Saturday, 30 March 2013

Four wooden walls to make the heart sing

This article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Reforesting Scotland magazine...


Sometimes the most profound ideas are best embodied in the smallest of packages. Authenticity is the key, and the lovely Woodman’s Hut at Nethy Bridge has it in abundance. Every detail of this beautifully simple building has been created with warm-hearted consideration for the wellbeing of the people who spend time there, writes Karen Grant.

Occasionally a building welcomes you with the warmth of the good hearts that built it. This is true of the Woodman’s Hut, built by David and Valery Dean in three acres of woodland near their well-loved hostel, The Lazy Duck. The Woodman’s Hut was built as a retreat for one or two people, just a short walk from their cosy and characterful eight-bed hostel. The Deans enlisted talented local craftsmen Rob Clarke and Dave Robson to do the construction, and the finished cabin shows the care and creativity of all the people involved.

One snowy afternoon in January, I visited Nethy Bridge to meet David in the hut at the edge of pine woodland looking directly up to Cairngorm and Bynack More.
The hut sits almost smiling at the side of the old Woodman’s path which was constructed in the 19th Century and used again during the First World War to move timber to the mill in Nethy. David and Valery have since reinstated the path, which had become overgrown through the years. David walked up to the site every day for six months before they settled on the best orientation and siting for the hut. They wanted their guests to be able to lie on a supremely comfortable bed overlooking the beautiful view of Cairngorm and Bynack More.

Designing for wellbeing
David and Valery created the original design. From the beginning, they felt that a hut shouldn’t be too big, David told me. “We asked ourselves what do we really want? We want a box bed, two chairs, a wood-burning stove, somewhere to eat - and a south-facing verandah protected from the prevailing wind so people can enjoy it fully.”

Then they began to think about materials. They knew they did not want it to look like a garage or garden shed. Valery’s cousin produced the architects drawings for them, based on their design. David explains, “Everything is exactly as it is in the architects drawings, though of course so many design elements emerge during the building, like the way the larch poles at the sides of the door become thicker at the bottom. That was Rob’s cleverness in choosing the piece of wood, so it looks a bit Gaudí-ish or Hobbit-ish! It gives full rein to the character of the wood.”

Much of the timber for the internal fittings was made from a storm-damaged 260-year-old Caledonian pine tree felled in the grounds 200 yards from the building. One of the great pleasures of being in the hut is noticing the care that has been taken in the detail of the design, from the simple pine wood shutters for the box bed to the charming crockery supplied for the guests to use. Everything in the space has been put there to contribute to the feeling of authenticity and ‘rightness’ of this building in its place. 

Off-grid living
Guests are thrilled by the bracing pleasures of an outdoor shower using water heated on the stove. Indeed, a recent reviewer for The Guardian newspaper called it “a magical experience”. Around the hut, candles sit inside antique lanterns, and a small solar panel tops up a battery providing two lamps with gentle 12volt soft light. The building is fully off-grid and the compost toilet situated a short distance from the hut is a gem in itself, decorated with a vase of woodland foliage. Wood for the stove is provided from thinnings from the surrounding forest.

The philosophy behind the building
The Woodman’s Hut is a natural expression of the values David and Valery have developed throughout their working lives. They were founders of the therapeutic residential Raddery School on the Black Isle in the late 1970s and that philosophy is infused in everything they have created at the Lazy Duck. David explains, “Our background is in creating therapeutic environments for children, but also for the adults who worked with the children, who had to feel inspired enough by their environment to be able to move into the therapeutic milieu. The staff team was a holistic workforce - nobody came just to teach or just to cook or just to play music, we all worked across the board. Key to that was the creating of a physical environment that would enable it all to work successfully.”

Their commitment to creating supportive working and living environments translates easily into how they provide for visitors on holiday. David says, “If we can provide the wow factor without any opulence, we will have achieved something.  We’re trying to reach those elemental depths in the psyche that stir us all. For some people it rekindles childhood memories with grandparents or great grandparents - the smell of pine resin, the smell of cattle, the sounds of birds, the geese going over head, the curlew, the lapwing. Sights and sounds such as the running and barking of the deer, the call or the crashing flap of the capercaillie through the trees."

"We even have a planning condition asked for by our neighbour that if people are in the hut and they turn the light on at night, they have to close the curtains on the north side so as to not disturb the capercaillie. The planning officer for the area wrote it in, and it’s binding. It’s actually very good for us to explain to people - the visitors get quite thrilled, they say 'You mean we’re going to hear a capercaillie?!'"

An achievable dream?
The hut was built in around three months, for an estimated budget of £10,000, not including furnishings, so it lends itself well as a demonstration of what can be achieved. It is the perfect example of a low-impact development, sitting lightly in its site, in tune with its surroundings and maintained to the highest ecological standards. For those of us who aspire to building a hut like this ourselves, many lessons can be learned from the Woodman’s Hut.

The issue of planning permission is one that requires attention, though, calling to mind Simon Fairlie’s struggle for a separate definition for the planning of low-impact buildings. It feels to me that there is some common sense in the idea that very well-stewarded low-impact developments of this kind should have more of a place in the Scottish environment, if only to deepen the bonds between the people and the land. The fact that David and Valery had already set a precedent of good environmental practice through the Lazy Duck hostel, winning several Green Tourism awards, helped them immensely in the planning process. David says, “Had we had no hostel, I think there would have been a question mark about planning permission. As it was, we had established a good track record for taking our ecological responsibilities seriously.”

In 2012 the hut was recognised through winning a Cairngorms National Park Design Award. It feels like a good story: a lovely little ecologically-sound building built with heart and for the benefit of the many people who will spend time there. The hut becomes a teacher of sorts, cradling its guests’ experience of the land around it.

Karen Grant is a lifelong hut enthusiast. She runs Catalyst Campaigns offering support to social and environmental justice groups (

Experience the Woodman’s Hut or the Lazy Duck Hostel for yourself! Find out more, and check availability at