The whiskey barrel house

Rhiannon Hanfman explores a sustainable house and garden like no other


In this community of varied and unusual dwellings, my favourite is the house of my friend, Craig Gibsone. Craig; an artist, potter and Ecovillage trainer has lived at Findhorn since the 60s. He started building his house sometime around 1986 and been has constantly adding to it ever since. It's still not finished. Maybe never will be.

This house is one of the cluster of barrel houses that have received national recognition as an example of innovative building. These houses are made from very large whiskey vats, hence the name. Moray is malt whiskey country and these huge wooden vats discarded by the distillers are perfect for making round hobbit-like houses. Within the cluster there are simple one-barrel houses and more elaborate two-storey barrels. Craig’s is the most interesting and is comprised of two barrels held together by an octagonal structure. It is a warren of rooms and passages and a sense of barrels within barrels. Built to no specific plan it has grown organically as Craig has extended and added bits. It feels larger than it is due to unexpected rooms leading from other rooms and various nooks and crannies. If asked how many rooms it has, I really couldn’t say. The place defies anything as precise as counting.

In addition to the whiskey barrels, almost every other part of the building was once something else. Craig believes that it is composed of around 73% recycled materials. All furnishings are 100% recycled. Nothing new has been bought. This house is not only eco, it is also very beautiful in a funky kind of way and has a unique character. It is heated by solar and wood with electricity backup if needed. So far it hasn‘t been needed. Though we all complain about the weather here, it is really very mild compared to other parts of Scotland. Rainwater is collected for various uses.

Craig has an artist’s eye for finding beauty and value in things other people might consider rubbish. A badly painted mirror that someone had put on a skip caught his eye. He cleaned it up and found a beautiful 19th or possibly 18th century mirror. The place is full of stuff like that.

The sense of one area leading in another continues into the garden. There one really can get lost. It’s a permaculture garden and to an eye accustomed to well-weeded, tidy rows of flowers or vegetables, it’s a mess. It is, however, a mess with purpose. The philosophy of permaculture is to let nature do most of the work. Once plants are established they take care of themselves. The garden becomes self-seeding, self-composting and self-sustaining, just as in nature. The yield is as good, if not better than a conventionally maintained vegetable garden. Chickens help keep the ground clear and weeded. When they have cleared one patch they get move to another.

I love this house for its originality and the way it blends with nature rather than impose on it. It is a unique expression of the aesthetic and individuality of its creator. I couldn’t reproduce it and I wouldn’t want to, but it does inspire me to want to create a dwelling that is as eco-friendly and as reflective of my individuality as this one is of Craig’s.

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Want to send a positive Brexit message to Europe? Back Arsene Wenger for England manager

Boris Johnson could make a gesture of goodwill. 

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Sam Allardyce, who coveted the England job for so many years, before losing it after playing just a single match. Yet Allardyce has only himself to blame and the Football Association were right to move quickly to end his tenure.

There are many candidates for the job. The experience of Alan Pardew and the potential of Eddie Howe make them strong contenders. The FA's reported interest in Ralf Rangner sent most of us scurrying to Google to find out who the little known Leipzig manager is. But the standout contender is Arsenal's French boss Arsene Wenger, 

Would England fans accept a foreign manager? The experience of Sven Goran-Eriksson suggests so, especially when the results are good. Nobody complained about having a Swede in charge the night that England won 5-1 in Munich, though Sven's sides never won the glittering prizes, the Swede proving perhaps too rigidly English in his commitment to the 4-4-2 formation.

Fabio Capello's brief stint was less successful. He never seemed happy in the English game, preferring to give interviews in Italian. That perhaps contributed to his abrupt departure, falling out with his FA bosses after he seemed unable to understand why allegations of racial abuse by the England captain had to be taken seriously by the governing body.

Arsene Wenger could not be more different. Almost unknown when he arrived to "Arsene Who?" headlines two decades ago, he became as much part of North London folklore as all-time great Arsenal and Spurs bosses, Herbert Chapman or Bill Nicholson, his own Invicibles once dominating the premier league without losing a game all season. There has been more frustration since the move from Highbury to the Emirates, but Wenger's track record means he ranks among the greatest managers of the last hundred years - and he could surely do a job for England.

Arsene is a European Anglophile. While the media debate whether or not the FA Cup has lost its place in our hearts, Wenger has no doubt that its magic still matters, which may be why his Arsenal sides have kept on winning it so often. Wenger manages a multinational team but England's football traditions have certainly got under his skin. The Arsenal boss has changed his mind about emulating the continental innovation of a winter break. "I would cry if you changed that", he has said, citing his love of Boxing Day football as part of the popular tradition of English football.

Obviously, the FA must make this decision on football grounds. It is an important one to get right. Fifty years of hurt still haven't stopped us dreaming, but losing to Iceland this summer while watching Wales march to the semi-finals certainly tested any lingering optimism. Wenger was as gutted as anybody. "This is my second country. I was absolutely on my knees when we lost to Iceland. I couldn't believe it" he said.

The man to turn things around must clearly be chosen on merit. But I wonder if our new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson - albeit more of a rugger man himself - might be tempted to quietly  suggest in the corridors of footballing power that the appointment could play an unlikely role in helping to get the mood music in place which would help to secure the best Brexit deal for Britain, and for Europe too.

Johnson does have one serious bit of unfinished business from the referendum campaign: to persuade his new boss Theresa May that the commitments made to European nationals in Britain must be honoured in full.  The government should speed up its response and put that guarantee in place. 

Nor should that commitment to 3m of our neighbours and friends be made grudgingly.

So Boris should also come out and back Arsene for the England job, as a very good symbolic way to show that we will continue to celebrate the Europeans here who contribute so much to our society.

British negotiators will be watching the twists and turns of the battle for the Elysee Palace, to see whether Alain Juppe, Nicolas Sarkozy end up as President. It is a reminder that other countries face domestic pressures over the negotiations to come too. So the political negotiations will be tough - but we should make sure our social and cultural relations with Europe remain warm.

More than half of Britons voted to leave the political structures of the European Union in June. Most voters on both sides of the referendum had little love of the Brussels institutions, or indeed any understanding of what they do.

But how can we ensure that our European neighbours and friends understand and hear that this was no rejection of them - and that so many of the ways that we engage with our fellow Europeans rom family ties to foreign holidays, the European contributions to making our society that bit better - the baguettes and cappuccinos, cultural links and sporting heroes remain as much loved as ever.

We will see that this weekend when nobody in the golf clubs will be asking who voted Remain and who voted Leave as we cheer on our European team - seven Brits playing in the twelve-strong side, alongside their Spanish, Belgian, German, Irish and Swedish team-mates.

And now another important opportunity to get that message across suddenly presents itself.

Wenger for England. What better post-Brexit commitment to a new Entente Cordiale could we possibly make?

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.