Rules for Park Life


It’s a play park; unless you are a nursery, kindergarten or education group
It’s a walk in the park; unless it’s a guided one.
This is Park Life according to new rules being drawn up by Glasgow City Council.

Glasgow City Council is currently consulting in new rules for parks in the city. The consultation is open until 14th February and you can give your comments here

The new rules Proposed rules on use of parks will mean that any nursery or kindergarten will need to get the written permission of the director to use the park and so will those offering any outdoor education. 20140123-152107.jpg

Cyclists will be welcome if they don’t exceed 5 miles per hour

No one will be able to play any organised sport, play any musical instrument, or play a radio or any music without the Director’s written permission

No event or gala can be held in any park without written permission of the director20140123-075928.jpg

No one will be allowed to walk more than 3 dogs at a time .
And dogs will need to be on a lead of less than 2m or walking close at heel at all times. 20140123-080819.jpg

Click here to read the proposed rules in full


Chocolate orange fudge icing


I am quite proud of the chocolate orange cake I just made for my daughter’s birthday.

Well, to be more honest, my daughter made the cake, and I just made the icing. But it is really lovely icing.

Here’s the recipe. I’ve based it on the choc cake from the typed sheets of basic survival recipes that my mum sent me off to university with. I’m not sure how often I made that cake at uni, but barely a month goes by now, when I don’t make it. This is the latest variation.

1.5 oz of caster sugar
4 table-spoons of water
2.25 oz of butter
4.5 oz of icing sugar
1.5 oz of cocoa powder
Grated zest of one orange
4 segments chocolate orange

1. Sift together the icing sugar and cocoa powder
2. Heat the sugar, butter and water in a pan and bring to the boil.
3. Add the orange zest and pour over the icing sugar/cocoa mix
4. Beat with a whisk until smooth. If it is too dry, add another tablespoon of boiling water, or two.
5. Stir in the chocolate orange segments until melted
5. Wait for the icing to cool a little so it can be spread onto the cake
6. Use the remaining chocolate orange segments for decoration.

As for a cake to spread the icing on (I used my damson jam spread between the two layers of cake with the icing on the top and sides) ….

6 oz butter
6 oz sugar
3 eggs
6 oz self raising flour
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
2 tbsp cocoa powder
2 tbsp boiling water
Grated zest of one orange

1. Cream the butter and sugar until white and fluffy.
2. Add the eggs one at a time and beat
3. Mix the boiling water with the cocoa powder in a mug until smooth and add to the mixture
4. Sift flour into the mixture and fold, add the vanilla essence and orange zest.
5. Bake in two round tins at 180deg for about 20 mins.

Swiss Survival Guide Part 3: The Swiss don’t ski in total white out conditions


When the cloud is down and the snow is falling you’ll be alone out there on the slopes with the other Brits (and they’ll probably be a few Germans and Poles ricocheting about too)

This is obviously a good thing, especially if you can use as your reference point a day on a Scottish mountain. Even the windiest lift-shutting blizzard in the alps pales into insignificance against the raging hurricane that is a normal day at Glen Shee. All those pomas and t-bars seem immune to wind, perhaps that’s why they have so many of them in Scotland and not just to test the endurance of your thigh muscles.

We had a couple of white-out blizzard days. The only reference points for the vertical were the piste markers, and the other skiers (well the few that were still upright). At one point, while showing a lost skier back to her route, expert Swiss skier hubby somehow mistook the poles marking the left-hand-side of the run, for poles marking the right hand side and shot off into the deep snow that had settled in a wee burn. It’s not that often I get a chance for a hysteric belly-laugh as my husband wallows about in neck-deep snow searching for his skis.

Had we been skiing in Scotland, this would be the best day out of the year: amazing snow conditions, wide slopes totally devoid of people, no lift queues, hardly any wind, and a total absence of rock and heather on the run. We felt like we were doing something real, an expedition, an adventure, something to be survived.

It also means that you will get a seat at the über-cool Raclette Stube where you will be able to make full use of those floor-ceiling windows to observe your ski sticks blowing over and rolling away down the mountain. There will also be none of the usual hip-crowd there which means your shabby Gore-tex and bobble-hat will look less out of place.

After all that, the tame, sunny, smooth perfect resort that returned the following day was almost a disappointment. I just can’t wait to get back to Glen Coe and test my rock and heather-avoidance skills.

Swiss Survival Guide Part 2: Don’t make a Noise

The Swiss might make their apartments of concrete with tile floors in all staircases, corridors and communal areas but this isn’t because the Swiss love to hear the sound of children’s singing/fighting/wailing echoed and amplified throughout their apartment blocks.

No it is not.

In Switzerland please be quiet. Not just on the stairs and communal areas, but please take care not to run out a bath after 9pm. It’s OK to run the bath, so long as you wait until after 8am to run out the water – God forbid that you run a dishwasher at night, and I am still unclear as to whether one can flush a loo in the evenings. I think once or twice is acceptable, just don’t go OTT. And hoovering is a complete no-no.

You won’t have to worry about the washing machine though. There will be a communal washing machine for all flats in the block in the basement which you will forget to book the necessary week in advance and so you will be washing your smalls in the bath. Just make sure that you don’t take the plug out after 9pm.

Swiss Survival Guide: Sharpen your elbows for the lift queue

This isn’t Aviemore or Glencoe where skiers form an orderly queue stretching far up the slope from the ski lift, shortening the already rather short run considerably. This isn’t where people say ‘excuse me’ and ‘I’m sorry for tripping you with my pole accidentally on purpose’ or where people would be horrified if you stepped all over the backs of their skis in the lift queue. On no, this is all out ski-lift war.

Try and find a person who looks like a ski-queue veteran, elbows sharpened, ski sticks at the ready, and stick by them, they will find the path of least resistance. Shuffle your ski tips into any gaps that open up, those that say ‘after you’ and ‘women and children first’ will be trampled.

I happen to prefer this method to the all-too-polite Scottish ski slope etiquette. One wonders how a Swiss would fare in a queue at Aviemore.

Swiss Survival Guide: This is where we start


I am a regular visitor to Switzerland, being married to a swiss, and so when visiting, I occupy the privileged position of being able to observe the swiss at close quarters. I am now (almost) able to understand what is being said in swiss german after many years of my GCSE- level German being utterly useless in the face of the sing-song gobbledygook that is ‘Sweetzer Dooch’. A couple of years ago I thought things were looking up when, sitting on a plane leaving Amsterdam for Zurich I had a breakthrough.

‘Hey! I can understand everything that flight announcer is saying!’ I chirruped enthusiastically to my husband.
‘He’s speaking Dutch’ he replied dryly.

Anyway, I do, mostly, get the gist of what’s being said, (especially if I already know what they are talking about) and I’m pretty good in the emphatic tense as applied to kids:
‘Get dressed!’ (Aar-lekke) ‘Get your shoes on!’ (Lek deenie shua ah) ‘Sit down’ (ab sitze) ‘Eat your dinner’ (is deeser snacht) ‘Go to bed (gang ins bet)

The spelling appears to be mostly arbitrary in Swiss German, as they use High German for written documents, so I feel justified in using my own form of phonetic written Swiss here, I hope you are saying each phrase out loud to yourselves, don’t they sound funny?

We regularly visit the same places each year and each visit I feel a little like an amateur anthropologist, trying to understand Swiss people and Swiss culture, and trying to fit somewhat into a place so utterly alien from the comfortable chaos of life in Scotland.

I thought I should write a few observations of Switzerland and the Swiss to help me get through the visits. In the spirit of ‘if you can’t laugh, you’d just cry’. It might also act as a bit of a survivors’ guide to visiting Switzerland.

I hope you enjoy….

Swiss Survival Guide part 1: ‘HOW Much??!!’

After many years of fretting about the cost of buying anything at all in Switzerland from the smallest postcard to the shopping for a week, I now realise that things get much easier once you reach a state of acceptance I call ‘wallet zen’. When you reach this state, rather than coming to every transaction with a rising blood pressure and an impending sense of doom, you can just open your wallet and say ‘Really, just take it all, I have no need of it’

It is almost impossible to overestimate how much things are going to cost you in Switzerland. So here are a few survival pointers:

1. Food
A couple of years ago we met up with my parents in Switzerland and my mum kindly made a meal for 10: her usual speciality- a beef stew with baked potatoes. It was very delicious and warming after a day in the snow, but the constant refrain during the meal, and indeed the rest of the holiday, stays with me to this day.

“Do you know how much this stewing steak cost? FOURTY FIVE POUNDS! thats £45, not 45 Swiss Francs….. and that was just the steak!”

But panic not! there is a solution. All traditional Swiss food seems to be based on a theme of starch and cheese, with a bit of cured meat if you are lucky. This is presumably because it was not so long ago that the very smartly besuited and be-booted Swiss were all peasants, living off their höflies (pron. herflees – meaning little farms).

So if you stick with tradition you can eat pretty much as cheep as you can get in Switzerland (so long as you don’t eat up in a mountain restaurant where your fondue will cost you £45 – and that’s per person…)

So here’s my survival guide menu for a week in the mountains:

Day 1: Rosti and fried egg
Rosti (pronounced Rer-shti) is grated potato fried in a pan. It’s the authentic Swiss egg and chips

Day 2: Pizzocheri
This is stodgy buckwheat pasta with boiled potatoes, sage and cheese.

Day 3: Spazeli and fleishkäse
This is egg pasta fried in a pan with something rather like sliced spam (though I would recommend to eat spazeli with baked ham but that’s less the budget option)

Day 4: Fondue
Melt three cheeses (a good melter like Raclette or vachrain, a tasty one like Appenzeller or mature gruyere/comté, and a bulk one like a milder gruyere or cheddar) with lots of white wine, add kirsch, nutmeg, pepper and then fight the folks sitting either side of you with long pointy forks to get your fait share.

Day 5: Käseschnitte
This is the leftover bread from the fondue in the base of a casserole soaked in white wine with the leftover fondue mixture on the top. Then you bake it in the oven – yum!

Day 5: Raclette
This is basically melted cheese on potatoes with some picketed gherkins and onions.

Day 6 : Mac cheese.
An obvious mainstay if we are talking starch/cheese combos. With some chopped ham mixed with the cheese sauce. The Swiss will have a fancy name for it but it escapes me.

It will still be expensive, but perhaps not quite so crippling on the wallet. The food expense doesn’t help that there is a pretty effective duopoly of supermarkets in Switzerland (co-op/migro) and that there aren’t many independent food shops to speak of but you might be lucky and come across one of the excellent farm gate stalls or farmers’ markets which can be cheaper. (Which will be the subject of another blog)

Screen debut for The House at Cuil

A few weeks ago the guys from Graphisoft came by to film a case study about the software that Matt and Scott from John Gilbert Architects have been using to designing the house. And particularly that rather funky fly-through model I have been waxing lyrical about for toooo long.

