Colin & Megan Baillie

Learning By Looking

Colin and Megan Baillie are both architects inspired by their local landscape in Scotland. Read their contribution to 'Stories within Our Isles' that evokes their passion for designing environmentally-friendly houses, taking inspiration from Scotland's ancient croft houses that once adorned the Scottish landscape.

 

Building anywhere - but particularly within the natural landscape - is a weighty responsibility. We’re interested in buildings and settlements that have a respectful and reciprocal relationship with their setting: a resonance. We believe architecture can connect people, places and nature.

 

A couple of years ago we started a project that took us into the meandering hills of Strath Brora, in the far north-east of Scotland. The Strath is quiet and rural. Unlike the raw, bleak beauty of west-coast glens, it feels quite fertile, agricultural even. We were looking for traces of the little croft houses that, before the Highland Clearances, were once abundant here.

There’s not much visiting interest in these ruins. Many that are marked on maps are no longer visible, and the remains of those that are, seem to be disappearing into the ground little by little. Haphazardly defined outlines in the landscape don’t do much to evoke the vibrancy of a settlement, but look closer and there are signs. Pulling on a layer of turf uncovers the hearthstone of a cottage – the centrepiece around which bodies were warmed.

 

Wading through icy rivers and clambering over fences, we found the ruins of Torseiller (place names here are all in Gaelic). Walking between remnants of rubble stone walls, the loose, huddled-together nature of the cottages recalled the intensely interconnected communities that once lived in this place. The houses themselves would have been hunkered down in the landscape, tracking the topography and set low, even burrowed into the earth.

Numerous small clusters, much like Torseiller, are strung like pearls along the length of the Strath, with occasional outliers clinging to higher ground. In the words of novelist Neil Gunn, ‘little herds of cottages at long intervals, and every now and then a cottage by itself like a wandered beast’.

Historic, indigenous settlements, while perhaps rudimentary in their construction, were in fact perfectly in-tune with their environment. They used what the landscape provided, and derived their own order in response to climate, topography, and the need to define sheltered spaces.

 

Every intervention within a landscape and its ecosystem has consequences, small or large, but we think there’s an interesting opportunity to learn from the sensitive and responsive patterns of habitation that have gone before. Studying the ruined settlements in Strath Brora helped us to develop our approach as designers, thinking carefully about how buildings are placed, grouped and orientated. We take the responsibility of building seriously. Our thoughts and ideas are tested through discussion, research, mapping, drawing and making. Our contemporary rural houses try to engage with the climate, materials and culture of the landscapes they inhabit.

Learning By Looking

Photographs & Words by Colin & Megan Baillie | baillie-baillie.co.uk

Our Isles is a project that explores and celebrates the artistry of rural life in the British Isles, through its food & drink, landscape, nature, craft and heritage.

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