There are many things to love about Scotland but one that I always return to is its sense of mystery.
No matter how many times you’ve walked the same road, lived in one place or seen the same landscape, there’s always something to discover. Peel back the modern façades, brand-new brickwork or soulless tarmac and there are stories — right there — waiting to be told.
That’s especially true with buildings. Resurfaced, resurrected or ruined, there is a tangible history to the castles, houses and churches of Scotland. And — during a quiet weekend away at a country cottage — we discovered that there was far more to its picture-perfect courtyard and sprawling side buildings than you’d believe.
Our destination for a log-fire-fuelled weekend was Sandford Country Cottages in Fife. Surrounded by rolling hills and with the River Tay just over the horizon, St Andrews and Dundee are within spitting distance. And that’s exactly why, back at the start of the twentieth century, photographic publisher Harben J Valentine commissioned an architect to design him a home from which he could commute to Dundee. Here, Sandford’s history begins.
You’ve heard of Charles Rennie Mackintosh… But have you heard of Baillie Scott?
Growing up on the west coast of Scotland — sandwiched between the Hill House and the Glasgow School of Art — the iconic Mackintosh was always on my radar. But what about his contemporaries?
To be honest, I’d never given much thought to early twentieth century architecture beyond Mackintosh but — in this quiet corner of Fife — there stands another unique monument to the Arts and Crafts movement that Mackintosh was part of. This is Sandford, one of only two houses in Scotland designed by architect Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott.
Originally built in 1902 for Harben J Valentine, the Dundee photographic publisher and official photographer for Queen Victoria, Sandford was a pretty red-bricked thatched cottage. But, out of the flames of a disastrous fire in 1910, Sandford rose again. This time, it had two huge gables, a tiled roof and a sunken living room with delicate, multi-paned lead windows… A fitting home for the Valentines, whose publishing business was growing in tandem with their mansion.
From war to bar… And finally a home again
As time progressed, so did Sandford’s purpose. In the 1930s, Sandford was sold to Sir William and Lady Walker and — although its primary function was a family home — it also played a part as a leave centre for the Norwegians of 333 Catalina flying boat squadron during the war. The swinging sixties came round and Sandford was sold again. This time, its rebirth was solely commercial and it became Sandford House Hotel.
For decades the hotel was bustling — as the addition of the west wing, now the holiday cottages, attests — but finally in 2007 its doors closed. The Arts and Crafts monument began to decay: grime coated the kitchen floor, mould collected on top of abandoned crockery, and the once-beautiful lead windows began to crack and rot. Sandford needed saved.
And that’s where Ralph and Evelyn stepped in. The local couple — who had fond memories of the pub meals at the former hotel — immediately saw Sandford’s potential. They staged a rescue in 2010 and 7 years later (after an appearance on the BBC programme Restoration Home) Evelyn and Ralph have pulled the property out its derelict shadows.
Inside the Arts and Crafts cottages
Follow the driveway up towards the house and stone pillars create a courtyard, trailed with green. Straight ahead is the old well; high on the left the refurbished cottages; and to the right, Baillie Scott’s original Arts and Crafts masterpiece.
The interiors have been completed with love and thoroughness: huge oak beams decorate the ceilings, the multi-paned windows have been restored with care, fireplaces have risen from the ash to their former glory and the cottages court subtle tartan details. There is the promise of a day trip to Dundee on the horizon, or perhaps spotting a red squirrel on the pine trees, or seeing the spring colours appear in the courtyard. It’s perfectly peaceful.
But there is never an end to a story. After years of history and change, what’s next for Sandford? ‘This spring, we plan to finish the last piece of the jigsaw — our one-bed apartment,’ Evelyn explains. ‘We’ll also finish landscaping the area to the west of the holiday homes, which will be our main source of income. It’s been lovely to meet new people and see return visits from our guests.’
‘Then in 2018, we hope to resurrect the tennis court and to re-establish the original sunken Japanese garden and pond,’ Ralph adds. ‘There’s no rest for us for a few years yet. We have a lot to do to ensure the building and grounds will withstand the test of time for future generations.’ And, as we walk down the path past the withering snowdrops, I can’t help but feel curious as to how Sandford will continue to change with the seasons.
A massive thank you to Evelyn and Ralph for offering us a bolthole for our weekend in Fife! Our stay also couldn’t have been possible without EmbraceScotland team and the Association of Scotland’s Self Caterers (ASSC). Discover more about staying at Sandford by clicking here.