Are you in the best seats in the house? Is your popcorn at the ready? Let’s roll the reels ……

There is loads more information about the build and the design at my building the house at Cuil blog

and these posts are particularly relevant to the video

Walking through the house at Cuil
I’ve got virtual art in my virtual house


How much?!!……


I’ve just found out our house build is going to cost nearly as much as Blenheim Palace. And I’m having a wee sit down.

I’m in the middle of Bill Bryson’s book ‘At Home’ which tells the the fascinating history of our domesticity. I have enjoyed chapters on the evolution of lighting and how the some of the earliest preserved homes in the world are at Scara Brae on Orkney. However, I am finding the current chapter on the building of the world’s most extravagant homes in history rather more uncomfortable.

It recounts the obsession of the über-rich in building the world’s most lavish edifices; Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard, Fonthill Abbey, and also the cult of the first celebrity architects.
These great houses had hundreds of rooms and covered acres of land. They also went vastly over budget. Blenheim was budgeted to cost £40,000 and ended up costing around £300,000, which is presumably why I am finding the chapter rather painful reading.

Yesterday I received the latest cost plan from the Quantity Surveyor (a couple of weeks too late to be really useful for the latest part of our decision-making) and it appears that, despite cutting the floor plan size and reducing the spec, we have actually miraculously increased the projected costs of the build by over £15,000.

We are not budgeting for 300 rooms, nor to cover an area of seven acres; we don’t plan to cover every inch in intricate stone carvings and turrets and fripperies; however it appears that our modest construction is going to cost nearly as much as Blenheim Palace.

This is obviously not good news. However perhaps here is where the celebrity architects of the day can help. The inheritors of the great mantle of Robert Adam, the Scottish architect of Culzean Castle, the Trades Hall Glasgow and almost every other grand building of note are now helping us make better use of corrugated iron, take out redundant walls and forage for wall-coverings in local skips.

Welcome to Piers, the demonstratively arm-waving and plummy architect and Kieran the designer with the outré spectacles from the BBC show ‘the House that 100K Built’.

I admit to absolutely loving their show (despite the awkward name). It must be the combination of the impossibility of the ambitions of the couple of the week, Piers’ pleas to use chipboard, and bits from decommissioned industrial units to cut costs, and the inevitable triumph against all the odds.

I am certainly going to be heading off to my local architectural salvage yard (and in fact have been resisting the almost irresistible urge to stock pile things from skips and gumtree in the spare room) but it seems to me that the thing that folks do when they run out of money is they start doing the building themselves. Presumably this is because it is where the biggest savings are to be made. It is also probably why it makes such great telly.


This is where the discomfort comes in. I am supremely hopeless in the practical skills department, and so, too, is my best belovéd. In my nightmares, Piers pops up waving his arms at a truck-load of chipboard and effuses about how lovely it is to live in a packing-case.

‘It’s time to think radical’, as Kieran would say (while taking a trip to a house made of fencing offcuts and reclaimed traffic cones). I am wondering whether reintroducing barter as a currency could be the radical solution. A few of my friends have more aptitude in the skills useful for fitting out a house than me, and perhaps they would gladly give their labours in exchange for ad libitum holiday opportunities in such a lovely place as Cuil Bay…..

At least I suppose it’s worth asking, because I don’t think I am quite ready to embrace packing-case chic. Yet.

Things to do near Arrochar


I happen to be arranging a get-together in Arrochar and so here’s my I’ve list of things I’d like to do if I had a bit of free time in the area. I hope you like them too.

1. Hill Walking
The Arrochar Alps offer superb walking with the Cobbler, Ben Ime and Ben Narnain all accessible from the village itself. A drive up to the aptly named Rest and be Thankful, the pass at the head of Glen Croe, gives access to further spectacular mountains.
Ben Donich is only a 90 minute walk to the top and has unparelled views to the Clyde and beyond. And there’s a fabulous ridge walk on Beinn an Lochain

2. Boat Trips and a walk on the wild side
Cruise Loch Lomond have a number of boat trips around the loch. From Tarbert you can take a boat to Inversnaid and walk through the wild and beautiful atlantic oak forests of the RSPB reserve, or take the boat to Rowardenan and walk one of the loveliest sections of the West Highland way north to Inversnaid for the return boat. There are numerous other options on the boat-trip including an RSPB cruise and guided walk every Tuesday April-Oct (which I can personally recommend!) 20131018-001430.jpg

3. Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, Fyne Ales and Ardkinglas forest garden
A drive over the Rest and be Thankful and down the other side takes you to the small community of Cairndow and the beautiful Ardkinglas woodland garden There lies the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, which has the dubious claim to fame of being the site of the notorious agreement between Blair and Brown, but also does a fabulously good value ‘Bradan Rost trimmings’ along with a lot of expensive goodies. The brewery is open seven days a week and does tours and tastings. On the same site there is also a tree nursery run by Ardkinglas woodland garden with a tea-room.

4. A visit to Inveraray
Too picturesque for words with a castle, historic jail, a tall ship with the fabulous name ‘ArcticPenguin’ (no longer open to the public unfortunately) and rows of whitewashed Georgian houses. We love fish and chips on the pier and watching children catching crabs with bits of bacon rind. But there’s also a good cafe ‘Brambles’ and there’s always the George Hotel for a salubrious evening meal. The best thing of all, though, is the fabulous Inverary Jail. Especially if you go there on a day when they have actors all dressed up as jailers. The castle, though interesting, is expensive and small, but I would recommend the beautiful and steep walk up to the folly, no one will charge you for that and the views are priceless.


5. Cycling
There are quite a few off road cycle paths around. You can cycle all the way to Balloch (16 miles) along Loch Lomond side, or you can take the Three Lochs Way to Helensburgh and Gareloch head (where you can return by train if you time it expertly). In the woods between Arrochar and Ardgarten there are marked cycle routes: five and seven mile loops and a 20 mile circuit of the peninsular.

Visiting a timber frame factory


It’s taken me a while to get round to writing this up but here goes.

In July I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Scotframe, a timber frame company with a factory in Cumbernauld, just outside Glasgow. It’s the first time that Matt has used a timber kit approach with the houses that he has designed and was keen to see the processes and the factory in action so I tagged along and, since it was school holidays, so did the kids. It was a hot and sunny day – one of the best of the summer thus far, and they moaned and groaned bitterly at the prospect of a morning sitting still and behaving on an industrial estate in one of central Scotland’s less picturesque spots.

We met Ray Waite, the business development manager and sat in a small and airless office meeting room. We talked through the basics of the process: a frame made from timber, with foam insulation between, refective membranes on each side and covered by chipboard. The panels are made in Cumbernauld but the insulation injection machine is in Aberdeen and so panels are transported there for finishing. You can choose the thickness of the walls, depending on the insultation you want in the house. I think we are having the most well-insulated version.

I have to admit to being somewhat bewitched by our host’s hair – a classic 80s do, with ample flicked fringe and luxurient demi-mullet. Something that the Hoff would have been proud of in his knightrider glory days and something that you just don’t see enough of. However, I am sure you will be glad to know that I didn’t let this distract me from collecting useful information for this blog.

We were all dying to see the factory though, and it was here that Ray really came into his own. It was obvious that he was happiest on the shop floor and he showed his real enthusiasm for his product – I’m not a great fan of professional salesmen but you can tell a guy who loves his precision nailing device (I think the impressively complicated machines actually do a lot more than nailing by the way).

Once our house is manufactured in the factory – windows and doors mounted in frames, panels packed up and labelled with the postcode, incredibly it will take only 4 days to build it to wind and water tight. Yes, you heard correctly. Four Days.

Once the kit is built, the slates and external cladding for the walls would need to go on but we would, essentially, have what would be recognisably a house. This is a dramatically shorter amount of time on site than conventional forms of building and far more controllable. It needs only a small weather window and, from there, the work can largely be protected from inclement weather. The system seems perfectly adapted for building in the notoriously unpredictable West coast of Scotland climate.

Given all of these advantages I wonder why Matt hadn’t specified this method of construction in previous houses. (that’s me sold on it)

The other query is whether this is going to give us the ‘Eco-house’ we so desire (see previous blog). It may be mainly timber but the insulation is made of evil petrochemicals.

I suppose this is a good point to remind us that we went to this system due to the costs of the extra-ecological-all-natural construction method Matt originally specified. This system looked to get us the best insulation and air-tightness for the cost.

The Scotframe panels can apparently achieve very good airtight ness as they fit together like a giant 3D jigsaw, with a female end (chipboard overhanging the wood frame) into which the male part – rounded ends of the wood frame fits. The membranes overlap and ensure a really airtight fit (figures were quoted but I was too busy keeping the kids quiet, or observing the mullet, to write them down – apologies). They use Scandinavian timber for the structural elements: slower growing and with a tighter grain, they give better strength than Scottish wood apparently. But they do use Scottish timber where they can, in the fibreboard/chipboard stuff.

The process they use has an impressive lack of waste. It will take a couple of weeks to program the designs for the house at Cuil Bay into their computers which then calculate how the machines need to cut the timber and assemble the panels most efficiently. This leaves about 3% waste – very impressive when compared against the 40-50% waste that there would be in a timber frame house being constructed on site.

The process all looks extremely efficient. Which is very comforting as it means that, presumably once we are past this current slow moving bit and we have made all the decisions and got all the permissions, the house will magically appear on the site. I can’t wait.



Eight Steps to Wild Thing Nirvana


In a couple of weeks ‘Project Wild Thing‘ will be launched. It’s a film documenting one man’s attempt to get his kids to play outside and thus inspire a nation that would rather be on their X-boxes than out in the woods getting muddy.

So it’s fitting that we’ve had a weekend of living the Wild Thing dream.

I’ve written before of the challenges I’ve had getting my own offspring to venture forth into the wide and wild open. So it is with great joy that I can document here, with delighted smugness, the kind of weekend that would make a Guardian lifestyle features editor drool.

So here are my very own 8 steps to Wild Thing Nirvana.

Step One: Find your spot
Obviously this can be anywhere – park, woodland or wild place, but we happened to be on a raised beach surrounded by hazel and birch woodland on the shore of a Scottish loch. And the weather was OK.

Step Two: A wild swim.
After a long, hot walk-in, the sea was startlingly cold. Daughter managed a few strokes then stood waist-deep looking for sealife in the weed. Ignoring the pain of constricting capillaries in the extremities I paddled frantically until a warm glow started to spread over my body. Slowing to a more stately neck-out breast stroke, I parted the seaweed clad in an invincible tingling aura. Anyway I think the aura was from the cold water, it could have been from the smugness.

Step Three: A wild swing
A sure-fire way of warming up, the kids sailed out over the 20ft drop and nearly into the branches of the (hopefully sturdy) oak tree. Fighting over whose turn it was must have been warming too.

