March 2nd 2015
Dusk arrives early, even in March. The sun, had it been visible through the clinging fog, would have been dipping between the peaks of Stob a’ Choire Odhair and Stob Gabhar of the Black Mount. Boggy pools and scoured rock stretched far off into the gloom on either side of the road. I was, once again, driving north over Rannoch moor, another journey over the cold expanse of heather and sphagnum. The steady sleet threatened to turn to snow as I climbed. I probably should have taken the longer coast route, I thought as I left Tyndrum, regretting the decision not to put winter tyres on the car. “It is Spring” I told myself and, besides, I had already taken this journey many times over the winter, creeping along the frozen road, slipping on slush, passing the hulks of lorries, skidded off the road and, once, a coach blown onto its side. But, climbing slowly up to Rannoch summit in the developing March blizzard, Spring seemed painfully far off.
Despite the ominous weather, and the warnings of worse to come, I was on my way to my building plot in Cuil Bay, to receive delivery of the walls, roof and windows of our house. Cuil is my little piece of paradise; 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. The prevailing winds come from the south west and, in winter, incessant gales blow unhindered up the Firth of Lorne. Tomorrow we’d be putting the prefabricated sections of the house together with a crane. I hadn’t really paid attention to the weather forecast, I’d simply assumed that the weather couldn’t get any worse, especially now it was the beginning of March. The snow and high winds had taken me by surprise. Most lorries had sensibly taken themselves off the road following warnings for high-sided vehicles so I couldn’t use my usual trick of following in the black tracks of a larger vehicle like a child stepping in the footprints of a parent. I slowed right down to ensure that I would be able to stop if I came across an accident, or if a deer, seeking shelter in the glen, stepped out in front of me.
As I climbed the switchbacks out of Tyndrum my phone buzzed on the seat beside me. I glanced over and saw that it was a call from the crane company, but with every lay-by filled with settling snow I was worried that if I stopped I would not be able to get moving again. Once I reached the summit of Rannoch Moor, and turned the corner I found a lay-by where the fierce cross wind kept the snow clear and I was able to pull over and listen to my phone messages.
I sat as snow blew across the bonnet and wind buffeted the car, “what a time to choose to build a house” I thought.
The weather had been beyond awful for weeks; an unrelenting drudgery of rain, gales and snow. Stair rods, you could say, if stair rods came set at an angle – blown in by a fierce South Westerly. Two weeks ago I had spent a few days in a little converted steading in Duror, near Cuil. The cottage’s thick walls and tiny windows held back the incessant gales ripping branches from trees and rattling slates threateningly. In the barn opposite, three shire horses, hurumpfing as they nosed through a trough of hay, sheltered from the downpour. Water breached the gutters and flooded into the yard, pooling in deep puddles.
I’d rented the cottage so I could be on site for the arrival of the timber frame. “The house will be up, wind and watertight, in four days” the timber frame company had said. I called them from Glasgow five days before the frame was due to arrive to double check everything was fine. I had, with difficulty, arranged for one of the two cranes within 40 miles of Cuil to be on site for that week. But all wasn’t well. Colin from scheduling, a man I’d never met in person but I envisaged, during our many phone calls, to be a small wiry man, always ready to spring to the defensive, told me the delivery would be delayed.
‘But we’ve had the date planned for five months” I said, “what’s the date for delivery now?”
‘I can’t give you a date until I have the drawings on my desk’
‘When will you have the drawings on your desk?’ I said.
‘No idea- ask technical’
‘Can you walk down the corridor to ask technical?’
I called technical
“Scheduling already have the drawings’.
‘They don’t think they have the drawings’, I said, with exaggerated calmness, to hide my irritation, like someone trying to get a toddler to share a toy.
‘Can you walk down the corridor and tell them they have the drawings?’
I asked who I needed to speak to to sort out this contrived impasse and they suggested I call the Managing Director. Not wanting to escalate what should have been a simple matter for a company that produces timber frame buildings every day of the week, I called back Colin in scheduling. “You’ll have to call the Managing Director if you want a date for this building” he said.
