Steep Learning Curves

…Been a bit quiet on the Blog Front…there hasn’t been a moment to spare as we race towards the deadline for completion on the Isle of Harris project.  A weekly site visit involves two days’ travelling, with hire vans and materials to collect the day before departure, a full day on site addressing the immediate challenges, with Kenny and Co. carefully producing ply prototypes before we decide on solutions and me on the floor with scissors, cardboard and sellotape, producing seemingly endless templates for curtain poles, vanity unit tops, hearths and flooring patterns! Everything is new and untried, but we are all learning fast, and thank goodness for Kenny and Co’s willingness to bounce ideas – although when Kenny politely says, “Ermm, I think that might be a bit difficult”, I know I’ve gone a step too far…

IMG_2616 Angus has been working on the snug walls and seating, using a water jet to cut the curves for the oak shelf…and here, his son Innes demonstrates his new toy, the TV lift…IMG_2688

The Isle of Harris is an Island of Hidden Treasures…it’s been a joy to discover and meet the weavers, still working in tiny sheds on single width Hattersley looms, literally weaving the surrounding landscape into cloth.  I’d originally thought the study should be a celebration of the machair, but when I saw Rebecca’s beautiful Taobh Tuath tweed, I immediately thought of abandoned crofts with rusting roofs and hummocky hills with outcrops of Gneiss…so that’s what it’s going to be!


Hard to believe that the green and red are single yarns – the green going Chartreuse or mossy and the red going terracotta or pillar box depending on whether they are in the warp or weft…last week when I went back, Rebecca had started on our cloth and here it is in the loom…




Meanwhile, for the machair, we’ve chosen the gentler colours of the abundant harebell and Yarrow for one of the bedrooms.  

I’ve had harebells in the Flower Press for a year now, and these will go under glass on bedside tables, while Sarah at Mogwaii Designs is being commissioned to do two tall embroidered panels of Yarrow on tweed for the wardrobe doors.

I’ve searched everywhere for just the right lilac-ey blue tweed for the curtains, but everything was either too sky-blue or heathery-purple, so Rebecca’s going to weave a tweed in Russian Twill and Herringbone squares with a green check line using these yarns… even Rebecca has no idea how this will come out, because of how the colours change according to whether they are in the warp or the weft…and again, when the tweed is “finished” up at the mill, so it’s a bit of an adventure!




The third bedroom looks out over Sgarasta Beach towards Toe Head, and every week, I see it turning more aubergine as the heather gradually comes into bud before eventually bursting into flower.

Another young weaver, aptly named Heather, had the perfect tweed as the base for this room, combined with a lovely stripe from Nina Campbell to bring the heather into bloom!









…and, finally, a quick return visit to the Master of Harris Weavers, DJ MacKay, for the shell bedroom…this will have bedside tables with layers of delicate, tiny shells under glass, and a shell mirror made from these wonderful stripey shells…




…one day, I look forward to walking at a leisurely pace along these beautiful beaches, looking out across the crashing waves and paddling in the surf, instead of bent low, continually searching for treasure…








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Cranking up the pressure….

The Harris project has now reached the stage where every detail has to be considered…and re-considered…first of all on aesthetic grounds, then on practical, then on whether at all possible within the curves, and finally whether possible within the budget….Site meetings are now weekly, which means getting up at 4.30am on Tuesdays to drive up to Uig for the morning ferry, arriving on site bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (ish!) for a noon start….

This week, great excitement as the textured glass arrived for the dining table, shelves for the snug wall and for the curved internal windows…and relief when the box was opened to reveal just the right number of pieces…





Next to arrive was the postie with the calico templates for the curved sofa and chairs in the sitting room…






…which will be covered in a lovely textured weave from Ian Sanderson.










That night, my lovely hostess, known to everyone on the island as Grannie Annie, showed me her beautiful woven tweed cushions and rugs – she makes the “cloth” by weaving strips of tweed into an open weave crochet, also made from wool, and as far as she knows, this process is unique.  Of COURSE, we have to have this somewhere – so she has now been commissioned to make the covering for the study footstool!



The next day I made templates for all the bathroom floors, showing the areas to have mosaic tiling – this is the main bathroom, which will have a pebbled floor spilling out into the hall…one room flowing, literally, into the next!




…and we spent a long time considering the materials and fixings for the blinds, dress curtains and pelmet over the 6m. wide, curved in every direction, “eyebrow” windows in the dining and sitting areas.  So many challenges to overcome, there was nothing for it, but to make a cardboard “prototype” so that we could envisage everything more clearly.  (ooo err, I hope the finished article will be more beautiful than this) We are all still mulling the challenge of achieving a sufficiently flexible solution (metaphorically and literally) to the lighting pelmet – a narrow cornice hiding an LED strip light, running the entire length of the living areas…maybe a combination of plastic extrusion and wood…more research tomorrow!

