Hutting in Scotland

Norwegian huts

This is an article that I wrote that appeared in the latest issue (No. 36) of AHSS – The Magazine of the Architectural Heritage of Scotland. I was asked to write an article that covered the history and architecture of hutting presumably in the wake of the recent change in planning laws to define a ‘hut’. I am afraid that I found it hard to stick to the geographic confines of Scotland and ventured across the North Sea to my fatherland Norway for a bit.

Hutting in Scotland

From my childhood holidays in Norway I have fond memories of “hytter”, and wonder why Scotland does not have a similar culture? One week would be spent in a “hytte” in the mountains  and one in a “hytte” by the sea. Sometimes we stayed on my godfather’s island in Hardanger fjord where we ate what we caught in the sea or, if there was a celebration to be had, would kill one of the sheep to roast over a large bonfire. It was a back to nature existence with little distraction except what the land had to offer. The worst were the nighttime trips to the outside (double seater, sing-if-you-want-to-be-left-alone) loo trying to avoid the hanging catfish and other cold, wet monsters that thwacked your face in the dark.

There are over 400,000 huts in Norway, or 1 to every 10 people. There were about 660 here (in 1999 according to ‘Huts’ and ‘Hutters’ in Scotland), or 1 to every 8,000 people. So what if anything can Scotland learn form the Norwegian experience where hutting is integral to the culture?

Do we even know what a ‘hut’ is? We all think we know what a bothy, shieling, or for that matter a chalet is. Well now there is an official definition to help. Last month the Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) supported, for the first time, the construction of huts in rural settings for recreational accommodation, under Section 79: Promoting Rural Development. According to the SPP definition a hut is:

A simple building used intermittently as recreational accommodation (ie. not a principal residence); having an internal floor area of no more than 30m2; constructed from low impact materials; generally not connected to mains water, electricity or sewerage; and built in such a way that it is removable with little or no trace at the end of its life. Huts may be built singly or in groups.

A bothy is a basic shelter traditionally built to temporarily house estate workers in remote rural locations, and now used by mountaineers and hillwalkers as refuges; a shieling is a seasonal dwelling for those living and working with animals; and a chalet tends to be a kit house associated with mobile home parks. There are inevitably grey areas between all these types. Everyone wants to call their rural idyll a bothy nowadays. It is, however, much more likely to be a hut, but no-one wants to call their retreat what, let’s face it, sounds like a garden shed.

History

There is scant remaining evidence of huts in Scotland. It is not clear when hutting first started but, according to the Scottish Executive’s paper ‘Huts’ and ‘Hutters’ in Scotland, ‘during and after the two World Wars, some Scottish landowners made land available on lease on which ex-servicemen and families from deprived inner city areas were allowed to erect dwellings at their own cost, primarily to enjoy the benefits of the countryside and fresh air for holidays and at weekends’. The earliest of these seems to have been in 1919.

In the inter-war years hutting become popular due, in part, to better transport links to the countryside, and increased awareness of health issues. They were mostly in clusters of between 3 and 50 huts, although a few were over 100 huts.

The numbers declined after WWII due to a combination of factors – loss of interest, changing use of land and occasional ‘clearances’ by landowners. There has been little change since 1950s largely due to the lack of provision in Scottish planning.

The initial supposition that huts and hutting emerged as way of providing a means of weekend  and holiday escape into the country for poorer people from overcrowded urban conditions may have been correct. Certainly nowadays hutting involves a mode of living that, is simpler, closer to nature and uses less energy, space and materials than conventional urban lifestyles. While the catchment areas remain broadly similar today, mostly within easy reach of the larger conurbations, hutters are, from a much more diverse in their background.

The original landowners of hutting sites were a mix of small farmers, people running rural businesses, and a few owners of larger estates. Overall there has been a strong degree of continuity of ownership.

Scotland’s earliest and largest hutting community is in Carbeth, Stirlingshire, which came to widespread attention in 1999 as a result of a dispute between the hutters and their landlord. There had been virtually no political or policy focus on hutting aside from a brief period in the early years of the first session of the Scottish Parliament when evictions at Carbeth forced the Scottish Parliament to take note of the inadequate legal arrangements surrounding tenure for hutters. Unfortunately his led to no change in legislation, but the Carbeth community has now bought the land in 2013 in order to protect itself. There are many other smaller sites around Scotland that are under threat of eviction.

There are several other surviving hutting communities that have been converted to different uses. The huts at Seton Sandsare now a caravan site and Soonhope a mix of huts and holiday ‘chalets’.

