Unspoilt views

Despite being in an unspoilt location in the Cairngorms, a couple worked carefully with their architect to create an eco-friendly holiday home that blends into the landscape and maximises the stunning views


Building a holiday home within the boundaries of the Cairngorms National Park proved to be more challenging than Siobhan Turner and Rory Webster anticipated. Fortunately, they had architects who were willing to think outside the box.

The area they would seek to build in was already a given, as the couple were looking to establish a base where they could stay when visiting Rory’s family in Ballater and Aberdeen.

However they had another, more altruistic goal: “Knowing it was going to be our holiday home, we were very conscious that we didn’t want to take housing stock out of the area,” Siobhan recalls. “That was the reason for choosing to build rather than take on a renovation.” The couple also wanted to avoid the more rural, farming areas of Aberdeenshire, and settled on a plot with far reaching views across two valleys and the River Don.

The purchase of the site was completed in August 2017, and Siobhan set about finding an architect to take on the project. As Rory and Siobhan live in London, the internet was the obvious starting point. “I did a search for Aberdeenshire architects and found several, but nothing stood out until I saw Strathdon House on Brown & Brown’s website and I thought – this is what I want.”

The brief to architect Andrew Brown was relatively straightforward, as Siobhan recalls:

“We wanted three bedrooms, one with an ensuite, we wanted to make the most of the views, a window in the ensuite shower room, a fire, and to be as eco-friendly as possible.”

Andrew was already aware of the plot as he and his wife live in the locality about four miles away and knew a bit about the site’s history. “It’s called Spyon Cop, and while there’s no firm evidence as to why, locally the anecdotal suggestion is that the cottage that was originally on the site was built by someone who had returned from the Boer War. (There is a hill called Spion Cop in South Africa where a battle took place – Spyon Cop means Spy Hill in Afrikaans.”

The cottage that had been there previously was a pile of rubble when Siobhan and Rory purchased the site, but it was obvious that in its footprint was the best place on the plot to build. “It’s a great location with far reaching views but it’s not for everyone,” says Andrew. “There’s not a proper road to access it; it’s just a farm track.”

Access was to provide an issue later in the build, but the architects Brown & Brown’s first priority was to find out a bit more about their clients, and their expectations for their new property. Says Siobhan, “At the very start of the process, Andrew set up a Pinterest board for us and he put some things into it – yes we like that, no we hate that, what on earth were you thinking? And we added things we liked. I think he then used that as a template to see what our tastes were, and I think he got a pretty good idea of what we liked very quickly.”

Brown & Brown also explained to their clients that they would present two or three concepts but they were not expecting them to go with any of them in their entirety. “It was more a case of ‘we like this from A, that from B and we really don’t like that in C!’ Andrew was also adamant that if we saw a problem, we weren’t to try and solve it.” Siobhan adds: “He said ‘tell me what the problem is, and I will fix it because that’s my job.’ We took that on board, and it really opened up the dialogue and made for a very honest relationship.”

While Brown & Brown’s brief was straightforward, access to the plot was not as Andrew explains: “We came up with a couple of options focusing on how we could make the most of the location.” The River Don is below and there’s a valley to the south and a valley to the east. “The valley to the south gets really good light but it gets a lot of weather. Indeed, we had four months of snow and at one point during the build we were dealing with 1.6 m of it! Our contractors, Crombie, were brilliant, but they really had their work cut out for them.”

Where the original cottage had once stood was the most sheltered point from the weather and respected the views from the glen below, and it was also the most accessible even if it was not easily accessible. Asides from access there was also the issue of how the house would fit into and complement the surrounding countryside. “We didn’t put it on a pitch because a straight line on the landscape was slightly more incongruous. We came from the idea of creating a new little hillock and when you see it from the glen, it appears layered.” She adds: “It’s not bashful, it’s not a building that hides, but it doesn’t stand out either.” 

Clad in black painted larch, the property visually ‘loses itself’ in the hill, and more so in the winter when the hillside is naturally darker. Adding a turf roof which was sown from the grass on the adjacent hill also assisted in bedding the property into the landscape and helped its insulation properties too. “We completely over-insulated the roof, but then it also has turf and soil and that doesn’t feature in the thermal calculations. The roof was already performing highly but once you laid the soil and turf, that improved it even further.”

Brown & Brown were also keen to over-insulate the roof because the site access restrictions now meant that the timber frame would have to be smaller than what they would normally specify. The location made getting materials to site difficult and many were taken up on a trailer behind a pick up. The windows were delivered by the local farmer on his tractor and trailer. “We had to use a slightly smaller timber frame which we could transport more easily although it still had great thermal properties and supersedes what Building Regulations ask for,” asserts Andrew. 

