Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Stories in Stone - Scottish Cottages (1)

We are in the middle of renovating and extending a 200 year old lowland Scottish cottage (pictured before renovation, left) which used to belong to my much loved, much missed mother-in-law Fay, who died last summer. She lived there for many years and it was a wonderfully happy little house, often crammed with family and friends of all ages, who managed to squeeze in somehow and all of whom she entertained with characteristic generosity. Her 'Happy Hours' were legendary, and much as we try to replicate them, they are never quite the same in her absense.
The house was tiny: a granny cottage, adapted for one marvellous, courageous lady, although it had a large garden looking across the beautiful mixed woodlands of the nearby 'big house'. Small as it was, somebody in the village once told us that her own granny had brought up twelve children there. We couldn't begin to imagine where they all slept. My mother-in-law loved the place, and although the family occasionally suggested renovations, she could hardly be persuaded to vacate it for long enough even to let her grown up children decorate it for her. They had to resort to various subterfuges - including taking her away on holiday - to get any work done at all.
Faced with the prospect of selling the house after her death, the family decided to extend and renovate it first - partly because none of us could bear for anyone else to do it, and partly because it seemed like a good thing to do in the face of our overwhelming sadness at her passing. As it stood the house didn't meet current building regulations. We weren't in the business of spoiling the roofline, or extending it unsympathetically - just planning to turn it into a slightly bigger, more convenient cottage, perhaps suitable for a youngish retired couple. The resulting design included two bedrooms, one upstairs to take advantage of the fine view, a much bigger sitting room - also with a lovely rural view - and a brand new bathroom and kitchen as well as plenty of storage space, new central heating, plumbing, wiring and so on.
Although we are used to the vagaries of listed buildings, it has still proved to be something of a learning curve for the whole family. We dealt sensitively with the planners (after all, we no more want to ruin an old and venerable building on the edge of a conservation village than they do) and found one of the best builders we have ever had the good fortune to work with - by word of mouth, of course. He's a young man who is gaining such a reputation for reliability and fine craftsmanship at an affordable price that we doubt if he will be available when next we might want him!
But still, the bottom line is that old buildings don't much enjoy being tampered with. They are settled, and like their human inhabitants, dislike being disturbed. I have the distinct impression that they resent it, and present the unwary developer with sneaky problems.
One such problem involved settling the actual boundaries of the land itself. Old deeds can be surprisingly vague. Our own deeds on our 200 year old Scottish cottage are very precise (we spent an interesting afternoon measuring them out, a few years ago) but Fay's cottage was different. 'The land to the west thereof' could mean anything from a few feet to half an acre. Eventually we negotiated with a friendly local farmer, to buy a little extra land, which meant that the house could have its own garage, and the small stream which ran rather too close to the original building could be diverted away from the extension. It was what my own dear dad used to call 'a hell of a job' but the results will be entrancing - a cottage with a stream in its garden and a view of fields and traditional woodland, that changes with the changing seasons.
The other challenge was in dealing with the very fabric of the building. These old Scottish cottages are built with the most enormous blocks of stone, some of them granite. Installing an extra window in what had become the kitchen, involved what the builder called a 'slap-out' - one of those expressions that is so evocative that it has immediately entered the family vocabulary. Among the stones 'slapped out' were some that looked as though they may originally have been part of an even older building - we know that the village is much older than most of the present two hundred year old houses. There is a huge rectangular block, an old lintel perhaps, which might, with a little stretch of the imagination, be a section of an ancient standing stone. All these stones have been preserved, of course, and will be used somewhere on site, perhaps in the garden.
Passing the cottage the other day, I thought that Fay would have been very proud of the work. A lovely, positive lady, widowed in her early thirties, and left with four children to bring up alone, she had made a good job it. But she never lost her sense of adventure. I always think of her as being wise, loving, and up for anything. I think she would approve. The huge jobs - building, slating, plumbing, wiring - are almost complete, but the finishing off is yet to come. Bookmark The Scottish Home for more news of this particular Scottish Home as it happens.

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