I wish it would rain…..

Apologies for the late post this week – you can blame it on the weather; we are currently enjoying endless days of glorious sunshine, which is such a rare event that I’ve been making the most of it and spending all my time out in the garden. So the blog took a bit of a backseat this week.

I could well regret saying this, but I’m actually sitting here in Scotland wishing it would rain. Here. In the middle of sunny Scotland! It is close on a month since we last had any proper rain. There’s been a couple of misty mornings with just enough moisture in the air to fool the plants, but the promised thunder storms and lashings of rain seem to have passed us by.  So the sparrows are happily taking dust baths in my flower beds, and the only bit of grass that I claim is a cultivated lawn is looking like tumbleweed.

And I am getting nervous. For unlike most of the country, I can’t rant at the water companies if the water supply dries up. My water is from a private borehole. It is pumped up from 60 metres below ground level in my back field. People laughed when I said I was also putting in a 6,000 litre rainwater collection tank. Like I’m ever going to run out of water in Scotland. Well this could be the year I get the last laugh. Except that, having installed said tank, I’ve never quite got round to connecting it up. There are rainwater drains from all the gutters taking the rain into the tank. There is lots of complicated pipework in the house to divert the rainwater supplies to all the loos. But the two aren’t actually joined up yet…..

(Note to self – must call a plumber)

Such are the pros and cons of being (partially) self-sufficient. So I’ve instigated a self-imposed hose-pipe ban and started rationing my cups of tea.

Not that the lack of rain seems to have hindered the growth of the weeds in any way. They are continuing on their mission to turn my garden into a jungle and in places the nettles are now 6ft high. But at least if it isn’t raining I can get outside and do something about them.

The garden at the front of the house is now looking vaguely presentable.

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So I decided to concentrate my efforts on the bit of land at the side of the garage.  Unfortunately, in the absence of any proper compost bins, I confess I have been using this area as a bit of a dumping ground for all the weeds I pulled out of the front garden, so it has become a bit of a compost heap. Still, it’s only about 6m x 4m, so should be manageable in a couple of days if I get a welly on.

Right. Famous last words.

I got started with my shovel, bucket (for collecting the weeds), sieve (for sifting the stones out of the soil), and cup of tea (to keep me going).

Within a couple of hours, the bucket had been replaced with a wheelbarrow and the sieve had been abandoned. Way too many weeds, and way too many rocks in the ground.

I revised my estimated time of completion from a couple of days to a couple of months. This wasn’t just an oversized compost heap; it was a builders scrap yard.

So far I’ve unearthed 6 steel security gates, about half a tonne of concrete, yards of barbed wire and fencing wire, some steel reinforcement mesh, a bag of concrete, a couple of bags of sand, several lengths of broken plastic drainage pipe and enough chocolate wrappers and coke bottles to start a sweet shop.

Oh, and discovered a long lost manhole.

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My neighbour suggested I get a mini-digger. That’s what he would do. Be finished in a day.

I do love it when people stand around offering helpful advice while watching you work!

Well, as anyone who’s followed this blog for a while will know, me and JCB’s don’t get on too well. In fact I have a 100% track record on trashing them. OK, I’ve only hired the one, but I’m not sure my nerves could stand the experience a second time. In any case, with all the bent and broken up steel I’m uncovering, I’m not sure it would be safe – I doubt a mini digger can shift a 6ft security fence panel that is tangled up with a mangled steel concrete reinforcement mesh. Not the way I drive it.

Bucket and spade it is…….

And of course, on top of all the builder’s garbage there’s the all weeds that I had piled up a couple of feet high which have now retaken root and started growing again…. The two brand new 500 litre compost bins are already full. More have been ordered!

My neighbour reckons I’ll be finished about August at the rate I’m going. I reckon he’s being optimistic.

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Mr Incompetent Builder has a lot to answer for.

Gin and Jungle

Sticking with the outdoor theme this week, I’m picking up from where I left the last blog way back in August 2016, when I’d been working on the decking at the front of the house.

IMG_0493I finished that blog as follows:

“So no, it isn’t finished. But it is three-quarters done. The rest will just have to wait until the next time I’m home!”

Ha! Famous last words. That decking stood proud and tall – and distinctly unfinished – for another eight months. Not my fault of course. I had a couple of extended work trips in India, and it’s a bit far to commute from Chennai for the weekend just to finish a bit of decking – for some reason my boss didn’t see that as a justifiable expense.