Step Four: Make a den and have a picnic
Absolutely standard fare for being a Wild Thing. Our den was built with the help of a length of blue fishing rope found on the beach and some twigs from the woods. It was a pretty good lunch spot and we plucked a few trefoils of wood sorrel to have in our sandwiches.

Step Five: Watch the sunset.
Sitting still and watching anything for more than one minute is not something that myself and my older daughter have ever managed before. Sitting on the beach together, listening to the sea and watching the colours of the sky change was actually a very special experience. However soon the urge to shout out bizarre names for the cloud formations became overwhelming and the spell was broken. ‘half chicken half worm!’
‘A horse wearing deely-boppers’
‘Pig’s head on a skeleton’

Step Six: Star gazing
In the uncharacteristically warm late September evening we sat outside and watched the constellations gradually appear. We also happened to be listening to radio 3 and a performance of Tintagel by Arnold Bax, which is obviously too pretentious for words but daughter wanted a soundtrack and this was the only one we could agree on. In any case, it suited the occasion, the lapping of the waves on the beach and the wind in the grass.

This is where a bit of that evil screen-time hugely increased our enjoyment of the experience. The wonderful Night Sky app showed us the names of the constellations and significant stars and satellites. We even saw a few shooting stars.

Step Seven: Phosphorescence

I’ve only experienced phosphorescence once before and it was under similar conditions: a warm autumn night after a long hot summer. We wandered down to the water’s edge, splashed our hands and, sure enough, a few sparks of phosphorescence shot into the dark and disappeared. It took a lot of splashing for a couple of sparks but, what magic sparks they were.

Step Eight: Sleep out under the stars.
This is obviously the absolute pinnacle of Wild Thing achievement. It wasn’t really something we intended but the idea had started germinating last week when I received an email telling me that someone had sponsored me to sleep out in my garden.

This wasn’t a phishing scam from a criminal gang-turned environmental education collective. It was related to a test page I set up on JustGiving while organising the RSPB Big Wild Sleepout in August. Somehow, someone had tracked down my page and felt moved to sponsor me, but they hadn’t left any contact details, leaving me in a bit of a dilemma.

I was fretting about the morality of being unable to contact my benefactor to tell them I was a fraud when the inevitability of a night out au naturel dawned.

We dragged camp beds and sleeping bags down to the beach – daughter categorically banned me from taking an actual bed and mattress down. I had planned to just lie and look at the stars and listen to the waves for a while but almost immediately we were both asleep.


We didn’t manage a whole night though. The night sky had rotated around the North Star by about 60 degrees when I was awoken by a frozen cold daughter and we sprinted back into relative warmth.

So, I hope that puts my sponsorship dilemma to bed so I can sleep at night again (sorry couldn’t resist). Next year I think I’ll go the whole hog and get properly sponsored for a proper sleepout.

Inching our way towards the finish line?

Well when I say the finish line, I mean that the final decisions are being made and we may go out and engage a contractor at some point soonish….

The latest version of the 3D virtual model is looking lovely. We’ve widened the passage from stairs into living area and I think it looks rather pleasing now. Look at the two photos below. However I hope that the need to jiggle with the masonry stove won’t change the beautiful symmetry of this too much.

Here’s the previous version

Here’s the new one – doesn’t it look lovely?

I think the world is ready for Disco-ceilidh

Postscript: I now have a dedicated website for Disco Ceilidh

I’ve been spending a few spare moments recently puzzling out what disco tunes would go with which ceilidh dances. It must be one of the things that you can’t find on the internet (I did try) so you’ll be pleased to know that I am adding to that fabulous open source project by documenting my findings here ….

In choosing these tunes I have considered tempo, how the pattern of the dance matches the tune, and boogie-value.

These have not been definitively tested yet so bear with me, I’ll update once I have rounded up some experimental dancers ….

Gay Gordons
American Boy – Estelle 118 bpm

Dashing White Sergeant

Disco Inferno – The Trammps 128 bpm
I’m sexy and I know it – LMFAO

Canadian Barndance
Dancing in the Moonlight – Toploader 124 bpm

Circassian Circle
Up all night to get lucky – Daft Punk 130 bpm?
Works especially well with a bit of a disco conga instead of the promenade.

St Bernard’s Waltz
Perfect Day – Lou Reed
The times are changing – Simon and Garfunkle

Virginia Reel
Car wash – Rose Royce but think I’ll go with the Christina Aguillera version from Shark Tale (with a tweak to the dance itself)

Strip the Willow
I am convinced that Born Slippy (140-145bpm) – by Underworld will make a fabulous Strip the Willow but I will need to try it out with a full set of dancers to see how it works ….

The background to this eccentric exercise is that I am a novice caller in a ceilidh band. It’s a band made up of parents from the school, formed by a note I sent round via school bag post, seeking a group to play local, family-friendly ceilidhs for fun. We soon assembled a full team, but no-one stepped forward to do the calling. So after a few web-searches and a bit of a brass-neck, I’m exploring a whole
new world.

In getting to know the dances, it’s been fun working out which tunes would suit which dance. And now I’m thinking of having half a traditional ceilidh set and half a disco set when we play. That way the band will get a chance to party too!

This is sooooo the next Zumba.

Post Script
The very first disco ceilidh was a barn-storming success and so I’m setting out in business – check out for all the news.

Haven’t we come Full-circle?


This is the sketch that accompanied the tender document from the architects in November 2011.

The story of the design for the House at Cuil started with a little sketch that Matt, the architect, drew as part of the tender document for the job. It had a main roof-line north-south, harled, and a wood-clad gable extending west, making it an L-shape. There was a deck in the enclosed corner facing south and west.

I liked this sketch when I saw it and, in fact, it was one of the reasons that I chose John Gilbert Architects, and specifically Matt Bridgestock, to do the job. However, until recently, I hadn’t thought much about that little sketch.

It’s been a long time since Autumn 2011 when we finally bought the plot and engaged the architect, and between then and now, the house has been through an eclectic assortment of different styles, none bearing much of a resemblance to that original idea in outward appearance. This may have been because the spec had changed at that point to a four bedroom house and so needed a different approach (we are now back to three bedrooms due to needing to keep a lid on costs) but I’m not entirely sure.

Despite my initial enthusiasm for the simple sketch’s design, I had forgotten all about it until we had a meeting with our planning officer to try and get the planning permission sorted for the house.

As the discussions with the planing officer progressed and we agreed changes to the design, Matt noticed that we were heading full-circle. We were heading back towards the design, that we had sent to planners in the pre-application and, frustratingly, we had altered at their suggestion. But it bore an even more striking resemblance to that original sketch. Both have a similar shape, orientation and materials for cladding. Even the interior is similar, except for the position of the stairs.


After all the grand plans and changes and tweaks and headaches, we’ve come full-circle. Which leads me to ask why it has taken such a long journey to end up so close to where we started.

I’m thinking of it as akin to a refining process: you start with potential; something sparkly but not very useful, and via a long and tiring process, with many unrecognisable intermediate stages, you finish

with the refined gold. I think that this long process of designing the house has been useful, necessary even. The journey itself has added immeasurably to the final design.

I loved that original sketch and I love the final design even more. I am glad that, somehow, we found our way back there.


house plan

I’ve got virtual art in my virtual house!

No sooner had I posted a blog about the possibilities of a virtual art exhibition in my house than Scott had upgraded the BIMx model of the house and, in the doing, added in some of my artist friend’s work. And here are some stills from the model.

Don’t they look nice. I’ll need to see whether there’s a way of putting the interactive model online so we can be the host venue for Geoff’s latest exhibition on mountain and sea-scapes.




The Quest for Planning Permission

We actually do have planning permission now. A proper piece of paper arrived printed with the words, so it must be true. It’s been a long winter hibernation for the project and I had settled into a happy suspended animation with regard to the house as the weeks and months of waiting progressed. I am, at last, beginning to rewarm the cockles of house enthusiasm that I put on ice in October

The past few months have been busy in the other 99.9% of my life with a new job, the organisation of various community activities and general family busy-ness so it has been a good time to have a wee break. Now I hope I can make a little mental space during the summer to reanimate the project after its long hibernation.

I’m not sure what took the planning process so long. We were told that it would be eight weeks but it turned out to take more than eight months. That seems like a very long time to me but, no one I’ve spoken to about it seems surprised at the lengthy gestation.

In the lead up to planning in September, I wrote a letter to all the residents of Cuil Bay explaining our hopes for the project and introducing ourselves to the ones that didn’t already know us. Delivering the notes by hand gave a great opportunity for meeting people and I drank many cups of tea that morning doing the rounds of the little community.

This initial letter had the first thoughts on what the house might look like and we invited comments and feedback. We also had submitted a pre-application consultation, a process almost as formal as the full planning, to get comments to help us with the final design.

We combined all this, with comments from neighbours and my own thoughts, and came up with a rethink on the appearance of the house and in October, before we submitted planning I sent another note round to the community with an update.

We expected a swift response from planning after we were assured that there was an 8 week turn around for applications, not including any time they sent things back to us for work.

Things went rather quiet after that, for quite a long time. In January Matt and I set off for what turned out to be quite a road trip to visit the planning offices in Fort William. The weather was absolutely foul, with rain already turning to snow as we left Glasgow. The forecast was for worse and, as we crawled along the A82 in the settling snow, I began to doubt that I would make back in time to pick up the kids from after school club. There would certainly be no detour to the plot for a site visit.

We stopped at Tyndrum for coffee at around 11am, already about an hour and a half later than we expected and found, to our bitter disappointment, the wonderful Real Food Cafe closed. The discussion hinged around whether to go on over Rannoch moor and risk not being able to return if the snow continued, or whether we should postpone and return, beaten, to Glasgow. In the end it was the motivation to sort out planning that overcame the worries and we set our faces to the driving snow and pushed onward.

The driving conditions improved markedly past Tyndrum and we arrived in Fort William only 2 hours late for the meeting. The aim of the trip was to establish our planning officer’s general feeling about the plans and what, if anything, we needed to change.

Matt talked us through the theory and philosophy around the design for the house, expanding somewhat on the arc-waffle contained within the design statement. He appeared to be doing a passable impression of the Jedi mind trick and the planning officer nodded in agreement through an intoxicating wave of architectural technicalities.

The officer was very happy with the design: it was well suited to the area, it was sympathetic to the vernacular while demonstrating good sustainable design principles and it was great we’d already had contact with the neighbours about our plans. But then the spell started to waver: the neighbouring plot had planning permission for a modern version of the Highland two-up two-down and our house needed to reflect that design.

Matt wasn’t put off his stride, he extended his argument to the, as yet unbuilt, house next door. Our house could be considered a steading to the house next door, our ridge height would be lower than the house next door, the wood of their planned garage reflected the wood construction of our house.

After a bit of really useful and productive discussion we came up with a happy way forward – we would switch from a T shape (main roof line east-west to an L shape (main roof line north-south) and harl the main north-south section and wood-clad the other gable (rather than wood cladding the major part).

