a breathtakingly cold dip in the sea, to explore a new place, in fact to do all the things I like doing, in contrast to sitting motionless on a boat and staring at the horizon for hours on end.

The first day of being marooned I took the train to Forsinard, a stunning RSPB reserve in the middle of Europe’s biggest blanket bog. Bliss. Giant horizons, minuscule sundews, sun on peat pools, calling waders. I climbed the new viewing tower to have my breath taken away at the way the architecture and landscape interacted: the vertical with the horizontal.


On my return Robert was in full swing, this time a mysogeny flavoured rant on his favoured subject the Scottish independence movement. Now I love a good political argument; locking horns over the subjects that matter and can change the world; intellectual engagement challenging your own views as well as those of your opponents. I love having someone to disagree with in friendly discussion so much that sometimes, when the wine has been flowing and everyone is in happy political agreement, I come up with a contrarian view just so we can enjoy a good robust argument. *

IMG_0862But this wasn’t really much fun. The rant really didn’t stand up to the rigors of argument, which didn’t go down well. It just caused the offensiveometer to be turned up a notch.

Later that evening I determined to get on the 1120am train to civilization. It was him or me on this boat. I could not spend another waking moment on the Juneflower .

Morning dawned and the boat was quiet. Robert wasn’t industriously making bacon, eggs and black pudding. In fact Robert was nowhere to be seen. Once everyone had emerged apart from Robert, we found out that he had left. Jumped ship. He was on the first train out of Wick back to Glasgow. To my immense surprise it seemed that the war of attrition has been unexpectedly won. I felt elated.
It turned out that Robert actually left after one too many criticisms of his cooking from Conor. However, no matter the reason he left, it was undeniable that the quality of life onboard improved immeasurably. I moved into a cabin of my own (previously I had been sleeping on one of the seats in the lounge, with Willie on the other). Everyone relaxed a bit, and I determined to stay on the boat and see where the adventure of putting myself so far out of my comfort zone that I couldn’t even see it with a telescope, would take me.

* Once I got myself into big trouble with my delight in argumentative banter when meeting a close friend’s new man, a credit trader working in the city of London. It was shortly after the financial crash and I started, what I thought was, a good natured but robustly challenging discussion on the role of the bloated global financial industry in bringing down the world economy and generally oppressing the poor and fomenting inequality. It turned out that the boyfriend didn’t come from such a tradition of arguing simply for the sheer fun of it.

After the meal, back at her flat, I was told off in no uncertain terms for putting her eternal happiness in jeopardy. That was when I discovered that I had been invited along to, what was effectively, their second date.

Yes it could have all gone horribly wrong but, if you can survive a second date with your brand new girlfriend’s Uni friend haranguing you about your role in the downfall of the world economy, it is probably a good sign. You will be pleased to know that, despite such a disastrous date, they are still together. And when I see them now, the conversation doesn’t get more adventurous than the intricacies of childcare and where we are going for brunch.


Three cops in a boat (chapter 1)

Three retired policemen. Not the companions I’d usually choose to spend a week with in a confined space, but it sounded like an adventure.


Orkney to mull in a 40ft yacht for the cost of a shared food kitty and enough alcohol to keep an army drunk for a week. I’d signed up to it after an email came round a climbing club email list I’ve been on for years with the intention on going on their weekend mountaineering trips and never quite getting it together. But this time the email was different.


‘Crew sought for sailing trip to Lofoton’. My mind instantly wandered to the icy arctic and the lofty spires of Lofoton, a place I’d visited just after finals while a field assistant for a hapless PhD student from Sheffield studying caterpillars on dwarf willow.


My life of joyful but demanding family, a job I love (most of the time) and the never-dull house build started to seem rather mundane in the face of adventures on the high seas and climbing rock pillars in arctic wildness. A certain melancholy enveloped me when the impossibility of ever having a proper adventure again struck.


I emailed back with not the slightest expectation of a reply ‘How amazing that sounds. Feeling a bit sad that my family commitments mean that I can’t abandon the husband and kids for any length of time worthy of the expedition this year’ I wrote.


But a week later I had an email suggesting that I simply hop on and off for a week of my choosing and, looking at the weeks set aside for our summer holiday, noted that the stint from Orkney to Mull fitted in. So that was our summer holiday destination planned….


I didn’t actually meet Connor, the captain and owner of the Juneflower, until the night before he was due to sail out of Tighnabruaich, destination Lofoton. He was heading there for the longest day and the boat was packed and ready to go. I would be on the homeward leg. If the yacht, and its captain and crew, survived the trip out, then I’d likely be safe was my reasoning.  But even given the assurance of Natural Selection, I thought it would be a good idea to meet at least one of the people on the boat before I shackled myself to him for a week.


I nearly didn’t get to meet Conor at all, with his busy-ness packing the boat, my general busy-ness and basically forgetting to get in touch with him until a few days before he left. We managed to fit in a half-hour drink at the local rugby club on one of the best days of the summer. I didn’t need to worry about how to find him: blue shorts to the knee, a pink and white striped polo shirt, and deck shoes, he was obviously a sailor.  He was also a retired policeman in his late 50s, tall and thin, with a tanned and peeling nose, and he had already bought me a pint of St Mungos lager which sat awaiting my arrival on the bar. Unsurprisingly, I found this rather odd. During the introductions I worked out that he must have seen a photo on my twitter account of a set of albatross scaring lines next to a drink of WEST Brewery’s St Mungos lager. It’s a bit weird to have someone you’ve never met buy a drink for you before you arrive at the pub, but it’s extra weird coming from a policeman.


However, despite the slight weirdness, he seemed personable, and highly competent in matters of how to sail a boat, which was what I needed to know. He told me a little about the other people on the boat: Robert, his brother and also a retired policemen, and Martin, a long-time colleague also from he police. Willie, a retired engineer, and myself completed the crew.


Now I don’t know the first thing about sailing. I’d been on a couple of dinghys, one where husband’s glasses were hit by the boom and sunk to the bottom of the briny without trace (not great when on a holiday in the far North of Scotland with no opticians for 100s of miles) and once on a yacht with a Uni friend, turned boat builder, who took me on a truly terrifying tour round the Summer Isles in a storm as he shouted with glee. But, despite my personal experience, sailing has always seemed adventurous and romantic to me; blame the Swallows and Amazons if you like.


‘I don’t think you’re going to like it’ said husband, who knows me too well, as we ate a final meal in the Kirkwall hotel. A week in a confined space; no possibilty of excercise, my previously demonstrated fear of sailing, and my slight tendancy to travel sickness. And then, added to that, the prospect of spending it with three ex cops.  ‘It’s going to be an amazing adventure’ I said.