And by the time I did finally make it home it was Winter. Nobody in their right minds works in the garden during the winter months in the frozen North. By the time my commuting had reduced to just the weekly red-eye to London and the North unfroze enough to venture outside, I’d turned my attentions to the long list of things that needed finishing indoors and didn’t really have any time for the garden.

Now you can say what you like about the Scottish weather, but the copious quantities of rainfall do mean that the minute temperatures event hint at better things, everything starts growing with a vengeance – particularly the weeds.

So with a relatively mild Winter (by our standards) in 2016, and a temperate Spring’17, as soon as we headed back into double-digit temperatures the garden did what uncared-for gardens normally do under these circumstances and went completely wild. So much so that as I parked up at the front one day I realised that from the relatively low vantage point sitting in the car I actually couldn’t see anything of the house apart from the roof. It was hidden by a jungle. I also realised that a couple of weeks later I was hosting a house-party that included a highly active 3-year-old who loves playing hide-and-seek. With the current state of the jungle, if she went to hide we could be seeking for days!

Time for some drastic action:

  1. Build a proper pathway
  2. Buy a strimmer

And picturing current state of the decking with its cliff-edge drop to the ground combined with aforementioned energetic 3-year-old:

3.  Finish decking

I considered DIY’ing the path and driveway. But knowing how hard my land is to dig, coupled with the fact I was still working away from home quite a lot, it seemed like a better plan to call in the cavalry. Fortunately my helpful contractor chappie had a few days free between jobs, so he brought up a digger and ordered in the gravel.

While the lads worked on the pathway I worked on the decking. Not actually too major a job since it had all been planned out and all materials bought eight months previously. It was just a case of getting out the hammer and chisel again to ‘dig’ a few more post holes.

Fortunately, with a bit of decent weather for a change, we managed to get all construction finished before the house party arrived. Path dug, decking built. Just needed to get the grass strimmed and the approach to the barn would actually look quite civilised for a change.

The measure of any good garden deck area is whether it’s an enjoyable place to sit and sip your G&T. Clearly I now had a pretty decent G&T standard deck at the front of the house. But it does have one major flaw – it only really gets the sun through to about 3pm.

Now I can drink G&T at any time of the day. Admittedly I don’t usually put it on my cornflakes, but only because I consider that a waste of good gin. I do, however, live by the philosophy that the sun is always over the yard arm somewhere in the world, so I can legitimately sit out on the front deck at midday with my glass of G,T,ice’n’a’slice. But I’m not a big fan of sitting outside shivering whilst knocking back the clear stuff. And in Scotland, when the sun disappears, the temperatures plummet –  none of those long balmy mediterranean nights up in the frozen North. We may have the light, but we don’t have the heat. Clearly I need an alternative Gin Deck that gets the evening sun.

The perfect solution is the area outside the kitchen & cottage, which already had an ‘almost finished’ decking. It was another one of those jobs that was rained off at 90% complete, and I never quite got back to it.

The answer? Well when you have a house-party, make sure you invite somebody who’s handy with a hammer and has a perfectionist’s eye. Not only did he finish off some of the gaps, he also took up some of the warped and wonky boards I’d put down and forced them back into straighter lines. Thank you Mr Handyman – you can come again.

Inspired by all this deck improvement activity, I decided to carry on the good work after the visitors had gone. Grand plans included creating a number of individual raised beds for planting my own kitchen garden. A touch of the good life – sitting on the deck late into a summer’s evening with the scent of home-grown herbs wafting around. You get the picture…..

So I now have outdoor Gin drinking space from early morning (just in case I do ever want to douse my cornflakes) right through to the late evening summer sun. All I need now is a solution for the midges…….

Clearing out the builders yard…

It’s that time of year again – Happy Easter!

It was this time of year, two years ago that the invaders from the South came to visit for the first time, and as I recall I was madly rushing about trying desperately to get the house habitable before they arrived.

This time, when half the pack came back for another visit, I had big plans to keep them occupied – let’s explore the garden…….

A long time ago, back in the dark days of building this place, I was shocked by an estimate from the builder that included an eye-waveringly high cost for removing rubbish from site. I challenged it, but he refused to budge saying that high costs of landfill needed to be covered. So in a misguided attempt to keep the costs down, I suggested to the builder that anything that was dug out of the barn during the build could be dumped on site. With a couple of acres of land available, there was plenty of room to lose the scrapings off the barn floor without impacting the landscape too much.

