Sloc nan Sìtheanach by Ruairidh Moir
The first pilot round of the Scottish Scenic Routes initiative was launched at a definitive moment in my education. It arrived literally two days after completing my studies at the University of Strathclyde School of Architecture and would become a main springboard into the world of architectural practice.
Formulated by the Scottish Government in order to punctuate our tourist highways with architectural interventions, the open and inclusive initiative invited proposals from young architects, designers and landscape architects in order to nurture fledgling talents. Having previously visited the location my submission, set down on deadline day, was a series of hand drawings conveying an approach to the location. This was, in essence, to amplify the existing qualities of the site: emphasise the elevated view to Loch Lubnaig and Ben Ledi by providing a place to stop, rest and contemplate the surroundings.
The proposal was to re-grade the existing topography to emphasise an existing hollow in the ground whilst also providing a visual and acoustic screen to the busy road to the rear of the site. Utilising a timber crib retaining wall (a technology borrowed from civil engineering projects) the effect achieved would be reminiscent of a wooden nest set in the ground. The reprofiled landscape and retaining wall was planted with a wide range of native planting to enhance the effect and as a result the "nest" is almost hidden from those unaware of its presence. 'Sloc' is Gaelic for 'grassy hollow' and 'Sìtheanach' means 'faerie folk', who are known to reside in such places of peace and tranquility.
I was delighted to learn that my proposal was selected through the competition process as one of five schemes to be developed further. This required a feedback interview from a panel of experts from a variety of backgrounds. At this stage, I was en-route to Barcelona to take up a position in the studio of Miralles Tagliabue EMBT which complicated the development of the project. My friend and fellow architecture student, Drew Thomson, came on board to build a scale model and to submit the presenation boards which I was developing during evenings and weekends whilst also refining aspects of the design.
It was incredibly satisfying to learn that the competition jury selected my proposal to be built, especially after the intensive effort I had put into the project. The awarding of the commission coincided with my permanent return to Glasgow which allowed me to develop the project to the next required stages. I always worked under the close supervision of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority's own in-house architects who were tasked by Scottish Government to mentor me through the entire delivery process.
While the concept of Sloc nan Sìtheanach was fresh in my mind it was very beneficial to immediately start the development of the project with one eye on the very tight timescales for delivery. I conducted extensive research into the history of the area and through this I discovered an obscure poet from Tombea on Loch Lubnaig called Thomas Campbell. He had tutored Sir Walter Scott and he may have introduced Scott to the Trossachs. Few of his writings seem to have survived, except one poem "Now Winters Wind Sweeps" which conveys the effect of the changing seasons on the land, personified through the ageing of a former land ranger. The passage of time theme of the text, which is engraved into the steel promontory to the front of Sloc nan Sìtheanach, encourages one to contemplate the landscape and one's place within life's cycles through the poem's meaning, the position of the promontory and its slowly decaying surface.
After a contractor was appointed to the project work began on site with the excavation of the foundations. Great care was taken throughout the process to protect the adjacent trees and with the limited manoeuvring space available, there were times that it seemed that the area could not cope with the amounts of spoil emanating from the ground. The crib wall itself was built by specialist contractors in just over a day, and I found it enjoyable to oversee this aspect of construction: the pouring of the foundations; the efficiency of the puzzle-like interlocking timber components and the filling of the voids with hardcore. An unexpected quirk came with the deployment of reclaimed whinstone setts, retired from a lifetime on Edinburgh's Royal Mile giving added depth to the material palette.
The final stages were to re-mould and sculpt the terrain around the hollow and install the native planting that we had selected. Blackthorn, Hawthorn and Dog Rose were used as barrier and screening planting with the added benefit of their symbolic place in mythology in connection to faerie people – further reinforcing the metaphor.
My experience of developing this scheme from inception to completion, immediately after my time at university became a central stage in my professional development. This project ultimately propelled me through my final professional qualifications allowing me to become a registered Architect. It has been a sharp learning curve from managing a competition design submission through to the complexities of tendering, refining and constructing such a project. The main objective of keeping the initial concept intact throughout all of the design and construction permutations is one which I feel was met.
Moreover, I am very proud of how the scheme has taken root in its setting. In its first season wild poppies took an authoritative hold, followed the subsequent season by wild daisies. I like the thought of a different coat of colours depending on the determination of wild flowers and hopefully this is a theme passing travellers will enjoy as the planting matures.
For me, the utilisation of the crib wall is particularly successful and provides a robust backdrop to the design. The strong contrasts in solid and void are further enhanced with the intervening of nature – stems and leaves have begun to intermingle with the structure and are blurring its edges and softening it. This has since reminded me of Mackintosh's motif of the stem intercepting the grid which adorns the entrance to the Hill House in Helensburgh.
Sloc nan Sìtheanach is now a place which invites its users to dwell in this special location, with a sense of slight altitude over Loch Lubnaig with far reaching views up the Loch to the North and over Ben Ledi to the West. Each year the effects of time will enhance the project and further embed its presence, which is something I look forward to observing for years to come.
Following Sloc nan Sìtheanach, I entered the further two rounds of the Scottish Scenic Routes competitions for sites at Corgarff and Glenshee respectively and have been very fortunate to have been shortlisted both times, gaining a high commendation at Corgarff. These schemes, whilst looking radically different, share common threads. The arrangements of elements to choreograph a layering of external spatial experiences whilst at the same time rooting themselves in the cultural context of their locations.
Whilst these two schemes will not be built in these locations, the concept and technology developed for my 'Iodhlann' scheme at Glenshee is being refined for use at another spectacular location for a private client which is a positive development. Further work currently undertaken by BARD include a housing for special cars at a listed house; a feasibility study on a former school-house for a community body; a bespoke house on the Isle of Lewis and a painting cabin for artists to retreat to work on large canvasses.
This activity may not have been possible without the early competition successes I have had and which have been excellent exercises to test ideas. This has led to the creation of a fledgling Architecture practice named BARD which stands for Bailtean, Ailteireachd 's Rum Danach (Townships, Architecture and the Room of Poetics) – an acronym for the manifesto for the practice's activities. From the early days of life after architecture school, Sloc nan Sitheanach is a special part of the journey which has cemented a steadfast anchor for producing architecture.
Ruairidh Moir is an architect who hails from Tolsta on the Isle of Lewis and trained at the University of Strathclyde School of Architecture where he now teaches in the 2nd year design studio. Further study and practical experience was gained in an academic exchange to Barcelona.
He now sits on the RIAS council and contributes to articles and publications through this body and can be found developing new projects through his new venture, BARD. To view more work by BARD please visit www.bard.scot
Look out for the following fun ornamental features on the BLiSS trail launching in #robroycountry April 27th 2016 #BLiSStrail #IAD2016
Other IAD2016 Stories