(Names have been changed to protect the innocent….) 

Complaint Letter to Scotframe

Now all the work we need done by Scotframe is done, I am posting here the complaint letter I sent to Scotframe in February after a litany of disasters that impacted our project, brought to head by being told, 10 days before the frame delivery, that they wouldn’t make the date and they didn’t know when they could get it to me.

The letter resulted in getting the frame delivery for one week later, but none of my other queries or complaints were followed up.

To: Cecil Irwin

Date: 13 February 2015

Subject: Urgent for Cecil Irwin: Response Needed Today

Dr Mr Irwin

I am writing in some urgency to obtain a date for delivery of my house. I have scaffolding coming in on Monday and so I need to know today at the very latest, a delivery date for the kit so that I know when to arrange the scaffolders to come. I had been advised by two separate members of your staff that you were the only person who could help me with my query but you did not return my calls yesterday.

What I have experienced the past couple of days I think throws up some serious problems in your company and I would like a response to this as well, although appreciate you will need longer than today to get back on this issue.

I have been working to a date of 23 February since October when we set the date and, as you will know, building a house involves a lot of other factors to be arranged. I have paid you around 90% of the total costs already.   I have scaffolding coming in on Monday and a crane arranged for 23rd February. I have also booked four days off work and a cottage to stay in during the erection.

I called on Tuesday to check that everything was going to plan and was told that, not only was it not going to be ready for 23rd. There was no way that I could be given a date for the delivery of my kit. This is really not acceptable 10 days before a kit arrives that was booked in so many months ago.

I asked what was going on and apparently X can’t give me a date until he has the drawings on his table. I asked him to find out when the drawings would be on his table from the appropriate colleagues but he said that he couldn’t find out and that the only thing I could do to find out when my kit would be ready was to call the Managing Director, yourself.

I found this extremely odd, as you can imagine, and concerning as it suggested a disfunctionality to the way that your company is managing relationships between departments.

I called Y who had been dealing with me over the steel beams and asked if and when the drawings would be ready. He also suggested that you would be the person to speak to. I tried Z, who I have also had dealings with over engineering and technical matters who told me the floor and roof drawings were already with X and they were waiting on the walls. He couldn’t tell me any more than that.

All this was happening on Tuesday. Only 10 days before I had been told my kit would be ready.

My architects and I have already had to wrestle figures out of the technical department three times in the process of this build.

Firstly – back in September – We had to put the foundation build on hold for some considerable time while awaiting the layout for the foundation walls and we ended up having to wait weeks for this to be done.

Secondly getting the information for building control was painfully slow. In the end it was good that we had to put back the erection from late September to February due to there being a BT line in the way as we didn’t actually manage to get the right information from your engineers for building control until January 12th. Fortunately all the other documents were already with building control and once they had this final bit of information they could issue the warrant.

Again this week there appear to be even more last minute issues that weren’t done or flagged up at either of the first two stages and that mean the build is having to be put back.

Over the period of dealing with you, my architects and I have been dealing with at least 6 different people within your company and with your engineers direct. This creates issues of communication within your own company as no one person in Scotframe appears to know what is going on and have the overview. You don’t prioritisie effectively – I was being asked about the colour of the front door back in August and the windows were ordered up in late summer, months and months before we could have started the build because we didn’t have the appropriate plan for the foundations from you nor any of the information we needed for building control (as I said, this eventually arrived in January). Ordering the windows so ludicrously far in advance has caused you problems of storage and at one point X was trying to get me to store them onsite – which was totally impossible.

My immediate issue is needing a firm delivery date today. But I would also like to let you know that due to their experiences with Scotframe, our architects have already warned one client keen to use your system away from Scotframe.

I would like to know what you are planning to do to ameliorate the evident issues I have experienced. When I called the crane company to reschedule they said that Scotframe is always late and cause a lot of problems for clients so I think you need to do something to change the way people experience your level of service in the ground.

However right now I need a delivery date so that I can shift all of the organisation I have put in place. So please get back to me with this today. I am interviewing candidates for a job all day today but can check emails and will return a call when I get a break.


Long weekend St Moritz – the plan

Last September when the end-of-summer chill was starting to bite at the tail end of an Indian summer, I was talking with friends in the pub after work. Chat roamed to skiing and I suggested a visit husband’s family flat in St. Moritz. We were all rather short on annual leave so the idea was almost consigned to the recycling bin, but, with the assistance of a few glasses of wine, a long weekend seemed the answer.


It was decided. We’d go for an early Spring spin to St Moritz.


In the light of the next day it seemed vastly extravagant and degenerate but I’m not one to go back in an agreement and I booked the flights right away: Edinburgh to Basel return for £50. So now we were committed.


I’m just back from spending a week there over New Year and, in those silent meditative moments on ski lifts, instead of contemplating the meaning of life, I was distilling the top things to do in a three day visit to St Moritz. I’ve designed a trip to blow out the cobwebs, and to fit a week of snow sports and socializing into one long weekend.


Here we go.…



flights to Basel

Train to St Moritz. Arrive 7pm.

Take Bus 3 to via Salet (it leaves straight after the train gets in so go straight to the Bus stop). Number 6 also goes to Via Salet. Or you can get a 1 or 9 and get off at Reithalle which is 3 minute longer walk.


Arrive at flat, unpack, quick shop at co-op for lunches breakfasts and at 830pm head out to Jazz and cocktails at the Kulm hotel. Walk along lake, up escalators into town and then through town to Kulm.  http://www.kulm.com/en/culinary-art/bars-lobby/ 15CHF for a cocktail

Dress code smart casual (sunny bar) smart elegant (other bars)



early start. Skiing at Corviglia. First cable car is at 750am.

Ski like mad in morning. Mid morning coffee at mountain restaurant with views. Sandwich lunch on slopes.

Back to flat early.

Afternoon to swimming pool with outside jacuzzi pool to watch sunset. http://www.ovaverva.ch/en/portrait/ovaverva/at-a-glance.html 12CHF


Evening. Bus to Corvatsch for snow nights. 7pm-2amhttp://www.engadin.stmoritz.ch/winter/en/activities/sports/skiing-snowboarding/corvatsch-skiing/snow-night-on-the-corvatsch/ 27CHF

Night bus home.



late start. Ski Corviglia.

End day with a drink at the Quattro bar at Corviglia and last run down.

To The Palace Hotel for afternoon tea

https://www.badruttspalace.com/en/badrutts-moments/tea-up-badrutt-s-afternoon-tea  39CHF – eh? That seems a lot, perhaps we’ll just pop in for a cup of tea

Stay on for the evening … (If we can avoid being ejected).



