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By Toby SkinnerOctober 1st 2020

With great architects and well-priced plots, often with stellar sea views, Shetland makes a great place to build a perfect home from scratch.

Before Wendy and Maurice Inkster decided to build their modern home in Granny Smith green, right on the water in East Burra, they fell in love with this unspoiled corner of Shetland. “We’d been visiting friends, and just didn’t want to leave,” recalls Wendy, who has been making her much-loved Burra Bears teddies out of discarded Fair Isle jumpers since 1997. “We managed to track down the owner of the land to see if he was prepared to sell any of it. He said to us: You see that horse and that sheep, you can have the land between those. So that’s where we live.”

The couple drew up the plans for the house themselves, with the help of a draughtsman friend, with an emphasis on light and space. “We’d been living in a stone cottage in Hamnavoe with these long, dark corridors, so just wanted something open-plan and light, with lots of my favourite green,” says Shetland-born Wendy, who also added a studio to work on her bears. “We put in skylights and a lot of windows, including some to the floor so that the dogs could see the view too.” Having done a lot of the building work themselves (Maurice is an electrician) with the help of local building firm E&H and builder-joiner Brian Anderson, they moved into their airy new 350sqm home in 2010, having spent around £220,000.

Similar stories aren’t uncommon in Shetland, where plots of land are available for reasonable prices compared to much of the Mainland UK, especially those with sea views. With a good selection of quality architects on the islands, and plentiful space, many people have taken the opportunity to build their dream home from scratch. “I used to work in Aberfeldy,” says Iain Malcolmson, now a Shetland-based architect. “It was only the very wealthy that were coming to have houses designed. In Shetland, it’s a possibility for a lot more people.”

Shetland-born Iain and his Edinburgh-born wife Suzanne, also an architect, are living proof of that. Since moving back from Tayside in 2006, they moved into their own South Nesting home, Grunnabreck, in 2008, having spent around £210,000. The light-flooded home, with a bright mezzanine, took inspiration from the Viking longhouses unearthed at Jarlshof, which were long and narrow to fit with the contours of the land. With its efficient use of space and light, its low energy footprint and environmental sensitivity, the low-key but beautiful house was recently featured on BBC Scotland’s Home of the Year TV show.

For the Malcolmsons, their home also became an advert for their work, which has been behind modern homes and extensions across the islands. “First and foremost, we want to design buildings that work for Shetland,” he says. “Because of the wind, you have to keep things quite simple, and we always try to keep energy costs down, using the right materials and heat pumps. I think there’s been a move towards more modern, architect-designed homes here. People are realising that kit homes often don’t work with the landscape or make the most of the views. They’re often too thick, and require lots of digging.”

I think there’s been a move towards more modern, architect-designed homes here. People are realising that kit homes often don’t work with the landscape or make the most of the views.

I’ve had personal experience of the Malcolmsons’ work, after Iain designed a gorgeous extension to my father and stepmother’s house in Cullivoe, on the North Isle of Yell, which was completed in 2010. The traditional but and ben croft house had been in my stepmum Shona’s family since the 19th century and her father, the late artist and one-time Scotland rugby player Adam Robson, had renovated it in 1991. But they wanted more space, so Iain designed a light-filled corridor to a large en-suite bedroom, both with show-stopping views across the Bluemull Sound to Unst, which was built by local builder Neil Nicholson. The extension has a Welsh slate roof and whitewashed pebbledash walls, so that it blends seamlessly with the original croft house.

I’d seen Dad and Shona go through this process of designing their perfect space, but until I worked on the Shetlanders project a few years ago, I didn’t realise how many people in Shetland have done the same, often building houses to their own specific requirements: like textile designer Joanna Hunter, who lived with her husband and two kids in a glassy water-side new home in West Burra; or physiotherapist Ross Smith, his wife New Zealand-born wife Bronwen and their three daughters, who had just moved into a brand new home in Whiteness, still amazed at their new view.

I also met musician/producer Tim Matthew and Mareel arts programmer Floortje Robertson, who showed me the water-facing field at Selivoe, part of Floortje’s family farm, where they were planning to build a modern croft house for their young family. While the field was empty then, a timber-clad single-storey building is due to be completed this year, with its angled roofs, concrete heated floors and four sea-facing bedrooms off a light-filled corridor. “We wanted it to be modern, but to work as a real crofter’s house,” says Tim. “We were lucky to have the land already, but it feels like it would have been hard to do this anywhere else. Even on Mull, where I’m from, a plot with a view like this would be prohibitively expensive.”

Even on Mull, where I’m from, a plot with a view like this would be prohibitively expensive.

Tim and Floortje originally drew their own plans for the house, but eventually realised they needed more help – especially since the house is being built with a crofting grant, which means meeting certain regulations. So they brought in Richard Gibson Architects, another of Shetland’s top architecture firms, known both for modern homes but also colourful social housing estates around Lerwick, which have won national awards.

Adrian Wishart, the director of the firm, says Tim and Floortje’s plans fit with a certain modesty in Shetland homes. “Down South, you’ll have more people going for mansions,” he says. “Here, we tend to want to build more timeless buildings that use space efficiently and don’t look out of place in the Shetland landscape. Often, the wow factor comes when you step inside. With the house at Selivoe, for example, there’s a double-height living area with a corner window and a stove built into this very tactile concrete.”

Wishart says there’s a growing demand for land in Shetland, which often needs to be de-crofted before it can be built on. “During lockdown, we were really busy with people from outside Shetland wanting to build houses or do conversions,” he says, mentioning one church conversion in tiny North Roe, in the north of the Mainland. “The pandemic has obviously altered peoples’ priorities around the world, to the benefit of places like Shetland.”

Part of the reason for the growing demand for local architects, says Iain Malcolmson, is a growing awareness of design. “In the last decade, people have definitely become more aware of design,” he says. “And I think people are becoming more exacting with what they want a house to be. There’s no point in designing a house and it just being okay. People should be getting what they want.”

I think people are becoming more exacting with what they want a house to be. There’s no point in designing a house and it just being okay.

For most people, it takes at least a few years of planning, de-crofting and getting the necessary permissions before building can happen. “It took us close to four years from the idea to building,” says Wendy Inkster. “But we thought the regulations might be stricter. There was no problem with me saying that I wanted the house to be the colour of Granny Smith apples. The other issue in Shetland is that builders can be very busy, so you sometimes have to wait in line.”

For those that do it, though, the rewards are immense. Back in 2018, Joanna Hunter told me that she’d just look at her view every morning and go “Wow”. At Dad and Shona’s house in Cullivoe, it’s possible to just sit and stare at the Bluemull Sound, like a curiously magical screensaver, occasionally heading outside to dad’s wine cellar, built into the drystane dyke at the back of the house.

For Wendy and Maurice, building their own house has meant having their own tailor-made green world, with their own little pier from which Maurice trains for Ironman triathlons. “It just feels like ours,” says Wendy. “This place where we can sit and look at the seals and tirricks (Arctic terns), and where the only real traffic we’re aware of is the boats chugging up and down the voe. It’s home, and we love it.”

Read here for more on buying and renting a house in Shetland, and see the latest Shetland properties on Rightmove.