Dualchas win RIAS Award

By | Blog, Latest News

Dualchas are delighted to announce that The Black House, Armadale; Isle of Skye was awarded a RIAS Award last night. This award showcases the project as one of the ten best buildings in Scotland for 2019. This award is a credit to all those involved.

The judges noted that Dualchas had “succeeded in creating a calm, inviting and exceptional home”.

Through winning this award the project will form part of the long list for the RIAS Andrew Doolan Best Building in Scotland Award, which will be announced in October.

BBC News article can be read here.

Living Wage and the Scottish Business Pledge

By | Blog, Latest News

Dualchas are proud to say that we have become an Accredited Living Wage Employer. Accreditation means that we pay all of our staff the Real Living Wage as defined by the Living Wage Foundation.


Dualchas has also recently become a signatory to the Scottish Business Pledge. This is a partnership between business and the Scottish Government, through a voluntary code of practice to support sustainable business growth in Scotland.


We have always been a company that believes in fairness, innovation and opportunity. We strive to offer our staff a good place to work, where they are fulfilled and productive. By offering a vibrant, inclusive and flexible environment we believe that our staff feel happier, valued and supported.


We have a great team here at Dualchas and it is intended that our collaborative approach translates into open communication and high-quality creative work for our clients.

Arran Challenge Grand Total

By | Blog, Latest News

Today we received this certificate from MS Society Scotland giving us our final total from our Arran Challenge with Heb Homes including gift aid. What a fantastic amount of money. It will be directed towards the Cambridge Centre for Myelin Repair. Here’s hoping it can make a difference.

Dualchas wins big at the IAA Awards

By | Blog, Latest News

A Dualchas house that cantilevers over the shores of the Sound of Sleat near Armadale on Skye has won the top award in an architectural competition for the Highlands and Islands.

The Black House scooped the award for the best new building at the Inverness Architectural Association Awards, and also took the prize for the best overall project at a lavish awards dinner in Inverness on Friday.

Speaking after the event, project architect Laura Stephen said, “this award is a tribute to the clients who had the confidence in Dualchas to allow us to carry forward a bold design, as well as the skill of the contractor who built to such a high standard on a challenging site.”

The three bedroom house has a modest one-storey entrance which deliberately conceals the true height and scale of the building. Once entered there is a dramatic roof light above a sculptural staircase. As the staircase of the house is descended to the lower floor the full drama of the site is revealed, with a wall of glass to the living space framing an extraordinary view across the Sound to the hills of Knoydart. It was this element of “joy and surprise” which made the building stand out for the judges.

Owners Delia and Julian Thomas expressed delight at the award, saying that they were “proud of the building and all those in the team who made it possible.”

Several other Dualchas projects picked up awards, with the full list below. Congratulations to all clients, design teams and contractors who were involved.

Overall Project Award:

Winner: The Black House


New Building Award:

Winner: The Black House

Commended: Grèinamol, An Cala


Best Use of Timber:

Commended: Grèinamol


Smaller Project:

Highly Commended: Harlosh


We would like to this opportunity to thank everyone who helped with the projects; the clients, the contractors, engineers and specifiers.

Fort William Cinema

By | Blog, Latest News

Press release

Skye-based design firm Dualchas Architects has been appointed to design a new cinema for Fort William. This will see a two screen cinema with a café/bar built in Cameron Square in the heart of the town.

The project has been developed by Highland entrepreneur Angus MacDonald, who has recently purchased the 1970s former studio cinema, now used by retailer DV8. This will be demolished and replaced with the new building. And according to Mr MacDonald, high quality design is central to the proposal.

“We are delighted to have appointed Dualchas as architects. Their reputation in selecting fantastic local building materials and their contemporary twist on Highland traditional building styles was very appealing to us. They have already produced a beautiful design concept which is being developed prior to it being presented to the local community.”