This change required some minor fiddling and actually resulted in a more satisfactory interior layout with space in the centre of the house for a masonry stove. Both the architects and myself feel that we now have a better house after the discussions.

Within a week Matt had the revised plans back with the planner and then things went silent again. By March the architects were regularly emailing and calling the planners to check on progress. I felt like I was waiting for a bus that would never come. Perhaps someone had set up a diversion that I didn’t know about.

Then, all of a sudden on 9th May the status of the application on the council website changed. We had planning permission.

We are actually going to build a house.

Reducing Costs and a Recap

A little recap may be in order given the amount of time it has taken to get planning permission. After the quantity surveyor had costed the initial specification and it was way beyond miles over budget we have been looking at ways to get the cost down a bit.

Firstly we reduced the floor area. My original plans were for a generous area where you come in to shed wet, muddy clothes from various outdoor biking/climbing/skiing/marine adventures with a drying room, boot area and utility room. And also a fantasy pantry. With a bedroom above. This has shrunk to a small hall, with a much reduced utility/drying room. A bench at the bottom of the stairs gives a place to sit.

Although we managed to reduce the floor area by about 20msq, the lovely architects (did I mention they were lovely) managed that without losing much functional space. We lost a little storage space upstairs but with a bit of clever shenanigans around the stairs the third bedroom upstairs can still sleep two.

Secondly we discussed the specification. I know I chose Matt as an architect specifically for the ecological design aspect of his skills and interests, and he certainly demonstrated that on his initial specification for the build. However having ideals seems to come at a price and, once we had the QS report it was obvious that something had to give. Achieving top-notch eco credentials for energy performance, eco-friendly materials and low embodied energy just didn’t seem to be possible within our budget.

The best compromise that we came up with was to retain a high insulation and air-tightness – though short of passive house – and use cheaper materials for the build. Rather than the more natural materials of timber frame with warmcel insulation (or similar) and fibreboard, we moved towards foam insulation in a timber kit build. We have also thought about our use of windows, reducing the spec of some of the most expensive ones and examining how many we really need.

Oh and we lost the zinc roof too- which was quite a relief to me and probably for the planners too. More on the long road to Planning permission in the next blog….

Art for my virtual house


I was having a drink with an artist friend last night and, as I have been doing lately when meeting someone I haven’t seen in a while, I whipped out my phone to show him round the 3D model of the house at Cuil Bay.

Apart from being amazed at the tidiness of the place and the lack of clutter (why do people always comment on this?) Geoff was concerned by all the blank space on the walls. When the children made the minecraft version of the House at Cuil Bay they hung pictures on the walls (skull and crossbones seemed to figure prominently) and even made the entrance to the en suite behind a large picture, Harry Potter style.

Geoff suggested that he should have his next exhibition in my virtual house. His landscapes, collages of imaginary mountains made up from photos of many different Scottish mountains would sit well in a virtual house. A picture of a mountain that doesn’t exist, exhibited in a house that doesn’t exist (yet). Geoff’s latest series will include both mountain-scapes and sea-scapes and the setting of Cuil, set between sea loch, and mountain seems a fitting venue.

After our evening’s discussions, I am now beginning to wonder whether this would actually be possible. Graphisoft, who produce the walk-through design software for architects saw the blog I did previously and their marketing department have been in touch. Perhaps they would like to help facilitate a virtual art exhibition in the House at Cuil Bay.


Masonry Stove

It might be the best summer we’ve had in Scotland in recent memory and certainly the vision of a legion of sunburned beer bellies parading around the streets of Glasgow will be seared onto my retinas for sometime to come, but it’s time to think about the heating for the House at Cuil Bay.

Today I received the sketches for our masonry stove, so while basking in the sun I am casting up a dreich winter day snuggled on a bench against a heated wall and about to take a hot casserole out of the stove’s oven.

The stove designs have come from from StoveMason, based in Brechin. As far as I could tell (from a brief websearch), he is the only company in Scotland installing masonry stoves.

stove plan 3 - 1 Aug 2013

The reason we are going for a masonry stove as it is something that I have seen work really well in Switzerland where we go regularly to see the in-laws. You not only see beautiful masonry stoves inlaid with tiles in old farm houses, but also modern interpretations in brand new houses and apartments. It is an extremely efficient way of using wood fuel as it circulates the hot air around a maze of bricks inside the stove that absorb and retain the heat rather than it being flushed out of the chimney and lost to the house.stove plan 1 - 1 Aug 2013

Swiss friends tell me that, rather than burning fuel all the time to keep the house warm, you do a couple of intense burns of wood at high temperature, one in the morning to get the house warm for the day, and one in the evening to heat the house for the night. This method appeals to me because, aside from the environmental benefits, since installing our wood burning stove in our terrace house, finding wood has become a rather obsessive activity, and anything that reduces the demand for wood must be a good thing.stove plan 2 - 1 Aug 2013

The other appeal is that they are just wonderful. You can have a baking oven, a heated seat or bench, heated walls and a heated panel upstairs as well. We have designed the house with the intention of having the masonry stove right in the centre. It will have a heated wall next to a bench in the hall, an oven for casseroles (bread/pizza? – not sure whether it gets hot enough) in the kitchen and the main part of the stove in the main living area of the house.

If we would be moving there straight away then I think we would consider having the masonry stove as our main source of heat but, given that we will be renting the house out, I think that we will need to complement it with an automated system that needs no human input and that we can operate remotely to ensure the house is warm for holiday arrivals. We haven’t quite decided what this is likely to be, but I can assure you that a blog will follow on this soon enough.

stove flue plan  - 1 Aug 2013
More on masonry stoves here

Naming the animals: the key to happiness and saving the planet


mini cuttlefish love

I’ve just spent a very happy evening with a couple of field guides to the seashore and the internet. I’d forgotten how fun a spot of low water fishing is. It’s something we were always taken to do on our childhood summer holidays on the costa del English Channel but it’s an activity I have sorely neglected over the past quarter century (unless you include a freezing cold undergrad field trip from which I retain my only remaining knowledge of littoral ecology: Ascophillim nodosum, and Fucus serratus – seaweed to the likes of you and me)

But now I’m back walking miles out on the exposed shore, next stop France, making childhood memories with my own children. Despite considering myself a zoologist (of sorts) I was all at sea with this task of identification. Here were creatures (some probably aren’t strictly even creatures ) with a bewildering variety of body plans and phylogenetic weirdness, in contrast to the rather conventional stuff that I’m used to (ie vertebrates, namely birds).

We caught all the usual stuff: prawns, crabs, and fish of all kinds: baby pollack, gobies and little tiny flatfish, invisible against the sand, but which flapped tickling around our feet as we walked through the shallows.20130728-134649.jpg

But my favorite was a darling cuttlefish in miniature (Sepiola  atlantica) caught by my daughter in a limpet shell. There it sat with enormous eyes and sporting a lovely leopard print design which rapidly changed to a deep purple when rudely prodded by its captor. When we put it back in the sandy pool it shoogled itself down into the sand and left nothing but a pair of eyes showing.

We also caught a straight-nosed pipefish (Nerophis ophidion) – that cross between a sea-horse and a bootlace, hanging out among the long brown strands of Chorda filum seaweed.

A brown blob covered with exquisitely beautiful yellow stars caused some consternation during my battle with the field guides and I have, at last, identified it as an Star Ascidian (Botryllus schlosseri), a colony of tiny sea-squirts. Improbably the larvae of this colonial blob, which resemble little tadpoles, are thought to be what gave rise to the very first vertebrates. I unfortunately couldn’t take a photo of this distant relative for the family album as it was lost in the excitement of clearing a bucket for the cuttlefish.

We also found a pale hairy lozenge, around 10cm long which must have been a long dead and bleached sea mouse – Aphrodite aculeata – a seriously weird kind of worm

And an orange spongy thing with a structure a bit like a brain, or a tightly wrapped intestine, remains completely unidentified as it, too, was lost in the scramble to contain the cuttlefish.

The weirdest was a blob of transparent jelly, roughly cylindrical and attached to the sand with a kind of stalk. It appeared to have absolutely no internal structure at all so I ruled out the usual IDs the Internet offers for blobs of jelly on a beach – comb jellies, jellyfish or sea squirts. However I did read a passing reference in a website about bait digging, that there is a ragworm which catches its prey using a transparent jelly-like net….. I wonder.

All this is grist to the mill of my recent ponderings about people’s connection with the natural world around them. I have been asking myself whether the ability to name a species (or in this case find out their names with a great deal of effort), adds to the pleasure of experiencing nature. Do people who can name the trees they pass on the way to work, or the weeds growing from a wall, or the birds they hear in the morning gain more pleasure than those who pass them in blissful ignorance. If you don’t know the name of something are you less likely to even notice it is there?

I am wondering whether knowledge of the unconventional domestic arrangements of the dunnock, or that swift chicks go into torpor as their parents search for food for up to three days at a time adds to the experience of seeing another brown bird in the big city. I certainly believe that it adds a huge richness to my own experience of my immediate environment, whether in the city or at the seaside.

While I was scurrying about at low water looking under fronds of seaweed, my colleagues have been doing a bioblitz at a brand new reserve purchased as an extension to RSPB Inch marshes. Scores of them, with partners from BugLife and other NGOs were finding as many species as they could on the site from mushrooms to mites and from mammals to moths. This is both serious conservation, and training for staff, but it is also pleasure.

As Bob Dylan sang, quoting from its origin in Genesis, ‘man gave names to all the animals‘. It seems to me that humans really do have a drive to name the living things we share our planet with. And that, by knowing their names, and something about them, we increase our pleasure in our everyday encounters with nature and find a connection with it.

And if we start to notice more of nature around us, and take pleasure in it, won’t it be that little bit harder for it to be lost?

Postscript: if anyone out there knows what the orange spongy thing was, or the cylindrical jelly blob, please do put me out of my misery.


I’m sorry to say that I don’t really know what this is. Could it be a rock goby?

Backing up my Blog

I wanted to backup my blog just in case, and have a copy that I could edit and print out too. After a bit of research I found out this really easy way to get my WordPress blog with all the pictures etc. into a word document. So I thought I’d better record it before I forget if I ever need to do it again.

1. In WordPress export the file:
Go to tools and click on Export. I just downloaded posts but you can download all content, or choose particular posts.

When its downloaded as an XML file, save it onto your computer.

2. Open the file in Blogbooker
Go to and download the file as a PDF by clicking on the type of blog, entering the location of the saved XML file and clicking on ‘create your blogbook’. Save the resulting PDF onto your computer.

3. Convert the PDF to word
I used to convert the PDF to a word document.

Et voila!!

A private pool with a view


A perfect clear sky has coincided with a complete lack of child-ferrying commitments and enough daylight hours after work for an escape to the hills.

