Following a love for wild landscapes led me to Skye, and to a belief in low-impact architecture, recalls Mary Arnold-Forster


Mary Arnold-Forster

David Barbour, Johnny Shipley

In the spring of 1998 my aunt Lorna, who comes from Skye, asked me to design an extension to her cottage near Dunvegan on the north-west corner of the island. Of course I said yes. I booked a climbing course and arranged to meet with some people I knew of ­– twins Alasdair and Neil Stephen, who had set up a practice straight out of university.

I arrived on Skye, stayed alone in Lorna’s cottage and turned up at the base of the Cuillins to meet my climbing coach and the other pupils. No one else appeared and the two of us climbed together for three days in glorious sunshine. The next day I met the twins who were happy to get involved in the cottage. They also showed me a site with spectacular views west to the Cuillins and the sea. Nine months later I moved to Skye.

I was an outdoor child; wild and feral. I forgot to go home for food, climbed the tallest trees, explored beaches and woods and swam in anything. I had taken up hill walking more seriously while working in Glasgow, and later when back in London. I would often turn up at Monday office meetings straight off the sleeper, dazed by a weekend in the highland wilderness, drunk on clean air and exhaustion.


Black Shed house on the Isle of Skye, designed by Mary Arnold-Forster and completed in 2018 (ph: David Barbour)

However, that lone trip started a profound and constant love of wild landscapes. Once on Skye busy with a new job and a house to build it took me a while to realise how lonely I was. I decided to walk that loneliness off. I walked the coast of the island over the course of the weekends, trudging alone through bog heather and over hills and rock. I walked and walked and walked in the rain, under grey skies under scudding clouds. Later I took up sea kayaking and mountain biking and just kept moving all over the west coast and its islands. I haven’t stopped. I go for a week wild camping off a kayak, and cycle or push a bike over moors, or walk up hills and just keep going. I rarely read the monographs of great architects but instead read Nan Shepherd, Kathleen Jamie, Robert McFarlane, Adam Nicolson. I am learning about birds and wild flowers and clouds.

As an architect I take my responsibility to these landscapes seriously and agonise about the impact we make on them at all levels – culturally and physically, from the scale of a settlement to the pouring of a threshold. I am often overwhelmed by self-doubt but am beginning to see that as a positive. I sit and walk and camp on the sites. I go back if I can at dawn at dusk in all seasons and all weathers. I encourage my clients to build modestly, quietly, with restraint and as small as they can bear. I like to frame the views of the rocks, grasses and wild flowers as much as the distant views of hills and the sea, to leave the ruins in peace, not to overwhelm and to tread lightly through these landscapes.

And once, standing on the machair of a Hebridean island, I persuaded a potential client not to build at all but to leave no trace, and just walk away.