Highlanders: The architects redefining Scotland’s northern reaches

Story highlights

The rural Scottish Highlands are renowned for their simple, traditional cottages

Recently architects have cast an innovative eye over this picturesque region

New Scottish Highland homes are examples of eco-friendly luxury

CNN  — 

On the northwestern tip of the Isle of Skye, where the island’s rugged terrain meets the choppy seas, a corrugated metal house is glimpsed atop a cliff.

Stylistically, this eye-catching building lies somewhere between a 1960s Airstream caravan and a child’s imagining of what a house should like – all neat angles and square windows.

Somehow this modern creation does not look out of place in this Highlands landscape - its silver exterior reflects the blue-grey of the surrounding skies and sea. Recycled, eco-friendly materials draw on the local landscape and ensure an air of grounded authenticity.

This building, known as Tinhouse, is the brainchild of Rural Design, a RIBA-Award-winning architecture firm based on the Isle of Skye.

Stunning Skye is perhaps Scotland’s most famous island, renowned for its cinematic landscapes and ancient rock formations – but not its architecture, at least not until now.

Tigh Port na Long, designed by  Dualchas, is an example of new modern Scottish architecture.

Flashback two decades and the only new buildings being constructed on Skye were poor recreations of ‘traditional’ Highland architecture. But over the past few years, Rural Design have been quietly revolutionizing modern Scottish architecture, alongside fellow RIBA-Award-winning architecture firm Dualchas. Now, Highlanders can live in some of the most enviable homes in Britain.

This is what Scots want, at least according to historian Daniel Maudlin, a lecturer in Architectural History and Theory and building inspector with Historic Scotland:

“They don’t want to live in a Blackhouse, and they don’t want to live in an 18th century cottage either,” Maudlin contends.

“I think the point is that the best way to talk about the Highlands is as a modern place, and that in itself is a 200 year tradition. It’s a constantly evolving, changing place.”

Scottish national identity

Anyone au fait with post-Brexit politics will be aware that Scottish national identity is a politically charged topic. Architecture is always intertwined with national identity – but it is particularly linked in the Highlands thanks to its history.

Prior to the 18th century, Highlanders lived in Blackhouses - simple, stone-based longhouses designed to protect inhabitants from the country’s extreme weather.

But following Bonnie Prince Charlie’s failed Jacobite rebellion of 1746, Highlanders were forcibly evicted from their homes. The Highland way of life was almost eradicated. Blackhouses began to disappear from the landscape.

In this new era, the improved Scottish farmhouses were erected: simple white farmhouses which still dominate the hilly Highland terrain.

Traditional white Scottish farmhouses, here pictured near The Quiraing in Staffin, Isle of Skye.

Picture Scottish architecture and images of these white chocolate-box cottages come to mind.

“The thing about the Blackhouse, is that the Blackhouse became an emblem of shame, and of poverty,” explains Dualchas director Neil Stephen, who founded the dynamic firm with his brother Alasdair while they were still students.

“What was traditional architecture in the Highlands just basically stopped and died – and then it was imposed architecture, whether it was the white house traditional classical form, which was the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries template from Edinburgh, or the kit house which was a more American or suburban form.”

Dualchas aims to turn the negative associations of the Blackhouse on its head.

“What we sought to do initially at Dualchas was to try and have something that was connected to this place and inspired by this place […] inspired by the old architecture and trying to get some sort of cultural connection,” says Stephen.

“But then as you develop you are thinking more about the place and the environment, of the materials and updating those ideas – and within the business when you bring in new folk and young folk, new ideas obviously develop. You can end up with very different modern architecture.”

Maudlin is quick to stress he thinks this change is good – and exciting.

“I think it’s a brilliant way of introducing new buildings into the Highlands, and much more interesting than just doing copies of old Blackhouses - or even doing copies of 18th century white cottages,” enthuses Maudlin.

“Rural Design […] keep exploring new things and different forms, other materials,” agrees director Alan Dickson.

“We’re trying to stand here, where we are at the moment at the beginning of the 21st century, and look forward and backwards with equal weight […] with the view that the Highlands in the past has never stood still.”

