A self-build home that sits well in its west coast setting belies the uphill struggle it was to get there
While Ben Macleod was nursing wounded service personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his brother Jason was in active service as an infantryman, their father, Angus Roy, applied his energies to making sure each of his sons would be able to create homes for themselves.
Ben’s timber house has been constructed in a log cabin style and looks so fitting in the northerly landscape of west coast fishing village of Lochinver in Sutherland that the casual observer could be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that this self-build project was a straightforward one. Before so much as spade hit turf, many obstacles had to be overcome.
According to Angus Roy, getting planning permission was almost impossible. “When the planner came to visit the site, before he even got out of the car he told us this is a scenic area and should not be built upon,” he says.
That was in 2003. For the next ten years, father and son kept going in the face of adversity until the house was finally completed in June 2013.
Ben, 29, explains why he thought building his own house was the right thing to do. “We had land, land that had been in the family since 1857, and Dad is a joiner. My brother and I both had steady jobs in the army, so it made sense for us each to build our own homes with help from Dad.”
However, the planners were not just concerned about impact on the scenery, they said the access road was not long enough, that the birch trees which were on the site should not be felled to make way for houses and they were not keen on log cabins because they were “not in keeping with tradition”.
Angus Roy says, “To me the whole thing was like a red rag to a bull and it was all nonsense. Our bit of land is no more scenic than any other area in this part of the world. Besides, land is for people and Ben’s house was always going to be built on the site of the original croft house.”
It was to be four years before planning permission was finally granted. “If my sons don’t have a house they won’t stay here,” Angus Ross says. “In building these houses we gave local people work and that’s important too. In the Highlands we need to retain skilled workers and keep our young people,” he adds.
Angus Roy and his wife Susie own a number of log cabins, which are rented out. so they are familiar with what the market has to offer in construction kits. They advised Ben to purchase a kit from Bryan Stuart of Sylvan Stuart Timber Homes. It is made from Douglas Fir, a timber which Angus Roy enjoys working with. He says, “Douglas Fir is one of the better woods. It’s hard wood, and it’s dry and stable. It may not be quite as good as larch, but it is more cost effective.”
The kit house came with standard windows, but Ben wanted larger windows at the front of the house, mirroring the ones on his brother’s house, which was almost complete by this point. Drawings were sent off to Sylvan Stuart and the kit was modified accordingly.
Before building work could start, the access road had to be made, which proved hard work and expensive. Then it was time to dig out the foundations. However, just at that moment in 2008, the recession hit and the bank refused to release the next stage of payments. Angus Roy and Susie were asked to put up a substantial financial guarantee; something they were unable to do. Ben says. “I was devastated. It seemed like game over. Then I came to feel that it would eventually come right if I just kept my head down and saved money. After all, I had a secure job.”
Angus Roy switched his attention to Jason’s house until the financial situation improved. When the kit finally arrived at the pier in the nearby village of Lochinver, getting all the composite parts onto the site involved a great deal of ingenuity. Angus Roy says, “Getting a lorry onto the site was not always possible so we had to strap the trusses on to the back of my transit van and we used my quad bike a lot. Over the course of the build, the quad transported a lot of heavy materials including concrete blocks and it is still in good working order.”
The actual build turned out to be fairly smooth and Ben enjoyed the time he was able to spend on the project.
“After working in hospitals, looking after people, it was good to be out in the fresh air helping my Dad,” he says
When it came to the internal layout, Ben decided he wanted an open-plan living, dining and kitchen area.
“I like to cook and I like the idea of being sociable at the same time. Also, this way, I can entertain at the same time as looking out of the window at the beautiful view,” he says.
Ben has moved on from his nursing job in the military and taken up a new post in Inverness, which is around two hours’ drive from his new home. So the house is currently let out for much of the time, though he makes sure that it is free for him to enjoy when his work schedule allows.
Angus Roy is happy with what has been achieved. He says, “Building is always a gutsy business but I’m happy with what’s been achieved and glad I made a contribution. I feel I’ve won my spurs as a father and look forward to both my sons living here and having families here.”
Ben feels the hard work has been worthwhile and that other young people should follow his example and build their own property.
“I would say go for it,” he says. “It’s a long-term investment for you and your family, and it’s cheaper than buying a house even if it’s a lot of work.
“I won’t be selling this house in a couple of years; it’ll be in the family for ever.”