Saturday, 18 June 2011

Huts and happiness

I spent Wednesday this week in Edinburgh at the launch of a campaign for huts - see the very lively facebook debate. This is a Reforesting Scotland campaign to generate enthusiasm for huts, particularly in woods, in Scotland. Some people want somewhere quiet, rustic, simple and affordable to retreat to from urban life for weekends and holidays. Some want a full-time life away from the rat-race. They all want huts. A thousand huts. Or more.

I was invited on Wednesday to speak about what it is like to live in the woods, in huts (sheds and caravans and upturned boats) which I've been doing happily for 12 years. Happily being the operative word. I used to be a moody, temperamental urban-dweller with a job, mortgage and most of the other trappings of urban life. Since I got out of the box and into the woods, I am much happier. I live a simpler life without a proper job, mains electricity or a flush toilet. I am less secure and much freer. I am constantly exposed to nature and the other species with whom I share this place. I am aware of the weather, the phase of the moon and tides. I am alert and responsive to the rhythms of the changing seasons. I am more alive. Hut life has made me happy.

As well as being good for me, living in the woods has also been good for the woods. Trees flourish around us and the woods are regenerating, thanks to the disturbance we cause to deer, the nuts and seeds we sow and the compost we create. This is in marked contrast to the effect of the clearance of people from most of rural Scotland over the past two centuries, which has resulted in monocultural industrial landscapes of Sitka spruce trees or wet deserts grazed and eroded by sheep and deer. Anyone coming to a crofting area cannot fail to see that where people were allowed to stay (here it is around the coast), there is a diverse mosaic of woodlands and species-rich gardens, fields and pastures, whereas where the people were cleared for sheep ranches and sporting estates the woods have died on their feet through overgrazing and burning. This is, I believe, a reversible process, but only by letting people back onto the land.

We need some radical ways to give thousands of people access to land in Scotland. The Scottish Crofting Federation has called on the new SNP government to create ten thousand new crofts and bring a quarter of Scottish land into crofting tenure. This is a great vision. Many of these could be woodland crofts, particularly as the nation's biggest land holding is the national forest estate. If we can combine a move to create access to pieces of land, with a permissive approach to how people build on them, we could be onto something good.

There is quite rightly a national obsession with the shortage of affordable housing. One of the most obvious solutions is to allow people to build their own, cheap, simple dwellings, in other words, to encourage huts. This is a challenge to the current planning and building standards regime, but surely not insurmountable. My suggestion would be that local authorities could create zones where there is a derogation on planning and building standards, and let's see what happens for a while there. If we can create a situation where lots of people can get access to rural land and build huts, we will, I am sure, create a situation where rural economies and biodiversity will flourish.

It's normal in places like Scandinavia, Russia, Germany and Canada, for people to have a wee, rustic place in the forest, and in Scotland there used to be a much stronger tradition of hutting. Unfortunately very few people nowadays have livelihoods that involve seasonal hut-dwelling - the herders and charcoal makers are long gone - and most of the informal hut sites where people from the central belt could go for a cheap country holiday have been emptied of their residents. The Barry Downs hutters are the most recent to lose their fight against eviction. It's time to reverse that trend.

The Carbeth hutters have, after a 14 year rent strike, embarked on the process of buying out their land, and good luck to them in raising the money. Gerry Loose, one of the Carbeth hutters and an inspirational writer, was also speaking at the event on Wednesday. He posted this great quote from Frank Fraser Darling, from about 1933, on the Facebook site and it's worth repeating:
“It is remarkable how much more work is made as soon as you have a house of stone and lime with doorsteps and fireplaces and several windows, and when you have begun to collect furniture. We have reached the conclusion that the cure for the chronic state of monetary poverty in which we find ourselves while we insist on doing research which it pleases us to do . . . is to simplify needs. Face up to the fact that much of the furniture and fittings, and therefore of indoor space, is quite unnecessary for comfort. Pare down continuously and avoid junk like the plague: be careful to see that such labour-saving devices as you install are not in fact labour-makers. We have never been more happy than in these wooden-hut days . . ."
I second that emotion.


  1. Me too, 5 years and loving it... as a coppice worker who has gone from the South Lakes to the outskirts of Bath in the South West in woods, I've been able to diversify woodland use and productivity in line with approved management plans for woodland regeneration and restoration. Near a city now, it's a whole new focus. We offer volunteer days for homeless people, vulnerable and NEET youths and anyone who wants to help. We do courses as well as wild play and exploration for children... we have our privacy and our lives are so connected to the land, but we can help others connect to the woods too...rarely a person comes to our huts and leaves not craving a similar existence....I'm Scottish by the way, and really excited about this movement back home!!

  2. Its in Island years, Island farm - amazing and beautiful book. If you'd like us to send you a copy when we've finished, you are most welcome.