The Last Post

We’re almost there and it feels like a miracle. Our house is finished enough to live in, although there is still plenty to do. The building inspector is coming this week to see if he is minded to issue us with a Completion Certificate, enabling us to apply for our last mortgage payment, our last grant payment and our VAT reclaim. It’s a tense time. From talking to other people, there seems to be little consistency in what the building inspector might consider still needs to be done – from air tightness tests to extra precautions for fire escapes that are not in the plans. Apparently it helps to have a very tidy site – first impressions being everything – perhaps we should have fresh coffee brewing, bread baking, a jug of flowers.

Isaac and Bea making a fire to help clear the siteIMG_7052

Once this part is over, our cashflow is less stressful and we can finish the last few things at our own pace, we will be able to relax a little and our house will start to really feel like our home. The children feel it already, despite being away for four nights a week at school, or perhaps because of that. It might take Phil and I a bit longer – at the moment it still feels like a project with deadlines rather than the place where we come to get away from those kind of stresses. And it will help when there is a place for everything. Finished fitted cupboards instead of stacks of plastic boxes. But it is also about memories. Isaac and Bea grew up in other homes and the floor in here doesn’t whisper stories of our feet pacing with a sleepless baby, or of their first steps, or those early years before school when I was a stay-at-home mum. Our lives have changed beyond recognition since then and I am feeling a bit disconnected from our past.

On the other hand, our house does tell its own, quite different stories. Each layer within the floors and walls is filled with recollections of the building process and the many, many people who have helped us to build it. The professionals and craftsmen who did the clever stuff and our friends, family, neighbours and colleagues who shovelled stone and gravel, moved scaffolding, held bits of wood, screwed, banged, sawed, climbed on the roof, painted walls, varnished, helped with cashflow, entertained the children, lent us equipment, gave interior design advice and endless moral support, and tolerated us becoming, let’s face it, selfish, single-minded and boring over the past few years. Bari, Jim, John, Will, Andy, Bebiano, Glenn, Rachel, Ash, Ivor, Jean, Dave, Elisabeth, Tony, Cameron, Nick, Hamish, Matthew, Paul A, Tina, Lizzie, Darragh, Iain, Aletta, Joe, Iona, Oran, Jon, Avril, James, Rene, Matt, Paul Y, Claudia, Sam, Hannah, James, Catherine, Ellie, Laura, Emma, Chris, Gill, Yeshi, Morven. Without this host of angels we would not have made it and we are incredibly grateful.


The final word is for the children. We had a crazy dream and you might not have chosen to spend five years of your lives growing up in (and growing out of) a caravan so that we could fulfill it. Thank you for your patience, your fortitude and always being willing to help. Without you here to make this your home, the dream would never have taken flight.


Work in Progress

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Thanks to help from a selection of devastatingly attractive workers in hard hats (not all shown), things are progressing. Too slowly if you are living in a caravan and have deadlines from croft housing grant scheme people hanging over you. But, looking back over the last few months, we have some things that we didn’t have before…

We have lots of insulation and some plasterboard.


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We have 30,000 litres of water storage. IMG_6077

(One of 3 x 10,000 litre tanks)





We have poo pipes, a septic tank and a Puraflow system, cunningly disguised by trees.

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We have gravel, drainage pipes and a gnome.

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We have internal wall frames and even some wires (devastatingly attractive electrician too shy for photos).

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The kitchen is ordered but it will be sitting in boxes for a while – a lot more has to be in place before it can be fitted. But we’re moving in the right direction.


Now for the hard part


I took this photo one weekend before Christmas when climbing “Heather Hill” with Isaac and Bea. Heather Hill (as named by the children) is a little mound behind a neighbour’s house that gives you stunning views of Burg, Ben More and Loch Scridain in one direction and, in the other, a view of our house. It looks for all the world as if you could almost live in it – what with the glow of light from inside and the fact it has a roof, walls and windows. If you have lived on Mull for long enough, or watched your share of Grand Designs, you will know that, unfortunately, this is not the case.

Welcome to the inside.



The kitchen




The living space wp_20170101_13_14_24_pro






Downstairs bedroom and bathroom




You get the idea. There’s a long list: internal walls, insulation, wiring, plumbing, plasterboard, plastering, floor surfaces, and so on.

There is also so much to do outside. Aside from finishing the cladding on the external walls, we have to dig trenches for electric cables, water pipes, drainage and sewage. There is a septic tank and Puraflo system to dig in; a rainwater collection system (including 3 x 10,000 litre tanks) and a grey water collection system to set up; an air-source heat pump and mechanical heat recovery system to install; there is landscaping to do.

