Category: house refurbishment

Ducky gets a home

Scarcely have I left home for my sailing exploits amongst the Western Isles when Kate gets stuck into building a home for Ducky, our much loved campervan, at the bottom of our garden. She did have a little help it has to be said, with larger pieces of timber and digging the massive postholes, fitting the wooden cladding and climbing up to fix the roof but she tells me that nothing would have happened, nothing at all built, without her being there to make the tea.

I had seen the plans, of course, but seeing the structure in the flesh on my return home was something of a shock because this thing is big. Very big. The roof clears Ducky’s highest point by a clear margin and we have space under the cover all around which will be handy when the rain is pouring down.

Naturally word gets around the village very quickly that something new has sprung up. Suddenly we notice dog walkers detouring down our way, dogs we have not seen before stagger past, no doubt asking themselves why their owners have come this way, have broken their usual routine. The dogs can’t make sense of it but we know what is going on. We no longer have difficulty explaining where we live to those we meet. All we have to say is “The house with the monstrous carport” and understanding dawns. “Oh yes I’ve seen that. Now I know where you are”, usually followed by a strange look, the “That great thing” look. Visitors too, holidaymakers, have suddenly begun using the end of our road to turn in, pretending they are lost, something that has never happened before. We are beginning to think that our carport may be the most exciting thing to have happened in the village since the Vikings left and it amuses us that we might have created something of a talking point.

Our latest foray away in Ducky takes us to Barnluasgan over in Knapdale to see the beavers. Just a short drive north of us, a trialled reintroduction of beavers has been going on since 2009, exploring (at some considerable financial cost I might add) what might happen if we replace what was once a native species all over Scotland. We have it on good authority that there are currently at least ten of the beasts living here although despite setting off at dusk and tiptoeing as quietly as possible for a mile or so along a gravel path (not the best surface for stealth) beside the freshly created loch to the site of the beaver dam, we see nothing but a few ducks. We feel certain that the beavers are there, close by, perhaps chuckling to themselves about our clumsiness, but no way are they going to show themselves. Perhaps this is because they have discovered the strangest thing about this much-publicised species introduction which is that they are not the only beaver population currently living in Scotland. Little talked about is the fact that over on Tayside some one hundred and fifty wild beavers have set up home. Nobody seems clear about how they got there (they may have been released deliberately or else they are escaped pets – but who keeps beavers as pets?) and because they are not part of the trial and are not being so carefully studied we hear little about them. Indeed one senses that their very existence must be something of an embarrassment to those involved in the Knapdale trial. We are intrigued to see what will happen once the trial is over and a decision is made on whether they can stay, a decision apparently already overtaken by events.

Adder3Our beaver spotting being thwarted, we retire gracefully to spend the night camping ‘wild’ nearby and wake to a surprisingly hot summer’s day that tempts us to explore the area some more. Beavers might be shy but apparently adders are less so. The young lady we come across sunbathing close to her home, an iron drainage cover which crosses the forest track, is a little coy at first. She is quite well known to those walkers who come this way often (and that’s not many) but we feel a certain pride in being able to point her out to one passer-by who has never seen an adder before and had just walked by this one. The adder cautiously sniffs the air by flicking her tongue and will disappear very quickly into cover if she senses danger but this morning her need for warmth from the sun clearly outweighs caution and she slides slowly and gracefully away. If only beavers could behave like this.

