New architecture in the Hebrides

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New architecture in the Hebrides
The Hen House, at Fiscavaig on Skye, has drawn inspiration from Hebridean agricultural buildings
New architecture in the Hebrides
The Hen House, at Fiscavaig on Skye, has drawn inspiration from Hebridean agricultural buildings

A new generation of innovative holiday homes are reinvigorating the Scottish islands

It was early morning when our ferry approached the Outer Hebrides, the sun still working on the last wisps of sea fog and a hundred or more dolphins playing alongside. We docked at Stornoway, picked up groceries then drove south to Harris — over desolate moorland, then on roads clinging to mountainsides that offered glimpses of glittering sea lochs far below and golden eagles high above. The only things breaking the spell of all this natural splendour were the occasional houses we passed: not pretty, ancient, stone cottages but 20th-century bungalows, either white or grey pebble-dashed, often with awkward dormers added to the roof and chunky plastic windows and doors, and usually — despite the huge expanse of open land on all sides — set right beside the road.

This has always been the drawback of a holiday in the Hebrides. While the scenery can easily trump that of Devon, Cornwall, the Lake District and other beautiful parts of the UK, those areas have the advantage of a huge stock of traditional houses to rent: thatched cottages, farmhouses, barn conversions, manor houses, lighthouses and more. In the Hebrides the choice has been modest at best. Partly this is a legacy of the Highland Clearances that left the region one of the most sparsely populated in Europe. Those that remained lived, as they had for centuries, in “blackhouses” — long narrow buildings with thatched or turf roofs and thick rough stone walls, with animals kept at one end, humans at the other. At the end of the 19th century the blackhouses were abandoned in favour of simple, functional, single-storey “whitehouses” with rendered, whitewashed walls, chimneys and tiny windows. Roofs of slate or corrugated iron had no eaves so that they wouldn’t catch the gales that blow across the islands in winter.

The whitehouses were prim and symmetrical, clearly shaped by their setting, but as the 20th century progressed, builders adopted increasingly generic styles. Whitewash became pebble-dash, chimneys and fireplaces were replaced by gas fires and plastic flues, rendered stone became prefabricated panels, dormers sprung from roofs — the slender whitehouses evolved into squat grey bungalows. Their mundanity makes what is happening now — what some are calling a “third wave” of Hebridean architecture — all the more remarkable. []

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