There have been several attempts in the recent past to get a cinema back in Fort William, which has not had a working cinema for 12 years. The plan is to offer a wide variety of films to the 20,000 locals and 440,000 annual visitors, as well as transform the square in to a beautiful public space.

Dualchas director Neil Stephen said,

“When you look at photographs of Cameron square prior to the town hall being demolished in 1975, you can see what an important focal point and public space the square used to be, and could be again. There are beautiful historic buildings within Fort William – our job will be to create a civic building and space which stitches in to the fabric of the built environment and provides a wonderful facility.”

Fort William is regarded as the “outdoor capital of the UK” due to the variety of outdoor sports that take place in the area, including mountain biking, hillwalking and skiing. However, it has lacked indoor recreational amenities – which are much needed due to the famously wet climate.

There is a proposed opening date for the new facility of the summer of 2020, with an expectation that ten full time equivalent jobs will be created. Initial proposals will be on public display from 11am to 7pm on the 3rd to 5th October at the current building in Cameron Square where Mr MacDonald will be present to discuss all aspects of the project with anyone who is interested.

Dualchas Arran Challenge Update

By | Blog, Latest News

We are well underway with our training and fundraising. We’ve now had to raise the target twice due to people’s overwhelming generosity. Currently the target sits at £4,000. With over 2 months to go until the event there is still plenty of time to donate.

Our biggest donation so far was raised by Julie Carley on Sunday at a gig by Sharon’s favourite band Dan reed Network. Lots of people in the audience that night contributed a staggering £340.

People are taking the challenge seriously and are taking every opportunity to squeeze in some training – whether that’s at lunchtime, after work or the weekend.


Click here for our fundraising page.

Dualchas Arran Challenge

By | Blog, Latest News


Our Dualchas & Hebhomes teams are putting in their best effort to raise funds for research into MS, a cause recently discovered close to our team.

We set our target to fund one whole working day of research by one of MS Society’s world-leading scientist – we trust that even a small contribution can make a big difference!

We will split into two teams and undertake one of the following challenges:

– 10km run up Goatfell (874m)

– 88km cycle loop / half a loop around Arran (depending on capabilities)

We do extensive work in rural areas and remote Scottish scenery is very close to us all. We will come together – both Glasgow and Skye office, and with the support of families and friends undertake a challenge that in most cases is over and above our current capabilities… We are keen to work extremely hard and we appreciate any donations, big or small.


Please click here to donate.

Lighting up the Glens – by Alasdair Stephen

By | Blog

Lecture given by Alasdair Stephen at inaugral Skye Commonweal meeting on Saturday the 22nd of April at An Crùbh, Duisdale, Sleat, Skye.

This is a photo taken of Ferindonald primary school in 1920.  There are over forty children in this picture, my grandmother, her wee sister and her wee brother included.

Of the 40 children only three stayed on the island.  They were told, “S’e faotainn air adhart, faotainn air falbh” – getting ahead is getting away.

They were also told this: ‘Dè feum sa Ghàidhlig? Chan fhaigh thu unnsa tombac’ aon uair gu ruig thu Mallaig leis a ‘Ghàidhlig’ – What use is Gaelic? You won’t get an ounce of tobacco as soon as you reach Mallaig with Gaelic.

Three years after this photo was taken one of my gran’s older brother’s, along with other young men in the community, waited down at Isle Ornsay pier to be taken out to the passenger ship the Metagama. Part of an assisted passage programme, the Empire Settlement Act, they were being paid to leave.  Poverty and landlessness was what faced the Highlanders at home. The UK Government, suspicious of rebellious Red Scots and keen to bolster the British populations of their colonies, spent fortunes on this scheme. It was not spent on jobs in Scotland. One tenth of the Highland population left within a few years.

The emptying of the glens was political.