Unfortunately this was in the days of Mr Incompetent Builder. Rather than spread the floor scrapings out across a wide area, he dumped it by the digger load in the field next to the house. When the snow fell that Winter, it looked like I had an Olympic Standard ski jump in my garden!

Nor was that the worst of it. Mr I-B had also developed selective hearing when we discussed this. He decided that I’d agreed that all the building waste could be dumped or burned on site. In fact, using his initiative, he decided to turn my land into his own private landfill, bringing up the rubbish from other sites he was working on. I finally caught him out when I visited the site one day to find a fire smouldering with the detritus and packaging from a Worcester gas boiler, which I was fairly confident had nothing to do with my build. a) Because at the time my barn had no floors, doors, windows or much in the way of a roof so it seemed a bit premature to have installed a boiler, and b) because the barn is too remote to be able to get a gas supply!!

It turned into one of the many arguments I had with that particular builder and he eventually agreed to remove aforementioned rubbish. But did so rather unenthusiastically, and, as it turned out, rather inefficiently.

But now I had a willing team of helpers – even if they didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for….!

Inevitably as we wanted to work outside the temperatures plummeted and there were flurries of snow. Winter is refusing to give up this year. But hey, this is Scotland – if you let the weather get in the way of your plans, you’d never get anything done. So we braved the elements and got to work, clearing up the ‘builders yard’.

Starting out in the forest, where many years ago when the forest was first planted, the saplings had been cased in plastic and staked, presumably to keep them growing straight and to protect them from deer.

Forestry management hasn’t been top of my list of priorities in building the barn, so nothing has been done out there since I bought the place. The trees have grown (as they have a habit of doing) breaking out of their wrappers and leaving lots of broken plastic lying around on the forest floor.

Though I hadn’t actually realised quite how many there were.

The plan was to take everything down to the gate at the front of the property, and pile it up ready for dumping in a skip at some point.

But it’s a fair old trek down to that gate, and with all the tree casings piling up it would have taken us a whole day to carry them all down there. Fortunately my genius baby brother came up with a cunning plan for transportation.

Take one old security fence, pile on as many bits of plastic as possible, put another old steel security fence on top to keep them in place. A plastic sandwich.

Three trips. Job done!

Of course having transported them all to the gate we needed a way of keeping them there. These things are so lightweight that one puff of wind would scatter them all over the grounds again – which would kind of defeat the object.

Well a couple of bits of old rope solved that one.

Meanwhile outside the forest, the lack of enthusiasm in Mr Incompetent Builder’s tidying up soon became apparent.

Fencing wire, barbed wire, temporary site fencing panels, broken wheelbarrows, bricks, blocks, heat pump pipe, underground drainage pipe, aluminium sheeting, roofing lead, downpipes, gutters, you name it, we found it.

So there it is – two and a half acres and 16 years of builders on site……

Time to order that skip!

Decking out the garden…

Apologies to anyone who has been missing the regular fix of my barn building woes. Truth is, just as I’ve got to the happy state of being able to relax in front of the fire with a glass of wine without feeling too guilty about the ‘snagging list’, my job has taken me off to foreign climes. I’ve been stuck out in India for a few weeks. On the plus side, it’s a lot warmer than Scotland, and when I look at some of the wonky fittings, careless finishes and dodgy wiring that is endemic in India, it makes me feel slightly better about my marginally-less-than-completely-straight-walls! On the downside, it’s 5000 miles away from home, and even by my standards that feels a bit too far to commute just to get on with a bit of DIY….

So that’s why it’s been a couple of months since the last post.

When I finally managed to escape for a couple of weeks holiday I suppose I should really have headed straight up to the frozen North to make the most of my time off at the barn. Instead I took myself off to Italy to a pole camp for a week.

A fantastic week with some fantastic people. But also 4 hours of training a day. Every day for a week. By the time I got back up to Scotland my bruises had bruises, and my muscles were on strike. So I planned for a peaceful week in the remote middle of nowhere with aforementioned log fire and glass or two of wine.

I’d forgotten that last time I was home I’d decided to start work on the garden in front of the house, so had ordered a load of decking.

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And due to a minor misunderstanding about where exactly Scotland was, it hadn’t been delivered until the day after I left the country. So it has been sitting in the garage soaking up the Scottish weather for nearly a month. Just waiting for me to come home….

So much for a lazy week.

Still, it’s not like I haven’t tackled a bit of decking before. I’m a pro at this stuff, right? It won’t take more than a day, will it? Especially as this time I actually measured it properly, so the deck boards were the exact length I needed. No cutting required.

