Highland society


After seven years in a caravan and the birth of their daughter, Ailsa and Jonny Laing decided it was about time to set up a proper home in the Highlands


It all started when Ailsa’s dad decided to retire and he asked Ailsa if she’d like to take over his business, Big Sky Lodges in Muir of Ord in the Scottish Highlands. Her father had bought the croft, which consisted of three fields, 17 acres and a run-down cottage when Ailsa was a child. “He eventually sold the cottage and over time built six Finnish log cabins which he turned into a holiday letting business,” she explains.

The plan was for Ailsa and her husband Jonny to try out life on the croft for a few years, running the business – and if they enjoyed it, they could build their own home there as well. Ailsa was used to life in the country, but Jonny was brought up in Perthshire, and it was a big change for him. The couple therefore decided to buy a static caravan and live on the croft until they were sure that life in the Highlands was right for them.

In the meantime, Ailsa got to grips managing the holiday lodge business, and Jonny trained to be a primary school teacher. Then baby Rosie came along. “We realised we really needed a house. It had always been our plan to build eventually and for seven years we hadn’t had to pay any rent.” Their savings had built up, and with the offer of a loan from Ailsa’s dad, it was time to decide what to build. 

The couple’s first thought was a traditional ‘block-construction’ house, but the local planning department said they would only grant permission for a property that would remain part of the business – a ‘manager’s house’. This proviso also meant that the new build would have to be of timber construction – in keeping with what was already on the croft. The obvious solution was to build another log cabin. “We worked with my dad’s company and the Artichouse Factory in Finland, which is the company he had sourced the original lodges from several years previously.”

Having also worked in sales with her dad for a while, Ailsa was familiar with the process and their designs. “You can choose one of their designs and extend it, alter the layout and once you’ve decided on the final design and have your building warrant, you send the Scottish Building warrant drawings to the factory in Finland, and they start putting the house together,” says Ailsa. The reason for this is that regulations in Scotland are slightly different to those in Finland – and a bit stricter – so the final design must comply with the Scottish Building regulations.

The couple’s design wish list included three bedrooms, an office with its own entrance, an open plan kitchen so they could socialise, a large deck for dining outside, and a luxurious bathroom to compensate for their years washing in the caravan’s cramped shower room.

It took approximately a year for planning permission to be granted, but after work commenced in February 2017, the project gathered pace. “It’s like a giant game of Jenga,” Ailsa explains. “The pieces are precisely cut and labelled in the factory in Finland and then delivered to site. The log wall arrived in May and went up within four days, so you could soon see the shape of the house and where the windows and doors were going to be.” As this log wall isn’t load-bearing, a timber frame is built within the log walls and it’s the frame that supports the weight of the roof. This method allows the logs to settle over time.

The rest of the build took a little longer than four days, but the building was still wind and watertight within a few months. To keep finances on track once they were in the house, the couple also chose to install an air source heat pump for their underfloor heating along with an efficient wood burner. And with regards to insulation an initial amount was preinstalled between each log at the factory, with the main insulation fitted in the cavity between the studs in the timber frame on site. “It isn’t a full eco house, but it is very high quality and economical to run.”

While the process is an efficient way of building – the one thing that is more time-consuming is treating the logs. “We painted the house in Osmo Oil, and it looked really natural and golden, but it didn’t last very long which was a bit disappointing – as it was very expensive. It’s what they use in Finland, but I think it could be down to the climate here. Finland is cold but drier, Scotland is damp. We’ve just finished repainting it with a Sadolin wood stain so it’s a bit darker than when it was first built.” 

Ailsa project managed the build herself, working with a local joinery company for much of the build and organising all the additional trades too. She and Jonny also took on a lot of the work themselves to keep their budget in check. 

Making phone calls to order supplies and surveying the site with a baby in a sling wasn’t easy but it allowed Ailsa to keep track of progress and avoid any mistakes. “I was here onsite the whole time while Jonny was doing his first year of teaching in Inverness. He’d be at school all day and then would come home to start tidying up the site, helping the joiners and painting the house.” They had to use a fireproof coating on all the internal wood – another huge job for the couple. “Looking back, I’m not quite sure how we managed running a business, bringing up a baby, building a house and all from a caravan. It’s a bit of a haze!”