I’m the only person on the mountain and it’s still roasting hot at eight o’clock. I know that, almost at the summit of this hill, is a still, black and perfectly oval pool ringed with sphagnum moss and cotton grass.

And there I shall stay, looking out at the mountains of the Arrochar Alps, over to Ben Lomond and down the Firth of Clyde as far as Arran, until the midges, or the gathering darkness chase me back to civilization.

The imagined pool can never live up to the reality, especially when you are slogging up a mountain in the blazing heat. The pool tuned out to be shallow, and the black peaty bottom had heated the water to the temperature of a baby’s bath, so there was none of that refreshing tingle and gasp as I got in.

However the view from Ben Donich is one of the best, with a path that takes you past some fantastic rock formations, so the walk itself was very much worth it. And I might have not made it to the top if I hadn’t been thinking about plunging into that pool.

Access and route information from WalkHighland website.*
Ben Donich is a perfect mountain for a short day or an evening as the start at Rest and be Thankful is already at 200m. And added to that is that, despite the ease of access from Glasgow and all the delights of the mountain you hardly ever meet anyone on it.


* PPS: on any mountain come suitably prepared with footwear and waterproofs and always bring a map and compass and know how to use them

Ambitions for a Long Walk

Here is an itinerary for a long walk that I plan to make from Arrochar to Cuil Bay, the plan being that most days start and finish at train/bus stops so friends can join me for one or two days along the route.

Day 1:Drovers Inn – Monachyle Mhor

  • An easy walk (but possibly boggy) past a beautiful waterfall to a col at 600m then down an easy glen to the Monachyle Mhor hotel. 10km, 3.5 hours
  • City Link to Dover’s Inn, No public transport options to Monachyl Mhor
  • Accomodation Monachyle Mhor Hotel 20131110-092830.jpg

Continue reading

Walking through the House at Cuil

I got a chance to go into our new house for the first time this week.

No, there hasn’t been a sudden miracle and we have gone straight from planning to fully constructed house in a couple of weeks, I have just been walking through a 3D model of the house on my smartphone. I walked in the door, up the stairs and then straight out of the landing window and into mid-air.

Until now Scott and Matt, have been able to wander at will through a virtual House at Cuil Bay using their fancy architect software on their fancy architect computers in their fancy architect office, while I have been bending my head around pdfs of plans and stills from the software.

Given my 3D visualisation is probably far less developed than that of an architect, I am utterly delighted to now have this virtual walk-through House at Cuil Bay on my very own iphone. I can wander from bedroom to en-suite bathroom, then down to the kitchen/dining room to gaze, dewy-eyed at the view. I can even levitate onto the ceiling to see what a room looks like from above and then pass effortlessly through the floor and end up under the bed in the room above.

The architects (did I tell you they were wonderful?) have used Graphisoft BIMx software to do this and all it took was for me to download the app, save the file they sent me and set out on my virtual explore. It is totally gobsmackingly fantastic and even has a very gratifying thudding action as you walk up stairs.

Just as I was getting excited about the walk-through model, the children were getting excited about minecraft, a kids’ computer game where you mine for resources and create cities. They have built swimming pools and high rise blocks, one with a full farm on the roof of the 10th storey. And, not to let the architects get ahead, now they are building our house.

In contrast with many computer games minecraft has none of the CGI effects and smooth outlines, it is simply a land created from cubic blocks of various materials. These materials include diamond, ruby, quartz, wool, hedging, but not, apparently, harling, or slate. It turns out that minecraft wasn’t created with West coast of Scotland construction techniques in mind.

The priority appears to be making your house Zombie proof. Not something I am expecting to be an issue in Cuil Bay. I certainly didn’t put it in the spec. The lack of appropriate building materials didn’t, of course, put the children off their project, ‘Should I build the white walls from quartz or wool?’ they asked. I put this to Scott who recommended quartz on the basis that, according to the minecraft wiki, both were classed as blast proof but that quartz was less flammable.

The look might be rough and homemade but they have managed to create a walk-through model pretty similar to the professional one (if you ignore the rough edges and improvised fixtures and fittings – a furnace instead of a cooker, more quartz blocks for sofas). They have had trouble installing the stairs: you have to climb over the bottom step to reach the kitchen and they resorted to a ladder to get up the last bit, but I am rather impressed. I think that it might even have impressed the architects.

I’ve put a couple of screen grabs from the architects design (and from the rookie architects too) on the blog to give you a bit of an idea. However these can’t possibly communicate the full joy of this wonderful virtual house of mine. I keep wanting to wander about in it, spin round in bathrooms, and fly 100m into the air above and orbit the house like a planet. Now that’s something I wouldn’t be able to do with a real house.


view from the south


An entire minecraft forest was felled to make room for building the house



There are no fitted kitchens in Minecraft. These units are made of quartz with a furnace in place of the oven



The sofas are also made of quartz blocks and a picture hides a hidden corridor

Surprised by Nature in West Dunbartonshire


What a picturesque place. Can you believe that it is directly under the carriageway of the Erskine Bridge?

With the summer holidays round the corner, the shackles of cubs, choir and other after school activities are being gradually loosened and I am starting to breathe a little easier.

One day last week I had no commitments to get the kids to and the sun was shining. We decided to have a bicycle adventure; a magical mystery tour. Continue reading

Enjoying the peace and quiet of Colonsay


Colonsay might be touted as a place of quiet; peaceful and relaxing but we’ve been camping and I can testify that it is anything but.

Our tent has been pitched at the hostel, a stone lodge and a couple of bothies with the woodlands of Colonsay House to the north and sweeping views to Loch Fada over meadows of flowers to the south. At midnight, with a sky still bright enough to see, the incessant croak of the corncrake was accompanied by the ghostly kee-wick of the lapwing.

Continue reading

I don’t want to go home!

Now I have experienced the alternative, it’s really hard coming back to our house in Glasgow. We have a car full of wet skiing gear with nowhere to dry it, a car full of tired, wet children and tired, wet adults, and only one cold bathroom to fight over, with a limited supply of hot water. The oven doesn’t work properly, there’s no dishwasher, and there’s a total of about 1m of work surface in the kitchen (and that’s totally clogged and cluttered with bowls of vegetables and fruit and boxes of odd bits and pieces I don’t really know what to do with). It’s all also a bit dark and depressing, and pretty cold, unless we put the woodburner on and huddle in the sitting room.

It didn’t really bother me before, it was just life, but now I have been forever spoiled by spending some time the new house. We’ve just had my family, my sister’s family (another 4) and my parents to stay (with Jake, who milled the internal wood for the house, and his two kids for one of the nights). For a three bedroom house that was obviously quite a squeeze but it coped formidably, but the total highlight for me has been the drying room. 
   Up until now it’s been called the utility room or, more appropriately, the plant room (since it is annoyingly almost totally taken up with two huge tanks for the heating system – one of which I didn’t even know I was getting until I saw the guys struggling to get it in through the front door) but now it is definitely the Drying Room. It helps that it is the warmest place in the house, and when you put the MVHR on boost, it’s more effective than any drying room I’ve been in (and I have spent more than my fair share of time trying to get sopping wet gear dry in hostel drying rooms over the past couple of decades). It was full of wet coats, boots, ski equipment, gloves, hats for four days in a row and got everything dry.  

It has to be said that the house really does have everything that our current house lacks (except spare bedrooms). I had rather wondered about the extravagance of having three bathrooms while we were building the house but it is certainly useful when there’s eleven people staying. And, anyway, the one downstairs shower is absolutely non-negotiable, as its in the entrance area to the house which was always planned as the place to arrive muddy and wet from some Scottish outdoor adventure and derobe, shedding ones muddy clothes into the washing machine/drying room, and ones muddy self into the shower. It has already served its purpose admirably when I ignored everything I’d learned in cartoons about not sawing off the branch you are sitting on when making a woodshed.

The house is also mercifully free of clutter (which may be because we haven’t moved stuff there yet) and has acres of worksurfaces to clutter with cooking stuff and other bits and pieces. And loads of room for sous chefs/ armchair cooks to mill about. There are a few things that are annoying about the design – I need more fridge room, and it’s rather annoying to have to squeeze round the chairs to get to the other side of the dining table. (That’s one of the things that irritates me about my current house). There a whole other blog in what would be designed differently if I was starting again, to accompany all the blogs on how I would build it differently, but that will come later. 

So the obvious question is, why on earth are you driving back to Glasgow with a car full of wet ski kit and wet children? Why leave behind Shanggrila when you have only just hacked it free from a jungle of self-imposed building balls-ups?

Well that would be a very sensible question. Why indeed? 

Well I’ve been rather preoccupied with getting the house built while  attempting to save nature for the RSPB in my day job and trying not to be a completely absent wife and mother. So I hadn’t really sat still long enough to think about the future. But I’ve just read through the very first blog I wrote which I think still stands. Back then, however, I couldn’t possibly have known how difficult it would be to leave the place now it’s pretty  much finished.


However I have a plan. The kids might not want to leave the delights of Glasgow. But I’ve been working developing an exciting project in the area through work that might bear some fruit. And in the meantime, there’s always the weekends. And Mondays. And the odd day I need to be in the area for a child’s ski race, or work. 

But it is really quite a long drive just to have a hot bath and dry your wet walking socks out. 


Fires and Wild Food: 10 things to do outdoors (part 1)


There’s lots of things telling us that kids should get out more, that natural play is great and it will make our children happier and healthier. In fact I wrote an angst-filled blog about just that.

Here’s my top ten things to get kids outdoors and enjoying playing in the wild. Each of these items deserves a blog of its own, but until I get round to that, here they are (the first five). Continue reading

Messing about in kayaks

kayaking“There is NOTHING… absolutely nothing… half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Thus spake Ratty in the wonderful first chapter of Wind in the Willows. And I can now confirm his assertion to be true, having spent a blissful morning drifting around the sea near Arisaig in a sea kayak. The sea was green, the sky was blue (in parts) and the islands of Eigg and Rum, and the Black Cullin of Skye made a heart-lifting backdrop.

My experience of messing about in boats has, save some punting while at university and the pedalos on lake Luzern, been almost entirely vicarious. My first experiences of boating were with Ratty on the river (picnic essential) and with Titty

Continue reading

Making playing wild in nature natural

kids on beach 2Lately there seems to be more awareness of the need for children to have freedom, especially to play in nature, and the growing disconnect between children and nature. There was the Natural Childhood Report, and I’ve come across loads of articles, policy papers and the odd book aimed at showing the malaises that result from this generation’s separation from their environment.

I don’t need articles in colour supplements and reports by consortia of NGOs to have angst about my kids getting out to play – I already have it in spades.

Today I am fretting over a magazine article in the Guardian. Continue reading

I think we might have planning permission

I am just finishing a tentative celebratory tipple to toast our new-found planning permission.