Bus to ski Diavolezza and Lagalp. 

End of day ski glacier run to Morteratsch. Drinks at the hotel and train back to St Moritz.

Fondue in the flat.



702am train to Basel. And flights home.


Costs of travel plus ski pass: 


Swiss transfer ticket 141CHF – return from Basel to St Moritz

3 day ski pass – includes all bus and train transport while in Engadine


= total 364CHF



Snow rail plus 2 days skiing


67.40 extra day skiing Diavolezza.

=total 357.40

Self-sacrificial slapstick and the art of giving the gift of weeping with hysterical laughter this Christmas

I must admit to being somewhat single minded in the past few months about the house-build. It’s been hard to think about anything else. I hope I didn’t let that cloud my judgement of what my entire family want for Christmas. Well it’s the combination of that, and a singular lack of money, brought about by the self-same house build.    

Every member of my belovèd family will get an edited, formatted and hard-back-printed copy of my blog from the very beginning. I managed to get it down to 194 pages. I hope they like it but, since my parents are my blog’s number one (and perhaps only) fans, it’s sure to get a happy welcome there. I didn’t get one for the tween-agers you’ll be pleased to know – my judgement hasn’t slipped that far. 

In addition to the house-build themed Christmas presents, we also had a house-build themed Christmas. Over four days we managed to transform the house into a livable space and transform it back into a building-site, every surface covered. We decorated, painted special slate worktop stuff on the surfaces, then tried to work out why it went all smeary and sticky. We put up the post box/name plate for the house, Cleared up enough dust to switch the MVHR (mechanical ventilation heat recovery) on and cleaned all the windows and frames of bits of plaster and stuff. 
Christmas Eve was taken up with wholesome and thrifty pursuits like making plaid covers for the freebee Salvation Army cushions (granddaughter and grandmother) and upholstering the same plaid onto chairs I’d bought as an impulse Salvation Army purchase (grandpa without much input from other granddaughter). 
Boxing Day was all about ridding the site of wood-based detritus. The waste stuff (water-logged chipboard, OSB and reams of  cardboard) was thrown onto a pyre and sent in clouds of smoke into the ether. Farewell to the year. Farewell to a life totally taken up with this house build. 

Wood that could be used in future as firewood or for other things had to be moved from the enormous wood-mountain I had allocated it to at the very start of the build. 
I’d chosen that site specifically as the only place I could put it that I would never have to move it again. Ever. (Erm… So why are you moving it Kat?) Well you never can account for where people decided to put their water pipes in the historic past, and we discovered that one runs right under my wood-mountain and that it needs to be dug up. And we discovered it has a leak that has turned the back of the house into more of a mud bath than usual. 
I made some of the wood mountain into a woodshed as husband moved the wood with the concentration of a someone playing a real-life game of Tetris. Each time making the journey across a no-man’s land of mud which became more icky, more squelchy and more sucky with each crossing, until it threatened to eat our wellies whole, and some of the rest of us too. 

In the spirit of using the less pleasant experiences of the build for good, I’ve incorporated a memory-nemesis into that shed. Half of the dreaded partition wall that sat for months in the newly erected and sopping wet house without being fitted and then warping beyond use is now the shed roof. The OSB wasn’t in best condition which isn’t a surprise given it’s sat in the pouring rain since April but I patched it up with bits of the Mystery OSB which is lying around in the fully-built house that no one knows what it’s for.  

 “Don’t saw off the bit you’re standing on” I joked to myself as I sawed through a long bit of OSB hanging over the woodshed roof. Mum and dad had finished packing to leave and were hanging out of the upstairs bedroom window with husband watching progress on the woodshed roof. 
It was only a few minutes later that I forgot my own advice to myself and found that progress was easier with a foot on either side of the saw and merrily sawed away until….. CRACK!!! 
The saw made the final cut and I fell dramatically and theatrically into the mud-field we had created. It wasn’t quite headfirst. I am told by my audience that it would have been an award-winning bellyflop if I hadn’t landed too far over on my side. Both arms sunk up to the elbows in mud: face and hair was plastered: grit between my teeth. 
It was one of the funniest things that I can remember and I was consumed by hysterics (as was my audience, augmented by the kids who ran to see what all the noise was about). It was a long time before I could regain my composure enough to finish what I needed to do, strip off my dirt-caked clothes, and make my way to Christen the beautiful shower with mud and grit. My only regret is that, although husband had taken some video of me making the shed roof, he switched off just at the moment it would have been useful to capture on film. 
Nevertheless, the memory of myself wallowing in mud after my cartoon-esque schoolboy error will stand me in good stead if I need cheering up in future. And, as some psychologists at Cornell University have found, giving memories rather than material presents at Christmas gives a more lasting pleasure. So perhaps Im glad that, at a time when every available penny is being spent on the house build, I’ve given such an unique, entertaining and enduring present to my whole family.  

Ps. Some photos in the immediate aftermath of the mud-dive exist, but I am afraid that they will remain classified for evermore.  I’ll leave it up to imagination 



Cancelling Christmas 

I’d thought about cancelling Christmas a couple of times. The first was with 11 days to go to the big day, as I returned from a weather-swept stomp to a bothy in the Borders where I was celebrating a friend’s 100th bothy with a large party of bobble-hat-wearing revellers. I managed to catch up with Tom, a university friend who made who the kitchen, and discovered that the units were in at an angle, not merely set out further from the wall.   

  I sat and despaired a little in a layby in the sleet and wondered whether to put back the worktops and cancel Christmas while I was at it.


The second followed the next day, with 10 days to go, when Stephen the stonemason came to fit the worktops and we discovered that all my fears were founded and we’d need to move the fridge plug then move the kitchen then get the stone-mason back again. 


But it’s really quite hard for me to accept that anything is hopeless or impossible. If I’ve said I’ll do something, I do like to do it. 


Plan the day and dae the plan. 


A phrase coined by a friend of mine (it works much better when he says it having a Scottish accent…)


Planned to camp on a beach on a West coast island but the weekend weather forecast looks pish? 

Plan the Day and Dae the Plan.

You’ll have a brilliant time even if it rains and if the sun peeks out you’ll only regret staying at home as you imagine what it would have been like swimming in gaspingly cold water or collecting mussels and roasting them in a camp-fire. 

Planned to do a couple of Munros but you’re feeling a bit tired and think you might just get to the next rise and head to the pub? 


Plan the Day and Dae the Plan. 

The mountain will still be calling you from the pub and imagine how brilliant it will feel to have done the whole walk. 

Planned to have Christmas at a house that is highly unlikely to be fully habitable.  