Short of driving over to the factory, and physically knocking some heads together, there wasn’t much more I could do, I called the Managing Director.
The setback and frustration of a delayed delivery and the rearranging that it entailed was slightly lifted by the thought that we wouldn’t be trying to put the frame together in the teeth of this gale. I decided to make the best of it and hunker down for a few days in the cottage I’d booked. There wouldn’t be a refund at this short notice and, anyway, I had the time off work and a long-suffering husband who’d agreed to look after the kids. This was my chance to escape the chaos of normal life and spend a bit of time by myself organising the house build. It would be a house-organising retreat: just me, my laptop and a cup of coffee.
I’d packed very simple food, and piles of house paperwork. I spent the day arranging and organising things related to the house – bills, plans, quotes. I looked out of the window at the horses, through a clattering beaded curtain of water pouring off the barn roof, but I didn’t go out, not for the entire day. When I telephoned the family from the stillness of the cottage that evening, the chaos threatened to crowd in. I put another log on the wood burning stove and wondered whether I would get away with making this kind of escape a regular thing.
The next day I met with Stuart the local Appin builder who had so efficiently and expertly delivered the foundations and ground works to the stage of being ready for the frame. Stuart is a quiet man, softly spoken and reassuring, an elder in his local church of Scotland, with two impeccably polite grown sons working in the business. Nothing is a crisis to Stuart. He arrived at the cottage in the torrential downpour straight from a building site nearby where he was was laying strip foundations on a site with a depth and consistency of mud that hadn’t been seen since the Somme. The trenches were filled with water, and as he stood dripping at the door I wondered whether those scuba divers that work on oil rigs could be persuaded to build foundations in the west Highlands when they are off-shift.
We chatted over an earl grey “no biscuit thanks”. Although chatting is rather an exaggeration when most of the talking is me trying to fill the yawning silences. Up until that point, Stuart had mainly managed to get by in discussion with me with a reassuring ‘Aye yes, that will be fine’ and a pensive ‘’Aha, yes’. He’d manged to build the whole underbuilding very successfully with the minimum of communication. The foundations had appeared effortlessly, beautifully, perfectly, and everything went to plan. When the architect fretted a bit that the foundations might not be the right size I bought a huge tape measure and went to measure them. Each wall of the house was accurate to within 1-3 mm – in fact it was probably my measuring that was inaccurate.
But now I was trying to get my head around the process of building a house and I needed a some advice. It might seem a little late for that, a few days before I was to take delivery of the frame, but, once it was up and the cladding on, which would be done by the timber frame company’s contractor, I hadn’t got the faintest plan for the rest of the build. Stuart was busy with the two houses in the mud-bath down the road so he couldn’t do it, but he had arranged for a plumber, electricican and slater, and would lay the underfloor heating and pour the screed floor. I would need to sort out everything else.
So there we sat: me burbling awkwardly, while not really knowing enough to even ask intellegant questions; while he navigated my ignorance with the calm of the Dalai Lama.
Now, just two weeks later, parked in that windswept lay-by in the bleakest part of Rannoch Moor, the weather hadn’t improved, in fact it had got worse. The delivery of the frame had been rescheduled, and to perfectly coincide with the date the Met Office announced their eleventh named winter storm: Storm Jake. It was forecast to make landfall in Ireland overnight and up to 10cm snow was expected to fall in upland areas with gale force winds bringing down trees.
The snow grew heavier as I checked the answer phone message, flakes of wet snow slipped down the windscreen and gathered along the windscreen wipers. It was Jim from the crane company, he sounded agitated. “Phone me back, we can’t get the crane set up tomorrow, the ground conditions are too soft”. I looked at the digital clock on the dashboard, it was after 4 o’clock.
I had to stop the delivery of the house. Immediately. Three articulated lorries carrying the walls, windows and roof of our new house would be arriving on site at 7:30am the next morning and we had two hours to unload each lorry. If we could not unload within our timeslot, it would cost us £2000 for every extra hour we needed.
When I called Colin from the frame company, he said the lorries had already left, they would travel overnight and arrive with me the next morning. Two spots of light appeared in the darkness, grew closer and passed me, a car heading back towards Glasgow.
