MOST tradesmen involved in the build of The Cabin, on the south coast of Skye, were stopped in their tracks by panoramic views over Isleornsay’s natural harbour and the Sound of Sleat to the mountains of Kintail and Knoydart beyond.
As locals, a more blasé reaction to the island’s visual charms might have been expected.
“It underlined how special this spot is,” says Chris Cairns who, with wife Marian first discovered the site, on a wooded hillside by the shoreline at Sleat, in October 2011.
The couple had been searching for a holiday home for nearly four years. Although Chris had held Skye in his affections since the student days he spent hillwalking there, it wasn’t an obvious choice when they began their hunt. Having holidayed primarily abroad, they looked to foreign shores.
“We prefer self-catering, and were revisiting the same places,” says Chris; “The reassurance of knowing what we were headed to became preferable to the anxiety of not knowing.”
Nevertheless the prospect of buying abroad was hindered by the potential expense and complexities. Then, for Easter 2009, the couple took a break on Skye.
“We had incredibly good weather and it reminded us why, when we travelled abroad, people couldn’t understand what took us away from Scotland,” says Chris.
The penny dropped, and the couple focused their search on Skye, an island that for them has everything, from spectacular mountains to world-class dining (the romantic Hotel Eilean Iarmain and award-winning Duisdale House are a short walk from The Cabin), not forgetting the wildlife.
“People pay a lot of money to spot dolphins and otters,” says Chris; “We just sit by the window and wait. We have a television but I could happily do without it.”
It took a year to turn the sloping site into a contemporary build, which has received an National House-Building Council award for outstanding quality.
The couple had been disappointed when another possible site fell through but on the same day they were introduced to Jim Cook, an Edinburgh-based builder who has worked extensively on Skye. Jim had recently acquired permission to build what is essentially now The Cabin.
“He had planned the house for himself, but was open to offers,” explains Chris.
As soon as the couple saw the site, there was no going back. With those views, and a complete absence of neighbouring buildings, this was a place they would never have found without insider knowledge.
“It was the kind of luck we don’t normally get,” says Chris.
He and Marian valued the fact that Jim had taken the process well down the line, since securing permission for such a sensitive site wasn’t easy. Issues of scale and visibility had to be addressed.
It meant the couple didn’t have a blank canvas for their own ideas, but that seemed a small price to pay, and where changes were possible, Jim was incredibly obliging.
External alterations were limited to an extension of the decking (which now almost surrounds the house) and a change of access at the back. Internally the couple revised some room dimensions, included a raised kitchen/dining area, and turned a third bedroom into a cosy reading room.
The already extensive use of glass was also boosted with the addition of a glazed corner that broadens the scope of views from the front-facing living space.
The start of the project (in January 2012) was dominated by site clearance and Chris and Marian, who live in Edinburgh, were happy to entrust Jim and his team of local tradesmen with overseeing work. In fact Jim managed the entire project although Chris visited at least once a month when the buildwas underway.
Bad weather knocked the schedule at the start, but the glorious summer (albeit experienced by this corner of the country alone) allowed the project to make up lost time. The steepness of the slope also posed challenges to the enormous digger required to excavate the land for the installation of ground source heating.
“An environmentally sound building was important, both from a planning perspective, and as a marker of what is possible for future builds on Skye,” says Chris.
The ground source system feeds underfloor heating (tiled floors maximise the heat gain) and, together with the insulation values afforded by Argon-filled double-glazing (by Nordan) and a turf roof this is the cosiest of homes. The Scandinavian wood burner in the open-plan living space, while always looking the part, is rarely required for heat.
In the split-level living area the kitchen and dining zones are raised alongside a glass-walled sitting room; these glazed doors open to merge indoor and outdoors space.
As for the two bedrooms, the master has en suite facilities and a wet room, while the twin takes in front-facing views and has a full-sized bathroom next door. The reading room is a snug affair, replete with plentiful books, comfy armchair and a desk strategically placed by the window.
“We live in an old Edinburgh house and wanted The Cabin to be a modern Scottish home,” says Chris; “There are many examples of inefficient, unattractive architecture on the north-west coast, buildings that don’t keep out the elements. The Cabin was designed for this site without intruding upon it, and we wanted the interior to reflect that sense of time and place.”
The finished look has a pared-back warmth, clean lines softened by fabrics, including some traditional checks.
From the access road above (which can’t be seen or heard from the house), it’s only possible to see The Cabin’s turf roof, which blends the property with its surroundings.
Beyond the decking, the ground slopes to the shore; new trees and flowering shrubs planted recently will in time complement established woodland on one side of the building.
Although they always conceived of The Cabin as their own space, Chris and Marian realised the economic sense (for the island as well as themselves) in making it available to a wider audience.
“We didn’t want the place to lie empty for weeks,” says Chris. Hard as it will be to relinquish this special place to guests, the couple are also excited to share its beguiling charms.