No one ever enjoyed having an easy life. …. Erm. Hold on. 


It wasn’t a good moment when I realised I’d lost the tap for the kitchen sink and that there wouldn’t be time to get the tap to the house and for the plumber to fit it before Christmas. But that didn’t really worry me, we’d have a hose through the window from the outside tap (well that was before I realised that the drainage for the sink wasn’t plumbed). And anyway we have a dishwasher (which turned out not to be plumbed either….)


No, the low-point came with 2 days to go, as I arrived at the house in my rented van full of a sofa and a sofa bed and chairs and boxes of stuff to a dark dark house and realised how much I had to do to make it habitable for Christmas. 

 Tom had moved the kitchen into the right place that day and the worktops were due in the next. But I had a van full of stuff which I’d hoped to Tom would help me unload, and a bottle of wine I’d hoped Tom would help me drink, but he was done unexpectedly early and was away down to the road to let the dogs out. 


The joiners still had at least a week of work and one of the bedrooms was entirely taken up with skirting boards. The cooker hood and washing machine were still sitting in the lounge and everywhere was dust and dust sheets and bits and pieces and no furniture or food or crockery or cutlery or saucepans or decorations or even drying-up-cloths. I went out to deliver Christmas cards and invites to a Boxing Day party (Christmas evidently not being enough challenge of its own…) round to all the neighbours and that’s when I got a view of what Christmas could be like if we’d just go to my parents like we usually do. 


 A neighbour’s house was decorated beautifully with greenery and berries and perfect lighting. They opened the door and Christmassy scents of cooking and bonhomie wafted towards me. Their grown-up sons back for Christmas came downstairs to say hello and showed me photos of the whole happy family eating fondue in their alpine-style garden shed exquisitely decorated for Christmas. I left weeping quietly, hugging the spirit level I’d borrowed for the stone-mason, for comfort. Is it too late to cancel Christmas and go to mum and dad’s if they have already started packing to come to Cuil?


Plan the day and Dae the plan. 


At least if I don’t have anyone else to unload the van, I can go back and petition the neighbour’s sons to help. So long as they don’t tell me how lovely and relaxing and stress free it is going home to ones parents for Christmas. 


  In the end Stephen the stonemason and his assistant insisted on helping me unload. Being used to shifting huge slabs of stone around, they made light work of the contents of the van and headed back to Glasgow well before dark.  

 By evening I had a livable sitting room at least – two sofas and a coffee table made from the cooker hood topped by the slab of ash, intended as the seat at the bottom of the stairs. And the next day I’d be returning with the family and food and many hands to make light work of the rest of the house. 

I’ve been thinking about a line of poetry to carve into the edge of the wooden worktop in the kitchen. Something to reflect the landscape of Scotland and people’s connection with the landscape. Been thinking Norman McCaig or Kathleen Jamie but now I’ve got a plan. 


That has got to be carved somewhere in the house – but it needs to be near the door. On the way out to adventures. How about on the ash bench?  I’ll be sitting on there getting my boots on ready to set forth into the rain (And inevitably yelling blue murder at the kids trying to get them out of the house and off their electronic devices which, I’ll tell you, needs the utmost in unshakable resolve.)


A short career change 

I suppose it’s not that surprising that I’ve decided against becoming a white van driver. 


Recently I’ve felt rather desirous of a white van to put all the vast quantities of stuff I find myself shifting about these days. My functional and (before I owned it) well-kept family car is now a total tip, scarred with the detritus I have taken away from the building site. It has got to the stage that, rather than having derogatory thoughts about white van drivers (from long experiences of cycle commuting) when one passes by, my heart goes all a flutter. 


Well today I hired one. A van of my own. And I couldn’t stop smiling as I drove it away (until I stalled almost immediately, right in front of a cyclist on Dunbarton Road). It’s not white though, it’s a charming shade of red to match the kitchen. 


I collected a sofa bed from the Salvation Army (my last-minute solution to the twin problems of nothing to sit on at Christmas and nothing for the agèd parents to sleep on at Christmas). 


And while I was there bought another leather sofa (£50!) and four gorgeous chairs (£40!) simply because I CAN. Because I now have a VAN. And you simply never know when you will next have a van to transport your Salvation Army bargains about in. And that was when I got the parking ticket. 
Then I went to collect the bed and other charity-shop furniture that I have been stockpiling.  Looking back at the blog I can see that I have had that bed stacked against the window of our bedroom since March 2013 (that’s 2 years and 9 months). In 2013 I must have had a rather unrealistic idea of how long it actually takes to build a house. With the bed packed into the van, life is transformed with space to walk round to my side of the bed AND a view out of the window (and I found a few long lost items as a bonus). 


It’s a good job that it is really nice bed, or it would have been rather irritating to have it clogging up our life for so long. 


And then the van was full and all the other stuff needed for a Christmas at the house had to be somehow levered into tiny spaces and crammed into the front seats. 


I eventually set off after 8pm from Glasgow and made good progress through torrential rain. I managed to find Radio 4 (are transit drivers allowed to listen to Radio 4?) and was just about to turn off at Tarbert when I came across a police roadblock. There’s often a roadblock there and they’ve never stopped me but this time they waved me over. 


They looked at the huge pile of bags and crockery and glasses and presents on the front seats and I said “it looks similar in the back”. “I think we’d better have a look through it then” said one of them, which was swiftly clarified as a joke when they saw my alarmed face. They let me go after letting me know one of the head-lights was out on the van. 


All was well until ballachulish where I passed another police car parked at the side of the road. About 5 minutes later I saw blindingly bright flashing lights behind me. It was then I learnt what the speed limit for a van is and, was sent on my way, contrite and grateful for understanding and charming policemen, this time driving like a tourist in a rented camper taking in the scenery and searching for a likely lay-by. 


So, I declare my glorious, and extremely short-lived career as a white van driver officially over, having had more scrapes with authority in a three hour period than in the past three years put together. But, as the annoying saying goes, where one door shuts another will open, and at my day-job I’ve been working on a project on that fabulous, rare and internationally important habitat, the western Atlantic woodlands. It’s those damp, dripping, mossy, lichenous broadleaf woodlands you get in this part of the world. They have more species of mosses, bryophyte and lichens than the rainforests and they positively drip with atmosphere and life. 


While creating a map for the project area I couldn’t help but notice that Cuil Bay happens to be roughly in the middle of the area (funny that), surrounded by some lovely examples of woodland. In fact the cycle route Ballachullish to Oban takes you though some particularly lovely examples of woodland, and pulling out baby rhododendrons has provided some surprisingly good therapy to me while on difficult phone calls regarding the house. So it is certainly a great project to be working on and one which I plan to stay involved with in the future. We’ll see where that leads. 