It feels a daunting prospect, especially as there is another deadline, from the Croft House Grants people, of completion (including signing off by building regulations) by the end of June. There is also our impatience. Since November 1st we have had the luxury of living in the holiday cottage next door – proper showers, full-size bath, central heating, no mould and plenty of space. We have expanded to fill that space and it is hard to imagine how we are going to fold and squeeze ourselves back into the caravan at the beginning of April when the holiday letting season begins again. The children, now 11 and 13, keep on growing and I am not even sure that they will still fit.






Friends in high places

We’ve had a few weather hiccups with the wind making roofing difficult or impossible, but now a few days of proper winter weather – the kind we don’t usually get here. There is snow on Ben More and this morning Phil was out scraping a thick frost off the car at 6am before taking Isaac to his Monday morning bus for his week away at school in  Oban. It’s cold but not windy and the sun has been shining – good enough for roofing.

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Even with good weather it all takes a long time. Jim the builder has mainly only managed weekends with us in recent weeks. And there have been complications with tricky roof valleys and awkward Velux windows with obscure instructions. There are days when progress is visible and satisfying – half of one side of the roof finished in one day. Other days when progress is minimal and frustrating. Not unlike the rest of life.


Phil doesn’t want me to go up on the roof with him – he thinks one of us should stay on the ground to avoid what a will advisor once described as a “family calamity”. To be honest I didn’t object too strongly. Luckily we have good friends who don’t mind scrambling around like mountain goats at that height.  And other good friends who have been able to help out from a safer altitude with putting in the huge, heavy windows.

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We missed our end of October deadline but, fortunately, the Croft House Grant people are minded to be supportive and have extended it again. They want the final roof covering on and all the windows in which is, surprisingly, beyond the usual definition of wind-and-watertight. It’s a good deadline to have anyway, with bad weather possible at any time and the tendency of Scottish island rain to travel at any trajectory and find any tiny gap. We’re nearly there.


Huge thanks to Ash, Will, Lizzie, Darragh, Hamish, Guillam, Nick and, always, Jim. We couldn’t have got where we are without you.



Beating the weather

We’ve been blessed with two weeks of dry weather and a bit less wind. It’s been a relief to be able to leave the undercoated fascia boards outside overnight and not have to tie down every loose bit of wood. And finally we have been able to put up the large beam that is going to hold up our vaulted ceiling. The house frame is complete.


While we wait for the valuer and the surveyor to sign this stage off for the next mortgage advance, we’re not waiting for the weather to turn. We have a fixed deadline to be wind and watertight at the end of October for our Croft Housing Grant, not to mention the unknown deadline for when the stormy season comes back.



What happens when children and paint come into contact……



The children are on their two-week October break and have been getting stuck in painting fascia boards and stapling on the foil wrap.

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Phil’s been out until dark every evening climbing on the roof and nailing on sarking boards, joined by our friend Ash-the-Post on his day off.


Despite the pressure there’s still time for playing football as darkness falls, near the spaces where the windows will be, in blissful ignorance that it won’t be allowed for long.


Growing up

For about nine months, in the hiatus between finishing the foundations and starting the walls, I could not envisage how it was possible for two people, without machinery, to build a house up to the roof. I dreamed the finished house, inhabiting its spaces often, but the mechanics of how that could actually happen were beyond my imagining.img_5453

Then the pieces of the jigsaw arrived on the back of a very big lorry.





Step by logical step the house grew upwards. On the ceiling of the main structure, these things of architectural beauty –  posi joists. Both lovely and practical, with spaces for wires and pipes. img_5458

On top of the single storey kitchen these elegant roof trusses.

Next step, more walls on top of the posi-joists, then more roof trusses and we have a second storey on the main section.img_5515

It’s been a poor autumn on Mull and Phil and Jim-the-builder have worked in some awful weather. Blustery winds and lashing rain are not ideal for building the first floor and roof of a house. A few times even they have given up – when ferries are cancelled and storm warnings are in place, it’s probably best to postpone putting up gable ends. We have to be wind and watertight by the end of October to meet the deadline for our croft housing grant. It also makes sense to be at that point before real winter sets in. However, at the moment it’s the wind and water that are slowing us down. As we often joke in that strained gallows humour that strikes sometimes: what this house needs in this weather is a roof.



Ha ha.




To walk into a space that has existed in our minds for so long is an extraordinary feeling, like stepping into a dream. We have imagined this space together, separately, on paper and in lego, for years. And now it’s becoming real.

On a day at the end of May, in glorious sunshine, Jim-the-builder and Phil started knocking together the frames for the walls.