Winter is over

I can say with some certainty at this moment that winter is over here in Scotland. The weather will deliver up its usual flavours of wind and rain, no doubt, but I can be confident that it will remain mild, perhaps unseasonably so, right through until summer takes hold. How do I know this? Well because in our living room we have now have a wood-burning stove providing lots of warmth to the house and an embarrassment of hot water too. stove in actionAll winter we waited for the moment when the big white van would stop outside our door and Robert the stove fitter would stagger in the door with the heavy steel beast to begin the installation. All through the coldest months, the gales and storms, the floods, the hail, we sat on the sofa and warmed our hands before an imaginary fire, wishing we could have a real one before winter ended, but our prayers going unanswered. Nothing we could think of doing would bring it to us any quicker, no magic words, no strategy nor financial incentive. We had placed our order and just had to wait our turn, wait for this moment to arrive. All this time we knew we could be certain of just one thing; that it would happen eventually. And so it did, just as the weather warmed. But fortunately we live in a place where the first signs of spring are accompanied by chilly afternoons and nights so our new acquisition does add the sudden benefit to our lives that we’d expected. And thus it is that I find myself slipping into the morning routine of clearing the ash, laying the paper and kindling in joyful expectation of the afternoon or evening to come when I can strike a match and watch the flames spread.

Rather than become too single-minded, however, for some weeks now we have been hatching another plan; to load up Ducky with provisions and head off northwards, in the general direction of the North Pole. A brief glance at a map reveals that there is a sizable chunk of Scotland that sits between us and the Arctic Ocean and it is this that we are keen to explore, right up to the very edge of the last piece of  land. So we abandon Carradale one wet morning, after taking fresh food parcels from house to campervan, stuffing warm clothes into cupboards and filling water containers to the brim, then just turn north along the edge of Kintyre and keep going.

The heavy overnight rain still falls as we charge through deep puddles which drench every inch of the van with mud-stained spray and it still falls heavily as we lurk in the car park outside Oban’s Lidl. But no sooner have we finished our shopping, stocking up on Campo Largo baked beans and Crusti Croc paprika flavoured crisps like we hadn’t seen a Lidl for months (which is true), when suddenly the clouds part and the sun shines down. In the blinking of an eye Scotland performs the magic trick we love, winter becomes spring, rain becomes shine, dark becomes light, wet becomes dry. My dark glasses are resting on my nose once more as I gaze out at Mull’s looming peaks across a sparkling sea. Ah yes, this is why we left our lovely new stove behind.

We do not intend to travel quickly as there is much to see along the way, loads of scenery to take in, so when I write the words “250 miles later” it needs to be said that nearly three days have elapsed since leaving home. We move along at a gentle pace.road to Ullapool

But as it happens just 250 miles distant by road from Carradale (Ducky choosing to use imperial measurements) there is a mountainous chunk of rock going under the name Stac Pollaigh (which is pronounced ‘stack polly’). It stands 613 metres (according to our metrified map) above sea level and 549 metres above the car park that lies just below. More than thirty years ago when I visited this part of Sutherland I charged up Stac Pollaigh, as I was wont to do in those days when a summit looked as though it needed to be conquered, then danced along the summit’s rocky ridge, before galloping all the way down again and driving off somewhere else. I made a promise, as do so many others who climb this iconic hill, that I would one day return. stac-450Which explains why Kate and I find ourselves in assault mode tackling the steep path which winds its way to the top, not alone, but in the company of both old and young, first timers and old hands like me, many of whom are also returning for the first time in thirty years. The summit’s very proximity to a road as well as its isolated position in the landscape make it into a ‘must do’ climb that traps many who come this way. It is just that sort of place.

It turns out to be a windy climb, the air cooling noticeably for each upward step we take, and we are not disposed to hang about on the summit ridge nor indeed dance along it. The strength of the wind makes this unwise. Instead we find a little shelter and wolf down the cream cakes that have made the ascent in my backpack, before pointing ourselves downhill again. With little warning a rain squall chooses this moment to attack and what seemed like an easy path becomes somewhat trickier as the wind tries to pluck us off the hill. Within minutes we are drenched to the skin and thoroughly chilled but away to the west we can see a line of blue sky so this is where we head, knowing we’ll be dry again in minutes once the rain stops. Scottish weather never disappoints.

Job done!

My original plan for refurbishment of the kitchen was to start at the top, the ceiling, and work downwards via the kitchen units until all that was left to install was a new floor covering. Very soon, however, I realised that this was the wrong way to go about things and some time later it dawned upon me that kitchens have their own sequence of tasks, and that this is one of the special secrets known only to professional installers.