The review of the year

Since every newspaper, magazine, TV show and media outlet is doing its Highlights of 2015, I thought we should have a review of significant moments from the Cuil Bay blog in the past year.


It certainly has been a significant year- we’ve gone from foundations to an almost entirely finished house. So here are some key blogs from the last year – not the highlights, as many class as barrel-scraping, hair-tearing lowlights.  But I hope you enjoy them nonetheless.

Number 1: 2015’s most popular blog

By about a million miles, the letter I wrote to the CEO of Openreach while trying desperately to aquire a phone line, has been the most popular post on my blog. It resulted in me getting my own personal customer service assistant who called me daily to check how I was, and a phone line at the end of a few weeks, so it had the desired effect.


Number 2: Highest High

Written in a moment of madness when I was feeling overly happy. It didn’t last long, but it was worth recording for posterity. The agonys and the ecstasies 


Number 3: Lowest Low (well this is one of very many of them)

…and this is why the ecstasy didn’t last long. Discovering two pieces of metalwork that presumably should be in your house does that. The mystery of the missing metalwork

Number 4: Survival skills and escapism

It’s been stressful building a house, and having a busy job, and having a family to keep in some kind of semi-organised harmony, so I’ve needed some strategies for survival.  There’s certainly loud music, runs in wild places, swims in wild seas, and dancing at my personal silent disco. In fact rediscovering some CDs of 90s rave music has seen me through the very worst of it. There’s also the sofa, wine, iplayer, and an extremely understanding husband. Sometimes writing the blog helps, but one thing I’ve done quite a bit of this year, and have wanted to do for ages, is spend time sleeping out in the mountains again.


Up in the mountains and in the woods. It puts the rest of life into perspective. Here’s a blog from a sleep in the woods where I discovered that, unlike sleeping on top of a hill, the deep dark wood in a storm is a simply terrifying place.



Number 5:  Discovering a good pun is almost as good as a sleep up a mountain in a storm to make you feel better.

If I hadn’t had a sense of humour about all the horrors then life would really have been irretrievably miserable. Here is something that made me laugh for a week (I don’t think you’ll find it that funny though….) EPC Difficulties


Number 6: A vlogging debut

I struggled long and hard deciding whether to post here any of the video-blogs that I did during the build when the awfulness of the situation had crippled my ability to write.  But, no matter how toe curling they are, and no matter how un-cool my hat, I felt I should represent one of them here. So I hope you enjoy this blog: Weather nightmares, Articulated lorry nightmares, Crane nightmares and Sartorial head-wear nightmares.


Number 7: Builders

Here’s another blog that is slightly toe curling for me to read, one of a series I did on builders. To quote from the blog …

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.

And I certainly have made my mistakes, but I have been fortunate to find a builder that has managed to sort out a lot of problems. This blog about the windows was only one of those mistakes. There were others, even bigger.

Numbers 8 and 9: The rest of my life

But it’s not all been about house-building this year. I’ve had my job to do and I’ve had a lot of fun to plan and excecute. I’ve managed a few blogs on that stuff too.
Work and fun coincided on a trip to Ailsa Craig and this blog finds me on a shingle beach at midnight sitting by a loudspeaker blaring out the most extraordinary sounds: A night of Storm Petrels


And of course there’s always skiing adventures to be had when the nights start drawing in and the gales drift the snow enough to venture up a hill. I share my pontifications on that peculiar sport here Six skills for Scottish Skiing

Number 10: Kat’s final house blog

But the build isn’t over yet. It might seem very neat that it is the end of a year and the (nearly) end of a year of building the house. But my number 10 blog hasn’t been written yet.


It’s going to be the blog where the house is done and I have a house-warming resembling the parties at the end of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage series, with an aspirational community gathering around a giant bonfire where I roast home grown food and everyone is having interesting and highly intellectual chat about how to save the seas, or school dinners, or something like that.  Or it will be like the end of one of Nigella’s programmes where she whips a bowl of cream between her bossoms and serves choux pastry to her family and friends in a fairy-light strewn garden and everyone is charming and beautiful.  There will be a mild, hazy light, flowers on gently rolling banks, trestle tables laden with edible goodies and everywhere happy friends, happy neighbours and happy builders architects, plumbers, electricians, joiners, and the rest. There will definitely be loud music and it will be loud very very late.


But, that blog is still in my head, and I have to hold it there until everything is actually done.  And that is the hard bit.



The Twelve Months of Building

A wee Christmassy take on the past 12 months on the building site now the agony is (mainly) over, the waiting is nearly finished and the joy is starting to seep in.

In the first month of building, my project gave to me:

A form with a building warrant fee


In the second month of building, my project gave to me:

Two long delays ….IMG_9296

In the third month of building, my project gave to me:

Three feet of water ….IMG_9020


In the fourth month of building, my project gave to me:

Four walls of silver ….IMG_9370

In the fifth month of building, my project gave to me:

Five weeks of gales …IMG_9210-0.PNG

In the sixth month of building, my project gave to me:

Men to move the windows …IMG_0191


In the seventh month of building, my project gave to me:

Holes through the beam … (it’s not supposed to look like that) IMG_0173



In the eighth month of building, my project gave to me:

JOY! The cladding’s finished


In the ninth month of building, my project gave to me:



In the tenth month of building, my project gave to me: Time to sack a builder ….

(not them, they’re just building a shed)IMG_1230



In the eleven (and twelfth) months of building, my project gave to me:

Two plumbers plumbing

Three electricians wiring

One taper taping

Ronnie’s digger digging

Three floorers flooring

One tiler tiling

Loads of joiners joining


Four weeks til Christmas,

Got an EPC,

What’s a schedule one?


pause for effect ….


And a kitchen and a loo to do a wee!



Kitchen in. Kitchen out. Shake it all about. 

At last. AT LAST. The kitchen is nearly done. I say nearly because it should have all been done and it isn’t, because nothing ever goes to plan.

I knew that something was going to go wrong with installing the worktops on Sunday, but it was too late to rearrange Stephen the stonemason who has been crafting a pile of old snooker tables into smooth shiny worktops.


I had to arrange the kitchen around the maximum size of a piece of snooker table slate, which took a bit of changing things around with the original plan. But I thought slate would be nice – the house being near Ballachullish and all, and I nearly died when I saw how much a proper slate worktop costs. So I went to my local salvage yard, did a deal on five bits of snooker-table and then set about finding someone who could make them into worktops.