In 2011 members of Reforesting Scotland established a campaign group, A Thousand Huts, to champion and revive hutting as a way of life, spear headed by one of its directors, Ninian Stuart, Director of Falkland Centre for Stewardship. Advisors include Andy Wightman, the land reform activist, and broadcaster and journalist, Lesley Riddoch. It aims to nurture and encourage the growth of a Scottish hutting culture similar to that in Scandinavia, enabling people to build low-impact retreats away from the stresses of modern day living. Where it differs from the Scandinavian model is it wants to foster a long-term relationship between private individuals and a particular place by private ownership, rather than one-off hut usage, although this distinction does not apply to the new planning policy. It was the major force, backed by Friends of the Earth Scotland, behind the change in SPP guidelines.

The next goal of the Thousand Huts Campaign is for the adoption of the guidance into local authority development plans and the creation of a clear set of Building Standards designed for simple structures such as huts. These would be less onerous than those applying to most building types.

Architecture

There are a wide range of styles and sizes of huts in Scotland, but they are typically small and of a vernacular style. Most huts have more than one room. They are all temporary structures sitting lightly on the ground, rather than digging into it, on supports such as old railway sleepers. They are largely built by amateurs at low cost, of whatever materials are readily available such as timber, corrugated metal or, in the early days, old bus-bodies and converted railway carriages, such as those at Carbeth.

More recently, prefabricated panels have been used or even complete prefabricated huts. Roofing material is mostly tarred or mineral felt, over wooden boarding. Most huts have some form of toilet – compost or chemical. These may be in the main hut or in an out-hut.

The Bothy Project is one of the few developers designing huts in a contemporary style. It develops small studio spaces for artist residencies. They have recently completed two stylish huts (or bothies as their owners prefer to call them) that are prototypes for more to be built across rural Scotland. They are prefabricated off-site by a team of volunteer builders, transported by truck and tractor to their rural sites, where they are reassembled. The Inshriach Bothy was built in 2011 in the Cairngorms National Park followed by Sweeney’s Bothy on the Isle of Eigg. They are constructed of corrugated metal, wood cladding and other reclaimed materials, including the windows. Their sustainable features include sheep’s wool insulation, wood-burning stove, rainwater harvesting system, outdoor suspended bag shower heated by stove, composting toilet and solar panel power.

Even amongst campaign groups the choice of materials is a contentious issue. If recycled materials are to be encouraged then the choice is almost limitless, including modern, processed materials. There are precedents of ultra- modern huts using shiny metal cladding, particularly on the continent, but is it too out of keeping in the Scottish landscape?

The space occupied by hut sites is also very variable. Some are compact and tucked away, others much more spread out. Often the huts themselves occupy indeterminate patches of land with no clear boundaries as in the Scandinavian model. Fencing in a garden is not encouraged except around areas for growing fruit and vegetables.

I fear the 30m2 size restriction in the new policy may limit larger families and groups and I hope that in the future there will be a broadening of the policy to include larger huts, with possible restrictions on grouping together. The Norwegians have a tradition of larger huts, owned by bodies as varied as The Royal Norwegian Air Force and, more recently, Statoil. If you do not own your own hut then you might have the use of one owned by your employer. Alternatively the Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) owns 460 huts throughout Norway and is an ideal model of shared hutting. This is a hugely popular organisation in Norway with over 240,000 members. With a model like this there is less need to own your own hut.

Thousand Huts Campaign must be applauded for its success so far. For the first time in nearly a century the new policy will allow both private individuals and families to build their own huts and landowners to build huts to rent. As for initiatives on the ground – Reforesting Scotland is working to establish a Federation of Scottish Hutters.

There is every reason to believe such a movement will have a revival now. There is a trend towards more domestic holidays, a growing demand for ‘wilder’ and adventure holidays and concerns about mental wellbeing, physical health and sustainability. However people are busier than ever and do not necessarily want the responsibilities of owning a hut. Organisations such as Scottish Waterways Trust have already expressed an interest in building huts to rent. The Forestry Commission’s first proposed pilot scheme of 10 huts on a site in Saline, Fife, is currently undergoing a community consultation. Farmers and landowners are looking for ways to diversify – welcoming hutting communities could be another source of revenue for them. Let’s hope that soon more Scots will be taking to the hills in a way that benefits all without detriment to biodiversity or intrusion into unspoilt areas of wilderness.