Things looked bad; the working day would soon be done and offices would empty as people rushed home to batten down the hatches against the coming storm. As darkness fell over the frozen moor, and difting snow started to fill the lay-by I called James, whose company would be putting the house up the next day. A larger-than-life Glaswegian, he always gave off an air of confidence, a slightly condescending ‘don’t worry dear everything will be fine’ kind of air.
Months ago when we’d agreed his company would put up the frame. James had asked me to get a crane on site at 730am the morning of delivery and I soon discovered that the nearest cranes, 40 minutes drive to the north, were booked out between January and March building a school. There was one solitary crane with one solitary crane driver fifty minutes south of the plot and then…well, then it was the central belt. I called the company and left a message, a few days later I followed it up with another call and spoke to someone who said they would get back to me to confirm the date. No one did. From then, and for the next three weeks, I called the crane company every day. It joined my morning routine. Each morning I got the kids up, consumed some Radio 4 with breakfast, made packed lunches, checked I had my bike lights and helmet. Then I layered up ten layers of clothing, and, before heading off into the soul-sucking gloom of a Glasgow bike commute in mid-winter, I’d call the crane company.
Eventually they confirmed the date. “but you’ll need to arrange the insurance” they’d said.
I’d called James with the trimphant news that I had a crane but he didn’t sound as happy as I’d expected. “Oh no not them” he said, “that crane is a relic from the Burrel Collection”. I suggested that a crane out of the Burrell collection is better than no crane at all and and started looking into how to insure it.
If that wasn’t ebough, the company had told me I needed to insure the crane for £250,000, which surprised me if it was really as old and decrepit as James had implied. I called an insurance broker who needed the make, model and age. Armed with this information, I browsed some secomd hand crane websites and I found that I could purchace the same crane, two years younger for the tidy sum of £40,000.
It didn’t surprise me that the insurance company wouldn’t insure it for a quarter of a million pounds, but the crane company insisted that wouldn’t hire it out unless I had insurance cover for an as-new replacement. I began to wonder how anyone else in Argyll had managed to build a house, and how the crane company had managed to hire this crane out at all in the last 20 years.
After a few phone calls and emails back and forth in the same vein, I trioed a change of tack. It turned out, when interrogated about their normal operations, that I could actually hire the crane on a hourly rate with insurance included. I tried to work out what I had said to the company that led them to demand that I cover the insurance myself, and could only conclude that I wasn’t quite like their usual clients.
All seemed well. I’d arranged for footings to be put in for the crane to stand on, and, until I’d received that call at 4pm in a blizzard, I’d assumed everything was ready to go.
But as James said to me later, once the construction was in progress “Never assume, It makes an ass out of u and me”. Annoying and condescending, perhaps, but also a rather accurate, if unfortunate, analysis of the situation. James answered my call mercifully quickly, given that he was on holiday in Majorca. “You mean they left it until the evening before to do a reccee at the site?” he said, putting to words my own inredulity at the situation we were in. After the incessant rains of the past few weeks the ground was waterlogged and the footings hadn’t fully dried. The crane driver didn’t like the look of them. “You have to get the crane there for tomorrow” said James urgently, “say whatever you need to to get him there.” He suggested I get Ronald the digger driver over in a hurry to dig some holes to fill with rock.
The Ronalds, father and son, and their fleet of diggers are a ubiquitous sight in the area. Wherever there are foundtaions to excavate, or some ditch digging or laying a water pipe to do, they are there: any job, big or small. They may be almost impossible to get hold of, but they are very reliable when you need them. They know everyone and everyone knows them.
I called one of the the Ronalds, I didn’t know which one, having made the mistake of not distinguishing between Old Ronald and Young Ronald in my phone contacts. There was no answer so I left a message, then I called the other Ronald number I had. No answer there either.
It was getting darker and the passing vehicles were fewer, and father between. Every now and again a gust would hit the side of the car, jostling some of my paperwork, which I’d spread over the passenger seat, into the foot well. Objects around me faded from shades of grey into black. As the boulder in a peaty pool, and the stand of six birch trees on a mound to my right were swallowed into the advancing blackness, I started to feel very small. I nursed the small glimmer of hope that I could get hold of the crane company before they knocked off for the night and persuade them to come to site despite the unsuitable ground conditions.