I was in my fourth year at Strathclyde University when Jonathan Charley arrived as a tutor.  A revolutionary socialist and academic from Bristol, it was he who introduced this simple concept: architecture is politics. I had the chance to travel to Paris with my fellow students and design a museum or suchlike on an urban gap site.  After being inspired by Jonathan I had other ideas.  Instead, with my friend Michael, we persuaded the school that our time would be better spent on our own project.  Mike’s mother’s family was from Gwedore in Donegal, my mother’s family from Skye.  We undertook a comparative study of the housing conditions in both areas.

In Ireland, we found houses being built everywhere.  The pubs were full and the villages appeared to be thriving.  On Skye by contrast there was little sign of progress or prosperity.  Old people were still living in houses with no running water or toilets.  We met a shepherd who had lost his tied cottage when he retired.  Now living in Archie Margaret’s caravan site in Breakish (for the homeless, not tourists) he showed us bin bags full of clothes so to keep them dry and described how his cutlery would freeze to the draining board in the morning.

However, it was after I graduated and I went to work at Cluanie Inn near Kintail that I had the real shock.

My view of the Highlands was my experience with my Skye grandparents.  It was Gaelic spoken amongst friends, church on the Sabbath, broth and bonnach, fishing and exploring the moors and the shores, the grandfather clock ticking at grandpa’s cousins’ house; tea in china cups, Battenberg cake as the corncrake rasped outside. It was the Highlands of Crowdie and Cream.

At Cluanie the caravans out the back are not just for hotel workers.  Next to my temporary home lived Johnny Stalker the local gamekeeper, his young wife and baby.  Next to them a local girl who claimed her child had been taken into care because she was homeless. I was told how a nearby estate, recently bought by middle eastern investors, were knocking down houses.

Saddest though were some of the older local men.  Many were in caravans or in appalling housing conditions.  Most had been on the council house waiting list for decades with no prospect of success.  Alcoholism was endemic.  There was also the depressing and tragic stories of unnecessary deaths: drownings, drink driving, house fires, accidents on the hills.  There was a real sense of a community dying, both culturally and socially.

That same year some of the Strathclyde students had organised a winter school.  This was an international festival of architecture which attracted contributing architects and academics, as well as students, from around the world.  I attended a panel discussion on rural architecture where, what I would call a Boswellian Scot, an Orkney-born architect who had made his money and reputation in London and was slightly embarrassed by his country of origin, was asked his views on rural housing in the Highlands.

The Highlanders, he pronounced, built such appalling kit houses because they were cultural philistines and saw no value in design. I stood up and challenged this, telling him of the traditions of Gaelic poetry, song, pìobaireachd, dance, shinty and language. The reason, I explained, that the Highlanders chose to build kit houses, was that architects had not offered anything better. His profession had failed.

Afterwards my brother complimented me on my intervention. He also pointed out that being architecture graduates ourselves we maybe had a responsibility to offer an alternative.

I had left university into a recession and like almost all my contemporaries had plans to move to London or abroad to gain architectural experience.  Working in Cluainie was a means to make money so I could join my friends in Hong Kong. At some point I changed my mind and decided to learn Gaelic from my Grandmother on Skye.

I ended up attending the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, unsure as to whether I would return to architecture as a profession.  Fate, and alcohol, determined that I would.

Domhnall Angaidh MacLennan from North Uist became a friend through Eilean Iarmain bar, where I worked and he drank.  Domhnall was looking to build a small house for himself and had sent away for the usual Roy Home and Scot Frame brochures.  I excitedly explained to him one evening that whilst at university I had undertaken a comparative study of housing conditions in Donegal and Skye.  Donegal was thriving but the landscape had been spoiled with inappropriate housing.  Skye needed many more houses so one of the outcomes of the project was a design for a modern blackhouse which could be used to repopulate the glens without ruining them.  I had a model back at the house and would bring it in the next evening.

I knew there was little chance that Domhnall Angaidh would build a house designed by a student.  When I presented the plasticine and cardboard model too him from behind the bar I did not expect a commission.  However, at this precise moment, a vacationing contractor arrived at the bar to order his tenth whisky.  “I’ll build that for £25,000, no problem” he said.  The deal was done.  Domhnall Angaidh the client, myself and my twin the architects, and Jim Cook the builder.

