Already at the helm of a 150-year-old hotel, as well as a cottage, cabin and bunkhouse, the couple decided to create two more boltholes. Located on the awe-inspiring shoreline of Loch Eriboll on Scotland’s north-western tip, these would be aimed at couples seeking complete escapism, but not from their dogs.
“The project took around six years from concept to creation,” says Fiona, and the results are more than worth the wait.
Fiona and Robbie are locals who live in the village of Durness, six miles from the croft land (owned by Robbie’s family) where the new buildings are situated, and on which they had contemplated building their own home.
“We never quite got round to that,” says Fiona.
The carbon-neutral nature of the proposed buildings (described as “crofts”, Fiona explains, only for want of a better word) won favour with local planners. Community support was also strong, and a precedent for unconventional architecture had already been set; the award-winning home of ceramic artist Lotte Glob, mounted on stilts and set beneath a curved roof of patinated copper is located nearby.
While Fiona and Robbie’s crofts, collectively dubbed “Croft 103”, both face south to maximise solar gain, they are also positioned to allow for privacy. So while Hill Croft curves in a fan shape into the hillside above Loch Eriboll, the rainbow arc of Shore Croft sits much closer to the water’s edge.
Both embrace what Fiona describes as “honest” materials, “We didn’t want anything ostentatious or twee,” she says, “These spaces had to be very sexy and sleek yet undoubtedly ‘Highland’.”
The honey-coloured stone used to clad the exterior walls, and to create drystane dykes, was sourced from the croft itself, while Douglas fir for the buildings’ frameworks was locally sourced and milled by Matt Stevenson of Carbonlite Design + Build, the Ross-shire based company that guided the couple through the project.
The decision to go down the eco-build route stemmed from Fiona and Robbie’s desire to tread lightly on the naturally magnificent site. Carbonlite was an obvious choice, specialising in cost-effective, eco-friendly builds.
Traditional stone and timber nevertheless meld in these designs with sharp contemporary finishes including zinc roofs and glass walls to create buildings that are quite out of the ordinary. An abundance of south-facing glass allows each space to be heated largely by passive solar gain. However, hot water (for the highly desirable external tubs as well as those inside) comes largely from solar panels positioned remotely from the buildings. Meanwhile a wind turbine generates electricity, with its surplus energy being sold back to the grid.
Amongst other unconventional items on the couple’s shopping list were sheep’s wool (for insulation) and tyre bales (made from recycled car tyres) that make a versatile building block.
Working in such a remote location did pose challenges. For a start, there was no road into the site, so the couple had to build one. And particularly inclement weather caused numerous delays, as this spot is exposed to some exhilarating conditions.
But then these are perfect spaces from which to watch a storm unfold. A textiles graduate, Fiona savoured the process of putting together the croft interiors, and deliberately sought out quite a different feel for each.
Realising that visitors would make a beeline for Shore Croft, given its waterside location, she let this space take on a little more rusticity than its sibling up the hill.
“In general though, we wanted understated style,” says Fiona, “There’s not a lot of furniture in either croft, but what’s there is over-sized and comfortable.”
Both buildings, which have been five-star accredited, benefit from the highest quality materials. Caithness stone worktops and sinks look striking against stainless steel kitchen units and a polished concrete floor. The same stone also makes an appearance in the walk-in showers as well as windowsills and outdoor paving.
In Hill Croft, exposed solid oak adds warmth, while the corrugated tin ceiling (purely an aesthetic choice) demonstrates the attention to detail throughout.
Like its sister down at the waterside, Hill Croft has one bedroom, and both buildings capitalise on an expanse of glass to bring the outside in. However, the shape of Hill Croft – wrapped around the hillside – differs in that it allows an unhindered perspective through the interior.
“The buildings are not huge, but they are spacious,” says Fiona, who likes the slightly more angular feel within Hill Croft although she would be hard pushed, she says, to choose between the two. Since the crofts opened to visitors last summer, guests have been making repeat bookings, often trying out both properties.
Fiona commissioned Lairg-based blacksmith Sam Barlow to create bespoke interior pieces; in Hill Croft these include door handles and toilet roll holders as well as the magnificent 7ft lacquered steel and leather bed, the bedroom dresser and bathroom sink stand. Mirrors above the latter are finished with ceramic tiles by Lotte Glob.
Chairs in the living space embody the contemporary Highland mood and were sourced from The Conran Shop as well as from Fiona’s own collection.
The kitchen has been equipped with the best of everything to make the self-catering experience a pleasant one. Special requests for deliveries such as locally caught scallops are welcomed.
“We can tailor a stay with as much or as little fuss as guests want,” says Fiona.
While both crofts have underfloor heating, these spaces would have seemed a little less joyful without their log burners, the perfect antidote to the Scottish weather. However, if you really want to immerse yourself in the elements, tear yourself away from the home entertainment system and plunge into the outdoor bath, which faces the loch and is conveniently made for two. And maybe leave the dog indoors.
For details, including availability for short breaks (minimum stay, three nights) until April 2012, tel: 0844 5005 101 or visit www.underthethatch.co.uk