So. How hard can it be? Lay out the timber. Make the frame. Dig the holes. Fix frame to posts. Drop it into the holes. Throw in a bit of Postfix. Screw deck boards in place. Have a G&T. Job done!

Of course, this is my barn. I should know by now that nothing ever goes to plan…..

First challenge: Well I decided to build the frame in one piece. Much quicker that way. But the eminent voice of common sense (aka My Mum) stepped in as I was laying it all out, and pointed out that it would be far too heavy to lift as one piece. She was right of course, but that didn’t stop me arguing, muttering and grumbling about the fact that would mean I’d have to cut up some of the timbers to size. Which brings me on to challenge number two…

I hate sawing wood; I cannot for the life of me saw in a straight line (probably because I haven’t got the patience to mark it properly all round) and I get bored witless after about five minutes. That’s why I invested in a bench saw. Unfortunately the timber for the posts was too big to fit under the blade, so handsawing was the only option.

Luckily expert help was at hand. AKA My Dad. He may claim to be the self-acknowledged avoider of all things DIY, but he cuts a much better straight line than I do, so he got the job of chief master woodcutter for the week.

Challenge number 3: The local farmer once told me he’d considered buying the barn but decided not to in the end because it had no foundations and it was built on ‘rotten rock’.  At the time I’d not taken much notice, but turns out he was right. I’d forgotten that I don’t get to dig holes in garden. I mostly have to chisel them. So the process of creating 24 holes involved quite a lot of cursing, throwing of hammer/chisel/shovel/trowel, declarations of how much I hate my barn, etc. And of course took a whole lot longer than I had planned for.

Challenge number four? Well the weather of course. Nobody can blog about anything that happens in Scotland in Summer without mentioning ‘rain’ at least once. Although the forecasts kept insisting we were all set for a sunny days, somehow it didn’t quite work out that way. Rain kept interrupting play.

And the final challenge? Well I hadn’t really appreciated how much the land slopes away. If I keep the decking straight, by the time I get to the far corner, anybody stepping off the end would risks breaking their neck, or at the very least falling over and spilling their G&T. And since I’d rather not be sued by my guest in the future, I decided to change the layout a bit and create a split-level deck. A whole lot more work!

So no, it isn’t finished. But it is three-quarters done.

The rest will just have to wait until the next time I’m home!

Cremating rabbits and other fun things to do at the weekend..

Before anyone gets on their phone to shop me to the RSPCA, they were already dead. I promise. I was just getting rid of the evidence.

I got off an overnight plane in from India on Friday morning. Trekked across London to the wrong side of the river, dumped my suitcase, logged on to do an hour or so’s work and then headed out the door to City airport – where my flight up to Edinburgh was delayed by an hour. On the basis that nobody can really sleep on a plane, by the time I got home to the barn, I had been awake for 44 hours, and so had decided it was going to be a long lazy lie-in and a do-nothing day in the morning.

The local wildlife decided otherwise. I was startled awake by an almighty bang and a loud screeching. I tried the old ‘head under the pillow’ trick to get back to sleep. But a couple of minutes later and it happened again. It seemed a couple of local ravens had taken offence to something they had seen in the house, and were suicidally dive-bombing the living room windows. The only thing that would stop them was me standing at the window in my PJ’s jumping up and down like a lunatic to scare them off.

It was 5.20 am.

Well since I’ve been so rudely awakened, I might as well get up properly, particularly as it was promising to be a gloriously sunny weekend; such a rare event in Scotland it seems a shame to waste any of it.

So I decided to do some gardening and happily spent a whole day weeding the front garden.

I suppose I should point out here that the photo shows an area of about 8 m² that I have successfully cleared of weeds in one whole day. I am in denial about the state of the remaining 2½ acres that need clearing…..

But all that fresh air, coupled with what now felt like chronic sleep depravation over the last few days, I decided I was definitely having a lie-in on Sunday.

The local wildlife voted against. Again.

It’s like living in a Hitchcock movie. The dive-bombing ravens returned at 5 am. I got up and did my bird-scaring routine, but this time I went back to bed afterwards. Peace perfect peace…… lasted for about half an hour and then the cows started.

While I was pottering around in the garden on Saturday, entertainment was provided by the local farmers and the annual pilgrimage of the cows to the high pastures. They were being brought up two at a time and offloaded into the field above the barn.

They were very clearly not happy about it and spent their time walking a circuit of the field, obviously trying to find a gap in the fences. Every time another two cows arrived, they changed direction and walked a circuit round the other way. All the while mooing madly. The grass in this field was clearly not greener!