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A few weeks later, towards the end of July, while the children and I were away visiting family and friends, they started to attach the completed frames to the foundations. In two days we had the external structure of the ground floor.


Some parts are exactly as I imagined and some are not, like the windows which are far bigger than they looked on paper; vast spaces with airy sunshine flooding in. Outside and inside are hardly separate. Without the roof the light is beautiful, like walking into a cathedral. It will be a shame to enclose it.



Golden, stolen days.

My beloved Tibetan friend tells me that in her culture it is bad luck to say that you will never do something again. If you do, it will happen that you have to do that thing again and again – seven or nine times, I forget which. Maybe if you are saying never to something it is because you are resisting this thing, instead of trying to learn from it.
IMG_2943After the seven or nine times maybe you will have learned what you need to.  Anyway, the point is that I said that this would be the last winter we would be spending in the caravan. I said that I could only do this last one – I was never going to have to do another.


On the bright side, the foundations are finished!WP_20151007_001

Apart from some exemplary sand-raking I can’t claim any credit for the work of recent months. It’s been Phil and Jim-the-builder. The foundations are impressive and we walk on them knowing that – apart from a layer of tiles – this is our completed floor. Following to the letter the engineer’s guidelines, which seem to be mainly about pouring in more and more concrete, we could probably build a twenty storey block of flats on there and solve Mull’s affordable housing problem.

The environmental consequence of so many tonnes of concrete is painful to contemplate when you are attempting to build something that has a minimal impact; underfloor-heating powered by air-source heat pump, IMG_3743high- value insulation, expensive Nordan double-glazing, Scottish wood cladding and a locally- sourced stone wall. All of these are permitted, some are required, but have to be laid on a foundation that has emitted many tonnes of CO2 in the making, not to mention the environmental costs of extracting more than 50 tonnes of sand, gravel and type-1. And ours is a small house.

Back to Tibetan sayings…Unfortunately we need a mortgage to progress from filling in to going up and we are obliged to wait until the Spring – until we have another year of self-employed accounts – before we can apply. We thought we had sufficient years and this has been a massive disappointment – not the last winter in the caravan after all. 028We feared that we would lose our croft housing grant because we could no longer meet the deadline for being wind-and-watertight. However, the grant people have been great and said that, as long as we keep them informed of our progress, they can extend the deadline and we won’t forfeit the grant. So it could have been worse and we are grateful for that. It means that we have breathing space to finish other, smaller projects – a chicken hut, the greenhouse, the windbreak that was damaged last winter.  There is always plenty to do.

Our most exciting small project is the upgrading of our friends-and-family hut, the one where people stay because there isn’t room in the caravan. We’re g2015-05-24 11.54.22oing to make it self-sufficient – build another structure for a shower and cooking space, so that we can rent it out to people for holidays. As any spare resources we have are directed towards house-building we are going to experiment with crowdfunding. We’ll see how it goes, but if we get the opportunity to develop our hideaway holiday hut, we will be able to feel that the croft is moving forward, even if not the house.

Fortunately winter feels a little waylaidIMG_3903 by the beautiful weather of the past few weeks. Warm sunshine, calm winds, mist lying in valleys on cool, dewy mornings turning roosting, rooftop pigeons into stone, or rolling in as the sun sets.

One morning I watched as mist poured down the burn into the Loch na Lathaich at Bunessan, while all around the air was bright with sunlight. There is a nip in the air at night to remind us that winter is not far away, and it’s pitch dark by 7pm. But still it feels as though we are blessed by these golden, stolen days of summer-autumn – sweet, fat, juicy brambles started to come out a couple of weeks ago – a month later than usual – and we still have tomatoes ripening in the polytunnel.

Perfect weather for putting up a wooden frame for a house, but we’re trying not to dwell on that. We are certainly going to be in the caravan for more winters than we had thought and there have been many nights of waking up sweating, fearing that we may never complete the house. I’m just hoping that if I try really harWP_20151007_004d to learn whatever it is I need to – patience, humility, surrender, release – that I won’t have to do all of the seven, nine or more winters that I may have summoned. Although, I’m pretty sure that hoping for a short cut is not going to go in my favour when it comes to the assessment of my learning.

Keeping going


A few months ago we watched a farmer in her seventies win an award on Countryfile. She said that her secret to success was to get up early and keep going. This has become our mantra. It is somehow a comfort on those days when we are on the go from morning until it gets dark which, even a month past mid-summer, on the West coast of Scotland, is pretty late. Not only the words reassure us, but the thought that we are not the only ones still working away as the light fades and the midges are in full attack

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Phil said something similar – that the most important quality for a self-builder is persistence. You have to do the same thing so many times because there is so much of everything to do. This is especially true when you are doing it the low-tech, low-cost way with few big machines, fewer people and, effectively, in your spare time. When the weather is good enough, evenings and weekends are spent either building or working to make up for days spent building during the week.