I managed to catch them three minutes before they shut the office up at 5pm and cajoled them to agree to being on site at 730am the following morning. Now I just had to conjure up a firm base to get the crane set up on.
After a few more phone calls, unsuccessfully to the Ronalds, and another to James to update him on the situation, I decided there was nothing more that could be done from my snowy lay-by. It was time to strike camp and set out on the snow-covered road, with the aim of reaching sea level in one piece.
I inched along, sitting forward in my seat, nose to the steering wheel. The plan was to stay firmly on the road on the way down from the moor and through Glencoe. Large clumps of snowflakes, lit by the headlights, raced towards the windscreen like stars at warp speed. I was piloting the Millennium Falcon on a mission to head-off a crisis in the Galaxy. I wasn’t sure what Han Solo would do in this situation, but if I made it down, I would be starting with a visit to the coop in Glencoe to pick up a bottle of Rioja and a large bar of chocolate. After that, we would need to wait and see.
There’s nothing like a dark night alone in a rented cottage to encourage introspection, especially if you are wondering whether your house-building dream is about to come crashing down. In a holiday cottage on the banks of Loch Leven, a few miles from the building plot, with the nearest streetlights five miles away and no house lights in view, I watched black clouds canter across the moon. Alders at the loch side bowed then flicked upright as gusts of bitter wind blew across the water. There was no phone reception and no internet, and I was contemplating my situation. I had a feeling of cold prickly dread that I usually hold at bay by thinking of other things, making headway on my to-do list or spending a bit of time with Twitter, but here there were no distractions. Why on earth was I building my house while winter storms raged? Why would I be so foolish as to be building a house at all?
I went outside during a lull in the winds and stood by the lochside next to a pile of empty scallop shells. The rain and sleet had stopped and the hulks of the mountains across the loch were looming silhouettes, wet rocks gleaming when the moonlight reached them between clouds. The landscape was fiercely beautiful, even at night and in a storm. I thought of the plot on Cuil Bay, the view and the intoxicating combination of mountains and sea. Surely it was only rational to covet my own piece of this place.
I’d first visited Cuil Bay, one sunny September day, five months pregnant with my first child, now a teenager an inch taller than me. It was the Glasgow holiday weekend at the end of September and I was off to visit a remote and rugged one-room cottage about 40 minutes walk from the bay. I was there because of a tiny advert in the classified section of a club newsletter I’d seen as I opened my mail over breakfast a couple of weeks before. “Share in a Highland Cottage for sale” was all it said, with a number to call next to a simple clip-art picture of a cottage with smoke curling from the chimney. I called the number straight away – no time to be lost – and got a very tired sounding voice at the end of the line. That was when I discovered that there is an English bank holiday in August that we don’t observe in Scotland.
After apologising profusely for waking the man at eight o’clock in the morning on a Bank Holiday Monday we chatted about the cottage, called Leachnasgeir. It had been a ruined croft, leased from the landowner by a Glasgow Geologist in the 1960s, brought back to life, and now co-owned by 5 families. It was now a one room bothy with sleeping platform, still lacked basic services and was a 40 minute walk from the nearest road, it sounded perfect. The cottage wasn’t for sale in any conventional sense, however, I would need to be accepted by all five members of the ownership collective before I could buy a share. The application process consisted of visiting as many of them as I could and persuading them that I was the ‘right sort’ to own a share in Leachnasgeir.
We set off for my first visit from Cuil Bay, driving the two hours from Glasgow and meeting some friends from Oban for the walk in. My first view of the bay was as we came round a corner and the sea was laid out shimmering below, the islands of Shuna and Balnagowan floating on gold with Morven beyond. We walked over heather and bog, shingle scattered with knarled driftwood and ropes of seaweed vibrating with sand hoppers. The bothy was on a raised beach, embraced by the curve of a wooded crag, and looking out over Loch Linnhe to Morven, a spectacular glacier-carved U-shaped valley cutting the skyline. I was smitten.
