Traditional farm steadings, with their mossy roofs and rubble walls enfolding a sharn-filled yard, are couthy places, inextricable from a life of open fires, sheepdogs and Land Rovers.  They look as if they emerged naturally from the landscape.  The form developed over hundreds of years, culminating in the development of scientific agriculture, which gave us places like the Coo Palace in Dunecht, and similar model farms on other estates.  However, modern “agribusiness” means that thousands of them became surplus to requirements from the 1950’s onwards – which is why the steading conversion became a staple of rural living.

As critics have pointed out, too many people convert steadings badly, destroying their character.  Arguably, this is worse than leaving these honestly functional structures alone, to decay with dignity; yet the best conversions reveal their character without resorting to pastiche.  Because planning departments oppose the construction of new housing in the countryside, the conversion of old buildings has often been the only option for people who want to live in the country.  Far more steadings exist than abandoned mills, kirks or castles – and although many date back only to the nineteenth century, they have an enduring character which suggests the passing of many aeons.  Steadings are very much a part of the agricultural hinterland, where folk subscribe to the Scots notion of bield, taking shelter from the climate: the steading is a protective building, throwing off the worst of the weather. 

There were two main periods of agricultural prosperity which stimulated the construction of steadings.  Firstly came the Age of Improvement, around the time of the Napoleonic wars at the turn of the nineteenth century – although it should be remembered that John Napier, the Scot who invented the decimal point and the first calculating machine, also pioneered the use of common salt to fertilise the soil two hundred years before.  Secondly came the High Farming period during the Victorian era, where close scientific study of each element of agriculture optimised the process and improved conditions in order to increase yields.  Scots took a major role in pushing things forward: James Meikle invented the threshing machine, Hugh Dalrymple invented the field drain, James Anderson conceived the modern ploughshare, and the reaping machine was perfected separately by two men, James Small and Patrick Bell.  Meantime in 1833, John Loudon published his “Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture”, which was effectively a pattern book that encouraged farm buildings to be developed along certain lines.

As the Victorian era progressed, agriculture became increasingly intensive, latterly using artificial fertilisers and pesticides to boost crop yields.  By the 1950’s, “agribusiness” was developing, and there was a need for bespoke stores and silos.  When coupled with the amalgamation of farms into larger units, this led to redundant buildings.  There is a telling contrast between old steadings and modern farm outbuildings: barns with steel portal frames, timber openwork sides and asbestos roofs will not lend themselves to conversion once they eventually lose their usefulness.  In fact, since the 1940’s, the number of farms in Scotland has been reduced by a third, to less than 30,000 holdings – and the days of the foreman, tractor hands and “orra loon” have long gone, too, with one farmhand now working an average of 500 acres.  He uses a powerful tractor with computerised four wheel-drive, drawing a five or six furrow reversible plough – a far cry from the wee grey Fergie.  As a result, not only were many cottar houses vacated as farm labour was cut back, but the combined running of several small farms from one site meant that many smaller steadings were abandoned by agriculture, too.

Typically, a steading incorporated several functions: the barn with its high walls and tall doors; the horse mill or “mill gyne”, which is circular; the long, low cart shed with up to a dozen open ports; and the dark, cobbled byre, and the brighter stable block, complete with hay loft.  Each element has a different character but typically, the steading is one-and-a-half or two storeys high, arranged in a “C” from around a court.  This was often penned-in to create a cattle reed, where the nowt were kept over the winter, but could spill into the enclosed yard to get fresh air.  The great attraction of steadings is that their fabric is robust – although plain, unrefined and unheated – so that it has the ability to be modest and unassuming from the outside, but offers the freedom to carve out living spaces within.  Steadings are usually built from locally-quarried stone set in squared rubble, often with the flush or “butter” pointing characteristic of the north-east – where mortar is seemingly smeared over the faces of the stones to the extent that the wall looks more cement than granite or sandstone.  Habitually, they have double-lapped slate roofs, with clay ridge tiles and stone parapets, plus ventilators inset into the roof to allow hay or straw to stay dry, and to ventilate the spaces when full of beasts. 