In Gaelic a hangover is called “ceann goirt ‘s aitherachas”, meaning a sore head and repentfulness.  Most people will have experienced this, a feeling of guilt of having done something regretful or embarrassing the night before while drunk.  In reality you have probably done nothing:  In Jim’s case it would have dawned on him, draining his blood as it did, that he had agreed to build a bespoke house for £25,000.

As it transpired the house cost £35,000.  It didn’t cost Domhnall Angaidh any more as this meant his grant increased.  The government funded Rural Home Ownership Grant (RHOG), which was available to first time builders with limited funds, was designed on the basis that the applicant had to secure a mortgage of 2 ½ times their salary.  The grant would make up the shortfall (within certain limits) of up to one third of the overall costs.

This was the beginning of myself and my brother’s business Dualchas. Over the next few years we were commissioned to design several RHOG houses, never quite sure whether it was our design skills that our clients were attracted to or our ability to maximise grant funding.  Most were young and almost all still live in the area and have families.

I also built one for myself.  Before Christmas I was out for dinner with Jim Cook and I asked him how much, with modern building regulations, my house would cost today.  His response was the basis of a Facebook post and the reason I have been invited to give this talk tonight.

20 years ago, the land for my house was valued at £9,000.  The construction cost was £35,000, the government grant £18,000.  My contribution, 2 ½ times my salary, was £22,000.

The same house today?  Land £80,000, construction cost £220,000, government grant £0, 2 ½ times typical 26 yr. old’s salary – £50,000.  Funding shortfall; a quarter of a million pounds.

After my Facebook post went viral I was invited to write a column for the West Highland Free Press where I outlined some ideas for a solution.

My main argument was that vision and leadership was required.  Firstly, from Government, but also from the local community.


When I arrived on Skye as a young graduate I knew it was unlikely I would find a job in architecture. To keep my hand in I undertook a project to survey the village of Borearig in Strath, cleared in 1853. Also cleared that day was the village of Suisnish, a couple of mile up the coast.  My Grandfather’s people came from there. They ended up destitute, along with other families, camping on the moors above Breakish in appalling conditions.  The crofters of Breakish petitioned Lord Macdonald that a portion of their common grazing be given over to these poor wretches, even thought this would have made themselves poorer. Lord MacDonald consented to this request and the 6 small crofts of Ashaig were created. In 1896, the Crofting Act gave security of tenure to crofters, allowing my great grandfather to build his house.  This was a Department of Agriculture pattern book house design; a sheet of A4 paper with plans and elevations on one side and a simple specification on the other.

I tell this story as it is an example of crofters giving up common grazing for the greater good of the wider community.  It is an example of a landowner – despite his previous crimes – consenting to this selfless request.  It is an example of how Government, through acts of parliament and providing support, can create a framework where people can prosper.  But it also an example of the perseverance and industry of individuals who survived to build their own homes, families and legacies.

Likewise, this amazing building, An Crùbh, in which we are tonight.  This would not have been possible without the crofters agreeing to set aside common grazing for the wider community, the backing of the landowner, nor the Government through funding and other forms of support.  But more than anything it is a testament to the vision and hard work of individuals, who became a team,  who wanted to create an outstanding building and with it a more diverse and stronger cultural and social life.

Sleat is an incredible community. There is the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the crown jewel of the University of the Highlands;  A Michelin star restaurant at Kinloch, a new distillery at Toravaig, a world class visitors centre at Clan Donald, the best pub in Scotland at Eilean Iarmain and many brilliant businesses such as Ragamuffin, Young Films and, dare I say it, Dualchas Architects.  From being almost dead in the 1980s with less than 300 people left, the population of Sleat is now over a thousand.  It is an example to the rest of rural Scotland.