They eventually fell silent at about 8 pm. But then decided that 6 am on a Sunday morning was a good time to resume their bellowing.

So I gave up and got up. Another gloriously sunny day. So I decided I’d work outside again. But this time I had a mission – to clear the garage. Following the discovery last week that the gable end wall to the garage was in danger of disintegrating, I’ve arranged to get it repaired. Unfortunately anybody wanting to work in the garage will have to be something of an assault course master. It’s a bit of a mess:

So my good deed for the day is to get it all cleared.

Being one of those “Well I might need it one day…” sort of people, I tend to hoard stuff. Including building materials. At some point I will need to get another skip, but in the meantime, I have a cunning plan for disposing of the polystyrene insulation boards. I’ll move them all up to the rafters!

It was while I was shifting them that I made my gruesome discovery. Underneath the polystyrene boards there appears to be a rabbits graveyard in my garage. I’m not sure whether they hopped in there of their own accord and got stuck and died of starvation. Or perhaps the insulation heaps were designated as the local old rabbits home, and all the corpses I found had just died of old age. Or maybe a predator had built himself a secret lair in the polystyrene and was snaffling rabbits as they hopped around my garden.

Who knows? But it means that all that dust and dirt that had been covering me as I manhandled the insulation up the ladder was actually the mouldering particles of long dead rabbits. Ugh… not a thought that sat well with the breakfast bacon rolls. Not to mention the fact I was now left with a dozen or so dead bunnies to dispose of.

I could be wrong but I think there might be a law against disposing of corpses in the wheelie bin. It traumatises the dustman, or some such nonsense.

So how else do I get rid of a collection of dead rabbits? Well I could dig a mass grave. Except, as I think I might have mentioned before, my land is mostly rock. We don’t dig holes in the ground up here, we chisel them. And sorry if this comes as a disappointment but I am not blistering my hands to bits just to provide a dozen very long dead rabbits a decent funeral.

Nothing else for it: Cremation!


Still at least I could use the fire to clear a few other things as well. This is probably the tidiest my garage has ever been. And totally free of dead rabbits.


So there you have it. Suicidal ravens, homesick cows and a graveyard full of rabbits in the garage. A perfectly normal, peaceful weekend in the country….

The trees are coming down…

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It has been nearly 15 years since I first bought the barn, an oversized animal shed with 2.5 acres of land. And I think it fair to say that 99% of my time has been spent worrying about the building not the land.

There have been occasional, sporadic, attempts to plan a garden. Whenever the sun came out (which, let’s face it, is a fairly rare occurrence in Scotland) I would suddenly have an overwhelming urge to get outside rather than spend the day cooped up in a dusty old building site.

I once spent a whole weekend building a circular rockery/rose garden right in the middle of the front garden, beautifully planted with ground roses and fuchsias. Unfortunately I hadn’t really thought it through. It lasted one flowering season – then a lorry load of cement turned up to bury the underfloor heating,  and needing to get close enough to pump the screed in through the doors, drove straight over the nicely planted garden. They did at least have the sense to move the rocks out of the way, and some kind garden-minded concrete pourer replanted the fuchsia, but the roses were never seen again.

Since then, I’ve not attempted anything that might be impacted by what is going on inside the building. When my neighbour was building his cottage and was looking for somewhere to dump a load of decent grade topsoil, I took it and built a bank at the front of the house, which has subsequently been planted with a few shrubs and bulbs. And enticed by the rare appearance of some sunshine I did once order a load of materials to build a decking in front of the kitchen. (Naturally the weather had changed by the time I got round to constructing it..)

But that’s pretty much it. In reality, apart from putting in the boundary fences, the borehole and the miles of pipe for the ground source heat pump, I haven’t really made much effort.

In fact, it’s quite embarrassing to admit this, but until the Invaders from the South came up at Easter, I’d never actually walked through the half-acre of woodland I have out the back – it was an Easter egg hunt that finally got me in there!

However, I think that is about to change. As I get ever closer to ‘finishing’ the inside of the house, I am starting to think a bit more about the outside and a couple of things have recently drawn my attention to the fact I’ve been ignoring my land.

You may recall the blog a while ago about the gale force winds bringing part of one of my neighbours trees crashing down through all our fences.

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Well after that episode they decided to get the tree surgeons up, and the edict went forth that all three of these trees had to come down. It has left our landscape looking a bit bare and bleak, but apparently the central ash tree was rotten two-thirds of the way through; it wouldn’t have survived many more 90mph storms, and at 60ft high, would have taken out a large part of my barn as it went.