The importance of landscape

However many – including Stephen and Dickson – would argue that celebrating the Scottish landscape goes hand in hand with celebrating Scottish cultural identity.

Scotland’s Landscape Charter describes landscape as “an essential aspect of our sense of place and belonging”.

The new breed of modern Scottish homes have a respectful, reciprocal relationship with their iconic surroundings.

Architect Mary Arnold-Forster worked for Dualchas for 16 years. Now she works independently, designed stunning homes across the Highlands and Islands.

“The sites are amazing […] so the inspiration comes from the site,” Arnold-Forster explains. “I spend a lot of time, or as much time as I can, on the site […] at different times of year and at different times of day to see how the light changes”.

Arnold-Forster notes “the typography aspects, the geology, the flora, the surrounding built environment […] I suppose what I’m saying is, the site is for me the generator and the start of every project.”

Loch Maree, from design to reality

Loch Maree, from design to reality

Her thoughts are echoed by Rural Design’s Alan Dickson:

“What we really like doing is when somebody comes to us with a location for a project that has these key elements that you might think of in the landscape here, which is the sea and the sky,” enthuses Dickson.

“I love designing a building where you have a great sunset […] I think that’s a very special moment in any day, as the sun sets particularly across the sea. We’ll do anything with a project, contort or twist it maybe, to try and take advantage of that moment.”

By celebrating the Highland landscape, which is so intertwined with Highland history and culture, these homes do more to celebrate the region’s traditions than copycat recreations of 18th century cottages.

Elements of the cottages

Thanks to the technologies of the 21st century, new buildings can showcase the surrounding landscape in a way older architecture could not.

Many of the homes can showcase the spectacular landscape through large glass windows,

“Traditional Scottish buildings are very solid, very low […] with tiny windows to protect you from the weather,” explains Dickson, “Whereas now we don’t have that issue, now we have amazing technologies and amazing windows.”

Rural Design's Loch Duich on the Western Coast of Scotland.

Rural Design’s Loch Duich uses its showstopping glass window to highlight the property’s view across the loch towards the Five Sisters of Kintail mountain range.

Other properties highlight more localized elements of the landscape.

“Clients are often interested in the big view,” notes Arnold-Forster, “But sometimes views of rocks or moss and heather appeal to me, just really close up views of intense landscapes, because [clients] buy these sites and they’re always looking beyond them, sometimes there’s something really beautiful and micro on the site.”

These buildings might be modern – and in some cases grandiose – but they are normally low. This means minimum impact on the scenery.

In some instances, the buildings are literally submerged into their surroundings – perhaps most strikingly in the case of Rural Design’s Turf House, with its grassy roof.

Building a Scotland for the future

The popularity of Scotland’s new architecture directly aids Scotland’s $13.7 billion tourism industry: many Dualchas and Rural Design properties are available to rent as holiday lets.

But many more are permanent homes. Looking towards the future, the architects want to encourage young Scots to stay North.

“We want the Highlands to protect itself as a modern, confident place,” explains Stephen.

“We want it to be aspirational. A lot of people who live and work in Skye, especially young people, are aspirational about what they want the place to be and they can see the potential in it.”

Stephen also wants to encourage young Scottish designers to stay in the Highlands:

Rural Design's Alan Dickson says he will "do anything" to allow a property to enjoy sunset views.

“I think that’s a great thing for communities to have, for young people to stay and to be ambitious, but the older generation have to help give them those opportunities, by making sure they can get housing and set up businesses.”

The architect is optimistic, but cautious about the future:

“Design still tends to be a privilege of people who are wealthier quite often and I think that’s got to change, it’s got to be for everybody,” he tells CNN, “That’s what we started off trying to do, low cost affordable homes […] but it’s not as easy as it used to be, and that is a problem.”

Meanwhile, Dickson thinks the architecture of the future must be about duality: respecting the past but looking forward to the future:

“I’m not necessarily as presumptuous to think we’re going to completely change the landscape once again,” concludes Dickson, “But it does seem right that we should be trying to find an architecture that reflects our age, rather than reflects a time of a hundred years ago.”