Having the dogs with me made my shell-collecting excursions much more companionable – they couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw their new playground and rushed around blissfully while I scooped up handfuls of treasure for making the entrance hall light and decorating two of the bedside tables.

Back at the ranch, I spent a happy afternoon sorting out the large ones, washing them, drilling holes and varnishing them ready for the next stage…they are so varied and beautiful in their patterns and colours, it was a very therapeutic exercise…





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It’s a Family Affair!

It seems that the adventure of each trip to Harris starts long before I even get to the ferry. This time it wasn’t storms or blizzards, but trying to get my poor overladen car out of the car park in Fort William…when there wasn’t even enough room to get the gear stick into reverse!  The solution entailed getting out of the car, unpacking the passenger seat into the car park, reversing, repacking the passenger seat, then setting off…praying that it would be – literally – a straightforward journey thereafter!

Thankfully, there were no more awkward reversing moments, and the next morning it was up early to meet Jonathan, Project Manager Extraordinaire, off the Uist ferry.


Despite the horrendous weather this winter – with two storms recording over 110mph – great progress has been made by Angus and Murdo Sam on the stonework.

You need to take time to admire and absorb the details…the lovely wobble in the chimney, the tightness of the curved reveals to the windows, the fact that the straight windows have been made to look curved…

…and the marram grass roof is nearing completion, the next stage being to form a latticework of rope, fringed with the stones,which will secure the thatch against the prevailing winds.

Inside, Chris the plasterer was busy getting to grips with the ceiling…


…meanwhile we spent a great deal of time assessing the challenge of laying the entrance hall floor with Innes, who is taking on all the tiling.  Innes is Angus the master boatbuilder’s son.  While we’re on the genealogy of Oran Na Mara, I may as well explain that Kenny and Iain MacKay (the joiners) are brothers, and their father, Kenny Senior, is the Site Manager and (together with Jonathan, who isn’t related) Solver of All Problems.  Norman is Kenny Senior’s brother and he dug the foundations. Neil is also Kenny’s brother and operates the digger.  Don John is brother to Neil, Kenny Senior and Norman, and Uncle to Kenny and Iain, and he is the weaver of beautiful tweeds….more on that later, but meanwhile, back to the entrance floor…

This is going to be a mosaic formed with the beautiful flat Gneiss stones collected from the beach, with sand sprinkled on the cement grout while it’s still wet, then all sealed and protected with Lethifin. (the photo shows an experimental sample with the door). It reflects the surroundings in more ways than simply bringing in the stones and sand from the beach…

This is the pattern made in the sand by a river rippling over it and down to the sea at Luskentyre…

…and this is the striking pattern formed by lichen marking out its boundaries on a gravestone in St. Clement’s churchyard at nearby Rodel.

 One of the corridors is backed by the utility room wall and has no natural light, so we’re fitting three textured and coloured glass panels…land, sea and sky.

The glass panels are being made as rectangles, so I had to make templates of the shapes, which Kenny and his sons will cut out of the plasterboard walls before inserting the glass and finishing with 6mm. plasterboard, bent to form the curved “sills” and reveals.









More templates – this time for the seating area.  The difficulty with a curved sofa is that the back will be so much  longer than the front, so I had to make sure that there was sufficient room for a sofa that would comfortably seat three people – with chairs either side, still following the curve.

The most exciting part of this trip was my visit to Don John at Luskentyre Tweed – when I eventually found him.  Having gone up and down the Luskentyre road two or three times, I eventually stopped at a house, whose owner said he was another 4 houses along.  I counted carefully and rang the bell.  ”Hello, Mr. McKay?” “Yes…?” “It’s Jane Blanchard”  ”Yes??” “Your brother told you I was coming about some tweed???” ” Ah, you mean my neighbour, Mr. Don John MacKay – and we’re not related!”

His tiny shed looks out over the machair and the shore, and these are the inspiration for the beautiful colours and designs that come from his loom.  He has fulfilled orders for Nike and Chanel, and has an MBE for his service to the industry, but was more than happy to discuss our modest requirements, and kindly took the time to show me his loom, which is really the most incredible piece of engineering.

Even the simplest patterns are jewel like, because each yarn is made from several different colours – which you can’t make out with the naked eye, but have a look at this photo I took through a magnifying lens!  I left with a treasure trove of samples, which I’ll be working on over the next few weeks….



