Joining the dots

Craig and Hilary Joiner had no intention of embarking on a massive building project in the Eastern Highlands – or to spend five years in the planning system – but they went with the flow and reaped the benefits


Hilary Joiner has been holidaying in the Cairngorms since she was very young. Her aunt had a house in the area and her family regularly visited to take advantage of the excellent skiing. Therefore, when Hilary and her partner Craig decided to look for a second home as well as an investment property, this region of the Scottish Highlands was high on their wish list. However, after searching for several years to no avail, they were ready to quit. “After yet another disappointment of a sale which fell through, we decided it was time to close the book on our search,” Hilary recalls.

Or so she says. A sneaky last peek online, and Pityoulish Estate – nestled between Nethy Bridge and Coylumbridge – caught her attention. “The owners at Pityoulish Estate were breaking up some parts of the estate and Pityoulish Steading was part of this. We made an appointment not to view the steading itself, but a small farmer’s cottage next door.”

Hilary had seen the steading (a group of farmstead buildings) in the particulars, but knew right away it would be madness to take on something so large, and in such a state of dilapidation. However, when the agent suggested that she and Craig take a look, they didn’t refuse. “We still really had no intention of buying it, but we found ourselves making an offer and when it was accepted, there was no going back.”

The renovation began in 2016 and quickly hit a snag – in the form of bats. “We hadn’t understood just how important bats are in projects, and how time-consuming it is to obtain the necessary licences. We were at a snagging stage before lockdown hit, but it took us such a long time to even start because of how much getting the bat licences delayed the build. You can only do surveys while they’re nesting, and bat surveyors are very busy. It took about a year and a half before we could get the survey arranged and then it had to be incorporated into the plans before we could finally apply for planning permission.”

The couple’s initial idea was to retain all of the buildings, including a barn which dates from around 1847. Although the buildings’ quality was evident, the estate had gone through good and bad times. “Historically, Pityoulish had been a very fertile and wealthy estate; you can tell that because the buildings had huge architectural consideration,” says Hilary. “It was simple, but it had been given due care and attention.”

Sadly, that attention had lapsed over the last few decades and the original, horseshoe-shaped layout of buildings with stabling for cows and horses – plus a huge barn in the centre – was in a state of severe disrepair. The couple had hoped to restore the barn, “but ultimately it had to come down.” Fortunately, they have in the main managed to retain the original footprint of the steading, and in the barn’s footprint have built a sunken, walled garden where a sheltered seating area has been created and a hot tub installed. “I feel we’ve put the space to good use; you can still see a presence of the barn and we were able to reuse the natural Cairngorm stone, slate tiles and the massive lintel stones from the barn in the building’s restoration.”

Another unexpected bonus was the removal of several large pine trees in front of the steading. “They cast a lot of shade on the house and made it really dark, but they weren’t ours to remove.” As luck would have it, a project to install ‘super pylons’ in the area deemed the trees dangerous, and they were cut down. “It completely opened up the aspects to views, wind and breeze, it was an unexpected surprise.”

This wasn’t the only surprise – as the grounds around the steading continue to throw up new discoveries on a regular basis as Hilary explains: “Every time we do something we find something new, and the steading reveals more about its past.” Groundworks unearthed mill stones, leading to speculation that there was a horse drawn mill on the site at some point. “In the front porch we’ve re-used bits of wood that we found during the restoration, which are signed by farmworkers dating back to the late 1800s. We’ve repurposed one of the mill stones as a table too.”

Having not intended to take on such a large project, finance was an issue, as Hilary explains: “We had a limited budget, but we wanted to ensure that we invested in details which would be there for a long time. Even though we ripped out the interiors completely, what we put back had to have integrity and character, and we’ve tried to reincorporate original timbers wherever possible. We didn’t want to put in fake beams, and there were certain pieces we could take out and reintegrate to form part of the structure, albeit in a different format.”


Fortunately, the Joiners’ builder and architect were on the same page as the couple and were equally keen to retain the property’s original character. “Once the project began, we had a brilliant builder (Chris Robinson) and a great architect (John Craig), and we all worked well together. Once we handed over to Chris it was really a dream build; it really matters to have someone with a solid reputation and an established network of trades and suppliers.”

The couple’s practical approach to the renovation has also helped. “We’re not property developers, and although we’ve done small scale renovations, we’ve never tackled a project of this magnitude, so I suppose what I’m most pleased with is how we’ve managed to achieve something that we’re proud of.”

Tackling the project in a systematic way – the build, the garden, even clearing out the barns, was their plan from the get-go. “We had to do it one step at a time, or we would have been overwhelmed by the scale of the project. It’s like owning a key to a huge number of hobbies and a list of new skill sets that we’ve had to develop.” She adds: “I’ve always wanted to do a self-build as I come from a family of self- builders; I’ve seen it as part of my DNA. This level of restoration has been close to self- building.” And although everything has taken longer than they had anticipated, taking that time has also afforded them a greater understanding of the building and its relationship within the estate.

Taking advantage of their new expansive views, the final layout, which is over two floors, incorporates a kitchen/diner, utility room, bathroom, snug and double bedroom on the ground floor with a sitting room and further two bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs.

Once the building work was complete, creatively minded Hilary was keen to get started on the interior aesthetics, and after five years in the planning (when you include lockdown), she more than a little amount of vision of how the result would look. “By this time, I had a massive Pinterest board! Also knowing the area so well and being aware of its strong connection with Scandinavia, crisp, clean lines and simple uncluttered design was the obvious way to go.”

Although Pityoulish is now an investment which will raise income, the couple and their family very much intend to use it as their second home, and Hilary looked upon it as a fresh start. “My own house probably has too much in it, and this was a chance to have a clean slate and have the style without the clutter that we accumulate for everyday living.”

That style includes little touches like luxurious deer hides and sheepskins and the odd quirky wall covering (from Scottish supplier Timorous Beasties). “I’ve used their Thistle wallpaper in one of the bedrooms. I think their designs are just enough for one wall. I’ve also used another design which features stags but with wind farms too and I like that little ironic twist.”

Although Craig, Hilary and their two teenage daughters retreat to Pityoulish whenever they can, when it’s empty it is available to rent, and a few more extras have been added to the property. What the couple assume was the former dairy (it was the only building with a proper floor) has been made into a games room which is just the right size for a game of darts or table tennis. A further two outbuildings have been built into the exterior to incorporate storage for bikes, skis and kayaks. Hilary drew on her experience from her own family holidays to ensure this was a holiday home that ticked all the boxes, including for practicality.

While keen to embrace an open plan design, Hilary was pragmatic about the weather conditions in the Highlands. “The climate can be brutal and open plan living impractical when you need to store so much outdoor kit,” she explains. The solution was to make the main living spaces open plan but with an abundance of storage and a large boot room and drying room to ensure everything is dry for the next day’s adventure.

“I love the interior of the steading; it has come together so well, but equally we spend so much time in the garden. The next project is to further develop the outdoor space and create areas where I can plant meadows and wildflowers.”

For the family, the restoration of Pityoulish has been a long, eventful journey, but it’s now on the homeward straight and Hilary and Craig have created a property with integrity that they can be justifiably proud to share with guests. “There have been times of tension and worry but overall, it has been a really mindful, wonderful project and I feel we owe this building so much.” These kind of last sneaky peeks at properties on the internet aren’t for the fainthearted – who knows what path they will lead you down.