In the six week journey I have just completed during which our new kitchen has risen from the ashes of what once was, many of those special secrets have magically revealed themselves to me despite my non-professional status. Our cupboard doors, for example, each of which required the accurate drilling of two holes for the handle, now all look identical because I had a spare Breton Chartplotter, a clear plastic device whose purpose is known to navigators of small ships, which I was prepared to sacrifice in order to make up a template so that the position of the screw holes was replicated on each door. heating wiring boxWhen it came to the electrical connections for the central heating boiler, the programmer and the thermostat these required a complicated wiring junction box, the mysteries of which only became clear after extensive research on the Internet. Discovering this special secret took time but I now have the satisfaction of knowing where each cable leads and what its purpose is, knowledge which I suspect is deliberately withheld from most human beings for health and safety reasons.

When it came to tiling the walls I was on more familiar ground as my expertise in this area has been tested before. As it happens I can tile in both French and English having a few years ago spent some weeks tiling a new floor just outside Lyon chez our friends Guy and Noëlle. In our kitchen only English was needed although there were other words spoken from time to time when a tile didn’t quite break according to plan. Looking back, had it occurred to me in advance that shaping large tiles around kitchen units, powerpoints and worktops meant that so few could be fitted without cutting I may have never started at all but this particular special secret only emerged into the light of day once the job was well underway.

I now realise now, of course, that a bottom to top approach to refurbishment works best in kitchens and by the time I had finished putting up the shiny white ceiling panels, running up and down a ladder for hours on end, the whole job was done. Suddenly my urge to get going on the next task has nowhere left to push me and I feel a strange sense of guilt at my own laziness.

Kitchen complete

Alongside this I must confess to a sense of achievement at having negotiated so many pitfalls to finish the job to a standard I am happy with. I may never fit another kitchen again so if this one stands forever as a testament to my skills then at least I am not ashamed of it. It also has one rather novel feature that you will not find in most kitchens. The forest mural came from an idea we had to cover a rather untidy wall with something spectacularly eye-catching. It is visible only from within but mirrors the world outside our doors so perfectly that we just love it!Kitchen complete

Click on either picture to enlarge.

Surprise delivery

Kate: As part of our kitchen refurb we order a fridge-freezer and dishwasher via the Currys website and are informed by email that it will be delivered direct from the manufacturers, last Wednesday. We sort of ignore this because we know from experience that Thursday is Currys’ delivery day here but then after Thursday has come and almost gone we decide to give them a call.
‘Ah,’ they said, ‘there has been a “weird glitch” [my words] and the order has not got through to the manufacturers. But don’t worry, we have the items in stock now’.

Anyhow we settle down to enjoy Friday, knowing that the delivery surely wouldn’t come on Friday and we didn’t feel like irritating the elderly grump genes by calling them again to ask when it would arrive.

Sunday arrives, the rain is lashing down again outside, and Malcolm has just about demolished the old kitchen and is studiously filling and sanding down holes in walls, a by-product of the demolition, whilst trying to leave in place the cooker and the sink so that we can continue to live reasonably normal lives. I am upstairs doing some ironing when I hear a bark as our son Mike and his lady, Eleanor, come in the back door with their dog, Ebony. Almost simultaneously there are two men ringing the front door bell, neither of whom will see the age of 50 again, with a white van marked “Hebridean Haulage”. They are here to deliver our new kitchen appliances and to take away the old units so we frantically shovel fridge and freezer contents onto any surface available whilst apologising to the men that we have had no notice of the delivery date and had almost lost faith in mankind, especially the online kind.

The men are very good and stagger in with the new equipment in the foulest of weather conditions then take away the old fridge and freezer, all without a cup of tea or anything else to sustain them, before driving themselves back to Glasgow. The shock of all this excitement happening at once is almost too much so we all sit down for a cup of tea and abandon the kitchen newkitchenviewworks for the day.

