Winter dreaming

Working for a Publishing House means that I’m privileged to be surrounded by books of every kind in my normal day.

Books have always been a huge and important part of my life, and husband and I probably have a collection of many thousands between us, which we are going to have to prune out to more manageable levels before we move to the croft.

Having said that, there are some classics that I’d never part with. I fell in love with the River Cottage handbook set many years ago. I’m a sucker for a well bound hardback, and these little books in their sturdy covers are just the right size for a small shelf in the corner of the kitchen or to pop in your pocket on a walk through the countryside.

Covering everything from shoreline foraging to home brew, cheese making and jams, they’re a great entry level into each of these worlds, leading on to more specialist reading for any specific area of interest.

I’m looking forward to having the time and space over the winter months on the Croft to curl up by the wood burner and plan and dream with these old friends.

After all, as Neil Gaiman said, “A book is a dream that you hold in your hands”.

So true.

Pantry Envy

I’ve always been a bit of a food preserver, despite living all over the world and having enjoyed the limitations of many kitchens. Given half the chance I’m one of those people who rather than waste anything will pickle it, make jam out of it, or dry it for future use. My idea of heaven is a well stocked shelf groaning with jars of vegetables, pickled cucumbers, jams, marmalades and dried pulses, legumes and mushrooms. I’m at my happiest with a few months supply in the house, available in case of an emergency.

In all my years of cooking, I’ve never had a pantry, although it’s something I’ve always wanted. I’ve made do with shelves on an old pine bookcase, or a cupboard in the utility room. Somehow, although that’s perfectly ok and totally suitable as long term food storage, it doesn’t satisfy this strange, deeply seated craving for a pantry.

In my minds eye in our forever home I see a small, cool room with shelves either side of the door, and cupboards beneath a stone work service. The shelves are neatly stacked with jars of preserved produce, like many-coloured jewels. Crocks of flour, jars of dried beans and pulses and dried ingredients of every kind line the shelves, ready for the next power cut or the onset of the next zombie apocalypse.

I’m not sure where this came from. I know that modern houses don’t normally include these things within their open-plan design, and that this desire would mean sacrificing space for something else (not the boot room, obviously).

But I’m going to try and find a way….

The mucky boot room


As we’re hoping to complete the contracts for the croft in the next few weeks, we’re starting to think about the design of the croft house that we need to build in readiness for the submission of planning permission.

One of the things that we’re very conscious of is the need for a big working utility area. And a boot room.

The island is often wet and cold which necessitates lots of storage for coats and muddy boots if we’re not to bring the weather into what we hope to be a cosy, dry living space. Let alone find room for the collection of disgraceful hats, flat caps and old ratty knits that I know are going to adorn the pegs in profusion.

Interestingly, many of the designs that we’ve looked at here bring the main entrance into the house through the back, preferably on the leeward side of the prevailing wind, and through a boot room and/or a utility room before decanting into the kitchen or living area. This seems eminently practical to us and we will incorporate this into any house that we build along with a wind break.

One of the blogs that I saw recently on house build contained an interview with a couple who built their own home, but who failed to include a utility room area, and it’s the one thing that they called out as an essential miss.  I guess for veg preparation, dogs, storage, drying washing, homebrew or whatever we all do that takes up space or is wet and mucky it’s something we mustn’t miss!

So boot room space we shall have.

The joy of vegetable plot planning

There’s something very satisfying about the process of designing a vegetable garden. Whether you have several acres or just a small back yard, selecting the vegetables and fruits that you love, working out what will grow in your environment and sketching up a planting plan is a seriously happy thing.

I know that I should be focussing on practical things with the house build, but I can’t help sneaking a peek at books on raised beds, cold frames and no-dig gardening. I don’t dare go near the seed catalogues any time soon as it’s all far too premature – we won’t be planting vegetables on the croft for at least another year, but I convince myself that a planting plan now is a sensible thing to spend time on!