Ten minutes ago I found an email from the architect saying he had checked the planners’ website and it says that permission has been granted for our house.

We haven’t had any official confirmation or contact from the planners, hence the tentative celebration, but hope is renewed.

Here’s the page where the magic words ‘permission granted’ are written. Ive saved it here for posterity (click here for link)


The Glen of Ghosts – Kilmartin


Temple Wood from kilmartin museum (

Kilmartin has one of the most important concentrations of Neolithic monuments in the UK. Within 6 miles of Kilmartin there are over 150 prehistoric sites: standing stones, cup and ring-marked rocks, cists, cairns, stone circles.

And it isn’t just a place for pre-history, Dunadd, the hill fort which was the seat of power of the Celtic kingdom of Dalriada is only one of many hill forts in the glen. Continue reading

Perfect seafood and a Sperm Whale



There has been a sperm whale (of all things) in the harbour at Oban for the past couple of weeks. I first heard about it on 1st April, and had to do a double take before I established that it was for real and not an April fool.  We popped down to see whether we could view it on Monday but the closest we got was finding a man who had viewed it a couple of minutes before we arrived.  We stood on the harbourside, wrapped up against the wind and taking it in turns at the binoculars, until the children could take it no more then retired to seek refreshment. Continue reading

Scotland’s ‘Big Five’


Scotland’s ‘Big Five’ wildlife stars are, according to Scottish Natural Heritage, Red Squirrel, Seal, Golden Eagle, Otter and Red Deer. Today they launched a competition to ask ‘What’s your ‘Big Five?

Never being the type who shrinks from having an opinion I am entering a Cuil Bay big five.

Number 1: White tailed Eagle. These magnificent creatures, once extinct in Scotland, are making a remarkable comeback. Still rare, the best place to see them is on the Isle of Mull, just down Loch Linnhe. But sea eagles are regularly seen in the area and my best view was a juvenile flying low with a backdrop of the slopes of Garbh Bheinn as I walked around the peninsular.

Number 2. Golden Eagle. Am I allowed to have eagles for my top two? Of course! They are amazing and Cuil is sandwiched between two areas recently designated as special protection areas for Golden Eagles

Number 3. Otter. These beautiful, lithe, graceful and captivating animals can be seen right around the coast. Once when out in a Canadian canoe I saw one playing in the water not far from the boat. We stopped paddling and it dived, only to resurface on rocks a few metres from us. It then proceeded to eat a crab it had caught and we could hear every crunch and crack of the carapace.

Number 4. Gannet. I really wanted to just put ‘seabirds’ for this one but I don’t think it is within the spirit of the exercise. Scotland has the most wonderful diversity of seabirds nesting around its rugged coasts and you can’t sit for long at the shore at Cuil without seeing some. In summer and autumn huge rafts of auks: guillimots, puffins, razorbills, can be seen bobbing about in Loch Linnhe following the balls of sandeels. Mackerel are also in pursuit, and the graceful, ghostly gannets.

The gannets have come from Ailsa Craig, a hundred miles to the south, their isolated nesting rock off the Ayrshire Coast. They are perfect fishing machines, white with wingtips as if dipped in ink. They spot the fish from a height of 30m and then dive like an arrow, closing their wings to enter the water at speeds of 100km/hr

Number 5. Red Deer. It is a great experience to see a herd of red deer, especially when it is hard-won after a long mountain walk. I know that, due to the large number of deer in the highlands, they are causing great damage to trees and preventing regeneration of woodland. But I still love them. The best place to go and see red deer is to go up into the mountains anywhere nearby. Ensure you have the right equipment including a map and compass as the hills can be treacherous. Listen out for the roaring during the Autumn rut.

If you feel inspired to enter your own big five you can do it here.


OK, I’ll settle for a shed

I woke up in the night with a brainwave. What I need is a shed. We’ve got one in the plans: a bike/canoe/ski/wetsuit and general kit-storage shed. But I had, for some reason, envisaged it going up at the end of the building process, almost as an afterthought.

It is now glaringly obvious that I need a shed right now.

We can use it to put things in, and when we actually start on the long-awaited build I can lay a sleeping bag in it as if sheltering in a sturdy wooden tent.

My friend from across Loch Linnhe, Jake of Sound Wood, has built himself a beautiful, inspiring workshop all from wood cut at his sawmill.

Now imagine that in mini-size as my shed. I’m going to find out whether he could build me one at Cuil Bay.


A day trip to Lismore

lighthouse at lismore 347

Lighthouse at the south end of Lismore from the Tiree ferry

Lismore is a brilliant place for a day-trip. It’s got it all. A lovely little ferry to the island from Port Appin, then some great wee roads for cycling on, beaches, walks and a little community cafe.

It was also the site, in 562AD, of a race between St Columba and St Moulag. St Moulag won in the end by cutting off his finger and throwing it onto the shore. He established a monastery on the island and it became a centre of Celtic Christianity. Continue reading

A day out in Speyside

Apart from Cuil Bay, one of my very favourite places is Speyside. When I haven’t been there for a while I start pining for the ancient forests (‘scuse the pun), the wild hill-tops, the cake-shops and the reindeer.

It’s a great day-trip from Cuil, about 1.5 hours drive to Kingussie, and this trip we took in the Autumn gives an idea of my perfect day. Continue reading

Glenfinnan Monument, Viaduct and Station Museum

Glenfinnan is the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie came ashore in 1745 from France with the intention of gaining the throne. He raised he standard at Glenfinnan and clansmen started to rally to the Jacobite cause. It’s a lovely place for a history-themed day-out combined with a walk with fabulous views. Continue reading

Take the Harry Potter Express to Mallaig

The Jacobite steam train takes visitors on one of the world’s most beautiful train journeys from Fort William to Mallaig. The views are amazing with some of Scotland’s most dramatic mountain scenery, sea lochs, crags and sandy beaches.

Continue reading

A long awaited update on progress

The planning process is a total mystery to me. In October, when we submitted the initial plans I had visions of the house starting to take shape this spring and a house warming seemed almost imminent. I started to stockpile furniture, including a beautiful acacia sleigh bed I saw in a charity shop for £130.  Of course my estimates of timescale have turned out to be hopelessly optimistic and naive, and the bed, and various other bits and pieces, are simply clogging up our house and causing the occasional lapse of domestic bliss.

However Spring is now in the air and hope is, again, raising its head above the parapet.

Following a meeting with the planner at the offices in Fort William, which took place on a very snowy day in January, we submitted revised drawings, now up on the Highland Council Planning website. The house has a main section, harled, with the gable south-facing for solar gain, and a wooden-clad gable facing to the west. I really love the design because, not only does it incorporate the energy-saving features and solar gain we were hoping for, it also has potential for heating by a masonry stove in a central position.

Matt the architect has also managed to incorporate my requests for a drying room and a shower right by the front door so that muddy, wet and bedraggled people can decant straight to the shower, and shove all their dripping kit out of the way.

The next stage is more waiting – I am considering this good discipline which will make me a better person. I am advised to get the practice in now, as the building control process can be equally drawn-out.

There’s always something new to look forward to!

This shows the house from the North West. We hope that my friend Jake at will provide the cladding from his sawmill just across Loch Linnhe

This shows the house from the North West. We hope that my friend Jake at will provide the cladding from his sawmill just across Loch Linnhe

This is the view from the South East.You can see the woodshed/bikeshed behind where we'll put our twin prius cars (!! -dont expect there will be the money left to buy two new cars once we have built the house!)

This is the view from the South East.You can see the woodshed/bike-shed behind our twin prius cars (wishful thinking!!)

Thermally Imaging my home

The ‘eco-house’ hasn’t got off the drawing board yet but I’ve been having fun today with a thermal imaging camera in our Glasgow terrace.  I have always known that our kitchen (an extension added 10 years ago by the previous owners) was leaky and causing drafts and have tried to grovel about under kitchen cabinets unsuccessfully trying to remedy it, but what I didn’t realise was that the insulation in the sloping roof was installed incorrectly or has shifted.

A friend brought over his thermal camera which cost him the tidy sum of £1000(!). We crept around the outside of the house in the dark like ghost-busters seeking a sign from the other side, pointing the camera (which is far more like a ghost-detector) at corners and vents. Interesting enough, but the far more interesting pictures were of the inside of the house.

ImageThis photo, looking up into the corner of the kitchen, shows the window at bottom left with fairy lights along the top and a large patch of cold (blue) in the roof the insulation is missing. A closer measurement of temperature showed that the temperature in that corner near the ceiling is only 4 degrees.


In this photo you can see the sections of insulation (in red) and the roof beams (mainly green) showing through as cold bridges on the sloping ceiling.

These photos would indicate that we need to take some action.  However that action would probably necessitate the tearing up of the kitchen floor (to eliminate the stubborn drafts coming from under the cabinets) and the ceiling (to insert/reposition insulation).

It seems far easier just to build a new house …….

Local Produce

There are some great places to get local food nearby.

The local community website has some links to local businesses including the Cuil Bay Kitchen Garden whose website is under construction at the moment

You can get amazing seafood fresh from huge tanks with lobsters and crabs and all sorts crawling about at the Loch Leven Seafood Cafe. They have a superb restaurant too.

And of course there is wild food growing around the place, look out for sea beet on the shore, chantarelles in the woods, and blaeberries on the hills


Winter Climbing: My Glencoe and Ben Nevis Top 5

Glencoe and Ben Nevis is really the home of Scottish Winter Climbing. A veritable wonderland of ice, snow and frozen turf. The Atlantic climate gives very special climbing conditions that are particular to Scotland and draw thousands of people to its gullies, ridges and ice-rimed rock. Continue reading

Skiing at Glencoe

glencoeskiingThe ski area at Glencoe must have one of the most stunning views of any winter sports venue.  Meall a’ Bhuiridh, the mountain on which the 19 runs and 7 lifts are set is right on the edge of Rannoch moor. The last soaring peak before the flat, wild expanse of peat bog, pools and open heather moor. Continue reading

Eco-house or just …. a house ?

Of course it’s going to be an eco-house! Isn’t it pretty much compulsory for all self-builds to be eco-homes?

We want an environmental, ecological, toasted wheatgerm and hand-knitted jumper kind of house; of course we do. Who wouldn’t?

However, if I’m blogging the design and build of our house then I suppose it would be useful to explore what we are aiming for in the design and the motivations and reasoning behind it in a bit more depth, so here goes….

Since we have lived in it, we have been trying to make our (Edwardian terrace) home’s carbon footprint as low as possible.  Admittedly we have gone for the relatively low-hanging fruit – we haven’t stripped the entire house back to bare walls and started from scratch.  But I checked the meters, then turned down thermostats, insulated, draft-proofed, re-checked the meters, hung duvets under curtains, installed a woodburner that heats the water, and solar thermal too, and kept on checking he meters.  I even founded my own NGO about 8 years ago to encourage others to make their own homes more sustainable.  It was called eco-renovation network and was established of a frustration of policy makers focusing effort on lowering energy use of new buildings while ignoring the millions of existing new homes.