Malcolm: We are dog-free once more and have a new fridge-freezer and dishwasher, although these are not yet installed in the kitchen, the guts of which will arrive later this week. We know this because it was not ordered online. The installation job is down to me, something I have done before in no less than five previous houses, and although the timetable for arrival of some of the parts still needs some filling in, by the end of this week we should have some of the new kitchen units hanging from our walls, perhaps even a new sink. What is also certain is that by this point it will still have little resemblance to the computer-generated view provided by the suppliers. I work at my own speed.



Suddenly it has gone quiet. The storms we have lived with for the past few months have deserted us and for a short spell there is calm. The rainwater-soaked ground will gradually dry and even where the sea encroached on the land the residue of salt will eventually be flushed away. Residents along Carradale’s Shore Road can now sleep peacefully at night knowing that there still will be a road in the morning.

Within our house we make small steps along the ‘improvement’ road, gradually ticking things from the list we hold in our heads. When the wind blows hard we notice how it passes through the house as well as around it so I am blocking up all those hard-to-reach places with cuddly-warm insulation material. This involves me crawling into some of the less easy to get to corners, balancing on my knees across wooden joists with a head torch and face mask encumbering me, whilst pushing thick pieces of fibreglass material around the numerous obstacles; pipes, wires and old mouse droppings. I emerge into daylight from time to time for fresh air and to remove another layer of clothing, for it is warm work. Beads of sweat are soon dribbling across the lenses of my glasses, adding to my misery, but I tell myself the effort is worthwhile; as each gap is closed a draught ceases, one less passage for a cold wind to follow, one small step towards a warmer house.

The least accessible part of roof space is the coombe, a triangular area lying outwith our upper floor rooms and tapering internally where the roof overhangs at both front and back. We have access doors which allow us in to use this space for storage but at the front of the house the coombe is narrow, barely enough space for me to wriggle my body through, and since the builders left some forty years ago very few humans have chosen to go in there. Access is gained by crawling from a small cupboard at either end of the house, one of which entrances I created myself by cutting a small doorway in a bedroom wall. There are plenty of reasons why nobody would want to visit this space, not least of which is that once inside, the space does not permit the average human body to turn around so the only way out is in reverse, wriggling across the joists feet first whilst trying not to poke a hole through the ceiling below. Cursing and swearing I finally emerge having closed off a few more draughts and insulated the bare ceilings from above. Job done.


By way of light relief, we borrow ‘Harvey’ for a week, giving his owners a short break. By using a factor of seven to express his dog age in human terms, it occurs to us that we have a 98-year old animal living with us, but this does little to describe his physical condition or his capabilities. In his head he is still a puppy, the spirit still being as willing as ever to go for long walks through the forest. But then there are times when the weaknesses of his body are evident and he exhibits some of the same muscular creakiness that we do. He is no trouble for us though, well mannered and gentle he is content to sit at our feet and doze for much of the time.

Then whilst taking him for a walk one morning along the forest track I notice that the landscape here is beginning to change, man-made earth ramps appearing on the hillside, suggesting that access is being made so that the trees we have grown so used to can be felled. At first this is quite distressing to me for I have grown comfortable amongst these trees. I have walked by them and got to know their smells and their sounds. I have used their shade in the summer and their shelter in the winter. I have explored them for mushrooms and toadstools, watched deer disappear into their cover and gazed upward through their branches at the sound of a raptor’s eerie cry. I feel a sense of ownership for this environment, as it is now, with stands of tall conifers creating deep darkness below. It comes as something of a shock to think that all this will change suddenly when the trees are felled. I must recognise, of course, they are a crop, planted there for one purpose only, to be cut down once they have reached a certain size. This whole landscape is not a natural one, it is farmland and there must inevitably be a cycle of growth and harvesting, albeit that this takes place over forty years instead of four seasons.

When trees are taken out the debris left behind is not pretty and for many years the landscape will be scarred with brush and dying stumps. Eventually, however, whether or not new saplings are planted, nature will take over again, moss will creep over the stumps, the brush will rot down and life once starved of light will sprout forth everywhere, a greening-over process that is itself interesting to watch.

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