It was early morning when our ferry approached the Outer Hebrides, the sun still working on the last wisps of sea fog and a hundred or more dolphins playing alongside. We docked at Stornoway, picked up groceries then drove south to Harris — over desolate moorland, then on roads clinging to mountainsides that offered glimpses of glittering sea lochs far below and golden eagles high above. The only things breaking the spell of all this natural splendour were the occasional houses we passed: not pretty, ancient, stone cottages but 20th-century bungalows, either white or grey pebble-dashed, often with awkward dormers added to the roof and chunky plastic windows and doors, and usually — despite the huge expanse of open land on all sides — set right beside the road.
This has always been the drawback of a holiday in the Hebrides. While the scenery can easily trump that of Devon, Cornwall, the Lake District and other beautiful parts of the UK, those areas have the advantage of a huge stock of traditional houses to rent: thatched cottages, farmhouses, barn conversions, manor houses, lighthouses and more. In the Hebrides the choice has been modest at best. Partly this is a legacy of the Highland Clearances that left the region one of the most sparsely populated in Europe. Those that remained lived, as they had for centuries, in “blackhouses” — long narrow buildings with thatched or turf roofs and thick rough stone walls, with animals kept at one end, humans at the other. At the end of the 19th century the blackhouses were abandoned in favour of simple, functional, single-storey “whitehouses” with rendered, whitewashed walls, chimneys and tiny windows. Roofs of slate or corrugated iron had no eaves so that they wouldn’t catch the gales that blow across the islands in winter.
The whitehouses were prim and symmetrical, clearly shaped by their setting, but as the 20th century progressed, builders adopted increasingly generic styles. Whitewash became pebble-dash, chimneys and fireplaces were replaced by gas fires and plastic flues, rendered stone became prefabricated panels, dormers sprung from roofs — the slender whitehouses evolved into squat grey bungalows. Their mundanity makes what is happening now — what some are calling a “third wave” of Hebridean architecture — all the more remarkable.
Finally, we descended from the rocky uplands to see the pure white sands of Luskentyre beach spreading out before us, a mile across and deserted. There, perched on a knoll looking over it, was our home for the week, a house unlike any other on the island. Fir Chlis, near the hamlet of Seilebost, is strikingly modern, the result of local design DNA, little changed after centuries of isolation, being suddenly mixed with new influences from far and wide.
“We wanted to see if we could build an Australian-style beach house on a Scottish beach,” says Rob McKinnon, the owner. A commercial director for hotel companies and former senior vice-president for InterContinental Hotels, McKinnon lives in London and travels widely but has Hebridean roots. “My grandfather was a sailor from Harris, and I wanted to do something to keep the family connection with the area for my children,” he says. The family had lived in Sydney and admired the beach-house culture — “we wanted to capture that informal feel and do something more contemporary, while still in keeping with the heritage of the place”.
The result is an inverted layout, with the open-plan living area on the first floor and wraparound windows to make the most of the views over the beach to the island of Taransay. The two bedrooms are on the ground floor, beside a large utility room for drying wetsuits and storing beach toys.
Life inside the house — watching films on the high-tech audiovisual system, lounging on the big L-shaped sofa, or watching sunsets from the hanging seat on the terrace — could scarcely be further removed from life in a small-roomed whitehouse. But outside, the building takes a traditional form, echoing the profile of some nearby agricultural sheds and using an updated type of corrugated metal for the roof. The louvred, dark-stained timber screen encloses the terrace and porch, maintaining the building’s clean simple shape. The architect, Euan Millar, says the project is “striving towards an appropriate modern vernacular”.
While Fir Chlis, which was completed in 2010, is in many ways unique, it is also part of a wider movement gaining pace across the Hebrides. Harris may not have a supermarket or cinema (and it only has one pub), but it now has half a dozen striking, architect-designed homes available for rent.
