Fred Pilbrow

My Kind of Town: The Isle of Coll is as good a place as any to see out eternity

As a place to be buried, Crossapol Cemetery on the Isle of Coll takes some beating. Perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking a mile of white sand with open views across the Atlantic to the Treshnish Isles, it has the bleak beauty and big skies that are so characteristic of this remote part of Scotland.

For eternity, you would be in good company. Collachs are a hardy breed – the harsh environment, long winter nights and a tough economy generate a close-knit community of rugged individuals. Their funerals aren’t bad either. After the service in the village, your coffin is loaded onto the back of a Land Rover for the five-mile drive across the island to the cemetery. Drams are served from the tailboard as the cortège walks behind. The grave is dug by the mourners, some the worse for wear. It’s a good send off.

After the service in the village, your coffin is loaded onto the back of a Land Rover for the five-mile drive across the island to the cemetery. Drams are served from the tailboard as the cortège walks behind.”

I’ve been a summer visitor here since my childhood, when my parents had the great good fortune to stop off on the Isle of Coll by mistake (they were heading for neighbouring Tiree). The ferries were less frequent in the 1960s and for three days they were stranded.

During that enforced hiatus, they discovered a dilapidated croft with its own beach, complete with a nineteenth-century shipwreck still buried in the sand. They met the laird who owned it and asked whether they could buy it. “No”, he replied, and they forgot all about it until, six months later, a letter arrived from an Edinburgh solicitor saying that Kenneth Stewart would be willing to offer the freehold for 150 guineas.

In 1998 the community raised funds for a new hall to replace the ex-army shed that had served the island since the war. I was invited to take part in an architectural competition with a presentation to be made to the whole community, which could barely be squeezed into the old hall.

Getting to the presentation had been an involved journey. I was a partner at KPF at the time and the New York partners already viewed some of the London projects as perhaps being on the small side – I’d just finished a library at Oxford that we discovered would neatly fit inside the circular Ferris wheel Bill Pedersen was then designing at the top of the Mori Tower in Shanghai (which sadly was later dropped at the behest of city authorities who thought that the circle was too redolent of the Japanese rising sun).

I made my way to the island carrying the model in a Sherpa-like backpack, with just my legs visible below the foamcore case”

After long discussion the New York partners relented and we did a scheme. I made my way via Oban and a 5am ferry to the island on a glorious November day, carrying the model in a Sherpa-like backpack contrived by the model shop, with just my legs visible below the foamcore case.

Architectural competitions can be stressful, and the prospect of rubbing shoulders with your competitors always strikes me as slightly daunting. Yet in practice that has been the basis for enduring friendships, and Coll was a very good case in point. We were thrown together on the boat and in the (five-room) hotel. Short of waiting space before the presentations, the doctor had loaned her ambulance and we sat in the back waiting for our turn to present. I think we were all a little nervous and swapped stories from our very different work experiences. I recall Mary Arnold-Forster talking about her practice Dualchas on the Isle of Skye, making site visits to neighbouring islands by bicycle with a tent, showing incredible dedication to produce extraordinary results.

The presentation went well – our scheme won the popular vote – but we didn’t get the job. Perhaps our fees were too high, or our past experience looked a little alarming for the building committee. The hall was built to a design by Anderson Bell & Christie and it has been a success. I remain wistful about what we would have done with the project, and what working in this beautiful but remote place would have been like. Hopefully there will be another opportunity in the future, but if not I guess there is always the prospect of a longer stay waiting at Crossapol.