It’s now possible to see the whole shape of Blair House for the first time.
This is a nervous moment for client and architect: will our structure look like an awful blot on the landscape?
To our huge relief, no it doesn’t: it looks as if it’s always been there, as if the old Blair House has sprung back into existence but new and better, part of the landscape under Dreish. Tom and Ollie the architects, Barry the builder and I scrambled around our creation feeling almightily pleased with ourselves.
It’s possible to start to get an idea of the vistas and glimpsed views you’ll get from inside it:
I work for Confor, a membership body for the forestry and timber industry, so I am excited to see the house being built from materials made by our member sawmills, and mainly from Scottish timber.
The joists are a special product called JJI’s made by James Jones sawmills, a clever design which allows you to bridge long spans without using steel or very expensive timber. The boards they are nailing on the roof are a breathable, insulating material made by Egger, who make all kinds of innovative products out of woodchip and sawdust: it’s likely they made your kitchen worktop.
I’ve now got an ‘interpretation board’ up on the site so people can see the story of the house, which apparently is getting a lot of interest from people going past. Do say hello if you’re one of the people who’s spotted it – either through the facebook page or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I went up on 21 December to see progress on Blair House before Christmas.
The ground floor is up which is very exciting. We had hoped to get the first floor and roof on before Christmas. But after being delayed by weather, the builder Barry decided not to risk leaving it half finished over the Christmas break. So he has been working on the timber frame in his workshop in Forfar, and it should be up by the time of my next visit in January.
Here are some photos plus a little video tour, featuring Barry discussing the staircase with Tom and Olly the architects, and Craig the QS counting up the many timbers. I’m just enjoying the view of Driesh and trying not to fall down between the joists.
It has been a very long journey, but after a great deal of planning and work by architects Tom Morton and Oliver Goddard, work has begun at last on New Blair House.
It has almost immediately been delayed again by snow, but work is still being done on the wooden construction in builder Barry Greenhill’s workshop so watch this space for more updates soon.
Tom and I also attended Tayside Landscape Partnership’s Building for Biodiversity conference in Perth on 9 November. This was the first conference of its kind, and as far as we are aware, Blair House is the first time anyone has tried to build a ‘biodiversity house’ in quite this way so it was great to be able to tell people about it.
I had an exciting meeting today with David Knott, curator of collections at the Botanics; my friend Dr Alan Elliott also at the Botanics; Henry Marsh, former head of English at the Edinburgh Academy and Glen Doll botanist of 40 years; and Tom Morton of Arc Architects who is going to build the new Blair House.
We discussed how – without adding to budget or maintenance – we could design Blair House so as to grow some of the important shrubs, flowers, grasses, ferns, and mosses of Glen Doll on or around it.
My aim is to enable visitors to catch some of the excitement about Alpine catchfly, Woolly willow, Fragrant orchid, Silver ladies’ mantle or Blue sow-thistle which I catch when I talk to people like Henry, Alan or David.
Glen Doll is a nationally important habitat for species like these, but many of them can only be seen by scrambling up inaccessible cliffs, or hunting in remote corners of the plateau. Others are easy to walk to, but difficult to notice or identify without the help of an expert.
Blair House has the potential for providing an artificial cliff habitat, out of reach of grazing animals but within reach of people, to give a boost to the tiny populations of some of these plants, and to allow future generations of Glen Doll lovers to discover them.
I’m also talking to Tom about making sure we replace the essential accommodation for swallows, martens, and three species of bats which the old Blair House provided.
I’m hugely grateful to Alan, David and Henry for getting involved and I’m very much looking forward to working with them on what will be a far longer project than the building of the house. As David said, the most important requirement for a project of this sort is patience. The story of the Forfar Botanists which Alan has helped tell began over 200 years ago; the story of the Blair House Botanists starts here…
There’s one article I failed to post here, which made it on to the Facebook page, which was this. I hope everybody who knows Blair House has heard this news already, but what was more astonishing than the news was the little figure at the end which shows the number of people who read the story:
Over 11,000 people were interested in the news that Blair House had burned down! That’s some measure of what an important place it has been: and how important it is to restore.