Please ignore the seed packets. This is a wonderful little company but I’m not buying anything yet. Honestly. However heritage and helpful and lovely they are.

It doesn’t help that I get serious garden envy from reading blogs with wonderful, established kitchen gardens where the owners are almost totally self sufficient in fabulous, organic produce. Like The Big Garden and Totally inspirational – thanks guys.

I know that to get to this stage has probably taken years of hard work, mistakes and learning. I know that the first year on the croft will be one of watching and listening, preparing, and taking much experienced local advice if I’m not to completely balls things up. I don’t mind making mistakes – it’s all part of the learning process. I’m just impatient now to start.

I’m going to start small, segregating a south-east facing part of the croft close to the house for raised beds. We’re talking about composting, and building a wormery, which husband has had great success with in the past. I’d like to grow a herb bed, and a few vegetable beds, and a fruit bed. And we want to plant an orchard with hardy apple varieties. And maybe even try growing nuts in a sheltered space, which I know may be a step too far on Skye, but what the hell, it’s worth a try.


Red Clover and Lupins

We’ve been thinking of how best to build up the croft’s ability to support plants and wildlife. It’s pretty barren at the moment with limited biodiversity, having been left unused for many years as far as we can tell. It’s compacted grass, moss and rushes with a bank of trees to the Southwest and a very boggy area to the South. The soil levels are very thin.

What we can do is start working on the fertility of the ground by seeding nitrogen fixers like lupins and red clover, which will start the process of returning nutrients to the soil and slowly build up the biomass. Green manure.

We also need to get to know a local farmer who can provide manure from cows, pigs or horses that we can dig in or spread. Anything that increases the organic matter in the soil can only be a good thing. We’ll be aiming for full ground cover rather than bare, tilled soil with most of the land under tree or orchard cover, and raised beds for vegetable production.

Of course, once the trees are in and slowly shedding leaves the cycle will start and the soil depth will slowly and naturally increase.

I know that it’s going to be at least ten years until the trees and hedges will be established enough to really get going, but how satisfying will it be to know that the legacy we leave will be woodland and wildlife.

Barn challenges

First the good news… there is still an old barn on the croft. Agricultural buildings are an absolute necessity for equipment, feed, seed storage and the like.

Secondly the not so good news. It’s more hole than barn…

There’s a massive gap in the back wall of the barn, where the stone collapsed many years ago. There is no front wall at all except some rickety boarding that looks like it’s held up by sheer hope. The beams are unsupported, rotten in places and swaying in the wind at the back where there is no wall left to hold them. The tin roof is full of holes but is mainly still in place, which is what’s saved the rest of the walls, I suspect.

However, it’s salvageable. Let’s hope it’s doable and actually not too expensive, because after we’ve built the house and started the land drainage and tree planting works we’ll be restoring this with a bit of a wing and a prayer, and not a lot else!

A sense of home

As I sit here at the kitchen table in London on the last few days before Christmas, tapping away on my laptop and watching the clouds scud past the window, my thoughts turn to what we mean by the term home.

For me, home is where love is. And my love is my husband of two years. His presence and his companionship immediately make anywhere that we live home. Having said that, there are places to be in that feel more comfortable and more aligned with our core values and way of life than others. London would never be that place for us. It’s just where we have to be for work. It’s too fast and impersonal, too urban. Too concrete. Too polluted.

I’m sure we’ve all seen dogs slowly and endlessly circling around, trying to find that indefinably perfect spot to settle in. I seem to have been that way for most of my life, living in Germany, France, Holland, England and America, yet never fully settling or feeling that deep sense of belonging in any of them.

The closest I’ve ever got to that is the island.  For me, cold, wet, bleak, and as wild as it is, it speaks to me at some deep level that makes me feel that this could be home. When I’m on the island I feel a sense of something deep within me unclenching, and some of the anxiety that is ever present in urban life starting to relax it’s grip on me.

Some people count the nights until Christmas in the anticipation of the day. I’m counting the months and years until we are on the island in our own little home.