As it turned out, I passed the selection criteria (enjoying roughing it, having a general ethic that any materials for mending or improving the cottage should have washed up on the beach) and for the next 10 years at weekends and in holidays we collected driftwood for the stove, dug and cleared ditches, mended and made-do, and generally played at being 18th Century peasants with none of the disease, hard graft, persecution, starvation and child mortality that involved.
Cuil Bay became the starting point for these adventures, the place where I would don an enormous rucksack and walk along the sea shore, past clumps of yellow flag iris, and sea pinks on cushions on the saltmarsh then over the rise of moorland
One of our motivations for buying our share in Leachnasgeir was that, with our first child on the way, we were ready to settle down. To get to know one place, a base to explore the wild and beautiful surroundings, sea, mountain, moor and woodland, a wild place that city kids could be natural. However, as is often the case, the fantasy and the reality didn’t measure up and I found that the children didn’t enjoy the delights of wild nature as much as I thought they should.
On one of our visits I’d made the mistake of carrying in the Guardian for light reading (and fire lighting) and, as is often the case with their ‘Lifestyle’ section, I was fretting over an article. The author had visited cultures and tribes in all corners of the planet and observed how free and happy their offspring are in comparison with our own. My children were, as usual, inside. They were playing tickle and fight between games of top-trumps.
“You should get outside”, I said and read out an extract from the article, “it says here that in the Amazon 5 year-olds wield machetes and in West Papua kids run 6 hours over mountains to deliver messages”
“Mum….” said my ten your old in the disapproving tone of a Victorian governess, “you really shouldn’t read that kind of thing” and turned back to her card game.
But despite being surrounded by wild nature, sea, mountain, moor and woodland, our kids wanted to be inside. The rocky shore was tranquil, the crags of the twisted and mossy hazel woodland behind the cottage remained undisturbed, and and the ticks of the heather moorland had to make do with meadow pipits in the absence of any children to latch onto.
The children love visiting Leachnasgeir, we pack our things into rucksacks and head out over the bog, to our little getaway sandwiched between sea and moor. But the muddy, mossy, wildness seems to lack the attractions of the cottage for the children.
“Why don’t you go and play outside?” I asked again.
“Perhaps we don’t want to”
I explained that all the research says that children are happier when they can play in nature and prod sticks into rotten trees and create sculptures out of cow dung and wallow in mud up to their knees.
“We’re happy Mum” they replied.
It is hard to see how, in the world’s most idyllic place for kids to discover the outdoors and explore risk and freedom, my kids want to sit on the floor playing hangman. I told them that in the old days they would have been sent out after breakfast and not allowed back until dinner.
“That’s inhuman” said Maya, the older one, “it’s child cruelty”
It called for drastic action. I had taken to locking the kids out of the house in Glasgow a couple of times to prevent them and their rampaging friends from making a dash inside from the lane, where they meet to swap things, chalk out hopscotches and build assault courses out of scrap wood and other items thrown out by the residents of our terrace.
The strategy would be to set off for a walk up the tussoky hill behind the cottage – hard walking for adults, and like finding your way through a boggy maze for children. The hope was that they will choose to play in the woods instead and we get a bit of a walk alone, though never far out of earshot. I locked the door.
I suggested they stay and play outside rather than join in the slog. They chose to come with us. I suggested getting sweets when we get back to civilization. They stuck to us like limpets.
On the walk the children did their best to sound like kids in touch with nature, they didn’t moan, our eldest identified a few birds by sight and song and, as we climbed the little hill, the younger asked in her most interested voice about how the mountains were made. When we reached the top and started to descend to a small pebbly bay with a large granite erratic in the middle they started bargaining. “So if we stayed here and played for a bit could we get sweets? …..What about crisps?”
We struck a bargain on the understanding that they would stay away from the house until lunchtime and set off back to the cottage through hazel and birch scrub green with moss. When we reached the short grass of the raised beach we looked back to see our shadows following us from a discreet distance. They skirted the cottage, just out of sight below the berm of shingle and stayed out until they felt it was a respectable time for lunch.
