“Strome Ferry - No Ferry” is one of the best-known roadsigns in Scotland.  It owes its fame to Iain Banks’ novel Complicity, which was published 20 years ago; Strome Ferry’s glory days were long gone by then.  Strome prospered during the 1970’s, when Howard Doris built enormous oil production platforms at Kishorn – but when the oil work dried up, the village shrank and eventually the hotel at Strome Ferry burned down.

I stayed at Strome for a wee while in the mid 1990’s, where I made the acquaintance of an interesting guy who we’ll also call Iain.*

Iain arrived there as an electronics technician with Marconi, working on the torpedo range at Kyle.  In his spare time, he built computers.  His current project was a strange Sharmanka-like object, with Motorola 68k processors slotted into an armature consisting of bits of metal.  It sat close to an open fire and breathed in wood smoke and rollie-up fumes all day.  The computer didn’t “do” anything in particular, it just sat there running a language called Forth and executing the bits of code which Iain compiled.

Iain’s vocation was electronics, but his day job was as a self-employed joiner, doing small works, house extensions, erecting timber kits and that sort of thing.

I stopped at Strome while travelling around the edge of Scotland and within minutes of arriving, Iain was quizzing me gleefully about the joist depths required to span his living room.  At first I was taken aback by the vehemence of his opinions – he had at least 25 years on me, and his points were well made because they were well-rehearsed – but as I reflected on them and got to know him better, I understood his viewpoint. 

He was determined to prove that university education left an architect ill-equipped to do the kind of work he did.  That’s probably true – at university and afterwards I learned about industrialised systems, crosswall construction and sway frames.  Over the next 15 years, most buildings I’ve worked on have been steel-framed with Holorib decks, plus one concrete frame and a couple of composite SIP-type timber kits plus a few random glulam beams thrown in.

At the moment I’m grappling with a set of Bison floors which the contractor seems to think will be cheaper and faster to erect and finish than Holorib with pumped concrete.  He is alone in thinking that.  Perhaps he has shares in Bison.  Anyhow, in rural areas the constructional specialisation of the city isn’t practical, so someone like Iain thrives on being able to turn his hand to any traditional or so-called “rationalised traditional" buildings. 

Hopefully our education equips us to be both a technical architect and a design architect; I think you need to be both these things if you’re going to practice successfully and realise your ideas.  However, Iain’s argument went that you don’t need an architect at all to build extensions to vernacular houses.  Fair point.  But it seems you don’t need a “builder” either.

It still baffles me that the rural building industry casually recruits people like Iain in the way it does.  Why does anyone “practical” feel that they can take up building work?  After all, there couldn’t be traffic in the other direction – few joiners or brickies would tackle re-progamming a Tigerfish torpedo’s guidance computer.  Perhaps Iain is right and the profession’s expertise is too narrow; maybe the professional has strayed too far from the practicalities of the self-builder Walter Segal or the enthusiasts at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth. 

Perhaps it’s a good thing that rural handyfolk can turn their hand so readily to building houses.  This democracy of sorts is only made possible by the timber kit, since more skill is needed to build in stone than to nail stud frames together.  As for the the pious hope that this universal access to building might lead to adequate and affordable rural housing, there isn’t an architectural solution to that issue: it’s a political, economic and land tenure problem.

As I said cheerio to Iain and his partner, she was thinking of foreign air travel, and his head was buried in the footwell of his Rover 800, sorting out a problem with its ECU (black box) in order that they could get to the airport at Dalcross a few days later.  As for his homebuilt computer, it may still be running “Forth”, and I still have the pamphlet about the Forth Interest Group plus a little book about Motorola 68k instruction sets which Iain gave me as a leaving present. 

The computer will probably outlive the Rover, and the house extensions he built will outlast them both…

* - In the spirit of the late Iain Banks, the people and places portrayed in this piece are fictitious, and any resemblance to real life is a mere coincidence.

This entry was posted by and is filed under independence.
By • Galleries: independence

No feedback yet