The last time Sluice Keepers Cottage near Dornoch was on the market, ten years ago, it received the highest number of offers at the closing date for any property in Sutherland.
It wasn’t a bad achievement for a house that was derelict and had been empty for two decades.
But the cottage is in a fantastic location, at the point which the River Fleet flows into Loch Fleet and has far-reaching views. It is a few miles from the Royal Burgh of Dornoch, with its famous golf course, and the house is also within the National Park of Loch Fleet.
The cottage itself is a big attraction too; built in 1815, it is A listed and could be said to be a picture postcard ideal of a Scottish cottage.
Brian and Maggie Holmes were the successful bidders a decade ago and you can’t help but think it was the best outcome for the future of the building. Brian is a local builder and had just completed the renovation of a huge period mansion in the area and so had all the skills to bring to what would have to be a major overhaul, albeit on a smaller scale for his own house.
His wife Maggie says of the sad state of the cottage at the time “It was boarded up, with very little inside. It was sold by the RSPB who had owned it for some 20 years but not used it, I think they had planned to make it into some kind of information centre for birdwatchers but the plans never came to fruition.”
Before that, as its name suggests, it had been home to the sluice-keeper of The Mound Bridge and flood gates on the River Fleet over which it looks.
The sluice was designed to allow the river to flow down to Loch Fleet but not allow salt water to flow back up. The cottage was built at the same time as the Telford bridge and is listed by Historic Scotland because of its historical and architectural interest.
Maggie says that local history has it that Thomas Telford may have had a hand in the design of the house too: “It is a beautifully constructed building and you wouldn’t normally find such consideration going into a worker’s cottage - so perhaps there is some truth in that.”
The building also served time a post office in the twentieth century and was occupied by the sluice-keeper who combined his duties with those of postmaster until 1983.
As it had been a post office, Maggie says the interior had been rearranged and certainly wasn’t in good order after being empty for so long.
Brian’s task was to take the cottage right back to stone and start again. She recalls “It had a roof, but virtually nothing else.” The work was slow and laborious, the A listing also meant all the changes were pored over by planners, but the finished product shows an admirable attention to detail on Brian’s part. “It was really his baby and everything right down to the cornicing, skirting and ceiling roses were very carefully considered and matched to the age of the building” says Maggie.
An interesting feature, which is certainly not original but adds the right kind of quirkiness to match the feel of the house, is the wine cellar under the sitting room floor. Wooden trap doors hidden by a rug open to reveal a step ladder down to the circular shelved space.
Maggie says “Brian had fitted an underground wine cellar in a rather grand house that he had worked on and was really keen to have one here. But the house is built on rock, so I think in the end the creation of the wine cellar took as much time and trouble as the rest of the refurbishment.”
As well as a generous wine cellar it makes for a useful extra storage space too.
The sitting room has a lovely cottage feel, with a multi fuel stove, arched windows on two sides and an ever changing outlook over Loch Fleet to the side and the river and bridge at the front.
The outlook from the kitchen sink is over the bridge too. Maggie says the water is alive with wildlife; herons, ducks, geese and swans all gather at the spot and wading birds come in flocks to the foreshore of the loch. The whole area is a haven for wildlife and wildlife spotters but Sluice Keeper’s Cottage seems to have a privileged position to see it all.
The cottage is all one level with three bedrooms - although Maggie and Brian have more recently used one as a separate dining room.
The two other bedrooms both have en suites and are a good size.
Outside the pretty garden is well kept with lawns and borders and stretches gently down towards the water at the front.
A novel innovation has been one of the two sheds, which with power and a water supply, which has been converted to an detached laundry and utility room.
Brian’s ill health means that they now have to leave but the couple can be secure in the knowledge that their work here has safeguarded a special house for future generations.