ANDREW Elliot recalls standing on the roof scaffold of Balnakeil House in Sutherland, being interrogated as to his intentions with regard to the building.
His case (to a representative from Historic Scotland) was clear. “I simply want to make this house right for the next hundred years,” he said.
Nobody could doubt the commitment of Andrew and wife Liz to this majestic A-listed building, which stands at one end of a pristine white sandy beach on Scotland’s north westerly tip.
Architectural documentation of the U-shaped building – constructed around 1642, rebuilt by Mackay clan chiefs in 1744 and extended in the 1800s – is sketchy. More has been written of its colourful inhabitants, such as the first occupant of the rebuilt mansion, Donald, son of the third Lord Reay. He loved a party, his revelry prompting the minister in a neighbouring manse to write of his inability to concentrate on composing his sermons.
For Andrew the completion of the house as a luxury holiday home in autumn last year was the culmination of much debate as well as three years of renovations.
The house has been in the Elliot family – who farm predominantly in the Borders as well as on the north coast – for more than a hundred years, but had lain empty since 1992.
“Within the wider family it was regarded as a bit of a white elephant,” explains Andrew. Ultimately, he felt its future lay in his hands and so he decided to take on the challenge. But where to start with a historically valuable, remotely located mansion in what could fairly be described as rough condition?
It took 18 months to navigate the planning process and although work got underway in 2009, the couple admit it feels like a decade ago. The scale of the project inevitably threw up problems.
“With so many decisions to make it became impossible to make good progress,” says Andrew. Eventually it was agreed to hold monthly site meetings with the main contractor (Thurso-based O’Brien Construction) and the other trades involved. “That helped to concentrate minds,” he says.
Surprisingly for a building in which little cash had been invested in years, the house was dry. Even the roof structure was fairly sound (some timbers were replaced and new insulation packed in), while much of the original lathe and plaster could be retained with regard to the internal walls.
Nevertheless significant work was needed to make the house fit for discerning 21st-century guests. Entirely re-wired, the building also required a new, technically complex plumbing system to ensure hot water would flow immediately from every tap.
Floors were dug out and vast flagstones lifted to make way for the screed of concrete and insulation required for the under-floor heating that warms slate floors at ground level and is fed by a ground source heat pump.
Oil-fired central heating boosts the temperature at first-floor level while convector heaters do a similar job in the attic (where there are now five bedrooms, two of which were created within an old passageway).
When Andrew visited this house as a child, peat fires burned in the hearths and the wind howled down the chimneys. “You could be sitting two yards from the fire and not feel the heat,” he says. Stoves, standing on new slate hearths within four original stone mantles – including those in the first-floor dining and drawing rooms – offer a contemporary solution.
Although the scale of this renovation was a little daunting to say the least, Andrew and Liz drew confidence from their previous experience of creating two luxury holiday homes in the Borders.
In Balnakeil House the absence of original features at ground level gave them freedom to open up the space. Internal walls were removed to create the 14-metre long kitchen/dining/living room, clad internally with tongue-and-groove panelling for a fresh yet rustic finish. The addition of a new window here, within a stepped area (previously a walk-in cupboard) threatened to unhinge the project’s time scale. “It took five months to get permission for this window alone,” says Andrew. The contractor meanwhile hinted at pulling workmen off site, but Liz and Andrew used the delay to their advantage; they had always planned to restore the little beach bothy close to the house, and here was their “window” of opportunity.
Back in the big house, the renovation (overseen by architect Lachie Stewart), created a total of nine bedrooms with sea or mountain views. And within an old ground-level store the couple created a games room that leads conveniently off the living area. It’s equipped with a large flat-screen television, but traditional pastimes take centre stage; there’s a football table, as well as board games and musical instruments.
For Liz, the process of furnishing the house was made easier once she settled on a style. Initially she scoured auction houses, thinking the house called for an antique vibe. But when confronted by ageing, fragile pieces, she knew they wouldn’t last. Instead she mixed older pieces from the house with new timber furniture from Indigo. The sturdiness of the latter underpins the finished look, while the antiques suit the building, which still has wonderful features such as the timber panelling in a first-floor bedroom, salvaged from a ship that reputedly survived the Spanish Armada.
Andrew is fond of the portrait hanging in the drawing room – a copy of an original of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1865-1932) painted by John Singer Sargent in 1892 held in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – by his great aunt. “I found it outside in a barn,” he says; “It just needed a good clean.”
Sources utilised for their Borders properties were revisited here, not least Jim Lawrence for the quality light fittings. Fabrics by Anta complement the balance of tradition and modernity in this Highland home. Liz favoured tones (for paints as well as fabrics) that capture those in the landscape outside.
Borders-based MEH Builders & Joiners were again called upon, this time to custom make the handsome kitchen, which is fitted with enough mod cons to make light work of cooking for 17.
Contemporary art was selected from the Breeze Gallery in Peebles, while carpets were transported from Selkirk-based Keith McLean Carpets.
If the road to Sutherland appeared a long one, none of these suppliers seemed to mind. Getting there is just part of a very special experience.
Imagine opening the back door of this spectacular holiday home to step out onto that mile-and-a-half long, often deserted, beach.
Like the books and board games inside, the landscape here promotes a traditional, family-oriented break, where you need little more than a few bats, balls and a rather fine picnic to feel completely and utterly relaxed. Andrew and Liz can vouch for that.
• Balnakeil sleeps 17; seven-night bookings (Saturday to Saturday) cost from £3,200, short breaks are available in low season; www.elliothouses.co.uk; www.cottagesandcastles.co.uk
Now create the look...
Matt emulsion in Fruit Fool £24.29 for 2.5 litres Dulux (www.dulux.co.uk)
Green is the colour of choice in many of the Balnakeil bedrooms, perhaps because it’s such a calming hue. This Fruit Fool shade is part of Dulux’s spring range, which features soft pastels and sherbety colours.
Heriot sofa in gold and red £2,800 Anta (www.anta.co.uk)
It’s pretty much obligatory for a Scottish holiday home to feature tartan upholstery in one form or another. Anta is the upmarket brand to go for, and this sofa is hewn from wool and tweed.
Orchid four poster
£2,055 Natural Bed Company (www.naturalbedcompany.co.uk)
This contemporary four-poster (mercifully swag and drape-free), is made from walnut. However, it’s also available, should you so desire, in oak, maple, beech, ash or cherry.
Hydrocotton bath towels £16-£36
The White Company (www.thewhitecompany.com)
These towels aren’t made from ordinary cotton, no, it’s The White Company’s special Hydrocotton. According to them, that makes them faster
drying, yet more absorbent.
Note: In the magazine of 2/2/13 featuring The Cabin on the south coast of Skye we stated that short breaks were available until the end of March. We are happy to clarify that short breaks are available all year, see www.the cabin-skye.co.uk for more details.