I had hoped to enjoy a relatively peaceful summer, staying in the newly-restored Blair House and getting it ready to open. Instead, I have had a very busy few months arranging the demolition, securing the insurance, and appointing an architect. So here is the news, which gets better as it goes along:
The structure of the house became apparent in the fire. Blair House was an old whinstone (dry stone wall) structure with an added upper floor of old hand-made bricks, all strengthened by the harling and the internal structures.
Although very solid while it stood, once all the roof and floors had burnt out, the standing walls and chimneys were a very unstable skeleton. This was proved when the Friday before the demolition there was an unseasonal August gale, and part of the gable over the lab collapsed.
Blair House and Acharn farmhouse were demolished in the week beginning Monday 8 August – rendering all the maps out of date.
We have salvaged a few things to reappear in the new Blair House as reminders of its predecessor.
Blair House was insured against fire for £400,000, but it was under-insured. I did take advice when setting the rebuild figure, but I guess not enough, as it was not a figure I ever expected to see again.
The insurance company agreed to give me the full amount in cash, to use how I saw fit, but this has to cover everything including demolition, architects’ fees, and the inflated cost of building a 20-bed field centre at the end of a long, narrow, winding road.
After interviewing four architects, and taking two of them to visit Blair House, I have appointed Tom Morton of Arc Architects in Cupar. You can see examples of his work on his website.
Blair House is quite difficult to categorise or describe: a one-off piece of magic of people and place; and I was impressed by Tom’s ability to get the idea of it, and by the creativeness of our conversations about how it could be rebuilt.
Over the next few months I will be working with Tom to produce designs for a new Blair House. I hope the accommodation will be similar to what (when refurbished) it would have been, but it will look completely different – and will lose all its old inconvenient features!
I am also having discussions with potential collaborators about some very interesting ideas for biodiversity features: I will write more about this when they are further developed.
Last time around, I was shy of accepting donations for what I felt was a private exercise. As the process has gone on, and I’ve realised just how many people really are excited about the prospect of Blair House being restored, I’ve got far less proud about this, so if you’d like to contribute to new Blair House, do drop me a line (email@example.com).
Please follow the facebook page for more informal updates, or let me know if you’d like to be added to the email mailing list.
We took a new route to Blair House this week, coming round north of Kirriemuir, which gave us a star Macintosh-Patrickesque view straight up the glen.
What I didn’t know taking this photo was that somewhere on top of that ridge of hills, Barry the builder was taking the opportunity to walk the 15 miles up Glen Clova from the Airlie Monument (on the far left) to Blair House, to be picked up by his man with the van and taken home for tea.
Meanwhile the man, with the van, wrestled all day repairing dodgy harling which has suffered from damp creeping in under the upstairs windows. This issue which should be resolved with some improvised slate windowsills.
By the afternoon, he was building up layers of cement over the damaged brickwork. Plenty of work for the painting parties to do in May!
Inside everything was progressing including doors, toilets, and the new kitchen. The units are white, not blue, but they have plastic covers on:
Outside, Glen Doll has burst into flower.
Of course I was getting more excited by the moss in the woods by Whitewater. The stuff on the right is ordinary Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus, which takes over your lawn, but I think the stuff on the left is Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus, similar in its bad-hair-day look, but much bigger:
Here it is under the hand-lens, with its red stem and wild spikey leaves:
I also pinned down two varieties of Polytrichum: this one is Polytrichum commune, the characteristic starry green mounds you see in the woods (apologies for the photo):
While this, which was growing all in amongst it, is Polytrichum strictum, like miniature bullrushes:
There were also lots of particularly furry grey mosses, their long hairs designed to condense mist. I think this one might be Grimmia trichophylla:
And this even wilder one might be Racomitrium heterostichum:
There were also rocks curtained with this one, like miniature pale-green ferns, which I think is Hypnum jutlandicum:
I didn’t have time to identify this bright brindled one up a tree:
Why is moss so interesting, particularly in Glen Doll? Because it is one of the richest forms of life in the area. There were scores or hundreds of varieties around us. They love the damp woodland and clean air of the glen and are an indicator of the healthy, undisturbed habitat. Also with my love for tiny, intricate, secret shapes and colours, I think their miniature, hidden worlds are particularly beautiful. And because I’m lazy, I like the fact that they’re very easy to spot and sit still for photographs.