These efforts have left me with a house that does, admittedly have very low gas and electricity bills, but it isn’t really properly warm,  has irritating residual drafts, and where you are only really guaranteed a steaming hot bath on a hot summer’s day, when you least need or desire one.  The disadvantages and challenges of retrofit have become very evident to me during the years of my (admittedly relaxed) mission to greenify my house.  Older houses are not designed to be sealed units, and will become damp if you seal them too much, solid walls have a high heat capacity but are hard and expensive to insulate, and our hot water tank is in the attic where the heat that leaks from it and the pipework is useless to warm our home.

So I have come to the conclusion that you can only go so far with an old house and this is my opportunity to see what can be achieved when you start from scratch.

The next question hanging on everyone lips now is ‘Well what exactly is an eco-house then?’

Is it a house which has very low energy use? Or perhaps it’s a house with renewable energy made on site, or a house whose materials have a low embodied energy – being made with recycled materials or those that take only low energy to make.  It could be a naturally-breathing house made with traditional materials and techniques, or perhaps one made with modern and technological ecological materials manufactured from natural products and minimising chemicals and petroleum products.  What about a home that makes space for nature, with swift and house sparrow next boxes, bats in the attic and a wildflower meadow in the garden?

Confused? You bet I am.

In the end, though, it comes down to what you are trying to achieve and what your priorities are. Having measured my own carbon footprint for years I know that our current lifestyle in the city does have a low carbon footprint. Work, school, activities, friends and leisure are all a walk, cycle or, at most, a bus-ride away.  And we live in a small terraced house, sharing two walls with neighbours, and having a relatively small volume of air to heat within the house. Moving to the country, where everything (except the countryside) is a car-ride away is only going to increase our carbon footprint in total.

It is clear that building ourselves a house on the west coast of Scotland is not going to decrease our carbon footprint, so what do we want it to do? Our priorities are that it is as sustainable as it can be, in materials choice and in energy consumption. We want to use wood from a friend’s sawmill just across Loch Linnhe in Morven, we want to take advantage of the boggy plot to make a little stream, pond and wildlife-friendly garden. We sought out and found a south facing plot so that we can take advantage of solar gain in the design. We would like to use ecological and recycled materials where possible and build a masonry stove, like my in-laws had in Switzerland to heat the house very efficiently.

That is a long wish-list. We will have to see how far we get with it.  So in the meantime we’ll just call it the House at Cuil Bay. But if anyone asks – it is an eco-house – of course it is!

Home for Christmas

A few days before Christmas a parcel arrived. It contained a soft-toy. That’s not unusual in any way, it was one of millions sent and received, but this one was very special to my younger daughter. It was a long-lost and long-loved tiger called Stanley, and he was coming home after being separated from his owner for a long time.

I had totally forgotten about Stanley’s existence but an email the previous week had jogged my memory.  A friend from my workplace-before-last forwarded it to me.  It was from someone working at the headquarters of Scottish Natural Heritage and they had received a tiger and a couple of letters, one addressed to the owner of the tiger, and one asking that ‘to whom it may concern’ would endeavour to seek out the tiger’s owner.  The note said that the tiger had been found during an attic clear-out and that it had belonged to a small child who had popped by with her parents while visiting a bothy they co-owned near Cuil Bay a few years ago.  One of her parents worked for SNH, but that is all she knew.  The correspondent wanted the tiger to be back home with its little girl for Christmas.

I responded to the email immediately knowing that it must be us, but not remembering the soft toy in question. The subsequent photo confirmed his identity and Stanley was wrapped tightly in bubble-wrap, boxed up and sent home to be reunited with a delighted seven-year-old a few days before Christmas.

It’s interesting to think how many toys my daughter has had since Stanley, each Christmas seems an orgy of consumption and acquisitiveness, but some toys are just special. And Stanley was never a shiny new Christmas tiger in a shiny box, Stanley was a hand-me-down from a friend.  Thank you for stanleysending him home.

Real Food Cafe: the perfect pit-stop

The Real Food cafe is the absolutely ‘must stop’ place to eat on the way to Cuil. The food is perfect, the welcome is warm, and the ambiance is buzzing with climbers refueling after a day in the hills, families with sleepy children on the way north, and West-Highland Wayers. Continue reading

Planning documents go live

It’s taken a few days for Highland Council to get all the relevant documents up onto their planning website. But now all the documents related to the house at Cuil Bay are now live.  If you want to see them then click on the photo below and it will take you there.  If it doesn’t work go to the Highland Planning website and type in the code 12/03817/FUL or click here

Now there is a period of consultation where comments are welcomed …. waiting with baited breath!

I will be maintaining radio silence on issues related to the planning application until the process is complete, however expect more time for blogs on things I like to do near Cuil.

The Evolution of the House at Cuil Bay

I said that I would do a blog on the various iterations that the house has gone through on the long road between twinkle in the eye in January to planning permission-ready this week.

So here I present a kind of ‘Decent of Man’ for the House at Cuil Bay.

We started with a veritable Cambrian Explosion of ideas and sketches. The single-story flat-roofer went extinct early on. But a couple of designs made it into the computer software.

The first was a barrel-roofed house reflecting the shape of the big red barn in the field by the plot…we ruled it out right away

At the same time we saw a pitched-roof, slit window house with one of the rooms a single story on the end.

Next came a set of three variations on a solar-gain design: First with a single pitch sloping room on the back…

Then with the roof on the back room sloped up to the back (not pictured). And lastly with both roofs single pitch

We preferred a conventional pitch and so the next design made the front more attractive

However, never satisfied I asked for a change in orientation and general look and the house became this… ..Now we really were getting somewhere. I liked this one a lot.

But the quantity surveyor told us it was way over budget so I asked Matt to look at making it smaller. The next was a bit smaller but rather odd looking – the turret had a raised battlement behind which the solar panels sit. It had lost the eves and reprised the box-extension theme.

Back to what we liked originally and a shrinkage in the ‘east wing’. What you can’t see from this picture is that it is looking a bit awkward around the side you can’t see. But still too expensive and a few things that didn’t work yet in terms of layout.

Now we are pretty much there. Smaller, and a lower roofline but a change in entrance configuration to allow for utility room.

And at last, on 2 October, this is the house that went to planning (I think). As far as I can see this house is pretty much identical to the last apart from the addition of the wood/bike shed (and an extra car!).

Glencoe NTS Visitor Centre

This is a beautiful modern building, by Gaia Architects, referencing the old croft and black houses. There is a viewpoint and some interpretation facing onto the site of the Glencoe masacre  There is also an interpretation centre run by the National Trust for Scotland explaining the historical, geological and natural history of the glen and surrounding mountains. Continue reading

The Appin Murder

Just north of Cuil, close to the site of the old Ballachullish ferry are two memorials that tell the story of the Appin Murder.

The first memorial, on the old Ballachullish-Oban road through Lettermore wood, marks the spot where, on 14th May 1752, Colin Roy Campbell of Glenure, also known as the Red Fox, was murdered by a single musket shot.

Continue reading

We’re going to planning!

The final dots are going on the ‘i’s and crosses on the ‘t’s and our house is nearly ready to go to planning.

After a monumental amount of work from our devoted architects (55north/John Gilberts) we are at this stage at last.  There appears to be a huge number of documents associated with planning and these will all be up on the public website soon.  When they are on the web I will link to them here.

One of the many documents is a design statement where many of the surrounding houses have a starring role.  Its a bit of blurb all about vernacular, character, building form, prevailing textures and the like.  It’s classic architect-speak.  My favourite phrase ….

‘The interior style of the house is reflected in a confident modern exterior style rather than a pastiche’

Renting dinghies and canoes at Ballachulish

IMG_2305This place is great for hiring dinghies and canoes by the hour (complete with a fetching wetsuit). We circumnavigated the gorgeous Isles of Glencoe with a short stop off at Eilean Mude  Continue reading

The Yearly Review

It’s been nearly a year since we saw the plot at Cuil Bay on an Oban Estate Agent’s website. So it seems a good time for a look back at progress.

When we visited the site the weekend of the Glasgow September holiday last year, I imagined that we would be well into the build by now …. what wishful thinking that was! However, we now have a design of house that we really like. It is exactly what I was hoping for, despite being unable to articulate it. It is now on its 6th permutation and we think we may even be able to afford to build it – just.

I’ll get round to putting the various permutations of design on the site at some point: a kind of ‘descent of man’ for the house at Cuil Bay. Changes have been made as we move towards the house we yearn for, to bring the staggering cost down, but also in response to comments from our neighbours after I sent them a letter introducing ourselves with initial designs for the house.

Most recently we sent our designs to the planning department to get initial advice on the design. Since January, when I called them to discuss the application and they were happy to chat things through with me, they have changed policy and now only accept queries regarding the pre-application process in a format akin to that of a full planning application.  The sainted architects duly sent in the designs but these were returned a couple of weeks later with the comment that the extent of the plot was outlined in black, not in the required red.

Having submitted something very similar to full planning, we received comments, generally supportive, with the main issue being orientation of the house.

So, changes having been made (again) we are now almost ready to submit to planning permission.  The plot already has outline permission. We are only awaiting the results of a topographic survey which will enable Matt to place the house at the right height on the plot among the other houses and landscape, and also determine whether we will need a retaining wall behind the property.

We’ve also had an enginner and a digger and driver on site to dig the holes and look at the conditions of the ground.  The results were encouraging: the water table is very high (we already knew that) meaning that we can’t use a conventional septic tank, but the ground conditions are close to ideal with bedrock overlain by gravel which means that we will be able to use strip foundations and the excavations will be a bit cheaper than we had anticipated.

So, in short, we are ready to go….. well ready to go with the monumental planning effort, then building control, then builders, then…..perhaps it’s best if I just don’t think about it.

A Crisis of Confidence

What have I let myself in for?

I am not the kind of person who goes out and builds a house. I haven’t done any voluntary changes or DIY to the house we live in.  I have always shied away from magazines about house and home and the DIY manual that we got for a wedding present from a rela tive has sat unread on the shelf.

I have to admit to replacing the toilet, and reflooring the bathroom. But that was only because our 4 year old picked up the cistern lid while investigating the workings of the toilet flush and dropped it onto the toilet, splitting the bowl.  I haven’t even changed the hall carpet – a wonderful black-watch tartan that I declared unliveable with when we moved in more than 8 years ago.

The only time I have tried something significant it was a full blown disaster.  Retrofitting a system to heat our water via a combination of wood burning stove and solar panels in our city terrace threw up unexpected structural issues, a chimney blocked with rubble and contractors who fitted the wrong water tank. This gave us firstly hot water with a dangerously over-pressured tank and then, latterly, no water pressure at all, not even a drip.  To fix it needed an entirely new hot water tank, and weeks of tinkering and tweaks. The tiny room which bore the brunt of the work stayed a shell for two years, a store room for junk and useful bits of scavenged wood that have moved house with us twice.