There are many more on other islands of the Outer and Inner Hebrides, particularly on Skye, where the trend seems to have taken root around the turn of the millennium. By coincidence, several young architects moved to the area around the same time, keen to swap city life for the landscapes of Skye, and began building cheap yet innovative homes for themselves and their friends. “There was a confidence to break away from the past a wee bit, but these were simple, low budget, projects that were very accessible to people and very aspirational,” says Alan Dickson, who moved to Skye in 2000 to set up Rural Design, having previously worked in Edinburgh on projects including the Scottish parliament. Others saw their work and, prompted by the growing number of television programmes about architecture and encouraged by enthusiastic local planning officials, commissioned similar projects, either as homes or, increasingly, as holiday lets.
“Quite a few of our clients have worked out that people want to rent a holiday house in the wilderness, but that it has to be an architect-designed one, with a wood burner and underfloor heating and power shower — they don’t want to stay in a bothy,” says Mary Arnold-Forster, an architect who moved from London 15 years ago to join Dualchas, an award-winning Skye practice.
Together the architects’ projects began to define a new and evolving Hebridean aesthetic. Some, such as Blue Reef Cottage and Borve Lodge on Harris (both designed by Stornoway-based Stuart Bagshaw) draw on the blackhouses, using turf roofs and stone walls. Others are updates of the whitehouse, long and narrow with a pitched roof and distinctive “clipped” look — without eaves, exposed drainpipes or any other unnecessary detailing. A third group take their cue from agricultural buildings, often using timber or metal cladding and simple shed roofs. “People have the impression the Hebrides are filled with white cottages but the reality is that between every white cottage there’s a shed made of corrugated iron, timber, green-metal cladding, whatever,” says Dickson. “They are overlooked but actually very attractive and we were really inspired by that hidden vernacular.”
The styles may vary but all make use of modern, weatherproof glass in huge windows or glass walls — a major departure from the tiny windows of the past. “People who move up here now want to stand by the window and really engage with the landscape and the weather outside,” says Dickson. At the Cabin, a holiday home built in 2012 at Duisdealmor in southern Skye, one entire wall is made up of sliding glass panels, while the rest of the building is almost invisible, dug into a sloping hillside site, and hidden beneath a turf-covered shed roof. Guests can stare out over the Sound of Sleat, and watch otters play on the decking.
The movement seems set to grow — there are now enough architects in the Hebrides and Highlands for their biennial awards ceremony to be followed by a full-scale ceilidh, while many of those who have holidayed in the new houses leave dreaming of owning their own. Dualchas’s reimagined whitehouses have proved so popular that they have started a subsidiary, selling off-plan kit versions, locally and to other parts of the UK, and as far away as South Africa. Rather than being a rural backwater borrowing ideas from overseas, the Hebridean islands are increasingly exporting inspiration.
Tom Robbins was a guest of Fir Chlis and The Cabin and Visit Scotland (visitscotland.com)
Hip Hebridean hideouts
An Airigh, Galtrigill (near Glendale), Skye Sleeps two, from £650 per week; anairigh.co.uk
Beacon Light, Loch Euphort, North Uist Sleeps six, from £675 per week; hebridesluxurycottage.co.uk
The Black Shed, near Glendale, Skye Sleeps two, from £575 per week; blackshed.co.uk
Blue Reef Cottages, Scarista, Harris Two houses for two, from £1,100 per week. stay-hebrides.com
The Cabin, Duisdealmor, Skye Sleeps four, from £1,000 per week; thecabin-skye.co.uk
Fir Chlis, Seilebost, Harris Sleeps four, from £495 per week. fir-chlis.co.uk
The Hen House, Fiscavaig, Skye Sleeps four, from £550 per week; 15fiscavaig.co.uk
The Longhouse, Col, Lewis Sleeps four, from £850 per week; lewislonghouse.com
Skye Shed, Tokavaig, Skye Sleeps eight, from £900 per week; skyeshed.com
The Woodhouse, near Glendale, Skye Sleeps eight, from £875; skyewoodhouse.co.uk
Slideshow photographs: Chris Humphreys and Andrew Lee