Later that afternoon as I sat with a view of Garbh Bheinn the other side of Loch Linnhe, a boy wandered past with a shinty stick. He was hitting a ball, walking to it, picking it up and continuing on. A little later he walked back doing the same thing. The next day, as we carried our rucksacks back to the car at the end of the weekend trip we saw the same boy, this time with a bike, heading across heather moorland pushing the bike determinedly towards the cottage. I recognized him as the farmer’s son, going to check on the cows that were ready to calf.
When we stopped praise his dedication and independence. He grinned widely and explained that his mother had said that if he didn’t go and check on the cows then he had to do the washing up. I immediately added doing the washing up to the mental armoury to get our own kids outside.
Spending weekends and selected holidays in a one-room bothy with no electricity and heated by driftwood washed up on the shore was also perfect for my growing obsession with being eco. I was in the midst of an environmental mission to reduce my climate-change emissions and save the planet. By the time our second child was one we had jettisoned the car and stopped flying to visit the in-laws in Switzerland, favouring instead four trains and seventeen hours of travelling. I charted our greenhouse emissions, reporting each quarter to a group of like-minded extremists who met, wrapped in layers of hand-knitted jumpers, in unheated flats around Glasgow.
Our measured emissions were a third of what they had been before I imposed my carbon diet on the family. In the Glasgow drizzle I would be seen dragging a four year old by the hand as she shouted “Why can’t we have a car like everyone else” and carrying a resigned eighteen month old in a sling. Other mums at the school gates would regard me as something of a curiosity asking me regularly how I managed with kids, a job, and no car. Sometimes I wondered myself. Ruedi, as ever supportive of my latest hobby, played along.
Our hundred-year old terraced house in Glasgow was freezing cold. I’d turned off all the radiators apart from one that heated the kitchen dining area. I draft-proofed all the doors and set to with insulation n the roof, we all put on extra jumpers. There were still drafts coming in from everywhere. I attacked them with a passion: expanding foam, tape and a heat-sensitive camera to find the cold spots.
An evangelical passion for cutting down on carbon gripped me. Gordon Brown announced that he would build a million new low-carbon homes by 2020 to save the planet and and I pointed out to anyone who would listen that this isn’t going to help while all our existing homes are belching out carbon emissions. I started a group to help other people make their homes more sustainable and campaign for Government measures for existing homes. I called it Eco-Renovation network and brigaded a committee of highly competent people to help deliver our aims. One of these was a young architect, Matt Bridgestock, who had come along to the launch event I’d organised with speakers drawn from the great and the good in a prestigious venue. All this was conjured with the old trick of telling speakers the event would be held in a prestigious venue and telling the venue that we would have prestigious speakers.
Matt worked for a large Glasgow architects’ practice known for its low carbon buildings and work on social housing, he was knowledgeable, energetic, and threw himself into my project with almost as much passion and dedication as me. I liked him immediately. As time went on and EcoRenovation Network developed, the extent of the issues that our existing housing stock, not least my own house, had in reducing emissions became clear to me. The expense and disruption needed to make my own house both warm and low carbon felt prohibitive, I installed a wood burning stove that heated my water in tandem with solar water panels on the south facing roof. The whole experience was pretty awful and left us with a system which, unless you want to use gas or electricity, gives you lukewarm water most of the time and scalding water on that one sunny day in July, when you least require a long soak in a hot bath.
After five winters of extra jumpers, chopping wood to fire up the stove to defrost the ice on the inside of the windows, and taking off extra jumpers under the bedcovers once preheated by hot water bottle, I’d had enough. The fantasy of a warm, insulated, airtight house was conceived and started to grow.
The house had a long gestation, years of desire left unsaid because I knew that I’d never be able to build a house in Glasgow. My conviction 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 prevented me from speaking my true desire.
Despite this, I started surreptitiously looking for a building plot. We would happen to drive past plots I had seen on the internet on the way to ‘somewhere’ and I’d 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 a 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.
