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Weekend: SPACE: Arts and croft: The Scottish Highlands were once dotted with self-sufficient smallholdings. But can crofting still work today? Caroline Ednie meets a couple who are finding out

June 14, 2014

' It's like a rural penthouse, isn't it?" Ian McLean laughs, surveying the home that he and partner Robbie Pancic have recently seen emerge from a cliff edge on Skye, overlooking loch Dunvegan and its uninhabited island of Isay (Old Norse for "Porpoise Island").

The spectacular views informed the design of the building, and its main open-plan area looks more like a glass-sided observation post than a domestic living/dining room. However, a procession of hens strutting outside the window, and glimpses of a pond (complete with ducks), bushes and allotments, as well as a couple of Keder greenhouses, hint that there's a lot more to McLean and Pancic's cliff house than an intermittent rural retreat or holiday home.

"We took on the 15-acre croft on Skye in 2011," McLean says. "On first sight it was just waist-high bracken, heather and scrubland, but we soon discovered areas where the ground had been well worked and maintained in the past. Our aim is to deliver high-quality local produce to the community, working alongside a growing band of similarly minded crofters and businesses on the island."

At the moment the couple are awaiting the arrival of a flock of hardy Hebridean black sheep to graze their land. And there's talk of beehives in the future.

"So far we have had great success with root crops and potatoes, but anything growing above ground has been wind-damaged," McLean says. "The young soft-fruit bushes have surprised us, though, and we even had a small crop of apples. We also make the most of living by the sea with regular catches of fish and are trying creel this year. Our staple winter diet is fish and potatoes."

Three years ago, things were very different. Scottish-born McLean was a City investment banker, while Londoner Pancic was an executive at an internet company. "We were living in Islington and could just see a future mapped out that would involve working more and more. We wanted a change," McLean says. "We were uncertain where we wanted to move: the Mediterranean or Skye?" In the end, the Hebridean island, a favourite holiday destination, prevailed.

So, in February 2011, they packed their Mini and relocated to Skye, without any land or property. But a few months later the couple secured the site of their current home, and had also enrolled at a local college to study rural skills, including horticulture, dry-stone walling and keeping sheep.

At about the same time, they approached a local architect to discuss their new "edge of the world" home. "We had a vision of what we wanted," McLean says, "an idea where the house would be located and where the growing area would be. In terms of the design, we wanted to look back at the island's history for inspiration, but we also wanted a modern and practical working house."

What finally emerged in the summer of 2013 was a single-storey dwelling, so seamlessly slotted into the setting that it's barely there, certainly when viewed from the road. The low-key entrance in Caithness stone appears to be carved out of the rocky, heather-hued cliff-side, with the house gradually revealing itself at the tail end of a snaking entrance path. Once inside, a glazed wall, the full length of the living area, opens out to the sea and sky above.

The design of the 115 sq m cliff house, by Glasgow-based Dualchas Architects, takes some key cues from the landscape, its form and materials echoing a nearby ruined croft. Plus, to help make their investment sustainable, the couple also built a self-contained holiday let on the land.

The plan of this highly insulated two-bed home is simplicity itself, with the living accommodation arranged to face the views and all the utilities, bathroom and kitchen embedded in the road-facing wall. Although the house appears to slot into a natural plateau on the cliff edge, in reality a fair amount of excavation and rock breaking was required before the foundations could be laid.

And though the simple, crofter-friendly interiors feature the no-nonsense agricultural aesthetics of concrete floors and metal window frames, with low-maintenance stone and silvery grey larch cladding, there are also many refined bespoke details. Key among these is the double-height ceiling that lets additional light into the heart of the house via clerestory windows installed between exposed rafters that run the length of the building.

"It has exceeded our expectations," Pancic says. "We're getting the view, we have plenty of space and we love the raw feel of the house and location." McLean agrees it suits their needs perfectly, and says the only thing missing is a zip wire from the living area to the garden below.

Already, city living is a distant memory. "We have no regrets about choosing crofting, and feel healthier and happier for it," McLean says. "Crofting is a challenge and hard work, but it is so rewarding. We are at the beginning of a new adventure and looking forward." *



'We had a vision': a view from McLean and Pancic's 'edge of the world' cliff house

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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