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Many other aspects of our lives are more or less neglected – the vegetable garden, the flower garden, the march of the bracken, the children. The latter seem to thrive on being left to their own devices. We are five weeks into the holidays and to start with the weather was not too bad. They roamed around with their friends, fighting battles and carrying out elaborate spying missions. Or exploring the nearby woods and rocky shores, coming home scratched and muddy. On wet days there has been an over-dose of Minecraft, Harry Potter dvds and video-making.

2015-06-26 13.36.51Meanwhile, walking from caravan to polytunnel I have been running the gauntlet of taunting weeds. Past the flower garden that has turned half to meadow grass, giving it, from a distance, the look of a Piet Oudolf  “prairie” garden. Past the bracken that is going to soon be reaching over all our heads. Through the vegetable garden where, somewhere beneath the weed-canopy lurk wind-battered dwarf broad-bean plants and surprisingly luxuriant brassicas. This is the area that tells most eloquently the story of neglect, and of the appalling weather. Exceptionally wet, windy and cold since December, with occasional spells of drier conditions, we are still waiting for summer. Everything is so late that our main-crop potatoes have not yet flowered and, in the polytunnel, our tomato plants may never produce fruit.

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Both our livelihood and this stage of our house-build rely on decent weather. The keeping going is harder on the days when we can neither work nor build. It has been nearly six months since we started digging trenches and we are still in the foundations. Still filling in. Rocks, type-one hard-core, sand, toilet pipes, damp-proof membrane, reinforcing mesh, anchor straps and concrete slab are all in. Primary piping, insulation, under-floor heating pipes and concrete screed are still to go. The rain today is relentless, hammering on the caravan roof as I write. The foundations will, once again, be turned into a swimming pool. Once the rain stops we will again have to pump out several inches of water before we can carry on.

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People ask us how the house-build is going. The answer is: Slowly. Very slowly. Frustratingly slowly. So slowly that it is hard to believe that there will ever be a house. But it is going. 

It’s complicated.

I heard my first cuckoo a few days ago at a garden near Uisken and now one has appeared on the croft calling and calling, unrequited in his love and longing. I’ve also seen my first bluebell, late this year, and the primroses have been quietly blooming for a few weeks. They are my favourite Spring flower. Subtle and delicate, they nevertheless manage to thrive in the unlikeliest of places, hugging cliff edges, high up on windy hillsides, and carpeting our little hazel woodland. The bracken has also started to emerge, unfurling its soft, edible fronds, a gentle beginning to the rampaging growth it makes every season.


Even the garden beside the caravan is beginning to look like a proper garden with astilbe, hosta, day lilies and geraniums pushing up in clumps that almost outnumber the weeds. And, on the building site, the foundations are, in places, showing above ground level. A couple of weekends ago we finished pouring concrete into the footings and Jim came round, almost immediately, a knight in a shining Peugeot, and built the corners. Now Phil is gradually joining them up to make the walls to which we will attach the timber frame that will be the walls of the house. At this point, probably a year or more before we fit them, we have to decide exactly where to put the toilets so that we can leave gaps in the foundation walls for the waste pipes to fit through. It’s complicated.
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Before the walls are quite finished we have to scrape out the turf from the middle and wheelbarrow it out. Then the walls can be finished and we have to put down some hard-core, waste pipes, a layer of sand, a damp-proof membrane, anchor straps for the wood frame, a concrete slab with a reinforcing mesh, primary water pipes, insulation, under-floor heating pipes and a concrete screed, which we are going to polish for the floor. Then the foundations will be done. As I said, it’s complicated. There’s no step-by-step guide. Every house is different. Even with plans and drawings telling us how to do things and what to use, there is no way we could do this without Jim holding our hands.

It’s complicated. It fills our heads. At the moment, our biggest challenge is to find a balance between earning a living, looking after children and all the normal, tangled threads of life, while making time to build the house. Meanwhile, we continue to work through the bureaucratic hurdles, to communicate with architects, engineers and solicitors; to deal with suppliers; to put together a mortgage application, which needs to include an estimate of how much the house will cost to build. It’s hard to think or talk about anything else. We’re not much fun to be around. I have a feeling that when we’re done, in a couple of years, we’ll have a beautiful house and no friends left.