A family with a stellar skill set pull together to create a £1.9 million diversification of their Scottish hill farm.
The incredible transformation of Cairns Farm from hill sheep farm to contemporary wedding and events venue was a whole family decision. Fourth generation farmer Graham and his wife Caroline, both approaching 60 “alarmingly quickly”, were struggling to realise an income from their 450 head of Scottish Blackface ewes. “Our 1,200 acre hill farm just wasn’t enough. We could rent more land but it just isn’t economical,” says Caroline, “and of our three children, we have bred no farmers!”
They have in fact produced an interior designer (daughter Joanna), a joiner (eldest son Alistair) and a banker (middle son Bobby) – a perfect combination as it turns out to drive an ambitious £1.9 million diversification project.
“Despite their lack of interest in raising sheep, the children were desperate not to lose the farm. Following a difficult time four years ago, we started to think about how we could secure things for the future. It was a whole family decision and there was no way we would have undertaken the venture had the children not been 100 per cent behind it; we would have sold up and moved on to something else.”
Having toyed with the thought of creating an events venue at the farm for over a decade, it was February 2017 when the decision was made. “The location is very beautiful,” says Caroline. “We have a body of water in front of the house and hills behind. Despite being close to civilisation (about 15 miles from Edinburgh) it feels very remote.”
In deciding on the style of venue, the family’s vision was for something unlike anything else the area had to offer. “There are a few other venues around but not like us – they are either barns, marquee venues, castles or stately homes, so we set out to be totally different.”
Caroline describes the resulting building as a contemporary take on a modern farm building conversion. “Using what you already have is always a good idea,” she says. “We had two metal framed sheep sheds that were used for sheep handling and were about 30 years old. They had the potential to be pretty ugly but we used them as the basis of the conversion. The result is a contemporary structure with tradition woven in, and we have continued this theme with the décor and landscaping.”
The family used a local architect, Chris Duncan from Mill Architects with whom they had worked before. “We went to Chris and said ‘this is what we want to do – help’. He came up with a vision and we said ‘you’re mad’. Then we thrashed it out between us. Chris is great – he likes to think outside the box but is easy enough to rein in.”
The family’s skills really came into their own during the project. “Joanna’s design skills were invaluable and she worked closely with the architect, Alistair was the practical one and project managed the build and Bobby would say ‘you can’t afford that’.”
The building features two huge rooms – a ceremony room and a function room – with capacity for 140. A commercial kitchen and sleek bar area is complemented by an outdoor terrace with firepits.
“We are 900 feet up and have some glorious weather and also some awful weather,” says Caroline. “The day before our first ever wedding we had the most revolting weather but the beauty of the building is that it is solid, safe and secure and enormously light inside, no matter what’s going on outside.
“The only thing we couldn’t quite stretch to was renewables to heat and power things. That said, we designed in the ability to retrofit technology when we have enough money to do so.”
No easy ride
Despite the family team’s perfect skill set, the project nearly fell at the first hurdle. “Planning was a nightmare,” says Caroline. “We used consultants for everything – pages and pages of flooding reports, noise reports, engineers’ reports – I didn’t know there were so many consultants out there! I’d advise anyone going through this process to read everything. You’ll find that some consultants copy and paste whole chunks of their report, assuming things will be applicable to you when in fact they aren’t. Ours assumed we would want to tarmac everything and need £1,000s of attenuation tanks and a sewage system running up a hill.
“We were very apprehensive that we would get planning so we didn’t fight our corner as well as we could have. At the pre-planning meeting the planners were behind our proposals but, strangely, the economic development team was not! They eventually came round but the whole process was tiresome and troublesome.”
Funding was another nightmare. In total, the project cost £1.9million. “We couldn’t get a bank or a rural mortgage lender to support us. It was 2018 and lenders had been badly bitten 10 years previously. In addition, as our project didn’t fall into either agriculture or hospitality, we didn’t tick the right box. Eventually we went through a broker and topped up our lending with everything we had, including our pensions. We also got a second loan from Business Loans Scotland and a forestry grant – every penny helped!”
The money hasn’t just gone on the venue building. It was used to finance the renovation of the main farmhouse which is now used for guest accommodation. “It sleeps 10 and forms part of an exclusive hire package. We also spent money on the landscaping and six luxury cabins, which can be hired in addition to a booking.
“It is our intention to refinance next year when everything has stablised and we have a clearer picture of what the future might hold. My banker son gives me so much confidence in steering the business. He often reminds us that we need to find a balance between repaying the borrowing we’ve taken out and also having some more time for ourselves and our family. We also need a new tractor – ours has nearly had it!”
The new venue is being run in partnership with local events company Hickory on a commission basis. “Hickory are contracted to us and we are tied into quite a long time period. We get a commission on every event held here and they do all the marketing, administration and organising. Our job was to build the venue and now to maintain it. It works well for us as I don’t need a T-shirt that says ‘I run weddings’.
“My friend is a business consultant and introduced us. We met Hickory in June 2017 and they were influential at the planning stage and in the design of the building in terms of its capacity etc.”
Caroline reports having 28 weddings booked in for the remainder of this year and 44 for 2022. “Our first was on 21 May. We could have opened in June last year but obviously Covid put paid to that. It is incredible we were ready given that we had 20 contactors onsite on 18 March then we were suddenly down to two and a half people! My husband, eldest son and a digger driver worked away before slowly, slowly the trades started to come back.
“It was a real cat and mouse game throughout Covid – it was a stressful and difficult time. We could have paid more people to get finished quicker but we had little coming in, and no guarantee of when events would be able to start again. What money we had, had to be stretched over an undefined timescale and as a new business with no track record we were not eligible for any support
“We were fortunate to be able to take bookings for the venue, despite it not being finished. Having renovated the main farmhouse, we used it for showrounds to demonstrate our style and level of finish. We also made good use of computer generated images.
“The farmhouse sleeps 10 and a bridal party gets exclusive use of it with any wedding booked. We had investigated building some more cottage accommodation but the planners were adamant they didn’t want any more houses on the site so we went for the cabins to increase accommodation in a relatively simple fashion. We were fortunate to secure some LEADER funding for them – the holy grail of funding!”
Caroline and Graham live on site in a cottage and still farm the sheep. “We have a dream of building our own eco house here but will get to that once we have recovered from this project and have more time and energy!
“The possibilities are endless with the venue and if I was 30 years younger the business might look very different. The ideas are still there though, as is the enthusiasm to create something that can help cement the community in the area”.
The family has plans to investigate corporate events, wellness breaks and outdoor activities. “There has been a huge upsurge in agri-tourism in Scotland and should the idea of the cabins being taken as part of wedding packages fall flat, we’ll look into offering short breaks.
“I believe in always moving forwards; never look back. I had an intern that stayed with us throughout the summer last year and she was often heard saying, “there she goes again!”