But oh, all right, I’ll leave you with a flowering plant. There are Primroses innumerable.
I have dragged myself away from my friend Lucy Lawrie’s new story, The Last Day I Saw Her, to write a much-needed update on Blair House. Lucy was my great Blair House childhood friend and we have been longing to get back there together for years. And The Last Day I Saw Her, I discover, has a starring role for one Glen Eddle, a place of forests, rivers, crags, friendship, peace, and idyllic childhood holidays. I think my picture dated November 1987 of charging through a conifer plantation on a treasure hunt fits Lucy’s descriptions better than the elegant girls actually on the cover…
Meanwhile, the refurbishment of Blair House is coming on excellently. I went up today with Dad and found the tops turning white:
The builders are going to finish the inside before doing various bits of work on the outside, which means we can get in and start painting and moving back in much earlier than I anticipated, in May! Opening in June?!
Showers are appearing: this one replacing the bath in the downstairs bathroom, and one in a new shower room upstairs. George Harris exploring in the background:
The basin has been refitted in the big bedroom – after my sister pointed out it was really handy for families with small children. And a new toilet and an old door are just hanging out there chatting:
New windows and cupboards everywhere: these are in the former scullery, now hopefully a more convenient entrance:
This platform is solving the health-and-safety hazard which was coming straight out of the porch door and down two concrete steps. It has already been christened the Knitting Platform:
Not everything is new. Most of the doors have been put back this week: I like the way this one has “keep” pencilled on it, and still has its number 10 on it. When we are painting I think these old numbers may just have to be preserved!
The old kitchen is the new drying room/ coats room. It has also gained a cupboard thanks to a kitchen unit muddle.
I’m sorry I haven’t got a picture of the kitchen going in: it was full of builders sitting around the fire. It looks good though: I will definitely take a picture next week.
I’m hugely grateful to the builders Barry Greenhill and his team from Forfar who are making it all happen so efficiently and cheerfully.
Lady’s Mantle and turf-moss in the snow in the garden.
And if you’ve ever stayed at Blair House – or lived in Edinburgh – or wish you had – I think you’re going to like Lucy’s book.
It’s taken 18 months, at least 7 experts (the Bat and Freshwater Pearl Mussel ecologists were my favourites), at the serious illnesses of 2 of the team to get to this point, but Blair House is at last being refurbished. The contractor is Barry Greenhill of Forfar and he is due to finish in early summer, after which it will be over to me and my eager volunteers to get it painted and ready to reopen.
New car park in progress – and in use – it will have grass over it eventually
Everywhere has been insulated to within an inch of its life. This is the plumber and I discussing refurbishing and re-fitting the old washroom sinks (behind me) in new places.
Two varieties of interesting wallpaper which appeared in a bedroom!
Creating an upstairs bathroom: out with the old immersion heater; in with a new door.
Re-plumbing, re-wiring, insulation, door re-hanging: it was like DIY SOS!
New (unfinished) platform in the porch, dictated by the need to prevent the scenario of coming out of the door and falling down the steps. In my head it is called the “knitting platform” and where all that insulation is will have a comfy chair on it looking out of the window…
There were changes up the glen too: the great flood in December has changed the river in many places and created a more natural course after years or centuries of human intervention. Here it’s scoured out all the old branches and gubbins which used to disfigure this waterfall.
Red deer among the birks of Clova. Did you know the Scottish deer population is now over half a million, and was already considered too high in terms of ecology and crop damage when it was a mere 100,000 in 1959? *
Eleanor’s father George Harris, who taught history at the Edinburgh Academy 1973-2010, remembers forty years of expeditions to the glen.
There’s at least one of my paintings of Blair House hanging in the Staff Room at the Edinburgh Academy. I left it behind when I retired, as a reminder of a great place that was soon to be sold. How wonderful that it is going to be a field centre still, always bustling with folk. I don’t see why not.
The painting shows the building in snow, from the Acharn end with the Doll woods behind, disappearing into wintry mist. It was done in about thirty-five minutes, with big brushes, for it was done from life, and no weather to be standing around outside.