Gradually, time marched on: the thought that we would be able to live in the house we built in the not-quite-so-distant-future occurred to me. A world opened up where the terror and seat-of-your-pants parenting of the early years faded into mere chaos. Only a couple of years before, 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.
It started to feel as though the time when children would be fledged and work could become more flexible started to reside in the realms of the imaginable, rather than in another universe.
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?”
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, in Cuil.
By serendipity, we were just about to visit Leachnasgeir for our annual September holiday weekend trip and I called the landowner, Kim, who we have got to know in the years we have been visiting Cuil. Kim is the same man who, forty years before, had given the lease of that ruined croft to be restored.
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.”
When we had bought the plot things got suddenly very real. I needed a mortgage, an architect, a plan. By this time we had brought ecorenovation network to an end, as other, better resourced and qualified campaigns and NGOs took up the mantle. Matt had set up his own architects practice, and was particularly interested in creating ecological homes. It seemed that he was the ideal person to get involved.
When Matt came to see the plot I marched him out to Leachnasgeir as part of the induction, an essential part of the reason we were building this house. I made him go on the rope swing, a screamingly wild ride on rope and a buoy collected from the beach, tied round a limb of a large oak tree and overhanging a steep slope. I wanted to show him why Cuil bay was such a special place for me, I wanted, somehow, for that to be reflected in the house.
As I walked along the lochside, my phone beeped. It had found connection with the networks and I had messages. A couple from the kids, left before bedtime, and one from Ronnie. To my joy he had offered to ride gallantly to the rescue in his orange digger. The message said that he would send someone out to the quarry at 6am the following morning to get a truck-load of rock and a digger to site to prepare the crane footings to be ready for the arrival of the crane at 730am the next morning. Feeling pathetically grateful and completely taken aback at his selfless willingness to help me sort out my situation, I called him. As usual he swiped away my blubbing thanks. “see you tomorrow Kat” he said.
It was still pitch dark as I dressed hurriedly, packed up the few belongings I’d brought into the cottage and dashed out, having filled my thermos with coffee. Ronnie and his team would be on site soon and I didn’t want to be too far behind them. I arrived at 630am and stopped briefly by the sea to steady my nerves. The wind wasn’t as strong as I had expected, and my worries, so livid the night before, soothed and I started to feel hopeful for the day to come. There was still the matter of the horrendous weather forecast and Storm Jack but I put that out of my mind and focused on the task ahead. The team who would be putting up the frame were already on site, finishing the sole plate that they had started the day before and readying everything to receive the first of the articulated lorries. I went over to chat, and they were in good spirits. Rosco, (Sunday name Mark) was their leader, a tough Glaswegian, fond of swearing, but wearing a Russian fur hat whose ear flaps made him look like a mutant spaniel. He was marking out where the digger should put the holes to fill with rock to form a steady base for the crane to set up on.
“We do this every day of the week” he said. “Don’t worry the crane will be fine, I’ll drive it if I have to”. Seven o’clock came and went and there was no sign of Ronnie and his digger, and no sign of the crane. I started to worry. I drove back to the sea front, where I had phone reception and waited in the car, looking anxiously back towards the main road. Eventually a truck carrying a small digger arrived, it stopped. There was a problem, said Ronnie, his guys had been out to collect stone at 6am but none of the quarries were accessible due to heavy snow that had fallen, south of Cuil Bay. I looked at my watch, it was nearly eight o’clock. A convoy of three articulated lorries were about to arrive and we had no crane, nowhere we could set the crane up and no stone to make the crane footings. I called the crane company and , to my relief a man answered.
“Where are you?” I asked, “the house panels are due any minute”.
“The crane hasn’t left Oban” said the man, surprised that I had even suggested it, given the weather, “there’s snow on the road”.
It seemed to me incredulous that an inch of snow on a road would stop a crane that is designed to drive through building sites in all states of mud and rubble. “There’s no snow here, we need the crane now. How long will it take to get here?” I asked.
“If we send it now it shouldn’t take more than two hours”
I was absolutely horrified, there would be no crane until at least 10am. After entreating him to make all haste I headed back to the building site to update Ronnie and Rosco.