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Work in Progress Vignettes

I’ve been working on a lovely project for the past year and a half – completely gutting and renovating a large house (51 rooms of which I am now intimate with every square inch! –  including 2 kitchens, 10 bathrooms and 4 sitting rooms)…There was a bit of re-structuring involved, as it had at one stage been converted into a hotel…and a lot of repair to the fabric of the building. Full marks to local builders, RE Campbell, and their various sub-contractors, who have finished everything to a very high standard. We’ve come to the end of the first phase: floors and walls finished, fireplaces and radiators replaced, furniture either new or reupholstered, curtains and blinds fitted…so here are a few snapshots of the tantalisingly bare canvas.  Now for the fun part…lights, rugs, pictures, mirrors,cushions….

Images shown with the kind permission of my clients

Ground Floor Sitting Room

Two new button back chairs from Artistic, with simple Roman Blinds



I found a pair of these chairs in a junk shop in Glasgow whilst on the hunt for fireplaces – bought for a song, they look a million dollars upholstered in a plain linen








Guest Bedrooms

The remit was to keep everything very simple, but I managed to sneak in a few trimmings…this little fan edge balances the embroidered panels (from GP and J Baker) in these linen curtains…

…and this pretty border was hand embroidered in India – we had to be patient for this, as it got held up for a month in floods on the way to the airport.






Dining Room Ceiling

This ceiling grew out of a need to put in two RSJ’s to support the bathroom above  - so it seemed like a good idea to make a feature out of them by putting in another two “beams”.  The plasterwork was carried out by Halcyon Cornice in Glasgow – who also replaced many of the cornices throughout the house.


A Bathroom

There’s no danger of being overlooked in any of the bathrooms, but these embroidered voiles (fabric from James Hare) just soften the room and give a lovely diffused light.  The floor tiles are ceramic.

Hall Door

This was a dark space, so we brought light in from a window in the back corridor through this gorgeous glazed door – also found whilst foraging in Glasgow’s salvage yards.



Roman Blind

This blind was made combining an inexpensive linen with an embroidered fabric from Voyage

Fireplace Finds

I came across this iron fireback for the entrance hall fire in a Norwegian antiques shop – note the date! – of historical significance for many Estate owners in the West Highlands…This was set into the original tiles.

…and this oak surround was one of ten I found rummaging in salvage yards in Glasgow.  The tiles were found separately, so it was a joy to find they actually fitted.  The ones on the right are of Invergarry Castle, and on the left, of Loch Fyne.

A Bookcase

This was a piece of bespoke joinery carried out by Campbells, a bookcase in one of the studies….yet to be filled!




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From Boat-Building to Bog Wood Tables

Another hazardous trip to Harris – delayed ferry on the way there, van creeking under the weight of the kitchen units, radiators and various bathroom fittings (I had a WC as my travelling companion)…and cancelled ferry on the way back, meaning a long drive to Stornaway and over to Ullapool. It was well worth it, though, to see the newly plasterboarded ceiling – what a triumph for the MacKay boys, Kenny, Kenny and Iain…I take my hat off to them.

It was very fitting that the commission to create the dining table base for Oran Na Mara should go to Angus Smith, a master boat-builder on Lewis, as the ceilings are now starting to look like the insides of upturned boats!  I don’t think you’d get very far if you tried to float away on this, though, as these beautiful pieces of 4,000 year old wood are saturated with resin and incredibly heavy.  What a fantastic job he’s made of intertwining the pieces to create a beautiful sculpture, whilst ensuring the finished piece is stable and able to take the weight of the top, which will be made of textured green glass.

His next challenge will be to build the low wall surrounding the snug area.  This will enclose a television on a lifting device, shelving and cupboards, whilst forming the back of the seating area in the snug itself.


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Room With Two Views

This Argyll holiday house has a stunning view over the loch :-) …and a road…. :-( …so it was a rather challenging remit to ensure privacy (the first floor windows are for the master bedroom) whilst allowing in light and, of course, the landscape…oh, but not doing anything that conflicted with the strong architectural lines. The solution was a series of custom-made wooden shutters with wide slats, so that when open, the gaps maximised both light and view. The shutters are also hinged so that they can be folded back for cleaning the windows.


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Oran Na Mara Site Visit January 2015

This was the weather map for the Highlands and Islands on my way to catch the ferry…towards Clunie (icing sugar mountains, frozen lochs and blue sky)

…an hour later and just over the bridge to Skye (white-out blizzard)…



…and, finally, at my beautiful destination (icy pale blue sky with tumbling clouds)….




Next morning, up early and full waterproofs donned over full breakfast tum (thank you Mrs. MacSween!) to collect more stones for the entrance hall floor…then straight to site to go through the next stages with everyone and enjoy seeing the progress made since last month.

This project must come a close second to the ceiling of Brunelleschi’s Dome! I completely admire the grit and determination of the joiners…forget plonking up huge sheets of plasterboard onto a flat surface (hard enough as that is) – having shaped the “ribs” (each one slightly different according to the width of the room, which billows out in the middle), the Sterling boards are having to be cut into 200mm strips in order to achieve a smooth surface, and the same will be the case for the plasterboard going on top…before the whole area is plastered into a heavenly vault…and by the way, this team has only ever worked on “bog standard” building projects…they are completely amazing!

