From a vision, to the start of a reality

It’s Monday evening and I’ve just come back from two brief, glorious days in Scotland. Charlie stayed in Dorset with Henry and Mavis, to which end, time and again, I kept on thinking why hadn’t we make slightly better plans, but next time…

I have been visiting for the first time in 18 months.  If you are a very well-informed blog reader, you may remember a post that I wrote back in the early autumn of 2015, which you can read here (you have to scroll down to the second part of the blog, past the Italy bit, to find what I am talking about…) all about the founding of the new town of Tornagrain in the Scottish Highlands.

I’ve been working on this wonderful project for 11 or 12 years now. The town is the vision of our client, the Earl of Moray. Almost two decades ago, enlightened planners and politicians in The Highland Council began to realise that the capital city of the Highlands, fair Inverness, could not continue to grow in a chaotic, unplanned, suburban explosion without choking to a slow death from cars, sprawl and arterial ring roads. The city had expanded hugely in the preceding thirty years, a growth that was predicted to continue unabated.  So they put the call out to local landowners and estates to consider plans for a number of settlements, where all these houses and businesses could be planned together into new towns in a much more coherent and logical way – instead of becoming a parasite on the edge of an already struggling and overloaded system.

Years went by as the Estate slowly developed plans – masterminded by the brilliant American planner Andres Duany. In the early days, when I was a lot younger, long before the shop or this blog existed (in fact before I had a single employee in the office) I helped to put together some of the many architectural images that gave texture and life to the emerging plans for the town.  About six or seven years ago, now, I guess, as the outline permissions began to come through, and a host of huge technical challenges were met, my appointment began to take shape more seriously. And we started to design houses.

Eighteen months ago, ground was broken and this moment was commemorated with a town founding ceremony on a hot windy day, a moment that felt extremely moving as John’s son played the bagpipes with his school friend from a nearby woodland.

Roads and services were laid. Foundations went in. Houses started to be built. No-one knew quite what the reaction would be. There are very, very few settlements in Scotland being planned along traditional architectural lines, or with a huge mix of house types and cafes, shops, houses and commercial space throughout the scheme – in the way established by the trailblazing development of Poundbury, planned by the Prince of Wales and Leon Krier, now nearly thirty years ago. It was with a lot of trepidation that development actually began on the ground – after all the years of planning.  The reaction has been incredible – sales moving much faster than expected.

Rob, one of my right hand people in the office, has been making many trips up, and with the help of digital cameras and dropbox, no detail of the construction missed our attention. The Moray Estates have also supervised everything brilliantly. A long time went by when for a million small reasons I didn’t quite get to head up north myself.

So you can imagine I was quite excited to be met at the airport by John Moray and his wife Cathy yesterday morning – and to make my first trip to the first street, that has just been unveiled.  So much work has gone into this moment that it’s one of those times when you stand back and think – just for a second “OKAY…. this has gone okay” (before doing brief mental cartwheels to the end of the road and back).

Here is the first street of houses.  The houses are actually paired villas.  The door on the main street leads to the slightly larger house on the right hand side.  Around the corner, on the side elevation, is the door to the smaller house on the left.   They were a new plan type that we developed for this very spot. They are absolutely wonderful inside, light and airy. Yet the plans are actually quite small three bedroom homes. 

Looking the other way, the street leads up to a taller apartment building that faces on one of the little squares that is under construction at the moment.

The estate railings will be painted gloss white and have a beech hedge planted behind them – a highly characteristic part of the urban and village landscape here. 

Behind this first street is a tiny cluster of cottages around a sloping green, ‘Malvina Green’, named for John’s mother, Lady Moray, who is a formidable and brilliant person.

A view back to the apartments:

A wide low gable with a tiny casement window:

Black and white windows with bold splashes of colour on the doors.

A view through the woods.

We’ll return to Tornagrain later but for those readers who need a bit of not-just-architecture to drool over during their morning coffee, here is a blustery, beautiful Moray Firth looking way across to the Black Isle. 

We went for lunch in Nairn and pottered around the little harbour.  I couldn’t help but agree with the way these two yachts had been berthed in the harbour. 

John and I adored this little tug boat but I need to send the photo to the Captain Pentreath to find out anything more about what it would have been used for. Looking back across the beach to Nairn. This is a dream part of the world. Why has it been so long since we’ve been up (because we’ve been busy, I suppose, but that’s really no excuse).

On our way home we stopped at another piece of heaven. John and Cathy wanted me to meet their friend, the brilliant botanical artist Ruth Forbes.  Her house is amazing – long and low, built around a beautiful garden courtyard. 

Next door is her incredible walled garden, waiting to be turned back into a vegetable garden one day.

The peacocks were just heading up to their tree to roost. 

I asked Ruth if I may take a photo, not for publication. “Oh I am happy whatever you do!” she replied, happily, so I am afraid I took her at her word. Is this not the most comfortable and relaxing and beautiful sitting room you have seen in a long while? Do you see what I mean about dream house? There is something about houses in Scotland that have a peaceful and restful and timeless feeling like no others.

Ruth’s glazed courtyard rooms are filled with a huge collection of geraniums. 

We tore ourselves away as the light was fading.  On the way back we stopped at the beautiful tiny Moray estate village of Whitemire, with its extraordinary single storey cottages with huge porches made of great ‘knobbly spruce’ columns.  We have designed the same to happen in the new development. 

A lovely evening with John and Cathy, and then we were back at the job site all day today, answering questions and running through details and then considering, as a team, which parcel of land to move the development to next.  A lot of walking, one minute in glorious sunshine…

one minute in sleeting rain (or both at the same time…):Here is a huge pair of sandstone pier caps being lifted on to their gate piers:

It was brilliant to meet Jonny, on the right here, who with his wife and family is the first resident of Tornagrain – moving in later this week or next.  As it happens, he’s actually helped to build the houses. On the left is Lord Moray. A moment. Smiles all round.It’s quite a strange thought being the first person to move into a new town that will one day have five thousand homes.

Our knobbly spruce columns on the little bus stop:

The new part of the street being built and houses going up, looking back to a key house which is  rotated through 90 degrees to face down this long, curving vista:
Looking back. One day all this will be built.
Tonight, I’m going to go to sleep dreaming of the Edinburgh New Town. All fields, once upon a time.  And I dare to think that, in those rare moments in life when everything aligns, it is still possible to create places of beauty and meaning and endurance from the earth.

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