Rosco and his team were gathered around one of the crane footings Ronnie had put in the previous week as I approached. He looked uncharacteristically downcast at the news and I began to see exactly why James had been reluctant to use that crane company. Rosco stood on the cement and jumped a few times, it shivered and wobbled, like wet sand with a rising tide.
“Look, it’s nearly solid” said Rosco.
“It’ll be fine” said the other chap.
I thought of the quivering bog we would cross on the way to Lechnasgeir, a raft of vegetation; grass, rush and layers of sphagnum, floating on the liquid peat below. Rosco fetched some bits of wood and scaffolding planks and braced them across the still-wet cement. “Yup, that’s it. We’ll get him to set up on that” he said.
Rosco explained that he had ways of getting crane drivers to set up when they didn’t want to. I didn’t doubt it.
“If one of the lorries arrives make him stop there down by the beach”, said Rosco to me “we can’t have the lorries on site before the crane. “Nice hat” he added, inclining his head towards the knitted moose hat complete with ear flaps and antlers I’d put on to ward off hypothermia.
The rain and wind started back with a vengeance as I walked back to the beach. We needed to keep the plot and track free of vehicles and so my car was parked in a layby at the beach. Cuil Bay is a mile down a single track road to a turning place. At that point the track continues, after a sharp corner, heading away from the sea, on an even narrower road, grass starting to grow in parts along the middle, for 400 yards before reaching the official end of the public road where a few neighbours’ drives meet. My plot, and a few other houses and barns are accessed over a concrete slab that approximates for a bridge over the burn. I couldn’t imagine how an articulated lorry would get up to my plot, let alone ever be able to return. The thought of three sent me into a cold sweat.
Just after eight o’clock the first articulated lorry arrived, wheels barely on the narrow road, riding off one side, and then the other, onto the verge. It was absolutely enormous and the back was stacked high with vast panels, the walls, floors and roof of my home. It pulled onto the side of the road by the sea to wait for the crane and I decided I should work my way around the neighbours to update them on the disruption we were contributing to their lives of rural idyll.
The previous week I had let them know that the road could be blocked for a couple of hours that morning but this was now set back by at least two hours. I was anxious to keep the locals updated and on side, there’s not much more disruptive than having a close neighbour building a house. However going a-visiting was also a sure-fire strategy to get out of the cold and wet and get a few cups of tea and possibly some biscuits.
I started with Neill, the local historian, and retired doctor, and his wife Margaret. Neill had been working on his project recording evidence of past human habitation around the peninsular for a few years and had visited Leachnasceir a couple of times to look at the croft cottage itself, and its surrounding buildings. A couple of years before, one Easter, he had dropped in during a walk with the Appin Historical society. The plan was that they would picnic by Leachnasceir and we would show them round and feed them cups of tea. When I saw them coming over the hill and down to the beach I put on the kettle, expecting them to be around 10 minutes. An hour later they were still picking their way across the last 100 yards of meadow to the cottage stopping at every flower, rock or pile of stones, as one or other of the party explained the significance, of the botany, geology and archaeology. Neill told us that the little ruin a few yards from the main cottage was a creel house – an ancient building technique that used the round bouders from the seashore to build two drystone walls a couple of inches apart which supported poles of hazel that would be bent over to form the structure of the roof. The similarity to the construction of a lobster or prawn creel gives the technique its name.
It was at that moment that the building formerly known as the ‘Cludgie’, where the glorified bucket with a loo seat sat, layered up with dry bracken, was placed during our visits, gained a proud past. We started calling it the creel house and soon after that I found it hard to use it as our ‘loo with the view’ and the bucket moved into the barn.
I came to the door, knitted antlers drooping, dripping a puddle onto the flagstones in their entrance hall, and was immediately offered tea and biscuits. A bowl of soup followed as I told tales of terror from the house build and Neill and Margaret sympathized with tales from building their recent extension.
Before long I was warm, settled and content, with a tummy of hot soup and had almost forgotten that I was mistress of some uber-chaos that was unfolding in the gale outside. Reluctantly I layered on my wet waterproofs again and headed back into the fray.