Found another heart!


Hmmm….each time I go, it seems a Project Team baby is either born or imminent…dangerous place!


This is a piece of a friend’s 4,000 year old bogwood which Angus, a local boatbuilder and skilled carpenter, has dried in a dehumidifying tent for two weeks, sand-blasted, soaked in molten wax, then buffed to this beautiful shine. We’re using about 5 pieces to form a table base and the round top’s going to be textured green glass…


…and this is the start of what will be hanging above it…a sea glass and wire pendant light…it’s taken an entire series of Breaking Bad for me to get this far!




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Oran Na Mara Site Visit – December 2014

With the gales howling and the snows blizzarding, my challenge was to get the bathrooms onto Harris before the builders were left twiddling their thumbs…so, three cancelled ferries later, the van was loaded and off I went in fear and trepidation, with a two hour leeway in case the going got tough….which it did…Suffice it to say, I arrived with only minutes to spare!  Such a relief to finally arrive at Sgarasta and be welcomed into the McSween’s cosy bed and breakfast…and eventually to snuggle down in their electric blanketed bed.

The next morning, kitted out in thermal leggings, two T-shirts, a jumper and two coats, fur-lined boots, fingerless gloves and a hat, I went up to see what progress had been made on the house since my last visit…and wasn’t disappointed!


I have total admiration for the Hearach craftsmen who are transforming the soggy pile of marram grass on the ground into this beautiful roof, using the traditional skills passed down to them through the generations.



This is only half of the house…the other half curves gently round the hill behind…so they’ve still got a long way to go!




The grass is pushed into the upside down peat turfs,  which have been laid diagonally on the roof.

A net, anchored by stone weights, holds it all in place.




Look carefully and you’ll see this is an oar…

…but not just any old oar….this is from one of the lifeboats that ferried the sailors from the SS Politician to safety on the shores of Eriskay (If you haven’t watched Whisky Galore, the SS Politician was on its way to Jamaica with a few thousand bottles of whisky, which kept the plundering islanders very happy for years to come!)

The sister oar is at the other end of the house and together they anchor the rope net so that the whole construction can withstand the fearsome gales that will no doubt return each winter.

Another ancient island craft – dry-stone walling…and here is one of the trio of skilled masons, still smiling despite the Arctic conditions! The stone is Lewisian Gneiss, up to three billion years old, and blessed with an age-defying beauty and a variety of patterns and colours, which really come to life when the stone is wet.

Home is where the heart is!

This is the chimney under construction: it encloses the flue which will come from a multi-fuel stove in the snug.

Inside, the plasterboard is now going on – and every piece has its own angular or curved challenge to deal with, but the builders have the bit firmly between their teeth, clearly enjoying the sense that they are creating something completely unique.  Much of the work, like all the necessary structural drawings and calculations that have been pouring out of Jonathan’s office, will be sadly invisible when the house is finished – so let me take the opportunity to register my respect for this hidden work now, along with the trust and vision of our client, as it’s a bit like knitting the most complicated Fair Isle and having to make up the pattern as you go!  

The day was spent going through each room and pouring over plans and drawings in minute detail, hopping from foot to foot and rubbing hands to keep warm…and when early darkness fell, relying on the torch from my phone to check the last vital measurements. 

The next morning, I went off on a stone-gathering foray to harvest more of the lovely smooth, flat pieces of Gneiss for the entrance floor mosaic.

The poor sheep were very disappointed as they hungrily followed me up through the field, little knowing that my large white sack was full of stones!




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Paper, Glue and Scissors

Anyone remotely techy (i.e. anyone over six reading this) would have such a laugh at me with my paper, glue and scissors, but it does add a bit more character to what would otherwise be spat out by CAD…at least that’s what I tell myself, as I wouldn’t have a clue how to do this any other way!  Here’s the latest concept development for Oran Na Mara, showing proposed materials and surfaces throughout the Southernmost area of the house:

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Swags and Tales of Woe

…it’s a long time since I’ve done swags and tails, but there are a few windows which are just made for them.  This is a very tall landing window, which needed a dramatic statement in keeping with the character and age of the house – a template had to be made for the curve, which was a very wobbly task atop a very wobbly ladder – health and safety?? Ooops….

…but of course Pride comes before a Fall…and to my heart-stopping horror, I managed to knock a very lovely and rather precious ceramic bowl, which shattered into a hideous number of pieces.  Thank goodness for insurance and the amazing skill and patience of Douglas Strang, Ceramic Conservationist…I now have a very happy client, as it had been broken before and rather clumsily stapled, whereas now, it’s as good as new (new being about 200 years old!)




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