But the jobs at An Crùbh cannot be filled because accommodation is not available.  We have three members of staff at Dualchas who are facing homelessness.  I know talented young people who have left Sleat because of a lack of housing and others who have secured jobs but cannot move here. There is no longer anyone from Sleat in the Sleat and Strath football team.  Where are the young building their houses now as we did twenty years ago?  The school roll is healthy but it could fall off a cliff. Houses that were available for long term rent a couple of years back are now advertised on Airbnb as the tourism sector rockets. And up the road, Archie Margaret’s caravan site is still there, and still full of homeless people.

There is so much more potential for success and wealth in Sleat and the Highlands.  But if Sleat does not succeed, then nowhere will.

I am convinced that these housing problems can be overcome.  Vision and ambition from Government, both national and local, is vital. There is a huge variety of policies that could help.  But there also needs to be a willingness from the community itself to grow and thrive.  A vision that is not imposed but one that government, landowners, crofters, businesses and everyone else can support and offers a framework where social housing providers, the private sector, community groups and individuals, can find solutions.   What happened in Ashaig, and this building, proves what can be done as does the success of the RHOG scheme.

How to start?  Well, ask the children in the local school.  Look in their eyes and say, do you want to live, work and prosper in this community?  Do you want the opportunity to stay in your own house, have a family, to love and grow old?   Do you want the chance to have professional success, or start your own business, employ people, expand and not have to leave?

If they want that and you want that, then this is the beginning of a vision.

But the other person who needs to look into these children’s eyes is the politician.  It is Nicola Sturgeon.  It is a political decision if your children have the chance to stay, just as it was a political decision that those children one hundred years ago had to leave.

Look again at this picture from Ferindonald school.  These kids, dressed in their best clothes for the school photo, but most with no shoes, were told that to get ahead they had to leave.  They were told their language and culture had little worth.

Imagine, if they, and their contemporaries, had been told they could stay.  That their talent and ingenuity could build a stronger, more prosperous community. That they were told this by their parents but also supported by their government. Imagine what Sleat would be and what sort of country Scotland could have been.  Let’s not make the same mistake again.

Fragile areas need Big Government – by Alasdair Stephen

By | Blog

This article was first printed in the West Highland Free Press on the 25th of November 2016. 

On Saturday evening I met the contractor who built my house on Skye 20 years ago. I pressed him for two figures:  How much would that house cost to build now to the same specification?  £150,000 he replied.  How much to meet modern building regulations?  £250,000.

The next morning this was the basis of my ‘update’ on Facebook. I contrasted this with the costs of my house 20 years ago. Land valued at £9,000. Construction cost of £35,000.  A Rural Home Ownership grant from the government covering a third of my costs.  My contribution; £22,000.  That was two and a half time my income – the expectation at the time as to what the limit of your mortgage should be.

Today’s figures: £80,000 for a plot in Sleat (although some sell for well over £100,000).  £220,000 to build the house (I though £250,000 was a bit high). No Government grants. Two and a half times a typical salary of a 26-year-old?  Perhaps £50,000.  Money required to build a house as I did?  £300,000.

I outlined the consequences of such arithmetic.   Young people leaving.  Schools losing children.  Young people being internally displaced on Lewis to find accommodation in Stornoway.  Communities and Gaelic dying.

The reaction to the post was telling. Almost immediately it went viral.  By the next day it had been shared 500 times, liked 1,200 with hundreds of comments. It had revealed an anger and a sadness from the younger generation.  They wanted to stay in their communities.  They wanted to have jobs and families and homes.  But that chance was not there for them.

The situation is worse than the bald numbers suggest. Self-build mortgages for young people who – as they often did in the past – construct their own houses with their own labour, help from friends and favours from local tradesmen – have almost disappeared.  Even if you have family land from a croft, the figures still make it almost impossible to build.  Areas like Lewis are in a worse predicament than Skye. Land may be more expensive on Skye but house values are much higher.  Build on Lewis and you are immediately into huge negative equity. What bank will lend on that basis?

