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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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.