John Moray likens it to a large three dimensional jigsaw, each piece revealing slightly more of the overall picture as it slots into place.
It’s now approaching four years since the first residents moved into Tornagrain, the newest town in the Highlands. More than a decade in the planning, the community between Inverness and Nairn now has a population of more than 400 and houses are being snapped up as fast as they can be built.
Despite the pandemic, the project achieved a few milestones this year. It opened its first shop, followed by a pharmacy and the first social housing unit was occupied.
A café, community garden and second area of allotments are the next milestones early in the new year, to add to the tennis courts, community hall and outdoor nursery already in place. The first primary school, with a potential roll of 90-100 pupils, is on the horizon for the early 2020s.
“It really is going to plan”, said the 21st Earl of Moray, the man behind the vision and whose family have lived in the Castle Stuart estate, on which Tornagrain is built, since the 16th century. “I kept waiting for something to go wrong, but nothing has so far. It’s very rewarding when you see a vision becoming a reality.”
Building is continual and developers have a waiting list for some houses with demand strong since the lifting of the first lockdown.
Even the pandemic slowed progress only briefly: “Building was shut down for two and a half months, but since then it’s been frenetic. It seems there has been some pent up demand and we can’t sell the houses quickly enough.
“What I thought nine months ago might have been a very poor year has turned out to be pretty good really.”
Tornagrain’s new residents are a mix of people moving into the Highlands from the south of Scotland and England, as well as Moray, but also those moving out of Inverness.
“Generally it’s a local market”, said Mr Moray. “And for a combination of factors. A sense of community is the single biggest influence as you have all facilities close at hand. Whatever age you are you can live at Tornagrain and most of what need is here.
“That will become even more pronounced in future with the plans we have.”
The greater vision is for a town of 5,000 homes, three primary schools, a secondary school, shops, employment space, parks and other services and take 50 years to complete.
The idea is for a town centre focussed on a High Street with squares at either end, and surrounding neighbourhoods, each with a centre, including primary school, within five-minute walk. And all residents will be within a 10-minute walk of the town centre to encourage walking and cycling but also social interaction.
“People also like architecture. We often hear people saying they always wanted to live in a period house with a Highland feel about it but without the draughts and with mod-cons.
“I think that is a big draw, the fact people feel very familiar and comfortable with the architecture style.
“Part of the fun of the whole project was going around and finding wee gems somewhere in a traditional community and seeing if we could apply them in Tornagrain.”
One area that remains unclear is the development of the High Street with the retail sector being unpredictable, particularly coming out of the pandemic.
“Things are moving so quickly with the anticipated amount of retail having gone down, but replaced by specialist places like working from home businesses. What will come out the other end is hard to anticipate.
“It may be there will be more emphasis on leisure and entertainment rather than having traditional chains of retailers. It’s an interesting time in that respect. It’s hard to prepare for, but there are opportunities for people.
“I’m optimistic, but it’s hard to tell the direction of travel.”
Tornagrain seemed like a good fit
Shaunna Leith, 30, moved to Tornagrain last year from Inverness with husband Kevin, 31 and their children Millie, 5 and Piper, 4.
Mrs Leith, who works for a children’s sports company, said: “We were instantly attracted to the old style of the houses that were being built here. We had originally looked at buying an old property to renovate, but with our lack of DIY skills Tornagrain seemed like a good fit.
“We get asked a lot if we like living ‘out of the town’ but we still feel very close to Inverness if we ever need anything and with the new corner shop now in the village we are able to grab all the essentials.”
She added: “We wanted our girls to grow up in a place that had space for them to explore and grow. They both attended The Stramash (the outdoor nursery) before they started school which gave them a real love for the outdoors.
“The area where we last lived was really built up and didn’t at all feel like a village or a community, the green spaces were also few and far between.
“For us Tornagrain has a real homely feel. We really noticed a difference in the summer time living here. We were always out for walks to the woods or off on our bikes and being so close to the beaches in the Nairn direction was a bonus. We spent a lot of time there, and our girls loved it.”
Cath Dowling, 51, a mental health worker, moved from Balloch on the outskirts of Inverness in June 2019.
She initially visited Tornagrain when its first street had just been completed and thought she could never live there.
“A year later I drove there and stopped the car and went straight into the showroom. I just loved the traditional look of the buildings.
“The community feel here is unbelievable, I have friends for life. This has been even more apparent despite the lack of socialising we’re able to do during the pandemic. The support for each other has grown stronger.
“The good thing was that everyone was moving in at same time, so it’s not like moving into a street that has well-established friends and neighbours.
“It’s a very pretty place, the houses are attractive and we are very lucky with our surroundings. It will be exciting and interesting to see things grow further in future.”