George with daughter Sarah, son-in-law Andrew, and a friendly local in the woods near Moulzie.
Winter is always a great time to be at Blair House. I wonder if anyone who reads this remembers the time we set off on a walk with Maurice Garret before dawn and that evening, in darkness and falling snow, argued about the route. The argument was settled by the fortuitous passing of a car, about twenty yards away, so close were we to the road below the Clova Hotel. Later on there was a great family holiday one Easter when we were able to build the children a working igloo up at the Viewpoint. As for Hogmanay, that was often booked up years in advance. Those feasts can’t have been better than the glorious Christmases we spent there with the Marshes, with a ceilidh in the washroom. The first time I used my crampons in anger was coming from Mayer and then down the Kilbo. Before I was even appointed my interview (Feb 1973) was supposed to include a day in Glen Doll with Rector Mills. Thank goodness we got a phone message that the road was blocked with snow; I doubt if my lack of winter mountaineering skills would have impressed him.
Spring for a long time meant the great Higher Revision Week that Henry Marsh and I used to set up. Other families – Roberts, Trotters, Cowies – often came too, and the most we sat down for dinner was 24. The pupils were guaranteed five hours supervised work as day, interspersed with fresh air and exercise. Only once, I’m afraid, was a wood-gathering party led up the track by a piper. It ought to have been a tradition. Spring comes late to those high glens, and the main flower as I remember was primroses. There always seemed to be frogs in abundance, and great herds of deer on Craig Mellon.
With Henry Marsh at Blair House. “This man, with lime and rough-cast, doth present Wall…”
I rarely managed a visit in the summer term, though that was when so many lucky pupils – the Primary 7 that we called Geits – experienced the place. However, there was a time when my A-levels finished well before term ended and there was a chance to take senior pupils for some serious walking. I don’t know if anyone else went up and down and up again to Glas Maol, but that was a great day in remote country. Three times I took parties to Lochnagar, once in mist so thick that the top of the summit cairn was out of sight from its base. The line back to the top of Jock’s Road was the longest compass bearing I have ever managed. Though I do remember someone saying on Tolmount in mist: “Well. I’ve been lost with Mr Boyce, I’ve been lost with Mr Williams, I’ve been lost with the Rector. Now it’s your turn.” For trophy hunters our best such day was the complete horseshoe, starting with Dreish and finishing (still a long way from home) with Broad Cairn. Six Munros in a day.
Climbing the Kilbo Path to Driesh with a much smaller Sarah, one Easter revision week c.1990.
Summer holidays were families and children. What a great experience for everyone. Craig Mellon and Corrie Fee had limitless possibilities for exploration and wonderful flowers. There was the occasional foray down the Glen to castles and gardens and hill-forts and Pictish stones. There was Jeremy Fenton’s wonderful wayfaring course, which took youngsters to strange glades and rocky outcrops deep in the forest. In recent years improved paths and extra bridge-building have made all sorts of easy circuits, and easier access to the rivers for swimming or boating.
Photographing a lizard on the Capel Mounth Path, with Andy Heald, 2011.
In the autumn term (or “Winter Term I” as cynics called it) one was usually glad of the open fire. Autumn spates and autumn colours gave the glen and the corries a different sort of beauty. One never knew what to expect. Blair House is certainly the only house where I have seen a cuckoo and a stoat out of the front window and a red squirrel out of the back. I only once went completely on my own – a heavy pile of marking and an exam paper to set – but while I was sitting on the patio I was able with binoculars to watch deer feeding and two eagles circling. It is not easy to do that from town.
“Eagle!” Veronica Harris, George Harris and Henry Marsh on Jock’s Road, c.1990.
For my last few years of teaching I was officially in charge of the bookings and did my utmost to maximise the field centre’s use. I hope the small bus-load of Geits we took up to explore the history down the Glen still remember the splendid few days. We rehearsed “The Mikado” there, too, I recall. Geographers and Biologists found it ideal for fieldwork. But it could not be denied that there were all sort of problems. So my daughter Eleanor’s decision not merely to buy the place, but to refurbish it and revive it as a place where young and old alike can live more close to nature than most places I know has been really lovely news. My reminiscences need not be “good old days” but exciting ideas for what to plan next.