While I phoned round every stone mason in Glasgow, my worktops sat in the salvage yard, waiting to be fetched. IMG_9916


After most had said no, I spoke to Steven who said he hadn’t worked in slate before but he thought he’d quite like the challenge of something new. (Or at least that’s what I assumed he’d said as I had a bit of trouble understanding him, despite my long long apprenticeship in Glaswegian, and despite two daughters who regularly tell me I can’t pronounce the letter “R” and try and get me to speak like them)


In fact, in the end, I had to arrange to go and meet him somewhere in town one lunchtime so I could speak to him face to face to make sure we were understanding each other. He said he was down at the Spiritualist church quite often (which rather freaked me out), but in the interests of the slate worktops I arranged to meet him there and, to my great relief, found him up some scaffolding pointing at bits of sandstone and covered in stone dust.


So Stephen said he’d pick up the snooker tables and do the necessary. I checked with the salvage yard a few weeks later. They were still there. And a few weeks after that.


Eventually, at the moment I was about to despair, he fetched them to his yard where I met him again with some sketches (this time he showed up in a shiny suit and pointy shoes and a 90s shiny, pointy car, all of which rather surprised me)


From then on I would contact him from time to time to tell him things had been pushed back. And he was always intensely relaxed about all the date shuffling and uncertainty (which at least is something to be grateful for). 


But this time I didn’t call to push the worktops back again, although perhaps I should have done when I found out that there was a problem with the kitchen.


Cue another aside about the kitchen …. Tom, who made the kitchen, is a good friend from University, who after a high-flying degree and a stint trying not to climb the greasy pole in London, decided to retrain as a cabinet maker and move to a wet, isolated and be-forested part of Stirlingshire to make kitchens and furniture in a shed.

He has built me an absolutely beautiful kitchen. I gave him the sizes things needed to be and chose the colours (‘can I have some of it red like that barn outside?’) but he decided on most other things, which cut down the number of decisions I needed to make. (Though I think I suggested the bookcase on the end and the tall-slidey door).


He incorporated a sink that has been sitting in my front garden since I found it abandoned on the street about ten years ago. Over that period it has been a pond, at request of husband, and then, once declared a wildlife deathtrap, it became an algae-growing garden ‘ornament’. When I visited the house to see progress on the kitchen it still had the algae and the distinct smell of pond water.


I also wanted Tom to incorporate an ex-lab bench I fished out of a skip at the university and took home in a black cab when I was doing my PhD about 16 years ago. This lab-bench became an enormous coffee table when we sawed the legs off it to get it into the cab and has taken up most of the room in two sitting rooms since then. It wouldn’t be for the whole kitchen – the rest is slate. However since it would cost the same to have an oak worktop on that bit instead, due to the labour needed, I went with that. The lab-bench will be my dining room table (once we stick some bits of wood on again to lengthen the legs).

So the kitchen is beautiful, and I did so love it when I saw it. But it’s in all skew. One wall is warped and goes in in the middle. I probably did a blog about that ruddy wall which caused me so much grief to get in in the first place….


However fortunately that run has the stove in the middle of it and so the units on each side tilt inwards (but parallel with the wall) and Stephen simply left the worktops a little long and cut them on the angle alongside the stove sides.

The more serious problem was that Tom put the kitchen on the other side on an angle all the way along and not parallel with the wall. This is what I found out the day before the worktops were due to arrive. It was all due to a socket being right behind the fridge which, when the plug was in, pushed the fridge outwards which meant that the whole run of units came outwards. But, since a drawer had to come out and run past the handles on a unit at right angles, he put the whole kitchen on a tilt so that it would work.


This meant it was simply impossible to fit the worktops, they overhung by a completely different amount on each side of the kitchen and also from one end to the other of the units on one side.

We decided we needed to get the whole kitchen moved and so Stephen and his team left for the long drive back to Glasgow.

 The first woman working on the house!  


It’s now getting rather close to Christmas (which we are going to spend at the house even if it involves eating sandwiches off a piece of plywood propped up on boxes). So the plan is the electrcian comes in this week to finish off, Tom comes to move kitchen on Tuesday and Stephen returns to finish with the worktops. The only thing outstanding then will be the tap for the kitchen sink which I seem to have lost.

 Don’t they look lovely? Snooker tables do scrub up well – especially when you have little inclusions of fools gold in them. Hoping they’ll be less liable to scratching once they are treated. 


Swiss Survival Guide: Surviving St. Moritz

The advantage of skiing in Switzerland is that noone would possibly know that you bought your ski jacket and salopettes in Lidl.


They do actually have Lidl in Switzerland, it’s just that nobody goes, or at least they would never admit it. And you can be doubly confident that none of the Bogner/Mongler/Cartier ski suit wearing punters in St Moritz shop in Lidl (yes apparently Cartier make ski-wear….)


If you say something like ‘Wow Lidl costs a third of that duopoly coop/migro that has such a grip on the shopping habits of your nation’ then you are likely to be excommunicated from your Swiss in-laws. But at least a small bag of shopping doesn’t cost £150.


Now there seems to have been some excitement in the financial markets the past few days which, if I’ve got this right, means that overnight our visits to Switzerland will now, not just be a bit more expensive, but 40% more expensive. 


And that got me thinking what kind of things don’t cost the earth in Switzerland?  As specifically, how to not spend too much money when you happen to be in the play-ground of Oligarchs and winter habitat of the English toff, St Moritz. 


I started with food and here’s the blog of a week of Swiss recepies based on a theme of starch and cheese which may be light on the pocket but are certainly rather heavy on the stomach. 


But there’s also lots of things to do that won’t break the bank and here’s a list:

1. Watch the races on the Olympia Bob: 

The world’s only natural ice bob run (there is no concrete underneath). They practice every day in the season but if you are there for a race it is even better. 

You can walk down a really good footpath from the top near the Kulm Hotel all the way to Celerina and get the bus or train back. Stop at the bar on the amazing horseshoe bend to watch the action.


2. Relaxing Sledging:

Top day out. Take the train to Preda, and head down the old road, that is shut in winter, to Berguns by sledge. It is 6km long and really picturesque as it winds over and under the World Heritage Site railway line. When you get there, lots of Gluwein stalls await and the train back up to do it again. 

(It’s not such a bargain day out of you have to hire a sledge though)

3. Oligarch Watching

It is really rather good entertainment to spot outrageous bling all over the place. Lots of furs and lots of diamonds and lots of ridiculously oversized dark glasses. Walk down the main street passing every high end luxury brand you can think of. Look out for heated car-park spaces so they are kept clear of ice. There is a whole road that has under-tarmac heating to keep it ice free between the Palace Hotel and Casa Veliga. Be horrified at how the planet is going to hell in a handcart. And how the world’s elite live. Then wander into Hotel Kulm in your walking boots for a cocktail.