So now my neighbours and I are discussing what we should plant instead. We may be remotely stuck up a hill with the next nearest house about a mile away, but somehow taking down these trees has felt like an invasion of privacy.

On the plus side, it’s great news for my plans to put solar panels on the roof. Those three trees cast quite a lot of shade over my building. But now any panels will be able to soak up every little bit of sunshine Scotland has to offer. (OK, that may not be much, but it will all make a difference!)

So I got somebody up to talk about how and when I could get the solar power installed. While the GSHP is working well enough, it hasn’t really been tested through a proper Scottish Winter yet, so anything I can do to help to boost it is a pretty sensible thing to do..

From discussing the solar panels, we moved on to talking about a few plans I have for the garage, and while we were there, just happened to take a closer look at the gable end wall. I wish I hadn’t. I knew that some of the bricks in the wall were looking a bit the worse for wear, and that I needed to do something to get the downpipes to run right into the drains properly, but I didn’t realise quite how bad it had got. It is just water and weather damage. As rain seeps into the wall and then the temperature drops, the freezing water expands and, eventually, causes the bricks to explode. It is at least a double-skin wall. But when my helpful contractor chappy managed to get his hand all the way through the wall, I decided I didn’t want to see any more. I’ve sent him away to price up the job to fix the whole wall.

Is it urgent? Am I worried? Well if this wall goes, it will bring down the steel lintel that runs right across the front of the garage to the boiler room. Which will in turn bring down the wall of the boiler room. So the boiler room roof will come down. Which will take out the heat pump and the main power cable and the water pipes….

No, of course I’m not worried.

But I think it’s probably the first job I need to get done before I concentrate on the rest of the land.

After that, who knows. As with the building of the barn, I do have a vision of what I want my grounds to look like, but just as it has taken me nearly 15 years to get the building how I want it, I suspect the garden is going to be another 15 years of effort.

And relax………

Or maybe not. Apologies to all those of you expecting a blog last Sunday. I meant to write and post it before the Invaders arrived, but I was still running round like a lunatic trying to get things finished.

Including a bit of last minute putting up of curtain poles, (when I realised that anyone standing in the kitchen could see straight through into my bedroom)

Followed by some frantic cleaning up after the builders who had been in.

But hey – there’s nothing like a deadline for getting things done. And I have to say, the barn has never looked to good, nor has so much ever been achieved in such a short space of time as I’ve managed to get finished in the last 6 weeks.

Scotland did its best to entertain on the weather front – providing rain, snow, sleet, gale force winds, glorious sunshine and hail all in the space of one weekend!

We drove all the way up to Speyside for a nature watch at dusk. But it was not a pleasant drive home 3 hours in the dark, in a blizzard on some narrow country roads.

(I can’t take credit for the photo of the pine marten – my niece is clearly a better photographer than I am!).

Fortunately there were enough patches of dry weather to allow us to get out for an Easter egg hunt in the forest and a few long walks up the hill.

Not to mention the chance for a bit of Robin Hood practice:

Sadly I didn’t get to join in with the archery party. The piano man decided that Easter Monday was a good time to come back and finish the job he’d started the week before. Since it required dismantling practically every part of the piano, and it’s probably been about 10 years since it was last tuned, it took him a while to finish. But it certainly sounds a lot better now it’s done!

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All in all I’d like to think quite a successful first ‘house-party’. It was really lovely to have my guests to stay, and I think it’s fair to say that the barn has been initiated into accepting visitors – the heating survived, the hot water appeared to cope with the demands of seven people, and the log burner was well and truly broken in!

And whilst I didn’t have a fully functioning kitchen, the Aga and fridge seemed to cope with the food and alcohol requirements!

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But for anyone who’s worried that this might be the end of the blog – fear not. Whilst the invaders from the South might have spurred me on to make more progress in 6 weeks than I’ve managed in the last year, there was a whole lot of things that I didn’t quite get finished: The kitchen was just the Aga and the fridge – so although I could provide ice on demand for the G&T, we still had to go up into the freezing cold cottage for washing up.

And I didn’t quite get the balustrades finished – so upstairs was banned for everyone except me.

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And then there’s the cottage – which I’ve sort of turned into a bit of a building site…

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And although the new conservatory is looking great from the outside, the same can’t be said about the inside….

