It was just another working day in September 2008 when we got the call from the lawyer to let us know the woodland was finally ours. We had driven past this particular woodland for years, on the way to our rented farm workshop in Ruskie near Stirling. This was the closest rentable space to Fintry we could find, at a price we could afford. We took that leap of faith in June 2002 to move our furniture making business from our garage in Fintry into an old stone built stable fourteen miles away.
After six years or so in the stables, we needed more space and moved to a larger unit with a small yard within the same farm. We now had the space to set up our first sawmill (A large chainsaw), it wasn’t long before we made the decision to invest in a basic band saw mill, a Hudson 36! Sharing premises with a large stone company had its advantages as we could borrow fork lifts whenever we needed them. This allowed us to start building oak frames, something that had interested me since my travels across America & Canada. The forklifts were a necessity for moving large logs onto the saw mill and cut timber up to the old kiln we had managed to procure from a local tree surgeon. We were starting to build a log stock whenever the budget allowed and slowly we squeezed the boundaries of our small yard, which, quite rightly started causing issues with our land lord. It didn’t take a lot of thinking to realise that we needed our own place with room to expand and the search for a woodland began.
The reasoning for a woodland rather than a building plot or an industrial unit was based on two things, firstly; economics i.e value for money per m2, we needed a lot of storage space, Secondly; the suitability of the space for this type of business, meant logically it needed to be in a rural setting. Initially we searched online for companies who specialized in woodland sales and found a few within a fifteen mile radius of our home. These ranged from five acres – thirty acres. A couple of woodlands were potentially suitable and we looked into these more closely, only to find that they carried caveats which excluded any chance of building a workshop or pretty much anything in them. Watch out for this if you start looking for one, it seems to be quite common.
A funny thing happens when you focus on something more intently, you start to notice whatever it might be everywhere, in our case we noticed that we were actually surrounded by small woodlands. Exasperated by the legal restraints we had encountered with the woodlands we had looked at we turned our attention to the ones on our doorstep. Obviously none of these were on the open market, so we set about finding out who owned them. The smallest and closest to our home was on the edge of the village. After some research we discovered it was owned by the previous Laird of Culcreuch Castle, Hercules Robinson who now lived on the Isle of Man. We managed to find an address and wrote an introductory letter with a verbal offer to purchase the 5 acre woodland from him for £6,000. This was positively received with the inclusion that we cover all the legal costs and deal with everything here in Scotland. The legalities, however dragged on for a year as he rarely relied to the lawyer’s letters. It finally fell through when due to ill health Hercules transferred his estate to his son. He immediately tripled the price and we decided to withdraw! The next woodland was a mile outside the village on the Killearn road, again it transpired that it too was not locally owned. It turned out the owner lived in South Africa. We wrote a similar introductory letter with an offer to them through their local factor. We never received a reply to this and after a good few months decided to move on. By this time we had noticed a small Oak woodland on our way to work, a mile outside the village on the B822 about 380 metres from the road. One weekend we decided to take a walk and have a closer look and found to our delight a beautiful ancient Oak woodland on a sloping site with 2 small natural spring burns running through it with an acre field at its base. We discovered google pro, which is now free, about the same time; this allowed us to work out the area of the woodland to be approx 16 acres. This time it was owned by a local farmer and we arranged a face to face meeting and put forward our case to purchase it.
We were visited at our old workshop a couple of months later by the heads of the farming family. I think they may have been checking out the credibility of our story! Additional enquiries were made locally as to our characters and ultimately our suitability to be sold the land. At this point no money had been mentioned and it occurred to us that even if they said yes we might not be able to afford it. We finally received a call from the Head of the family to tell us that they would be happy to sell us the ground and to make them an offer. After a little negotiation we finally agreed a price we were both happy with. After our experience from the previous woodlands, we made a point of having our lawyer ensure that this was a straight transfer of title with no caveats which could restrict any future development. We had £7,000 in reserve and borrowed the balance from the bank without much trouble and in September 2008 we finally became the proud owners of a 16 acre Ancient Oak woodland, which we have renamed Darach Mor (Great Oak). This was of course only the beginning of our journey as we now had to get planning permission for roads and buildings on a green field site and of course find the money to fund it all.
As a qualified Civil Engineer prior to becoming a furniture maker, I was able to prepare all the cad drawings for the access road, yard and workshop for the planning application. This all went through with surprising ease and we had permission before Christmas 2008. It would however be four years before we could finally hand over the keys to our rented workshop in Ruskie. Unfortunately the banks crashed just as we started looking for finance to start building. We had two options; sit it out until the things improved and banks start lending to small businesses again or find another way and push on. Rightly or wrongly we chose the latter! But that’s another story!
We have now been working full time from a temporary workshop within our own yard accessed by our own road since December 2012. Our power comes from a 33 KVA 3 phase diesel generator which works out at around £10 day to run. Setting up and moving our business over to Fintry has however saved us nearly 250 hours a year travelling and over £2,000 year in diesel which more than compensates at the moment for the cost of the generator. The cost of the loan to purchase the land, build the access road and set up the temporary porta cabin workshop is also less than we were paying in rent so all things considered it was the right decision.
Since moving the business across to Darach Mor we managed to purchase another 24 acres around our existing woodland from the same farmers. This secured our entrance road against a third party buying the field next to the yard. We applied for a woodland grant with the help of Eamon Wall & Co, a woodland creation company to deer fence and plant a 35 acre area including the original ancient oak woodland. In March 2016 we planted approx 24,000 productive broadleaf trees. Removing the sheep and deer from the site has allowed the old woodland to naturally regenerate, securing its future for generations to come.
It is said that a nation becomes great when old men plant trees they will never shade under!
This journey is probably not for everyone but our story shows that it can be done even on a furniture maker’s budget. The recipe is in essence simple; It starts with some determination, add stamina, a small helping of courage, some good friends, a strong supportive family and hard work and you are well on your way. We now have permission for a manager’s house and a woodland cabin which will be ready for occupation early in 2020. The future is looking positive and is really limited only by your imagination so imagine big and make it happen!
Written by Steve McLean