4. Ursli path: 

A lovely walking path themed around the fantiastic children’s book ‘A Bell for Ursli’ taking you up to Salastrains. Take a sledge and kids can sledge down (it’s not officially a sledging route so be prepared to be frowned at by Swiss people). 

The path finishes at the Salastrains nursery slope where the hut that was used to film the original Heidi TV series now lives. Go in. Be Heidi and Geiserpeter. 

…. and read “A Bell for Ursli” before you go.

5. The Cresta Run: 

The last bastion of the English toff at St Moritz, now that Russian Ologarchs have taken over. You can hear the plummy voices from miles away as the announcer calls out their double barrelled names ‘Number four. Lord Thisleton-Lumley’ as they throw themselves headfirst in plus-fours and vintage leather shoes. 

 No women allowed. Which makes them look even more ridiulous if you just head over to the Olympia Bob and see the amazing women from the Swiss skeleton team who would burn them all off in an instant. 

Ode to my portaloo 

O portaloo. O portaloo.
It’s sad to see the back of you

Your inky depths of lurid blue

I hold so dear 


O portaloo. O portaloo.

I’ll never do another poo

And try in vain to flush it through

To leave it clear


In the house I have, brand new,

A bathroom; shower, sink and loo,

I have no further use for you,

Or you for I, I fear.


It’s been a week of much action. Lights are on, showers in, Loos went in eventually, wood floor in. Access ramp being built, visit from building control officer, visit from Ronnie digger driver to plan the landscaping, doors going in.  Slate tiles on floor finished. 

 It’s actually been quite fun building a house this week. And it’s only Wednesday. We are back up at the weekend to see how progress is rest of the week.  


Torrential rain and gales: it must be time to start building the house…

Another from the archive waiting to be posted:

13 February 2015


 Yes it’s a great week to start building a house. Here is the image from the traffic camera at the head of Glencoe the morning after I arrived up at Cuil Bay on Sunday night. And all day Monday there was lashing rain, sleet, hail and winds at gale force.


Yesterday, the day that the worst weather hit, was the day scheduled for the arrival of the frame so I had rented a cottage in the area, gathered a few friends and relatives together and we planned to watch the frame going up. But it didn’t happen.


At the very last minute the frame company said they couldn’t deliver to the schedule we’ve been working to since October. I called on the Wednesday to check all was OK for delivery Monday and it wasn’t. It was delayed. I couldn’t get a sensible schedule out of anyone and all seemed utter chaos in the office.

‘I can’t give you a date until I have the drawings on my desk’
‘When will you have the drawings on your desk?’ said I.
‘No idea- ask technical’
‘Can you walk down the corridor to ask technical?’

I called technical
‘They have the drawings’, they said. 
‘They don’t think they have the drawings’
‘They do’
‘Can you walk down the corridor and tell them they have the drawings?’

In the end I needed to write to the Managing Director to sort it out (he was adept at avoiding my calls) And got a revised date a week delayed.

Here is my letter. 


I might have been raging last week, while sorting out the mess, but now it seems like a relief. At least I had a few days to rearrange the contractors, scaffolding, and crane. Not a simple process but I am now getting used to it….


But I still had a wee cottage in beautiful Duror booked, which I couldn’t cancell, and the time off work. This would be my chance to escape the chaos of home and work and spend a bit of time by myself organising house stuff without the thousands of distractions. A house-organising retreat. Me, my laptop and a cup of coffee.


The cottage was a converted barn on a farm with three immense shire horses who spent the time I was there sheltering from the horrific conditions in the barn opposite. I looked out of the window at the horses but I didn’t go out. Not for the entire day.


I’d packed very simple food, my laptop and piles of house paperwork. I spent the day arranging and organising things related to the house – bills, plans, quotes. When I called home from the stillness of the cottage the chaos of home was a bit of a shock. Perhaps I should do this more often.


I met with Stuart the local Appin builder who had so efficiently and competently delivered the foundations and ground works to the stage of being ready for the frame. Nothing is a crisis to Stuart. Practically everything is a crisis to me. He arrived at the cottage in the torrential downpour from working on a site just down the road in Duror which was an epic mud bath- it looks like the builders will need sub-Aqua kit to lay the strip foundations.


We chatted over an earl grey (‘no biscuit thanks’) as I tried to pursued him (again) to take on the next bit of work. We talked over the various bits of the work (me not knowing anything and fearing seeming even more ignorant than I actually am) with me saying all sorts of embarrassingly naive things and him nodding and saying ‘yes ahuh’. 

But he was, as ever, unmovable on the issue of building my house.

Over that three day period of thrashing rain and gales I ventured out only to visit the electrician and the renewables compan, oh and I did visit the plot and saw the concrete slab and finished buried pipe work. But mainly I spent the two days retreating in my little cottage. It’s something I really think I should do more of.



Monumental Scotframe scheduling disaster

Post from way back in February. Now the Scotframe Part of the build is out of the way.  


From end February 2015 


 Scheduling has been a bit of a challenge during the build. I feel a sense of physical pain when I think of all the phone calls with Scotframe’s scheduling guy about some issue or other. The worst 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.


Apparently they were running behind, and no they couldn’t give me a revised date, and no they hadn’t thought to contact me as soon as they knew. I had booked crane and contractor and scaffolding, and even more critically, time off work, which I need to do months ahead as my diary is so busy, and I had even booked a tiny little cottage to stay in for a few nights.


 The full story is here: 


In short I had been advised by two people in two separate departments of Scotfame that the only way to sort the problems were to speak to the Managing Director. 

I ended up following their advice and contacting Cecil Irwin,  Managing Director, by phone and by email (see letter below). A date for delivery was pretty rapidly provided. It was rescheduled to be one week from the original planned date.

  Small victories… but I didn’t have the time off work.

To: Cecil Irwin

Date: 13 February 2015

Subject: Urgent for Cecil Irwin: Response Needed Today

Dr Mr Irwin

I am writing in some urgency to obtain a date for delivery of my house. I have scaffolding coming in on Monday and so I need to know today at the very latest, a delivery date for the kit so that I know when to arrange the scaffolders to come. I had been advised by two separate members of your staff that you were the only person who could help me with my query but you did not return my calls yesterday. 

What I have experienced the past couple of days I think throws up some serious problems in your company and I would like a response to this as well, although appreciate you will need longer than today to get back on this issue. 

