Jonathan: We first started keeping chickens in 2005, long before we got the croft, but here in the Big Garden we were struggling to work out how best to house and contain them. In Spring 2007 we realized that as the ‘hummocky’ area in the SE corner of the garden was too rocky for growing fruit and veg and even hardy shrubs didn’t seem to thrive, we should fence it off and build a good sized walk-in (well, stoop-in!) hen house. Our own design proved to be very successful and robust, except that the Onduline roof sheets are not very durable, and the space under the building proved a haven for rats. Last year, having rebuilt all the other outbuildings, we decided that we’d rebuild the house to the same internal design, but of blockwork on a concrete base, and – to harmonize with our other outbuildings – clad with timber boarding and a galvanized corrugated steel roof, and this time complete with fully paved inner courtyard, drainage etc. In short, keeping all the best features and improving on the could-have-been betters. That rebuilding was finished this Spring. With insulated floor, white-painted walls, well ventilated but free from draughts, and good light (except of course in nesting boxes), and outside plenty of greens brought to them, dust bath and access a scratching area it’s henny heaven!
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 …
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Jonathan: We’ve now got an extension – until October. That’s the last extension to the building control permit for the repairs, garage conversion that can be given, so we have to complete the work by then or have to re-apply and have the work carried out to date professionally inspected, re-designed if necessary, – and possibly even have to make alterations, to the now current building standards. No thanks! We got the permit for this work back in early 2008, before we even started building Carrick, when the economy was still booming and my income from engineering consultancy was more plentiful and consistent than today. The plan was to properly convert the garage to a weaving studio and utility, extend the upstairs over the garage, and modify the upstairs: if we could afford to we would continue with repair and renovation of the remainder of the house (which with hindsight should have been the priority). We expected to start work on our house as soon as Carrick was finished, but …. A graph with two lines, one going up (difficulties and costs) the other going down (income). I’m thinking Mr Macawber: Income twenty pounds; Expenditure 19 shillings and sixpence: Result – bliss my boy, bliss!. Income twenty pounds; Expenditure, twenty pounds and sixpence: Result – misery my boy, sheer misery! Only it’s been worse than that – much, much worse. Back in the days of plenty, we decided it would be a good thing to make advance purchases on key materials and appliances which would be used at both Carrick and at An Garradh Mor. So instead of buying just the two tonnes of Welsh quarry tiles required for Carrick, we negotiated a great saving on buying four tonnes … and even now the better part of two tonnes is still under covers at the croft store: only about a quarter to a third have been put down (well done Denise!) in the weaving studio and the utility. The Velux solar heating system (again, as we installed at Carrick – three years ago!) has only just in the past few days been completed: at last after ten years here we have proper hot water without putting kettles on the stove!. Two huge triple-glazed Nordan windows – that we obtained along with the Nordan windows for Carrick – choked up the croft store for three years before being installed this winter! Most of what we’ve been working on over recent months has been just that – work: outlay has been kept to a minimum. For example, we now have cabling and plumbing throughout the new/renovated parts of the house (studio, utility, most of upstairs) but no electricity (for want of money to pay an electrician to test and connect up). Now we have to make the final push: earn the money and get the work done and all by October: or rather the work covered by the building warrant by then – the rest must wait! Then there shall be no more tears or wailing; and this shall be a house resounding with joy and laughter. Actually I’d just like to have a moment to sit down and read a book!
Jonathan: It is of course true that, thanks to their remoteness, untamed beauty and thinly scattered population, these islands offer a way of life that’s profoundly simpler, calmer and more satisfying than is possible amongst the hurly burly of modern, mainland, mainstream life. But to be honest, it can become a bit unchallenging – dare I say boring? You know – contemplating the clouds, watching out for the arrival of the skylarks from Africa, long un-hurried conversations with passing holiday-makers. I had taken up a detailed study of the rate of growth of different species of grass, but I had to give that up as the cows and sheep kept chomping off the very blades of grass I’d decided to measure. So all in all it was a relief this morning when we discovered a pane of glass broken on No 3 greenhouse – the first breakage for about six years. We had a spate of breakages shortly after the greenhouses were completed in 2005, but those all appeared to be due to sudden changes in temperature (from a very sunny hot day to a frost at night) where the glass was a tight fit. Nothing since – and certainly no breakages even from hurricanes.But over the past few weeks there’s been no extremes of temparature and no strong winds, so we can only suppose that a bird – perhaps wheeling and diving to escape the talons of a hawk – flew into the glass, at spead, beak-first. Ouch! Considering that the glass is 4mm toughened and firmly bedded in with glazing sealant and glazing clips, it’s difficult to imagine the bird surviving – but there was no corpse to be found. Perhaps the hawk landed and took it away? Except for a few ‘grains’ of the glass, most of it was still standing in place (see photo), held together with apparently nothing more than the bonds of loyalty borne out long association. (And as I’m such a sensitive, thoughtful guy, I’ve arranged that they’ll all be buried together … at the council’s landfill site.) Due to the difficulties and high cost of transporting glass here, we’re making replacement with 6mm perspex, which unlike glass has a finite life (20-30 years, so probably as long as the greenhouses), but is clearer than glass, easier to fit (it can be filed or even sawn if needs be) and above all won’t break! So that’s on order, and in the meantime the gap in the greenhouse is boarded over. What I’m really looking forward to is the painstaking removal of the bedding sealant from the glazing bars, with all the bits of glass still embedded in it: something to while away the barren hours and days of island life. ;~)
Denise: It’s mid February, nearly 2 months from the winter solstice and at this time the change from one day to the next is accelarating: within another month or so all of nature will be in a frenzy of new growth. Right now however, there’s little to cheer us up than the brighter skies – I’ll not go as far as to say sunshine – and at last a reprieve from the windiest and wettest winter that even the oldest islanders can recall. There’s plenty of seaweed on the beaches, but right now little enough time to get out and collect it: J’s tied up with engineering and building projects and in the evenings he’s re-wiring our own house. A walk on the beach in the moonlight before bedtime his his only reprieve.