The housing situation is therefore grim. But if it is solved the rural economy could be utterly transformed. Why?  The simple answer is the IT revolution and tourism.

This summer saw a record numbers of tourists flocking to Skye and across the Highland and islands. There are countless opportunities for small businesses to be set up and offer high end tourism experiences.

The best people to do this are the locals within the crofting communities. A few years ago, I remember the Highlands came second to Norway as the best tourist destination in the world in a Lonely Planet survey. What marked the Highlands down?  People wanted to hear Gaelic.  They wanted to see crofting. They wanted traditional music in pubs.  The wanted to interact with real local life.  This cultural tourism could transform the Western Isles especially.  There is a huge market waiting to be tapped.  But who will exploit it if the young cannot build their own homes let alone build their own businesses?

Likewise, the Highlands and island should be given broadband. Not mediocre broadband but the internet as fast as London, Hong Kong or Singapore.  This infrastructure investment is more important than any new road, bridge, ferry or airport.  Countless businesses could be established and could thrive providing a mind-boggling range of services.  Ok, the petrol is more expensive, as is the local shop.  The roads are not very good but you are living in the most beautiful place on earth!    But again, to do this there needs to be access to housing, not just for the business owner, but also for staff.

Because I built my house 20 years ago I could start a business with my brother. It now employs 20 people. We are lucky enough to be able to rent an office at the Sabhal Mor Ostaig.  In the same building is Young Films.  A previously London based company that moved to Skye partly because they have access to super-fast broadband and talented graduates from the university.  An example for the rest of the Highlands.  But half of our staff are in Glasgow.  That is simply because of a lack of suitable housing on the island.

So what is to be done? First of all, vision and leadership is required from Nicola Sturgeon (this is not an issue for a junior Housing Minister).  The vision is the thriving, dynamic economy that could be created.  The leadership is in making it happen.  That is the difficult bit.  I have some ideas.

Firstly, the approach now and of the past will not work. There are lots of great people involved in charities, housing associations and cooperatives who have been working for years to provide social housing. It is scratching the surface.  This requires massive state intervention.

The government should build the biggest cross laminate timber (CLT) factory in the world. This new construction technique – houses built from a solid wood laminate made from the pine forests of the Highlands – will be an incredibly green form of construction.  It will also be a new industry for Scotland, linked to research at our best universities such as Napier, and one that will also transform the economics of forestry.  CLT kits should be modular and cutting edge, developed in tandem with changes in building regulations that will allow these to be built cost effectively, providing high quality, well designed housing.  The kits should be provided free to young people who qualify.  Local tradesmen and contractors can erect and complete.

The fundamental purpose behind crofting should be to keep people on the land and to allow communities to grow. If you are a crofter you should be obliged (or forced even) to provide a small plot of land for any family member who wants to stay.  Children at the local school are more important than sheep.  Likewise, a portion of common grazing in each township should be set aside for housing for the wider community. Younger brothers, older and younger sisters (as well as other locals) should not be denied the opportunity to build a home just because they did not inherit the croft.

Crofters should be given something very important in return. That is access to loans so they can diversify their crofts into tourism.  That could mean money to renovate blackhouses, or to build modern shielings – holiday homes on the crofts that can provide income and employment and an authentic cultural tourism experience for the visitor.  This will also take pressure off the existing housing stock, much of which is being used as holiday homes when it could be rented as family homes.

Land reform, Land Value Tax, compulsory land purchases, council housing, changes to planning and building regulations could also help as well as some limited grants to service sites.

This is not a problem that will be addressed by devolving more power to local communities. It is not a problem that will be solved by giving more power to crofters and community councils. Unfortunately, people argue. They fall out and become unreasonable when it comes to housing.  This requires Big Government to say: “We are sorry, but a generation has been let down. We will not stand by and watch them betrayed any longer. These amazing young people that the Highlands produce every year should be given the chance to live, love and prosper in their own communities.  We will make it happen.”