Saturday, 19 December 2009

A New Life --- Up the stairs

There’s something almost religious about building on an upstairs room to a house, especially if you undertake the project soon after leaving an office job you’ve done for over twenty years where you mostly sat in an office staring at a screen. Now you have to use your hands, make them work as more than appendages for your brain. They have to hold a drill, a hammer, a saw, a drill. You are building a new floor onto an existing structure, making the place where you’ll eventually move. Maybe you’re also preparing the space for the greater move that you’ll make sometime between now and eternity.

Enough of philosophy. We have to thank Pat Grant for the seed idea, that our attic could be somehow transformed into an attic. But it took more than waving a magic wand to accomplish it. About two winters and two summers. Philip Anderson built our stairwell, and the first walls. The first winter I created the space for a bedroom and bathroom. The bathroom space was originally a crawlspace only three feet wide, up against an old, slanting roof structure. To make it larger took some sleight of hand.

In the picture you can see the slanting roof under the shelving. Elsewhere they're hidden under the marble countertop.

The first job --- and it was a job, was to move the attic beams to open up the area, side beams a few inches left or right, top bracing beams up by six inches. 40 beams. It was cold, uninteresting work that left numb fingers, and me wondering if this was going anywhere. Not until Louis Charron arrived in early Summer and needed an architectural project did I get the oomph for the next phase --- even less glamorous, to trim out a beam and reinforce the roof structure for skylight windows. We had to grind off protruding slate nails, bolt on 2 by 4s to roof beams, insert cross beams. Our friends, the Ashtons and Roys cut two holes in our roof, inserted the skylights, and rearranged our roofing slates. Daylight appeared in the attic. We laid down a temporary floor. We barely started to install foam insulation in the ceiling when Louis left, and I had to wait for the next kid to show up --- Santiago my nephew. He grew up in the high Andes and is an accomplished carpenter. Makes amazing kitchen cabinets. Alas, I’m not ready for cabinets, only for insulation, 2 by 4s and sheetrock. When Santi was not riding the lawnmower --- he loved the riding lawnmower, he was up with me cutting up the insulation board or screwing in the sheetrock. Again the work stopped and had to wait until Jordan Poole arrived. Each kid had his passion, and Jordan’s was spackling (plastering as it’s called here). We were starting to see the rooms taking shape.

Around that time I managed to find a plumber and a sparky (Scottish for ‘electrician’). It wasn’t easy. Tradesmen generally don’t like coming out to work in the country. They’re busy people and prefer to work in town. We had several plumbers come out to look at out project, drink tea with us, and talk enthusiastically. But either the estimates never arrived or were so high as if trying to dare us to take them. Come on, make may day! I asked Paul F to do our plumbing, a good kid who had come out before. He wanted the job and did it well. Luckily we knew a good sparky. Once he was able to extricate himself from a heavy work load he came out --- two months later than scheduled, but he did appear. He did a great job and provided good conversation about my favourite Orcadian writer, George MacKay Brown.

Last summer I finished the plastering, endless sanding that made me look each day like a snowman, and then came the painting. The laminated wooden floor went down. Then the Swedish drawers were built into the wall --- Louis's idea, and --- Ta daaaaa!!!! Where’s the fanfare? Ah yes, there are no stairs! Philip Anderson, our joiner, is in Jersey, imprisoned by a dastardly laird who won’t let him out until he has finished building his castle. Christmas is coming --- argh! We need those stairs. So we contact various joiners. They come out, drink tea, look at our space, mutter something about planning permission to which I shrug. They go, and we wait for something to arrive in the mail or a phone call. One estimate did arrive, a high estimate.

Our neighbour Anne Christie mentioned Neal Donald, a joiner in the glen. He comes, and takes the job…and those are his stairs.

Amber and I now live upstairs, a cosy room that feels like a treehouse. We’ve hung up our Navajo dreamcatcher, and we’re expecting some big dreams.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The March of the Sheep

When people think of the Scottish countryside, they usually think of sheep; masses of them crawling like tufts of cotton wool over grassy meadows or wandering the heather covered slopes.Where you don't see sheep, you'll find black cows, the Aberdeen Angus in our area, or endless barley fields. Dotted around the valleys you often see abandoned stone cottages, sometimes with a slate roof, but often little more than the walls still standing. They point to a dark episode in Scottish history. Two hundred years ago there was a different landscape, many such cottages with two or three generations of a family and a few acres of land that grew potatoes, oats, barley, some root crops, hay to feed a few cows, and several scrawny sheep bearing little resemblance to today's fluffy Blackface sheep.There were few if any of the towns you see today. It was a tough life, living at the mercy of bad weather, potato blight or other farm diseases. As most smallholdings were rented from a laird, there was rent to be paid no matter the weather. Every ten years or so when crops failed there was widespread famine.

What changed it all? The march of the sheep. Beginning in the 1750s, they came from the south, a relentless white tide that swallowed up farm after farm. Landlords, who often ran up huge debts from dubious financial gambles, soon realized that a large sheep farm would give them four times the income and much less bother than the rents from so many smallholdings. Wool fetched a premium price as did mutton, with very little outlay of cash. New sheep breeds appeared that had more meat, ample wool, and withstood the frigid Scottish winters. As often happens, the financial factors were only part of the reasons for change. Poor people, living on the land where you can't control them, are inconventient for politicians. The Clearances lasted over a hundred years, a slow process of forced eviction and land confiscations leading to the establishment of the large farms you see today. The population density in the highlands fell, while the sheep population soared. During a particularly dark chapter, violence broke out between the people being evicted and the sheep farmers. Land administrators, known in Scotland as factors, were known to burn cottages to prevent them being re-occupied. Economists suggested that people would just fit into new jobs on the new farms, but mechanization resulted in much fewer people being needed. More benevolent landowners resettled their tenants in newvillages that took root in those days. Many emigrated to Canada or to the States.

What about the future? Todays farms are scarcely profitable; many exist for mainly two reasons 1. Cheap diesel oil and fertilizer 2. European Union subsidies. When the price of oil rises, as it must when the effects of peak oil become felt, the high price of diesel and fertilizer will make the present system unsustainable.
George Monboit, a writer for "The Guardian" looks at one scenario.

Higher food prices already are making people see the advantages of growing their own. Vegetable allotments so popular that, in big cities you often have to wait for years to get one. Some cities are changing their parks into allotments. It doesn't take much imagination to see the trend extend into the countryside. We may be coming full circle, back to the old crofting days.