Whitehouse politics: Skye crofter’s cottage brought to life

Altering the look and layout of the traditional crofter’s cottage can raise hackles in Highland communities, so a diplomatic touch was called for when this one, on Skye, needed a thorough overhaul.

Back in the 1950s, the exterior paint company Snowcem chose a charming property to advertise its products. The classic Hebridean whitehouse nestled on a hillside with the Small Isles on one side and the Cuillins behind, presumably to assure customers that even if you lived in such a wildly exposed part of Scotland you could rely on this brand to keep your home pristine.
“These houses were built for shelter. They were lived in by people who worked outside every day and thus cared little for views when they got home”By the time Simon Milner bought the property, in the southern Skye village of Elgol, in 2009, it bore little resem­blance to the advert. Years of enthusiastic DIY and random alterations had robbed the property of much of the charm that had attracted Snowcem’s creative directors half a century before. A box dormer along the top of the roof sat incongruously with the stone which had been revealed beneath the white render. (It had been clumsily chipped off.) Replacement windows added another discordant note.
When Simon asked a local builder to have a look at the place and discuss possible improvements, the builder immediately realised this was a bigger job than he could under­take alone. At his suggestion, the new owner brought in Dualchas, the Skye-based architecture practice with a strong track record in giving new life to traditional buildings.
When Neil Stephen, one of the founders of Dualchas, first walked into the house, his nose told him that the builder had been right. “The previous owner had done a lot of his own DIY. I could see the damp plasterboard – and smell it.” The property, named Burnside, had never been properly damp-proofed. “These houses were originally built from stone, on an earth floor. There was not even any bitumen on the walls.”
Visually, it was also offensive. “It’s an amazing location but the property looked horrible. All the internal spaces were so dark. It was not recognisable as a traditional two-up, two-down croft house.”
The only solution, according to Neil, was a rip-out. He realised immediately that to do the job properly would mean taking off the walls to see what was lurking underneath. “If we’d tried to work on top of what was there, we wouldn’t have got to the root of the problem.”
The client agreed and the originally modest budget grew arms and legs as Neil reconfigured the property with a whitehouse at its heart, plus a light-flooded extension at the back, a timber extension on one side and a wooden shed-cum-kayak store on the other.
“I wanted to reinstate the classic proportions of the pattern-book house, but make it light and bright,” he recalls. He also wanted the property to sit as happily in its environment as the house in the Snowcem advert did in the 1950s. It should also contain an element of surprise – in this case, that a traditional-looking building is, behind its blue front door, a stunning contemporary living space.

This is just a taster, you can browse the full article with more stunning photography on pages 108-112, issue 89.

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What Burnside, a traditional two-bedroom Hebridean ‘whitehouse’ overlooking the sea
Where Elgol, Skye
Architect Dualchas, 01471 833300
Words Anna Burnside
Photography John Paul Photography

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