In short, I am not the kind of person you would expect to be piling into the proper challenge of building a house.

I have stayed away from ‘Grand Designs’.  The only times I watched, it was usually an unmitigated disaster.  I caught the very end of one where they were debriefing on the whole process of building their house  “…now our divorce has come through…”  I heard them say, and I switched off.  My house is no grand design anyway – it will be straightforward: design it, built it – simple.  How hard can it be?

So now comes the first big challenge of the project.  The costings. The thing is massively overbudget at the first budget cost stage: more than 50% overbudget. and that doesn’t include architect fees, getting water and electricity to the site, and a whole host of other things.  The costs itself deserves a blog all of its own and will put some thought into attempting to explain how it can possibly cost so much…

We now have a number of options to peruse that architect and Quantity Surveyor have worked up: changes to the specification; making the house smaller; and a combination of the two.  Tomorrow we meet with the architect to discuss the way forward so tonight it is decision time.

I have poured two very large glasses of wine, readied the pocket calculator, sharpened the pencil, and now we are going to make some hard decisions.  I’ll get back to you with the outcome.

Photo: looking north to Ben Nevis from Ardsheal penninsular walk from Cuil

First Design Your House …

I suppose I’m just a wannabe architect.

I have images of what this house might look like bumping about in my head, morphing and circling.  I spend the moments between laying my head on the pillow, and my flight through sleep, trying to solve the problem of how to fit a bathroom between a door and a window. I spend stolen moments while children play at the park, or while peeling potatoes, trying to work out what happens when two sloping roofs meet (that one took a trip to the scrap paper drawer and a bit of origami.)

It’s nice to have an inner life again.  Welcome activity for the mind, displacing the constant rolling of to-do lists, and the buzzing of urgent tasks.  Reminiscent of the feeling in the run up to finals as facts and concepts birled around my mind trying to grab onto everything else and wrap it up in a theory of everything.   Or the challenge of trying to work out the way the international financial system works after a programme on Radio 4.

I have actually started to get quite opinionated about what this house should be like over the months of the design process.  I know exactly what I like when I see it, but can’t put my finger on exactly why or explain what I want in the abstract.  In short, I must be utterly infuriating for any architect to work with.

At the start of the process, our architect Matt asked me to send photos of houses to give him an idea of the kind of thing I liked.  I totally failed.  In all those years of looking for a plot secretly, I hadn’t felt that the project was concrete enough to actually venture into the real and start capturing images of what I wanted.  And then things started happening really really quickly.

Matt sent me some photos of houses he suggested I might like – all stunningly beautiful, all flat topped or barrel roofed and all utterly not me.

So what do you like, he asked. “Well I like…eves” – I couldn’t think of any other way of putting it.  I don’t know whether it is the product of being married to a Swiss, but I do like eves, and steep slopey roofs and the distant ring of cowbells on the alp…..  I couldn’t help notice that most of Matt’s house designs didn’t have eves, in fact they didn’t have many jutty out bits.

Matt soldiered on, with incredible efficiency and he and his colleague produced reams of beautiful drawings of potential homes for me.  They started with a trio: tall and barrel-roofed, reflecting the large red corrugated barn next to my plot; low slung, single story with a flat roof; and two-story steep pitched roof, with a flat cube to one side.  Nope; Nope; Nope; was my ungrateful response.  I took the liberty of having some ideas of my own, mulling indulgently through the possibilities, and sketched them out, trying to explain it to the architects.  It had a slopey roof and eves.

What I discovered was that things that are eminently possible in my head, often turn out to be completely impractical when it reaches the realms of the real world.  Stairs for example are strange things to get your head round, and it really matters where they are. Rooms need to have doors that can be opened and closed. Weight-bearing walls hold up the roof or floor. You need to be able to stand up while going to the toilet.

The next iteration of design bore no relation, to either the original three drawings, nor to my own. This time they called me in to give me the blurb before presenting me with the options.  Architects are good at blurb. I wonder whether they go to blurb classes at architect school.

They had me convinced: what I really wanted was a house of two stories, wood-clad, with a single-pitched metal roof and big windows across the front.  More or less as far as it was possible to get from the outline planning consent on the plot (one and a half story, harled and slated, 45 degree angle roof, windows predominantly vertical). The design progressed to incorporate a couple of my suggestions – it was part harled, part wood and returned to a conventional roof-shape.  They had also done a lot of work making the front of the house look lovely with large south-facing windows in all the main rooms and a balcony all across the front.

Whenever I spoke to them I was convinced it was right, but when I came home, I had niggling doubts that chased the plans and ideas from my head and kept me awake.

Feedback from neighbours following a letter I sent round the neighbourhood to introduce ourselves and our plans for the house, suggested that, in general, they thought the house not suited to the site so, with weight of neighbourly opinion behind me, I met Matt to discuss the project.  It was, of course no problem to change the designs and, in fact, a relatively small tweak: keeping the floor layout in the main, but changing the orientation by 90 degrees and changing the windows gave us something much closer to what I was looking for.

Since then we have had a couple of re-sketches, but we are moving incrementally to something I am beginning to get rather attached to.  The excitement has been rekindled and I have started to imagine what it would be like to live there…at least I had until we heard back from the Quantity Surveyor.

It was bad news: our plans massively outstripped our budget. And I mean MASSIVELY.  What a blow.  Yet another rethink looms.


A rethink on my wannabe-architect ambtions is probably also in order.  Setting aside the decade of retraining I’d need, and the question of intrinsic aptitude; if architects invest a fraction of this emotional energy in their projects (and I suspect they put in a great deal more) then they can keep their jobs.  I think I’ll stick to what I’m good at (while retaining the prerogative to be opinionated about my house!)

Photo: Garbh Bheinn in Ardgour taken during a walk from Cuil Bay

At Last the First

It’s harder than I thought to write a blog about the process of building our house.  It’s not so much the Mañana attitude, though I suffer from it, but because I am actually finding the whole thing quite difficult to put into words for public consumption.

It wasn’t until we had bought the plot, engaged the architect, spoken to Scottish Water and SEPA to ensure water and drainage was likely to happen, and actually had the very first initial plans drawn up that I actually told some of my friends that we were building a house.  Many don’t actually know yet – it hasn’t really come up in conversation.

It’s strange really, we are building a house that we are not going to live in for some time, in a beautiful, small community on the west coast of Scotland but we live in Glasgow.  It’s something I secretly always wanted to do but knew I never would. Our jobs are in Glasgow, the kids are happily two of more than 400 at primary school.  We have school, shops, cultural pursuits galore, choir, beavers, brownies, athletics, swimming, piano, football, tennis (yet the world does revolve around the children….) all within walking distance.  And the beauty of Highland Scotland is close at hand when we have need of it.

I have always been of the opinion that second homes are a scourge, sucking the life out of struggling rural communities, pushing prices up and ensuring that youngsters leave for the city’s bright lights and jobs as soon as they can.

So what has changed?  Well I suppose the thought that we will be going to live there in the now not-so-distant-future is one.  The time when children are fledged and work becomes more flexible (here’s always hoping) now resides in the realms of the imaginable, rather than in another universe.  Things seem more possible, and the world opens up as the terror and seat-of-your-pants parenting of the early years fades into mere chaos.  Only a couple of years ago the pressure of work, which I felt qualified for, and caring for my young children, which I certainly didn’t, created a peculiar tunnel vision.  The insight needed to imagine things could ever be different was suppressed in favour of day-to-day survival.

Also it was the plot, our hoped-for but never spoken-of, Eden.  I had been surreptitiously looking for a building plot for years. I would happen to drive past plots I had seen on the internet on the way to ‘somewhere’ and say casually “Oh – a plot – let’s just have a quick look, seeing as we’re just passing”.  Our filing cabinet started to complain as one section grew thicker that its allotted space with plot particulars.  “Just out of curiosity”, I said.

In fact the very act of calling up an estate agent to ask them to send particulars, was a significant move from plot as secretly harboured desire, to plot as reality.  The need to put voice to my wish, gave the project a level of certainly which had not previously existed, not even in my conciousness.

But in all our searching and visiting, in virtual and real worlds, none captured us. Insurmountable obstacles rose up in my mind “could we live here?”, “perhaps something better will come up”, “how would you get here by public transport?”  But eventually the right place found us.

In searching for the particulars of a building plot we had seen in passing, Google suggested I look at a plot in a place that I hadn’t dared hope one would appear.  It was in Cuil; a scattered settlement of homes around the rim of a raised beach, with the massif of Beinn a Bheithir, the Ballachullish Horseshoe, rising steeply to the north; and the islands of Lorn, with Mull beyond, visible across the bay to the south.  It was the place where, on countless occasions, I had donned an enormous rucksack to start the walk to Leachnasceir, the remote and rugged one-room cottage which we have had the immense privilege of co-owning for the past 10 years.  And the vendor of the plot was the same man who, more than 40 years ago, had given a lease to a Geologist with a vision to rebuild a dilapidated croft cottage across a bog and a moor from Cuil Bay.

By serendipity, we were planning a visit to Leachnasceir for the long September weekend and I called the landowner, who we have got to know in the years we have been visiting Cuil.  I took my daughters on the understanding that the younger one would avoid the usual verbal jousting and mutual name-calling games she plays with the retired farmer, in favour of diplomacy and persuasion.  But my concerns were unnecessary.  A simple “Erm….I’m interested in buying your plot”, resulted in a “Well we’re interested in selling it to you.”  And that was that. (Save for the subsequent months of protracted solicitor-wrangling – presumably so that they could justify their vast fees…).  In the end I had to drag the 6 year-old away mid flow through the immortal insult  “you are wearing a girl’s cardigan and you are soooo old.”

And then there was the urge to build a house that was future-proofed. A place without constant drafts whistling through despite hours grovelling under sinks and behind kickboards with insulation and expanding foam. A place where the solar water heating and wood burning stove were an integral part of the house rather than tacked on in a less-than-ideal retrofit.  A place which would be properly insulated, properly low energy, and where we would not be living on top of each other and even have space for guests, and our children’s guests.

And what about the second home issue?  Hummm… well we’ll be renting the house at Cuil to pay its way until we make the move.  At present we’re thinking holiday lets so that we will be able to enjoy it at those times when it is not occupied.   I could write a whole blog on this but will stop here – perhaps another day.

So here we are.  I have reached the stage where I have, not only bought the plot, got the initial plans, and am waiting for the budget cost estimate from the Quantity Surveyor,  I have even gone public with the fact. I guess it really is going to happen at last.

I’ll try and keep you posted.

PS the photo is taken at the shore in Cuil Bay – the fisherman’s bothy and the cow.