And at some point I really need to do something to clear out the boiler room… and the garage

The list of ‘finishing’ still seems endless. And of course, even when (if) the house is ever completed, there’s a couple of acres outside that need a bit of work……

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Hey-ho! I think I might be writing for a while yet…..

Decking out the garden….

So far, other than the the blog about keeping the cows out, I haven’t mentioned much about my outside space. Having so much to focus on inside, I’ve been taking a bit of a ‘head in sand’ approach to the outside – if I pretend it doesn’t exist, maybe it will sort itself out. With the inevitable result that I now have 2½ acres of total wilderness, mostly consisting of 6ft high weeds, nettles and thistles. A haven for all that wildlife I mentioned in my last blog!

But with the second conservatory finally installed, (the saga of which which requires a whole blog to itself), I decided I would make the effort to tidy up the little square of ground that sits outside the kitchen and the cottage.

It’s South-West facing, and a lovely sun-trap in the evenings. So, my plan was to build a decking, with some strategically placed raised herb beds at either end; the perfect place to sit out in the long summer evenings with a G&T, the scents of mint, rosemary, thyme, wafting around in the breeze – (though obviously, this being Scotland, still well wrapped up in jumpers, scarves and gloves and being eaten alive by midges). You get the idea…

So I found a website where you just put your garden measurements in and it works out everything you need. And duly placed my order for 16m² of decking. For once there were no delivery issues, so it was all there waiting to be built the following weekend. Excellent. An afternoon’s work and it’ll be G&T all round!

Well how hard can it be? I mean, I’m probably showing my age here, but I watched that ‘Groundforce’ programme on telly in the 90’s. That chap Tommy could apparently knock up a garden decking area in a couple of hours.

Huh. He’s either a builder genius, or that was TV trickery. Or, more likely, he had a whole team of willing workers to call upon.

As with everything else at the barn, building my decking was never going to be that straight-forward.

Problem number 1: Size matters

Well to be honest, this one was entirely self-inflicted. What’s that DIY mantra – “Measure twice, cut once”.

Right. Well I did measure, more than twice. But kept forgetting to write the measurements down. Or wrote them down on random scraps of paper that I couldn’t find later. Or wrote them down in a very vague way that didn’t really take account of where the fence and the gate were….

So I had to redesign the whole thing after all the supplies had been delivered.

Two areas of decking of 3.6m x 2.4m and 3m x 2.4m became two areas of decking of 3m x 1.8m and 4.8m x 2.4m with an overlapping step. Lots more work involved than originally intended!

Problem number 2: rotten rock

I recall a conversation with the local farmer in the early days of the build. He told me he’d considered buying the place himself, but had decided against it because “it’s all built on rotten rock”. Not having a clue what he was talking about I just nodded, smiled and agreed in a vague non-committing way.

I found out what he meant the first time I tried to dig a hole in the ground to put my fence posts up – I don’t dig holes in my ground. I have to chisel them.

I needed 26 post holes for my decking. It took forever to dig/chisel them out.

If I was lucky, I could get down about 20cm before I hit rock. Sometimes boulders or bits of rock small enough to dig out; sometimes large areas of soft rock that could be broken up with a chisel. But occasionally a large piece of granite too hard to break and too big to dig out. Which meant starting all over again and moving the hole, or making an executive decision that it was deep enough to safely secure the post.

(A word to the wise here – don’t try this at the end of a long day, when you’re tired, cold, damp and the light is failing. You will inevitably miss the chisel and bring a 4lb club hammer down on your hands; I didn’t actually break my finger, but it was unusable for a few days!)

Problem number 3: building on a hill

The other major problem I had (which I bet Tommy never did) was trying to construct the frame halfway up a hill single-handedly. In an ideal world you should construct the frame on flat ground so you can keep it all nice and square as you build. But just like inside the barn, there is nothing flat or even about my land, so my frame was twisting about in every direction as I tried to put it together.

At times it felt like I was wrestling with a giant wooden octopus

I also made the mistake of constructing the frame before I dug the holes. With the result that I ended up have to saw one or two of the legs off to accommodate the ‘impossible to move rocks’ in the bottom of some of the holes.

Fortunately, once it was all concreted in place, it was all nice and square and so the rest was relatively easy. The decking planks I’d ordered were pre-cut to the correct length, so even with all my last  minute redesigning, there wasn’t too much cutting involved.

