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Meet the Hosts

Caroline Dear and Nick Thomson of the Tin Church on the Isle of Skye

Caroline Dear and Nick Thomson
of the Tin Church on the Isle of Skye

Caroline and Nick at their home on the Isle of Skye

Architect and artist Caroline and her husband Nick, also an architect, kindly invited me over for dinner at their self-designed house on the Isle of Skye last autumn. I took the opportunity to ask them a few questions about what inspired them to transform a 1950s tin church into a cosy, contemporary holiday home.

Stefi: What’s the history of the building?

Nick: It’s a former mission church. When corrugated iron was invented in the early 19th century, people began thinking about creating prefabricated buildings. One of the first examples was the Iron Ballroom at Balmoral Castle — by a Manchester company that took part in The Great Exhibition of 1851. When Prince Albert saw an example of their iron buildings, he ordered one for Balmoral, and it was ready within just eight weeks! Prefabricated tin buildings were particularly popular in the Scottish Highlands and Islands because they’re very transportable — you can just pack up the building in a kit and send it off on a train. In the middle of nowhere, you can find two or three tin cottages and a church that would have been taken off the train and put on a donkey cart a few miles across the moors.

Caroline: A lot of families settled in Portnalong, where the Tin Church is, came from the overcrowded Isles of Harris and were given corrugated iron houses to move into. There aren’t many left now, but when we first came to Skye, there were lots.

S: And were there a lot of tin churches?

Nick: Yes, it was a symptom of the churches in Scotland breaking up and constantly fracturing. The standard church was the Church of Scotland; in 1843, the Free Church broke away from the Church of Scotland because they had differences in theology. And then, in the 1890s, the Free Presbyterian Church broke away from the Free Church. The Free Church, in some areas, got back together with the Church of Scotland, and so on. In the early 1900s, the Free Church needed an extra 75 churches quickly, and there are still quite a few of those standing. But our church, — an offshoot of a main church in Carbost — is quite a bit later; we think it’s from the 1950s.

S: Were you particularly looking for a corrugated iron church to renovate?

N: No, not particularly. I specialize in conservation architecture, and for one of the qualifications, I’d written a dissertation on corrugated iron buildings and had come across the Portnalong church in my research. So, when I saw it for sale, I just thought,‘Oh yes, I know that one.’

S: What sort of state was it in when you bought it?

N: It had been used ten years previously. It wasn’t in too bad shape — it was dry inside, but there were a few holes in the corrugated iron, particularly on the south side. We did the external painting ourselves as it would have been crazy to employ someone to do that as it was literally two years of work. We bought it in 2018 and were working on it during the lockdown; it was a great lockdown project because I was off work.

C: The surrounding planting was pretty overgrown, and the trees were doing some damage; the exterior paint was peeling off everywhere, and the windows were shot. It was lined with timber, and the colours were stunning: pink, yellow, blue, and green. We wanted to keep some of that, and you can see some of the original paintwork in the extension.

Inside the church towards the original entrance

S: Was it being sold with a view to renovating it?

N: Ha! No, probably anyone with any sense would have knocked it down and built something else. We took our time thinking about what we were going to do with it, and the design went through several iterations — whether to extend or keep it as one main space, where to put the front door, etc. We kept the original corrugated iron on the outside and restored it, which was a lot of work. As most of the damage was on the south side, we thought it wouldn’t do any harm to put the entrance on this side.

C: The space is quite tight to be able to fit a bed, etc., especially as we lost a bit of space putting in as much insulation as we could.

S: Yes, but it doesn’t feel small; you’ve used every bit of space available. It’s a great space just to sit in with the log burner on and views across the landscape. The interior feels like it was a labour of love.

N: That’s down to our son Ewan, who’s a boat builder. He nearly lost a finger working on it! We lined the interior with silver fir from a tree that was felled in Skye. It was milled by a local sawmill on the mainland. After they started processing it, they phoned us and said it wasn’t any good as it was far too knotty and tried to persuade us to use something else.

C: But that’s what gives it its character. And the builder that we used began to really love it and enjoyed working with it. It made it harder to work with, and we had various random widths, so it became a real puzzle to fit, and to work out what worked together visually.

N: Ewan’s got a workshop, so he did all the planing and tongue and grooving; it was a huge job. Ewan also made the dining table, the bed, and the side tables.

The internal structure

S: I noticed you’ve incorporated some of your artwork into the interior, Caroline, such as the light switches, can you tell me a bit more about that?

C: My background training as an architect means I’m interested in structures and working with spaces. I make ’lacey structures’ using grasses and different plants. I’m really interested in plants — I don’t think we don’t notice and value them enough — and in traditional skills and how people used to work with them.

The light switches were inspired by the wonderful glass switches in Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, where each has a little drawing. In the Tin Church, each light switch has a local plant that came from the site. The concrete step is another creative touch; it was cast using the existing corrugated iron.

Nick painting the roof

S: And what about the landscaping?

C: We’ve kept the landscaping minimal so that the building sits in the landscape very naturally. We put in ferns and other indigenous plants and pulled out some of the more vigorous grasses.

S: Were your plans always to rent it out as a holiday home?

N: Yes, there’s not much else you could do with it because the plot is quite small. You couldn’t build another house on it, so it lends itself to a holiday rental very well. There’s an ’epidemic’ of holiday pods on the island at the moment — you could have fitted two pods, and that’s probably what anyone else would have done, but we wanted to make the best use of an existing building.

S: I walked from the church to the cafe this morning, and past some pods! Was the location of the church a big consideration?

N: It was. It’s close to the Cuillin. It’s secluded but it’s easy to get to get places — you can walk to a beach, a pub, shop which is unusual for Skye.

C: People who come and stay really appreciate the space and the location. This is our third year, and it’s great because people have come back and stayed.

S: And when you finished it, did you stay there yourselves?

C: Yes, we wanted to make sure there was everything you needed. We wanted to create the kind of place we like to stay in, and we actually go and stay there for a break quite often.

S: There’s no better endorsement!

The Tin Church sleeps up to two people. Caroline and Nick particuarly welcomes artists and solo travellers and offers special rates for longer stays.

The Tin Church