SALT OF THE EARTH
Meena and Chris Watts left their London lives behind to build their own eco home overlooking Loch Bay on the Isle of Skye
The eco home on the Isle of Skye that inspired a new business venture
Alightbulb moment in Papua New Guinea completely changed the lives and careers of Meena and Chris Watts. ‘We were at the other end of the world and realised we had never been to Scotland,’ Meena recalls. ‘Chris and I had been to so many different countries through our international development work but had never, ever been to Scotland. After returning to the UK a few years later we started visiting mainland Scotland as we both love walking. Then, after another few years, we decided to explore the islands and Skye was the first one we visited.’
By pure luck the couple ended up staying in Rainbow Cottage, which they eventually bought and now rent out. ‘It was being run as a B&B back then,’ says Meena. ‘The cottage is in such a beautiful, special spot and we loved it and just kept coming back again and again, which isn’t something we normally did. Then the opportunity arose to buy it and we decided to go for it. We had a great life in London but we knew we had enough experience professionally to do whatever we needed to do to earn a living somewhere else.
‘I was ready to step away from development work after 25 years, even though I was passionate about it and had won an International Award for my work in Estonia. I knew Skye wasn’t an easy place to commute from, so when we moved we tried not to be too fixed in our attitudes as we thought that could be a disadvantage as well.’
Whilst the couple were open to different ways to earn a crust, they didn’t arrive on Skye with the intention of building their own home. However, after a year living in the cottage their ideas started to take shape. ‘We were fortunate that our house in London was built by an architect for him and his family to live in,’ says Meena. ‘It was amazing and it gave us an insight into the advantages of having a bespoke house.
‘We had a bit of money left over from the house sale in London, so we thought ‘we’ll do it, we’ll build our own eco-home’. When we decided to go down that route we had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted because of Chris’s experience in sustainable design and eco housing. Of course, it was subject to budget and we found excellent architects on Skye, Rural Design, who worked with us to develop a design that incorporated much of our thinking on solar gain, insulation and eco materials.’
The one-bedroom, single storey property is found only a stone’s throw from Rainbow Cottage, but the two are nothing alike. ‘The shape of the house was very much dictated by the elements,’ explains Chris. ‘Designed along sustainability principles, it’s very highly insulated with an airtight membrane wrapped
‘We loved it, and just kept coming back again and again’
around the building. This minimises the need for heating and the house also takes full advantage of solar gain so that even in winter when it’s zero degrees outside it can still get up to 24 degrees inside, just from the sun. The house faces north and north-west up the loch so to maximise the views we have huge picture windows. However to get the solar gain, we had to bring light in from the side, hence the large amount of glazing on the south-facing side of the house to catch the sun.’
Let there be light
This has had the happy effect of making the house very light all year round. ‘That was an important part of our brief,’ says Meena. ‘Even on the cloudiest, darkest day not only do we still have a view, we never get that claustrophobia that sometimes comes with wintry days. The other thing about living in such a well-lit house is that we are at one with nature 24/7 and we love that aspect of it. It feels very spiritual.’
The build took eight months from start to finish and the only real surprise was the engineer’s report. ‘ The engineer insisted we install a steel sub-frame to protect against the very high wind speeds, which we hadn’t really considered,’ said Chris. ‘I thought the timber frame would be sufficient but, now we’ve lived through the winds, it’s been a good idea. We’ve been in the house five years and it’s been tried and tested in many ways. We had a rare power cut soon after moving in,
‘ We are at one with nature 24/7 and we love that aspect of it’
and the power was out for a few days but the house never lost its warmth.’
Once the build of their new home was complete, Chris and Meena moved in and transformed Rainbow Cottage into a self-catering holiday rental property, which has proved incredibly popular with returning guests.
‘Chris carried on doing consultancy work to start with but once we had an income from the cottage we talked about what to do next and I’m glad we did that,’ Meena recalls.
However, the next step was a surprising one. ‘We were having lunch with some friends and got talking about how to make a living up here,’ says Chris. ‘One of the things we discussed was salt. I got up the next day looked down the loch, had a eureka moment, and thought ‘well, there’s plenty of raw material right here.’
Chris researched the market and looked into the many different ways of making salt. With his background in sustainable design, he investigated how he could do it with just sun and wind. ‘We spent about a year trialling it with a small pond,’ he says. ‘Meena and I started in 2010 and by the end of 2013 we had gone into production as the Isle of Skye Sea Salt Company. It’s a very natural, slow process, but we now have a multi-award winning product acclaimed both for its taste and its environmental attributes. And those friends we had lunch with… they’re now our business partners.’
‘We have been on Skye for ten years now and haven’t had a moment of boredom, partly down to our very adventurous outlook,’ says Meena. ‘ When we watched Grand Designs on TV in London we used to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to live up on a hill overlooking the water in a contemporary eco home?’ Not in a million years did we ever think it would happen.’
‘ We have been on Skye for ten years now and haven’t had a moment of boredom’
Image: Large picture windows offer amazing views over Loch Bay.
Left: Minimalist furnishings complement the open and light spaces. Above: The single storey property takes full advantage of solar gain.
Top: Light and warmth floods into the kitchen from large, south facing windows. Right: Colourful additions to the interiors bring the house to life.
Above: Meena and Chris founded the Skye Sea Salt Company in 2010. Below: The overall shape of the house was dictated by the elements and designed to maximise sustainability.