To heat the property an air source heat pump was fitted at the rear of the house where it’s nestled between the house and the hillside to offer it protection from the elements. This powers the underfloor heating system and is very efficient although most of the heat in the building comes from natural solar gain through the glazing. To ensure the building holds the heat well and uses less energy, trickle vents have been fitted in the walls rather than the windows to encourage airflow and windows have been positioned to open at specific points to naturally cross ventilate the house.

The difficulties in getting supplies to the site led Brown & Brown to choose materials that largely could be dealt with by manual handling and in the main it took a lot more planning, but it all came together albeit more slowly. The only aspect that didn’t go as planned was a feature wall of board-marked concrete in the main living space. “Once the concrete lorry had been on site to do the foundations, the driver refused to return to do the wall as the access was too difficult.” 

After some head scratching, Brown & Brown decided to have the wall built in lightweight masonry and asked their microcement specialist, Concreto Living Coatings who also made the flooring to do a microcement effect with board marks for the wall. “It still looks like a heavy-duty concrete wall but it’s not!” 

Somewhat unusually, Brown & Brown were also involved in the interior design of the project, not only the layout. Andrew explains the approach: “It was important that it was a calm materials palette. We knew that Siobhan and Rory had a lot of mid-century furniture and we wanted the space not to feel too minimal or sparse. However, there’s a big difference between a house and a holiday house in terms of how you use it, and that’s reflected in the layout that we suggested.” He continues: “It is not where you live all the time and while you do need somewhere to store the vacuum cleaner you don’t need space for school report cards.”

Taking their inspiration from Scandinavian summer houses which are generally centred around one larger social space, Brown & Brown suggested locating the entrance to the house at the rear of the property. “As you come in at the back of the property we wanted to take the view away from you and we deliberately positioned a solid bit of wall where you enter. Once you come around this into the social space then you’re rewarded with the views.”

A compact hall (4 x 4 m) leads to the principal bedroom and ensuite. On the other side of the social areas are two guest bedrooms, along with a family bathroom at the front and a utility room at the back of the property.

“We considered that most of the time it will just be Siobhan and Rory in the house. Pocket doors allow a house to feel more than the sum of its parts, and when they’re alone, most of the time these doors will be open.” 

The custom birch plywood kitchen and dining cabinetry were designed by Brown & Brown and built by the contractors. “They’re off the shelf carcasses but with custom doors and work surfaces and the contractors made all the fronts. We wanted it to be consistent with the other bits of cabinetry and ply that we’d used elsewhere.”

The kitchen is compact and functional although Siobhan insisted on an island, as she recalls: “Andrew’s not a cook, that was the only thing he hadn’t thought through. You need an island so that you don’t have your back to your guests when you’re cooking, and it allows you to take in the stunning views.”

Careful to ensure that the fire didn’t detract from the views either, Brown & Brown suggested a hanging stove. “We needed a stove that was in the view but didn’t get in the way of it and that led us to choose this hanging version. It’s efficient, it rotates and it’s made by Scottish company, Firemaker, so it ticked all the boxes for the clients.”

Another thing on the wish list was the ensuite window which Brown & Brown took great pains to get exactly right. Although the main bathroom has a view of the glen the ensuite has a view that no other room has. Andrew Brown: “We fitted the slot-style window in the shower looking down the glen so one can see the sun coming up. It’s also precisely positioned for Siobhan and Rory’s height.” 

Although the build started in December 2019 between Covid, the weather and the access issues Spyon Cop was finally completed in July 2022 and Siobhan and Rory are now catching their breath and starting to enjoy their new property. “With Brown & Brown’s help, we’ve achieved exactly what we wanted inside and out. Our aim was to use local or Scottish suppliers for the build and the furnishings. It wasn’t possible for everything, but we have art from local galleries, Adirondack chairs from Shetland, rugs from Skye, and the stove from the Borders – it’s been quite a journey,” says the couple.

Siobhan sums up her feelings, now the build is finished. “We really had no idea how difficult it would be to build here, it was such a challenge. But, we have been able to realise our dream and build a house that makes the best use of the land and the views and it does so gently. I’m not sure if I would do another self-build – I think we need a little longer to recover!”


“The first time I sat in the living space after it was furnished and watched the sunrise – that was magical.”


“The site was challenging, as was lockdown. Thankfully the roof was on, and the windows were in just before it hit – but it really was an awful time.”



Brown & Brown



Design Engineering Workshop



Crombie Ltd






Lusso Stone