Jonathan: Today, as we made the final finishing touches to the re-surfaced drive down to the house, we also finished – after 4½ years of worry and hard work – the renovation of An Gàrradh Mòr – house, drainage, outbuildings, drive – everything! Well, there’s odd jobs to finish, and a few refinements to make, but nothing requiring the help of anyone else, and only the sort of thing one might tackle when the mood takes one, and ticked off after an hour or two – or perhaps a couple of afternoons – of pleasant busy-ness. (Well to be truthful I’m kidding myself – some tasks will take quite a bit more than that!) As anyone with building experience would know – the drive is the first thing to get messed up and the last to be put right (or should be): so now, after pick-axing away the 4-year high mound of cement where the mixer stood, laying drainage, regulating the old beach-gravel surface, and finally dressing with 17 tonnes of 20mm-size crushed gneiss (and all that by hand I have to say!), we can now arrive at our own house, or invite others in, with style and satisfaction. We no longer live on – or in – a building site! We no longer have any building work -anywhere, not even for clients! Here’s some photos of the drive taken over the years: January 2003 – a few weeks after moving in ; 2004, re-tiling the roof (we broke up all the old tiles, by hand, with hammers, to form soakaways and the base layers for paths and parking) ; 2009 – when we were busy building Carrick, in Eriskay ; 2011 when we’d nearly finished the extension and just started the renovation ; 2013 during a lull in renovation work (look – no mixer!) ; 2015 – the final phase, completing the new front ‘sun-room’ and finally the work on the drive itself. Goodness, it almost makes me feel nostalgic!
Jonathan: Before the thatched house at Sgarasta I had responsibility for design and construction of a house at Borrisdale, east of Leverburgh, also in Harris. I say house, it’s actually two houses, plus a detached self-contained annex itself the size of a small house! The owners, Rob and Carol, have recently published their first proper Sound of Harris website to market the self-catering at The Big House. The professional photography and website really does do justice to the location, the building itself, and the interior design. Anyway, you can see the kind of thing that kept me busy over the past few years.
Jonathan: On the west coast of Scotland there must be hundreds of houses called Oran na Mara (Song of the Sea) – and thousands more if you widen the search to Canada and New Zealand. But there’s one such house that won’t easily be mistaken for any of the others, or indeed I suspect any house of any name or description. This is the Oran na Mara at Sgarasta Mhor in the Isle of Harris. It’s a luxury self-catering holiday house, and though I’ve never stayed there and never will, I’m probably as familar with it as anyone could be … thanks to the part I’ve played in its design and construction. Yesterday I visited the house for the last time, to check on snagging work. The house was completed – well, other than the snags! – a month ago, and since then has been let out to the first few guests. By arrangement, this week was set aside for tackling the inevitable snagging list – nothing serious, thank heavens. Next week is given over to professional photography for the new website (details to follow when published) ; but other than tidying up the loose ends with the planners and building control people at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, my involvement with the project has now come to an end. An end, too, to almost forty years in civil engineering and building: from now on I’ll be concentrating on our own enterprises! My visit yesterday was brief and to the point, but as the weather was fine I found time to take a few photos. More photos to follow in due course.
Jonathan: Little by little I’m letting go of my life as a civil engineer. Today it’s the turn of my computer rucksack. To be quite honest I haven’t finished with it quite yet, but with what’s left to do I can certainly manage without. I bought this one when I acquired my first widescreen (2400×1680 I seem to recall) notebook about 2005. The previous rucksack – back in the mid 90s, was considered something of a novelty, as was the whole idea of a peripatetic independent fully self-sufficient freelance civil engineer with his entire design office on his back and able to design anything, anywhere, anytime. This rucksack has been places, seen things, and carried a lot of stuff, got soaked walking to Barra airport, lumped on and off ferries, left on a train with over £8k in used notes (and recovered intact!). squeezed into the cabin lockers of everything from a Twin Otter to an Airbus 320. It’s been to Dublin for Luas lines B1 and C2, Manchester and Liverpool for MerseyTram, Edinburgh for the tram project there. Leeds for the upgrade of the A1 to motoroway, Gateshead for widening the A1 Gateshead-Newcastle bypass to dual 3-lane (now under construction), lived in Welwyn Garden City whilst I did anything from from unblocking road drainage to upgrading major roundabouts and roads ; been to Newcastle under Lyme for commercial developments ; Glasgow for the M80-Kirkintilloch link road ; Glasglow and Chesterfield for upgrade of the A46 Widmerpool to Newark to dual carriageway ; Colchester for access roads to a new port ; Belfast for the Newry Bypass ; Cumbernauld for a major new residential suburb ; Barra for a wind turbine development ; North Uist and Harris for site surveys, commercial developments, house renovations, major house builds … and even to Madeira for dealing with island-wide infrastructure repairs after massive flooding. And that’s just this second rucksack! Well, it certainly doesn’t owe me anything! So, Goodbye, and thanks for all your help! Hope you didn’t mind the home-bound trips with dirty washing!
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 …