Now all I need is a bit of summer and a G&T. Oh, and some way of keeping the midges at bay…

Keeping the cows out…

Have I ever mentioned that my barn is quite remote – stuck up a hill in the middle of nowhere. Bit of an issue when people ask me to ‘just send them an email at the weekend’. No problem. If I walk up the hill and sit on the fourth fence post along, and the wind’s coming from the Northeast and it’s not too cloudy – yep, you’ll get your email…

As for actually using the Internet – I drive 30 miles on a Sunday morning just to find a wifi signal strong enough to upload this blog – so next time you’re moaning about your 3G not being a 4G, spare a thought for those of us in the wilds who don’t have any G at all!

But living in a rural community can have its advantages. I’m a commuter-belt England girl where gardens are usually the size of postage stamps and boundaries are jealously guarded. Put your fence panels half inch too far to the left or get a bit too enthusiastic in pruning your neighbours’ invading cherry blossom and you’re likely to start a turf war. Up in the wilds of Scotland, everyone’s too busy with the farming to worry about the size of the privet hedge. Even so, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to meet the local landowners to discuss the question of fencing.

Living as I do in the middle of farmland, animals are constantly being moved around, so the issue of fencing can be quite important. When I first bought the property, there were no fences around it. As the barn was being used to house animals, clearly it was less of an issue if they took a detour into the building to inspect the decor. But now I was trying to turn the erstwhile animal shed into my des res, cows in the living room are something to be avoided if possible.

To be honest, I didn’t really have any clue how much land owned. I mean, the property brochure when I bought it said 2.47 acres. But how much is that?? The only reference point I had was a site map drawn by hand on an A4 sheet of paper, with my property shown as an L-shape, about 3cm long, right in the middle of the page. Not exactly imbued with accurate detail.

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My neighbour had helpfully tried to point it out to me when I first went up there after winning the bid. “Well it goes from the gate in that field there, down to one of those trees, the 4th or 5th one down. Or maybe the 6th. Somewhere down there. And then it comes back up to a corner behind those trees. You can’t really see from here…”

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Excellent. That makes it all clear as mud.

I met up with the farmer and the local Laird on a drizzly Sunday afternoon and we walked around ‘my estate’, to mark out the boundaries.

“What do you reckon? About here?”

“Seems about right.”

“That’ll do then.”

It seems that in a remote community the issue of territory is a bit less fraught.

Having thus ‘formally’ marked out the boundaries, by the simple expedient of dropping a few large boulders in strategic places, it was agreed that the laird would get his estate manager to arrange the installation of the fences and we’d split the bill three ways. Since I’d assumed I was going to cop the cost for the lot, that felt like a bargain. A week later all my fields were fenced off.

That just left me to sort out the fences around the house and the track. And here the farmer had added a note of caution. “Not so much of an issue at the side of the house along the track, we can pen the cows in. But if anyone accidentally leaves the gate open at the top, and a bull gets out and comes running down the the hill, and sees himself reflected in the glass of your windows, well he won’t be able to stop…..” No pretty white picket fences for me then. Any fences I put in had to be stock proof- ie. had to be able to stop 2000lb of charging bull invading my kitchen. No pressure then…

And I had a deadline. The farmer had told me that the annual animal-field rotation party was due to start again the following week. Having taken down all the temporary security fencing, I needed to get its replacement installed that weekend. Well hey – bit of fencing – how hard can it be….

So I ordered in a large number of hefty posts, umpteen hundred metres of rails, two 10ft gates and a couple of tree trunks to hang them on. And set to work.

I hit the same problem as the guys putting in the GSHP pipes – there’s an awful lot of rock to dig through. It was back breaking work. I hired a pneumatic drill. It was still back breaking work, just with added vibration.
And of course, it started to rain.
For the fencing to be solid enough to hold back the hoards of angsty livestock, not only do you have to have larger-than-average posts, but they also need to be truly madly deeply buried in the ground. I swear my fence posts are a bit like icebergs – 90% of them are hidden beneath the surface.
Deep and narrow is obviously a job for specialist tools. I just had my vibrating drill. And a shovel. Until the shovel didn’t fit. When I moved on to a narrower trench shovel. Till that didn’t fit. And I was on my hands and knees with a garden trowel. Until finally I was lying full length on the ground in a puddle, with my head down a hole, scooping out mud with a tablespoon. I can think of better ways to spend a weekend.

Very cold, very wet, and feeling like I’d gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson, I finished about 10.30pm on the Sunday. But job done. The sheep arriving on their annual summer holiday to the higher fields would not be using my house for their afternoon tea stop.

And I can say with some pride, that in the all years my fences have now been up, I’ve never had a bull rampaging through my china cupboards.

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