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Hearth of stone

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How we extended and refurbished an abandoned bothy in a remote Scottish valley as a retreat for two artists, writes Neil Gillespie, Reiach and Hall

Sleeper Gallery is a small, windowless room located in the basement of our office in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town. Initiated by artist Alan Johnston and me, artists from across the world who have shown in this modest space include Douglas Gordon, Alan Charlton and Franz Graf. Many of them have left their mark, shifting our perspective and giving us cause for reflection.

One artist who has been particularly influential is Roger Ackling. Roger is a key figure in the group of British land artists that includes Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, and was professor of fine art and painting at Chelsea College of Art and Design.

Roger draws with light, focusing the sun through a magnifying glass; he burns marks, beautiful measured etchings on discarded timber fragments gathered from the Norfolk foreshore.

Our conversion and extension of the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, Orkney, owes much to this idea of adding a new, indelible mark to an existing situation.

The prismatic form of the extension is clad in delicate timber battens

During a walking break in the Scottish Borderlands, Roger and Martin Cook, a friend from art college, hatched a plan over a beer or two to buy a retreat. They eventually found one, an abandoned bothy of acute Calvinist simplicity on the northern slopes of the empty hills south-west of Selkirk.

The site sits between two hill burns that flow north into the Ettrick Water. This would always have been a lonely place, probably a shepherds’ shelter; no rowan tree marks the door, and there is no sense of dwelling or grounding.

Roger, Martin and his wife Sylvia asked us to help them renovate and extend the existing shell. The bothy now accommodates a large living and dining space, with a sleeping gallery along with a kitchen and toilet in the old shell. The new extension contains two bedrooms with a shared bathroom.

The bothy’s roof was still intact and the stone structure basically sound, although the building lacked services connections and had been flayed of all finishes and partitions. A major initial task was to form an access track and lay on electricity, drainage and water supply. Then an in-situ concrete retaining wall was cut into the slope to the south, and a concrete slab was created between the old shell and the new wall.

The in-situ wall also serves to divert water run-off from the hills to the south, channelling it around the bothy. A simple timber-framed box sits on the slab. The majority of the building works were carried out by a local builder, Robert Reid, while Martin constructed many of the finishing trades himself, including the larch cladding to the new extension.

The essence of the project is straightforward. However we were struck by the melancholy of the site and the spirit of Roger’s work. We indulged in a kind of architectural storytelling. We imagined the existing bothy almost as if it were building jetsam; a once-useful shelter now abandoned and scoured of all traces of past inhabitation. We talk of the extension being burned into the hillside. Burning of moorland has been practised for generations in an attempt to improve grazing. The apparent wilderness of these hills becomes a visible patchwork of toil and intervention.

The concept for the new extension is a shadow on the hill, imagining cultural enlightenment from the north; a shadow is cast southwards from the elemental bothy form. This idea combines notions and passions about Scotland with an understanding of and reference to Roger’s work.

The prismatic form of the extension is clad in delicate timber battens held off a black weather-proofed timber structure. The larch battens have been charred, a direct reference to Roger’s practice, while at the same time acting as a traditional weathering technique. The battens are taken above the black box feathering the edges and softening the profile of the extension. The roof pitch takes on the slope of the hill at the back. The resulting building is at once reticent and strangely powerful.

While the exterior of charred larch at times merges with the grey landscape and the weathered stone of the existing bothy, the interior is light-filled and positive. Again larch battens are used, to the gallery edge, this time painted white. The internal screening reverses the effect of the exterior screening. Internally the white battens capture and reflect light down into the ground floor from small rooflights, while externally the battens tend to absorb light and dissolve the building form.

We are extremely grateful to Roger, Martin and Sylvia for allowing us to explore, through this very personal project, some themes that haunt our practice.

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