Retaining the character of the place is almost always reliant on attention to detail: the choice of a slim window section, the careful re-pointing (or not) of stonework, the fitting of sympathetic rooflights.  One virtue of recycling a farm steading is the ability to use the cartshed as a living space – its open bays, which are typically ten feet wide to suit the dimensions of horse-drawn carts, can be glazed in to form generously-scaled windows.  If discreetly done in a high-performance system as manufactured by Janssen or Rationel, these transparent screens prove one of the axioms of architecture – to get the best effect, don’t spread all your money equally throughout the building.  By concentrating it on two or three key elements, the eye will be drawn to them, and no-one will notice that the rest of the building is less lavish.  Upstairs, the smaller windows of the hayloft are suitable for bedrooms, and coombed ceilings aren’t necessarily a problem.

Another important consideration is how to deal with the interface between old and new.  The existing rubble walls in old steadings may lean and bulge all over the place, so in order to cope with this and also insulate them and contain services such as electricity and telephone cabling, the flanking walls can be lined with plasterboard or timber.  This inner skin straightens and plumbs everything up – you’ll struggle to hang pictures or fix skirting boards to rubble – yet the gable walls can be left exposed to act as a foil to the smoothness of the new lining.  An alternative is to create a clean-cut modern structure inside the old, rough-edged one – with a small gap between the two to emphasise that they’re discrete in time and function.  The key to a successful conversion, then, is to work with what you’re given – but if its character is unsuitable for a house, then perhaps we shouldn’t force it to become one. 

After all, if the end result destroys the building’s character, it completely misses the point, which is to live sympathetically with the farm around you.  The steading conversion should subscribe to the Danish concept of hygge – a sense of the cosiness of homely things, such as domestic comfort, and the conviviality of life in small communities.  The “fermtoun” was once a little community on its own, and the distinctive form of the cattle court was part of the symbolic landscape, like a tithe barn or oast house in other parts of the country..  It formed part of a larger cluster – the steading plus farmhouse, barns and cottar houses – and was often protected by a windbreak of elm or beech trees.  These touns punctuate the countryside, and sit particularly proud in flat areas, like the Howe of the Mearns, or the Buchan plateau.

When it comes to newbuilds, architects are in the habit of designing as much as they can – proscribing, as well as describing – and the process can culminate in trying to create the mythical “total work of art”.  There is an apocryphal story about Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who encouraged his clients at Hill House to wear slippers which co-ordinated with the carpet…  The steading conversion offers a chance for designers to step back from this mania for total control, to create buildings which leave things to chance, for the inhabitants to decide, to complete later, or not at all.  Steadings also relate to the notions of a more recent architectural thinker.  Stewart Brand’s “How Buildings Learn” identifies what he calls “low road” buildings, which are the opposite of high design ones.  His is a thought-provoking book for non-architects and architects alike, since it goes some way to explaining how a building changes and adapts throughout its life.  The “low road” building’s very lack of “designedness” provides opportunities for simple and constant change, as the users chop it about to suit new needs.

The countryside is the next frontier, as large amounts of rural building will be necessary, soon, if we believe what the politicians say.  Gordon Brown’s plans for ecotowns will affect the countryside more than the cities.  It can be argued that we have a rural housing crisis in Scotland, with young people leaving the countryside in droves because they can't afford housing.  Some steadings and cottages will almost certainly be owned by someone in another part of the country (or another country) who rarely visits them, or, worse, by a property speculator.  Amongst all the individual houses, there will be the need for bigger buildings, too – doctors’ surgeries, village halls, schools and so on.  The steading is one of the few traditional rural forms which works well when subdivided into a number of units, but could also be used to contain a single function.  Hence, it is a prototype for several kinds of rural development, and that should provide consistency when set alongside farmhouses, cottar houses and more modern developments of agribusiness. 

Ironically, the steading is more in danger from the farmer than the architect these days: a proposed conversion into housing will be scrutinised by a professional planner, then by a Council committee, but buildings embedded in a working farm can be adapted or demolished under the rules of “permitted development”, thus avoiding the normal controls.  In fact, it could be said that farmers can drive a coach and horses through the Planning regulations … if no longer through the steading itself.

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