When Ian McLean and Robbie Pancic acquired a croft and built a holiday cottage on Skye, they inadvertently became shepherds at the same time
After holidaying on Skye for several years, Ian McLean and his partner Robbie Pancic decided to make the island their home in 2011.
“It was a big step,” Ian says, “but we loved Skye, the outdoors and the wildlife, and we thought we would enjoy the pace of life here.
“Living in London, we were both primarily office-based – myself in investment banking and Robbie in IT – and this was a chance to do something completely different.”
From their holiday visits they had observed a lack of contemporary and comfortable accommodation on the island and thought this was something they could provide.
A croft was duly purchased in Galtrigill, a small township beside Loch Dunvegan, which came with land suitable to build upon.
“We bought the croft with the main focus being to build a holiday cottage,” says Ian.
“However, while we knew what we had in mind for the holiday accommodation, we had no idea about the ins and outs of owning a croft and the obligations that come with it. That was a bit of a surprise.”
The obligations have resulted in the couple owning and tending a flock of sheep.
“That was a big learning curve and we now have a flock of over 40 Hebridean sheep which we shear and look after ourselves. We’ve really taken to it and we enjoy it, but it was a rather unexpected turn of events.
“We’re keen growers as well. We’ve always loved growing our own fruit and veg, but we were rather limited in London.
“Here we have our own market garden and polytunnels and we sell a lot of our produce at a local weekly farmer’s market which we set up. We’ve been doing that for the past two or three years.”
Despite these distractions, after an eight-month build the holiday cottage has come to fruition and Ian and Robbie are delighted with the result.
“We had a fixed idea of what we wanted to achieve from the cottage and we tried to find an architect who would help us do that. We went with local architects, Dualchas, and they designed what we were looking for.”
The brief was to create something that looked almost agricultural, fitted in with the landscape, used as many local materials as possible and took advantage of the stunning view.
The building has been aptly named An Airigh, meaning shieling or summer shepherd’s hut in Gaelic, and while this version is clad in powder-coated aluminium, visually it replicates buildings of a different era.
Ian says: “There’s a big history on the Western Isles of these corrugated iron buildings. Standing between the old black houses and the traditional white houses are these pre-fab corrugated iron buildings.
“Many were built in Glasgow and then flat-packed and transported to the islands. You see remnants of a lot of these around Skye and that’s where we took our inspiration from.”
Visually the building ticked all the boxes, but Ian and Robbie were determined it would also deliver on the comfort aspect.
“We knew it was windy up here but until you’ve lived through a winter you have no idea – it’s actually scary.
However, we built the cottage with that in mind and it’s hunkered down into the hillside to avoid the prevailing wind.
It’s well insulated with commercial-strength glazing and for heating we’ve fitted underfloor throughout and a wood burner too.
“We intentionally chose to design a one-bed property as we felt there were already a number of bigger properties catering for families and groups but not as many modern places for a couple.
“We wanted to offer a cosy bothy feel, but crammed full of all the mod cons people expect – and as we do the changeover and cleaning ourselves, a one bed property is practical for us and manageable too.
“However, guests are always surprised at what we have managed to fit in; it’s very Tardis-like.”
To maximise space, the couple decided not to install a bath and opted for a large and luxurious walk-in shower.
“The floor to ceiling window in the bathroom is a Dualchas signature feature which does challenge some clients I think.
“We went with the idea, but we have fitted blinds for the more modest guests – it is a very quiet spot on Skye, mainly just the sheep going past and the odd buzzard or eagle, but just in case.”
Finishing touches in the cottage come courtesy of the local community.
Ian says: “The community is very important to us and we’ve used Skye products wherever we can.
“We have the wonderful [sheepskin manufacturer] Skyeskyns on the island, which uses Hebridean sheep fleece – who knows, that might be us eventually?
“And Skye Weavers, who have a great reputation, made all our curtains, cushions and blankets.”
For now, Ian and Robbie are concentrating on growing their flock and offering the produce from their garden to the guests.
“We invite guests to come and look around and in lambing season they can see the sheep as well. At the moment, we don’t have sheep beside the cottage but it’s something we might consider in the future.”
Words: Nichola Hunter