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A Private View: Highland history enshrined on the Isle of Skye

After 12 years on a croft in the Hebrides, Shaz and Ali Morton are preparing to trade island life for the city. They meet with us to talk Scottish history, craft and how, sometimes, renovations are more like archaeological excavations

Rosily Roberts
Alex Baxter
A Private View: Highland history enshrined on the Isle of Skye

“It’s the history of Highland building all in one plot.” Shaz Morton is describing the croft in Geary, overlooking Loch Snizort on the Isle of Skye, in which she and her husband, Ali, have lived for the last 12 years. Particular to the Scottish Highlands, a croft is a small piece of tenured farmland, traditionally with a stone house. Shaz and Ali’s has three structures – a stone store with local stone drywalls, which is the oldest; the blackhouse, with a traditional turf roof; and, finally the gabled croft house, built in 1934. Over generations, crofters have moved from building to building, renovating as they went. As they did, so Shaz and Ali have done, in an echo of the past that has become integral to their lives on the croft today.

When they arrived – from Manchester – the couple had no crofting experience. But, with the advice of neighbours – and taking direction from the land itself – Shaz and Ali now keep 24 sheep and a flock of chickens. They also grow an impressive variety of herbs.

When they arrived, the structures were being used as animal byres. Their painstaking renovation – and the ability to see the potential in the old croft buildings – has paid dividends in the beauty to be found here, both natural and architectural. “We were able to overlook the five-foot weeds and see the vision!”

Now, as their home comes on the market with Inigo, Shaz and Ali have their sights set on a new undertaking – Forstaris, a contemporary furniture company that celebrates traditional Scottish craft and draws inspiration from the Highlands.

Shaz: “Ali has been coming to this part of Scotland with his family since he was tiny and I’ve been walking here since I was a teenager. About 12 years ago, we started looking for somewhere to buy on the west coast. When we arrived at the top of the road in Geary and saw this view, we just thought: Wow.”

Ali: “We could instantly see the potential of the place. The orientation of the buildings was perfect for east-facing views down the loch and morning sun on the water. Skye draws people in because of the light and that was what really did it for us.

“Originally the blackhouse would have been shared by both animals and people. We’ve built on the legacy of Highland buildings here – completely modernised – but celebrating the traditional structures.”

Shaz: “We’ve salvaged the old and built new in a really sympathetic way. The essence of the original buildings is still there. It was important to us to pay homage to the previous generations of people that had lived on this land. Uncovering their history was almost like an archeological dig – in the dry-stone walls of the blackhouse, we found old tools and shoes. Inside the root of a fuchsia bush we found perfectly preserved glass fishing floats. There was just treasure everywhere.

“I’m a designer and art director for films, and Ali is a builder, product designer and cabinetmaker. Between us, we had the skills to take on the majority of the work ourselves. And, being creatives, we were able to envisage what it could become.”

Ali: “I’ve been a builder for years, but always on other people’s projects. It was great to have my own place where I could make the most of my own skills – and that I didn’t have to walk away from when it was finished. I did as much as possible, but anything I couldn’t do – like repairing the dry-stone walls of the blackhouse – we used local craftspeople and traditional methods. The restoration took longer than we expected, but the results have completely exceeded my expectations. I’m proud of the buildings and what they have become.”

Shaz: “It’s traditional in the Highlands to open your home to guests. Sometimes it would have provided an additional source of income for crofters. People from other places would be welcomed to ceilidhs, which were traditionally as much about talking and meeting others as dancing. We’ve continued that tradition too.”

Ali: “We’re moving to Edinburgh, which will be a big change. We’re really going to miss the view, of course, but life’s an adventure and we’re leaving a legacy for someone else to carry on.

“We’ve launched Forstaris and are designing crafted pieces of furniture, each based on a place and a specific technique. Doing the renovations ourselves, particularly the elements that had to be done by hand, has taught us a lot of skills that can be transferred into furniture design. So many of the methods that we’ve thought about, or that Ali has used in the buildings, are now in evidence in the furniture work.”

Ali: “Having done the building-site thing, I now want to focus on creating furniture and finer craft. For me, it’s more about the design and the ideas now.”

Shaz: “Without Skye, there would be no Forstaris at all. This place has been incredibly influential. And, as a result of what we’ve made, we’ll always have pieces of the Highlands with us.

“There are so many ways of being in these buildings. We’ve found one way, but there is the potential for the next people to come in and create a whole new way of living here. Hopefully, they’ll do something completely different and put their own imprint on it – just as we have.”

Further reading


Mint Croft, Geary, Isle of Skye

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