I have been working to a date of 23 February since October when we set the date and, as you will know, building a house involves a lot of other factors to be arranged. I have paid you around 90% of the total costs already.   I have scaffolding coming in on Monday and a crane arranged for 23rd February. I have also booked four days off work and a cottage to stay in during the erection. 

I called on Tuesday to check that everything was going to plan and was told that, not only was it not going to be ready for 23rd. There was no way that I could be given a date for the delivery of my kit. This is really not acceptable 10 days before a kit arrives that was booked in so many months ago. 

I asked what was going on and apparently X can’t give me a date until he has the drawings on his table. I asked him to find out when the drawings would be on his table from the appropriate colleagues but he said that he couldn’t find out and that the only thing I could do to find out when my kit would be ready was to call the Managing Director, yourself. 

I found this extremely odd, as you can imagine, and concerning as it suggested a disfunctionality to the way that your company is managing relationships between departments. 

I called Y who had been dealing with me over the steel beams and asked if and when the drawings would be ready. He also suggested that you would be the person to speak to. I tried Z, who I have also had dealings with over engineering and technical matters who told me the floor and roof drawings were already with X and they were waiting on the walls. He couldn’t tell me any more than that. 

All this was happening on Tuesday. Only 10 days before I had been told my kit would be ready.  

My architects and I have already had to wrestle figures out of the technical department three times in the process of this build. 

Firstly – back in September – We had to put the foundation build on hold for some considerable time while awaiting the layout for the foundation walls and we ended up having to wait weeks for this to be done. 

Secondly getting the information for building control was painfully slow. In the end it was good that we had to put back the erection from late September to February due to there being a BT line in the way as we didn’t actually manage to get the right information from your engineers for building control until January 12th. Fortunately all the other documents were already with building control and once they had this final bit of information they could issue the warrant. 

Again this week there appear to be even more last minute issues that weren’t done or flagged up at either of the first two stages and that mean the build is having to be put back. 

Over the period of dealing with you, my architects and I have been dealing with at least 6 different people within your company and with your engineers direct. This creates issues of communication within your own company as no one person in Scotframe appears to know what is going on and have the overview. You don’t prioritisie effectively – I was being asked about the colour of the front door back in August and the windows were ordered up in late summer, months and months before we could have started the build because we didn’t have the appropriate plan for the foundations from you nor any of the information we needed for building control (as I said, this eventually arrived in January). Ordering the windows so ludicrously far in advance has caused you problems of storage and at one point X was trying to get me to store them onsite – which was totally impossible. 

My immediate issue is needing a firm delivery date today. But I would also like to let you know that due to their experiences with Scotframe, our architects have already warned one client keen to use your system away from Scotframe. 

I would like to know what you are planning to do to ameliorate the evident issues I have experienced. When I called the crane company to reschedule they said that Scotframe is always late and cause a lot of problems for clients so I think you need to do something to change the way people experience your level of service in the ground. 

However right now I need a delivery date so that I can shift all of the organisation I have put in place. So please get back to me with this today. I am interviewing candidates for a job all day today but can check emails and will return a call when I get a break. 




Another good day. 

It was a busy day at the build on Monday. Swarming with people. Two plumbers, two electricians, a tiler, two painters and Stephen. 

We’ve moved on leaps and bounds in two weeks. You wouldn’t recognise the place. The Plasterboard is all done, all the annoying bits and pieces that were left, pocket doors and boxing and bathroom stuff. The taper sorted out the mess and completed the rest. The painters have practically finished. It even looks like we may at some point have a functioning toilet. 

Electric sockets are live. Lights are about to go in. Heat is on, nay, blasting out. We found the MVHR cable buried in a wall for the main control panel. 

(We -meaning Stephen- also had to move a wall that was in the wrong place, and affixed by only a few nails)

Once we started its been action stations. We didn’t have a taper to start with and it was my job (apparently) to find one to start the following Monday – it was Friday. I had a contact given me by Stuart (Builder#1) who I called and amazingly yes he could start on the Monday. 


I was rather pleased to see the doors and finishings sitting in the middle of the floor.  There’s a bit of a story there. 

Scotframe called about the long-put-back delivery of the doors frames, stirtings and facings. Yes they could bring them but not on the date I needed. They’d only be able to come in when the floor man would be laying the wooden floors. Lots of gnashing of teeth later, they found a space in another delivery for a better day. 

I checked that they wouldn’t be sending yet another articulated lorry up the tiny track. After the edge-of-the-seat turning using a selection of neighbours tracks and backing over the tiny bridge over the burn, wheels micrometers from the edge. I didn’t think I (or my neighbourly relations) could take another articulated lorry. 


But it was going to be another artic. Noooooo. I spoke to Stuart who helped me unload the plasterboard with his telehandler. He could help but he was also worried about the artic. I called scotframe back and no, there was no way they could send a smaller vehicle. 

In the end Stuart and Stephen, ensured we had no more churned up verges and articulated lorries hanging precariously over the gabion baskets by the sea, and kept the neighbours happy(ier). Stuart unloaded the finishings into his lorry at his building site in Duror and then Stephen’s folks unloaded Stuart’s lorry at the house. 


On the day in question I was at work in Glasgow and trying to sort things out remotely. Which was remarkably ineffective since  the lorry driver didn’t call me. But it helped emphasize that I was pretty expendable for the whole exercise. 

As It worked perfectly without me 

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.

A bad break-up

I think we could classify it as a ‘bad breakup’.

Not that I’ve had the experience of one before.  Unless you count an incident at University when I watched through the window of a late-night chippy as a fellow student*,  jumped all over my defenceless but, unfortunately for it, highly recognisable, bike.  The previous day I’d confirmed that “no, we definitely aren’t meant to be together”, after a long-petitioned-for trial week of dating.

I’d been dreading the phone call but, in the end it had to happen. Best to do it by phone I thought. After the conversation we’d had before Builder #4 went on holiday where he indicated that he would have difficulty finishing the internal works, I had eventually got confirmation that Builder#3 could complete the work and turn it round quickly. 


So made the call. It took a few deep breaths beforehand and an extremely brisk walk in the park afterwards.

The call got a little messy but I suppose at least there was no cat to fight over.  Although I am publishing this many weeks on, with the house nearly complete, his large circular saw is still clogging up the place. And his caravan-related rubbish is still strewn over the site.


Anyway, a messy break up, you could say. But one moves on.


And now I’m back where I would have been many months ago if I hadn’t so foolishly dumped Builder#3 for Builder#4, but probably poorer, and definitely more stressed.

*incidentally we remain good friends to this day, despite the damage my bike sustained that evening.  



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 Builder#4 **, 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.

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.

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


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

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.

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

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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. 


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.

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

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 …..