Looking over Glen Doll Forest from Craig Mellon, 2009.
Stay in touch with the refurbishment by following Blair House on facebook. Until 24 March you can also provide much-needed financial support through a crowdfund. You can also contact Eleanor Harris, firstname.lastname@example.org, if you are interested in being involved (painting party anyone?).
As plans for the Blair House refurbishment are now well-developed and as people are so generously supporting it through the crowdfund, it seems a good time to provide a bit more information about what these plans are. I would add the disclaimer that none of them are set in stone, but they are well advanced and I hope work will be complete and Blair House reopened later this year.
Blair House and the adjoining Acharn Farm
The refurbished Blair House will have 20 beds in 7 bedrooms. Its basic rate will probably be £250 per night which works out as £12.50 per bed or £35 per room (maybe less for a week/ more in peak season etc).
These competitive rates are possible thanks to low housekeeping costs: visitors will have to bring their own bedding and towels, and will be expected to leave it clean. This does not mean it is not also homely and luxurious!
It may be possible to book only part of Blair House, but as it will not be staffed this will only be by special arrangement. For the same reason, it will not be possible to book individual beds. For small groups the nearby Clova Hotel has bunkhouse, lodge and hotel accommodation and I can testify to its excellent bar and restaurant.
My aim with the refurbishment is to solve three major problems — fire safety, bathrooms, and heating — while changing the character of the house as little as possible. This is likely to cost around £200,000.
We’ve all fallen down the bunkhouse stairs … They will be replaced, and turned 180 degrees!
Those who remember Blair House from its Edinburgh Academy days will be particularly interested in what this means in practice. The major changes are:
Central heating powered by log-burners, replacing the coal fires and storage heaters
Solar thermal supplementing the hot water immersion heaters
Insulate loft and inside internal walls
Five shower rooms (two upstairs) to replace the washroom
Old washroom area divided into downstairs ensuite bedroom and new ‘playroom’
Old toilet block to become new drying room
Dorms and stair on bunkhouse side reconfigured to meet fire regulations
Dining room to become kitchen-dining room
Clear roof to porch reducing the blockage of light to the dining room
Full rewiring and specialist fire alarm system
Easily-accessed and hardcored car park for 5 cars
The proposed ground floor plans. Not much change to the house side (right) but a reconfigured bunkhouse side (left).
The upstairs plans. Upstairs toilets, such luxury! And the ‘study’ will be a real library, full of books, and, I hope, a log-burner (not yet marked on the plan)
Site plan, showing non-muddy-slope carpark; solar panels; and clear porch roof. Suncatchers!
As the plans show, it is an odd building. The whole site is a nineteenth-century farm steading. The ‘house’ side seems to have originally been one-and-a-half of three farm cottages and the ‘bunkhouse’ a barn. I believe it was all acquired in the early twentieth century from the farm by the Forestry Commission, which converted it into a bunkhouse for those planting Glen Doll Forest. It was purchased with the Blair bequest by the Edinburgh Academy in 1970 and refurbished, and the porch added, by staff. I have been visiting it since about 1985 with my father, history teacher George Harris.
Eleanor and George Harris exploring in Corrie Fee in 2006. Silly hats.
Blair House will be run on a social enterprise basis, meaning that after its refurbishment debts and people’s time has been paid for, any profits will go into a fund dedicated to fulfilling its aims which I have summarised as ‘restoring nature by inspiring people’. This might include funded trips for groups which could not otherwise afford to go; subsidising training courses; or supporting other charities or projects with similar aims. My intention is to publish an annual report on this activity.
As part of the social enterprise ethos I also plan to maintain the link with Trees for Life established through the crowdfund, by inviting visitors to plant a tree (£5) for each car that travels up and for each basket of logs used in heating.
I plan to redeploy the washroom sinks in the new bathrooms. Waste not, want not – and they’re lovely!
I hope you like the plans which are the result of many people’s ideas and comments. Please do add your own especially if you have valuable experience or expertise. I would also invite you to make a donation, however small, to the crowdfunder which runs until 24 March. This will not only help directly with the cost of refurbishment, it also means Blair House is re-founded on the basis of a community of support.