This house was once a crumbling ruin overlooking the Hebrides, now it's a stunning contemporary home
Views don’t get much better than this. Looking through the huge curved window of Blacksheep House, the Hebrides spread out in front of you. The Uist islands crouch low over the glinting waves of the Harris Sound. To the east you can glimpse the Isle of Skye, to the west, the squat houses of Leverburgh, the nearest village. Behind rise the sparse and stoney slopes of Roineabhal, the highest peak on the island.
This amazing landscape goes some way to explaining why Peter and Christine Hope threw caution to the wind in 2004. They sold their terrace house in Sheffield, quit their jobs, loaded everything into the back of a Volvo and upped sticks for the remote island of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides.
Empty-nesters Christine and Peter were looking for adventure. ‘We’d spent a week in Harris on holiday, and loved it,’ recalls Christine. ‘We spoke to an acquaintance we’d made, and he told us to come up and see if we wanted to stay.’ It didn’t take long for the couple to decide that they did. It did take a little longer to find a house to stay in, however.
This remote corner of Scotland is peppered with the crumbling ruins of traditional Blackhouses. These squat stone buildings sheltered a family at one end and livestock at the other, like Viking longhouses. Locals warned the couple that no one was likely to sell their Blackhouse, as most stand in the centre of working crofts. Despite this, Peter and Christine persevered, living in a caravan for three months while they searched. Eventually they got lucky and a local fisherman offered to sell them his ruined Blackhouse near the village of Leverburgh on South Harris. All that remained were three crumbling stone walls.
A dry-stone-waller by trade, Peter was confident they could renovate the house. All they needed was the right architect. ‘We rang round, but a few thought we were mad,’ says Christine. ‘One architect told us to build a new house and use the ruin as a bikeshed!’ But when they put a call in to Stuart Bagshaw, he was full of encouragement. Stuart had taken on similar projects before, and helped them plan the reconstruction and extension of their Blackhouse. They would rebuild the house to its original rectangular footprint, and add on two rounded extensions, one to the end of the house, forming a large living room, the other at the back, providing space for a lobby and an office. They would keep the windows in the original section small, in their original positions, but install a huge curving window in the living-room extension, to make the most of the amazing views.
Peter decided to carry out the lion’s share of the physical work himself, learning new skills where necessary. Despite her lack of experience, Christine took on the role of managing the project. She set about researching different aspects – a task not made any easier by the fact it wasn’t possible for them to get a broadband internet connection in their part of the island. ‘I made many cups of tea, waiting in frustration for web pages to load through our dial-up connection,’ she says.
The couple moved into rented accommodation and started the process of getting the land de-crofted (changing the land use to residential). The Crofting Commission approved their proposal, and their planning application was also accepted. But the processes had taken longer than they anticipated, and Pete could only start the backbreaking physical work of rebuilding the walls in October, the beginning of the bitter winter months.
Finding the stone to build the house with didn’t prove too much trouble. They tried to retain as much of the original walls as possible, and re-used the pieces they couldn’t leave in-situ. A local farmer donated the rock from his byre to the project. This gave them enough to build the outer skin of the walls. The inner, hidden skin, they sourced from the island’s quarry.
The rebuilding process was long and hard. Rain lashed down, turning the site to mud, and the icy coastal winds kept temperatures low. Pete battled on, using his experience to form the irregular pieces of tough Hebridean stone into a regular, strong structure. The cavity between the two stone skins is filled with rubble and shingle. They did everything by hand, Peter passing Christine buckets she could hardly lift as she perched on a scaffold to fill the cavity.
‘We spoke to a few architects who thought we were mad' Because they are mostly formed from dry stone, without cement, building regulations stipulated that the load of the roof must not be borne by the walls. A local joiner made them a timber frame of Douglas Fir, brought over from mainland Scotland. The columns sit on concrete foundations and curving trusses support the roof. ‘It looked like the skeleton of a large animal when we were putting it up, it was so curved and twisted,’ Christine says. The roof is beautiful, a sweeping expanse of turf, full of buttercups and daises. Installing it was another tough job though, Pete cutting each heavy slab himself and carrying it up a ladder to Christine who shoved it into place.
Gluttons for punishment, they laid their own underfloor heating system and Peter taught himself joinery to make the V-lining (similar to tongue and groove panelling) for the internal walls. Christine has a passion for mosaic and set to with tiles and grout to cover the bathroom walls in a pattern of blues and white. Furnishings were picked up on trips to the mainland, or ordered over the internet.
After 18 months of hard graft, the couple could finally move into their new home. ‘The light and space are incredible,’ says Christine. ‘The sun sets in different points depending on the time of year. We can really sense the changing seasons.’ There is, however, one drawback – the house went over budget by £30,000. To recoup some money the couple are moving out for a while and renting out the place as a holiday let. ‘It smarts a bit, but it’s the only sensible option,’ says Peter. But the couple won’t be in rented accommodation for long. They are already embarking on a home built of rammed earth to live in until they can take up residence in Blacksheep House once more.
‘Never be afraid to keep asking questions. Someone will know the answer’.
Architect: Stuart Bagshaw and Associates 01851 704 889
Joiner: Miles of Harris www.milesofharrisconstruction.co.uk
Windows: NorDan UK www.nordan.co.uk
Underfloor heating: Paragon Systems www.paragon-systems.co.uk
Timber Frame: Ardslignish Scotwood 01972 500 700
Slate floor tiles: Stoneworks www.stoneworksltd.co.uk
Words Joanna Booth Photography Chris Tubbs