A haze it may have been, but the result is one the couple can be proud of. “I would say it’s a compact house, but we put a lot of thought into the layout, and it flows really well.” Specifically designed to work not only as a home but to make life easier for the couple to manage the holiday business, dual entrances have been created to perfect that work/life balance. 

On the ground floor, one enters at the rear of the property which is the part that any guests see. A discreet door in the log wall leads into a boot room/utility room and into the office. French doors lead out of the office to the deck allowing Ailsa to come and go when working without disturbing the rest of the family. Another access from the boot room leads into the family’s private space opening into an open plan kitchen, diner and sitting room and through to the double height glazed frontage with views across the croft and beyond. 

A guest bedroom and bathroom are also on the ground floor. Upstairs there are two double bedrooms, one for Jonny and Ailsa and one which their daughters, Rosie (now five) and Caitlyn (one) share. The deluxe bathroom made it from the wish list to reality with a rolltop bath and a rainfall shower – perfect for a bit of R&R at the end of a busy day. At the top of the stairs a small gallery space has been carved out affording the couple a cosy adult space in which they sit and listen to records and enjoy a whisky of an evening.

“There wasn’t a lot we aspired to in life except to have a lovely house,” Ailsa explains. “We didn’t want a posh car and with running a holiday business, you don’t really take fancy holidays because you can’t. Having a house was important and we just wanted it to have a great atmosphere with space to have friends over.”

Another thing that was important was that the couple’s personality came through in the decor and furnishings. It may be a log cabin, but it didn’t have to mimic Santa’s grotto. Pinterest, lots of research and an inherent knack of simply knowing what will go with what, and Ailsa has transformed the overtly wooden interior into a jewel-inspired gem. 

“There is obviously a lot of timber. We’ve left some of the beams exposed and the ceiling is timber panelled, however on the walls we’ve fitted plasterboard because we like a lot of colour. We have a few rooms that are quite brightly coloured such as the upstairs bathroom.” Ailsa admits that the acrylic wet wall in the bathroom was one of her most expensive purchases, but she just couldn’t resist. “I fell in love with it. I saw the yellow and just thought ‘we need that’. Jonny thought it was a bit bright, but it cheers me up in the morning.” 

In the open plan area downstairs, the colours are more muted and calmer. The pale grey Ikea kitchen which Jonny built and fitted sits unobtrusively in the corner allowing the elevated vista and the living space to take centre stage. “The colours were inspired from what I see outside as I didn’t want the house to have too much of a Scandi vibe; I wanted to bring in a Scottish influence as well.”

What can’t be denied as a definite Scandinavian influence is the way the couple embrace the outdoors and how their home works with it. The large deck with a generous overhang is another multi-purpose space offering storage for logs, muddy boots and prams along with plenty of space to enjoy a coffee and a meal al fresco even when the weather is inclement. “We wanted to be able to eat outside a lot. We were used to doing that from when we lived in the caravan, and it was something we were keen to continue. A massive deck that could house a full dining table was a must and, in the summer, we dine outside nearly every night.” The deck almost doubles the size of their living space.

The deck did end up higher than the couple anticipated but it’s been a bonus they weren’t expecting. “The builder built the foundation really high to comply with building regulations but because the house is on a slight slope it ended up a lot higher on one side. It looked a bit weird, but one of the joiners suggested using up some concrete we had left over and creating storage underneath where we store logs for the log burner.”

The family moved into the house in October 2017 – albeit with only mattresses. Ailsa was loath to order furniture until she had somewhere to store it! Since then, its personality has developed as the family have grown into their home. The local auction house has produced some vintage finds and mementos that Ailsa and Jonny have collected but haven’t been able to display until now are now making an appearance. 

She says: “This house is multipurpose – a family home and a space from which to run the business. It’s made life much easier, more organised and it’s made Big Sky Lodges run more smoothly. It’s a very hardworking house – it’s great, and a huge change from the caravan!”