It’s February 2011 and I’m on the island for a long weekend. Andrew’s come with me and we’re pulling down the ceiling and ripping the hardboard off the internal walls in what is still recognizable as the master bedroom. At least I assume it’s the master bedroom -it has a sink on a pedestal in the corner.

The hardboard has been put up to line the stone walls but as the property has been empty for two years and had little obvious maintenance carried out in the years previous some of the supporting studwork (as well as the hardboard itself) is rotting from the inside out. The ceiling is covered in an ancient rockwool thick with dust and building debris and as we tear it down visibility is reduced to near zero. Even with masks and googles on you can taste it.

The hardboard is fairly easy to get off the external walls but the internal partitioning is more difficult. Here it has been nailed directly to the old t&g boarding that originally clad the room. This is a bit of a revelation and immediately changes the character of the place when the hardboard is removed.

This old boarding – a sort of faded 19th-century-school-house brown – is covered in layers of wild, psychedelic wallpaper, some of which peel off easily to reveal their immediate predecessors. I immediately imagine the place with the stone walls exposed, boarding down one wall and a fire in the hearth maintaining a quietly boiling pot. I imagine a quietness born of hard work and concentration on tasks in hand; preparing potatoes, repairing fishing nets, building creels. I imagine the smell of thin soup and animal breath filling the room dimly lit by oil lamp.

Over the following months during my sporadic demolition visits, and later during the re-construction of the byre and as demolition gathers pace, I find more traces of habitation that conjure up images of a harsh and sparse existence. There are bits of old boots of varying sizes, with hobnail soles and finely stitched uppers (I collect a whole bucket full); black glass bottles with thick indents; hundreds of broken earthenware jars (a few of which I even manage to extract from the ground in one piece); an old clock mechanism; various types of dark, plain fabric; the cuff of a woolen coat; a clay pipe, and the wick holder for a Tilley lamp.

All of these things evoke a clear picture for me of how life was. But now I’ve found them I don’t want to just disposed of them again. I have an idea that I want to make a pair of boots from all the pieces I have and a shirt from the many scraps of fabric. Not to wear but as artifacts (or memories of what they were, where they came from and what they represent).

I also suggest to the children that we make a ‘time capsule’ to cast into the concrete floor of the byre. This seems to be well received but nothing is forthcoming.

As the bottom of the wall is just above the where the new floor level in the byre will be I am casting in a ‘toe’ – a concrete upstand that will come above the level of the bottom of the wall and hold it in place. As I begin this process I come up with another kind of time capsule. On an end wall I pour a larger plinth and get Kate, the children and their Senar and Sconach to decorate it using the things we’ve found.

We have bottle ends, pieces of decorated china and old pots, shells, bones and a fragment of orange plastic from the wheelbarrow. I write our names in the concrete. The dog has pre-empted all this by walking through the wet concrete.

I also discovered clues to the more recent history of the house. I have even discovered specific dates.

It seems the front extension which I have just demolished was built in late 1971 as one of the ceiling joist testifies to. Some have James McLean, Raasay scrawled on them in an ornate style in blue crayon. I take this to be delivery instructions.

Eleswhere a strut nailed to one of the ceiling joist is a piece of the old t&g boarding recycled and is dated 2-11-55. I wonder if this was the date it was originally installed in the house? And who was Duncan McRae?

Some refurbishment including a new kitchen seems to have been carried out in August 1996 by Bruce James and Neil Laycock from Yeovil.

I like all these traces and, like the found objects cast into the concrete, we are looking at ways in which we might reuse some of the marked timber or papered t&g boards as internal timber screens or to build a shed.

  • Ash Theasby

    Great blog Olli, you paint a vivid picture. I’ve experienced similar discoveries/emotions during the demolition phase on my project.

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