Jonathan: It all started when, in the summer of 2004, we re-tiled the roof of An Gàrradh Mòr – our first ever experience of domestic building work. Before then construction was something I did for a living, and was left at the site cabin with the muddy boots, hard hat and drawings. Until we came here, the nearest we came to building improvements – to any of our numerous homes over the years – was to redecorate indoors, maintain the external woodwork, or lay some paving in the garden! Of course we knew that we’d have to retile the roof: it was, you might say, part of the deal. But then came the great hurricane 11 January 2005: and after that our lives were turned head over heels. It wasn’t just the repairs of storm damage: the trauma of those dreadful days forced us to understand that, here in the Hebrides, a house left to itself could within ten years become unfit for habitation, and within twenty could be reduced to dereliction. We were going to have to let go of our naive dreams of an easier, laid-back life, and work harder and be more ambitious – or we’d go under. Life here is uphill, into the wind, all the way, and without drive and some degree of ambition the weather will have the better of you sooner rather than later. So we didn’t just replace the greenhouse we’d lost to the storm, or the polytunnels: we added to them, buying four new heavy duty greenhouses, building them on heavy foundations to hold them down, reinforcements to strengthen them, and a timber extraskeleton and shielding to protect them from the worst that Hebridean winters – Outer Hebridean winters! – could throw at them. But we didn’t stop there …
We built a potting shed too, and a garden store and workshop, and a hen-house and a small garden ‘shop’ hebrideanwoolshed to sell products of the garden and our craft skills ; though – with handsight – in doing this we even then seriously underestimated the damaging power of Hebridean weather!
Then, in late 2005 we started to anticipate the storms of years to come – meterological storms, and the metaphorical storms of later life. We bought EightAskernish (riddled with wet and dry rot and woodworm, and very crude construction anyway) and, after stripping it back to just the concrete outer walls, rebuilt it, and now run it as a holiday let.
Next – with a view to expanding our horticultural/agricultural activity – we acquired the tenancy of Croft 11, Bun a Mhullin, in Eriskay. We demolished the old house (if we hadn’t done so it would have fallen down anyway – it reeked of death and decay) and built in its place a new eco-house – CarrickEriskay – also a holiday let. For the croft itself, we built access roads, hen houses, stores, and – just in the six years until now – erected nearly three kilometres of fencing on very difficult ground – rock or bog and scarcely nothing in between.
And then, with the banking crisis and following recession swallowing up lives, like a tsunami, all income dried up and we were lucky to complete Carrick at all. The only work I could find before meltdown was a permanent post based in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. (Actually quite a nice place – exile could have been worse!). After 18m of splintered living, though, our finances were in better shape, the work situation improving, I could return home and start work on the long-overdue renovation of our own house, An Gàrradh Mòr.
By now we’d realized it was in such bad shape that if we didn’t do a really thorough rebuilding, it could become uninhabitable by the time we reached retirement age, when we’d lack the resources or ability to do anything about it. We’ve now been working on the renovation for five years already, living and working in house that – in successive stages – has been so completely gutted, that only the blockwork of the external walls, the chimney and the incoming buried water pipe and electricity cable are as they were when we bought the house in 2002. We even had to remake all the floors and make good deficient foundations – by under-pinning.
It’s not just the building work itself; it’s the stress and disruption, the dirt and dust, the things that get broken or go missing in shifting absolutely everything we have umpteen times around the house and stores as the work moves on, and trying to live and work, eat and sleep amongst the barely organized chaos, and the work coming to halt for lack of money or good weather or due to other commitments and not knowing when it will start up again – or sometimes doubting whether it ever will do so at all.
But now? Just another six months or so and it will be all done, including a further complete rebuilding of garden shop (#hebrideanwoolshed), potting shed (now a dyehouse) and the workshop (now a potting shed/workshop/store/pantry), hen-house, site drainage and the access road: all now rebuilt to Hebridean standards of robustness and practicality.
Construction work has absolutely dominated our domestic lives for more than ten years, not least because it has been paid for primarily by my own work on the design and construction of everything from Dublin’s tram network to motorway upgrades in north-east England, and from port infrastructure in Essex to major new arterial roads east of Glasgow, and latterly to wind farms and quite extraordinary private homes in the Outer Hebrides.
But now the flood of construction work is at last abating, and at the same our liquidity (ie actual ready cash at the bank, not capital assets) has recovered enough for us to pay off three years early the mortgage we took out to finance the work at CarrickEriskay. The tide is very nearly turning, and we shall start to reap the rewards of our labours. After ten years of turning hard work into assets, we can now look forward to those assets starting to pay us back, allowing us the time to realise the dream that brought us here in the first place – a Small Country Living in the Outer Hebrides.