Last week I journeyed to one of the most northerly parts of the UK. A plane, a winding three-hour taxi ride and then a small boat through the craggy isles of the Inner Hebrides past the Corryvreckan whirlpool, past nesting sea eagles and to the beautiful Ardlussa House that sits on a remote hill on the small Scottish Isle of Jura.
Jura is an escape. George Orwell, who stayed here to write Nineteen Eighty-Four called it “an extremely un-get-at-able place”. At the last count there were 2,500 deer on the island and around just 200 people. Many are locals, some are visiting just for summer by the clear, cold sea. Others are here in retreat from careers in the city. They have left their desks and taken up tools, reins and fishing rods to make their way in the wilderness.
Until a few years ago our hosts, Claire and Andrew Fletcher, had lived in South London and then Glasgow – they were seasoned, chic urbanites. They left their urban careers to take up the task of running the Ardlussa Estate with its vast expanse of bracken and heather-covered land. Now, they grow their own vegetables, eat wild venison and fresh eggs from their chicken run. They wake up to the cockerel crowing and have no need for a watch. Their house is filled with fresh roses from the garden and they host huge banquets for friends and visitors in front of big log fires. They were making hay last week.
To see first-hand proof of the agrarian dream is bad news for me. Like so many people, I have nursed an urge to live off the land – and often reassured myself that it wouldn’t really be so peachy.
Of course, it’s not just me. It is well-known that agriculture and life on a working farm is hard and that we would quickly miss the amenities of our urban lives. But still we yearn.
Land Lust has been around for aeons of course, since Marie Antoinette built a rustic farm retreat in the park of the Château de Versailles where she played at being Shepherdess. Think of Tolstoy, who cultivated an alternative life surrounded by Russian peasants and yearned endlessly for the purity found in the hard work of the fields.
For a growing number of entrepreneurs, farming the land is not about rustic aesthetics, remote retirement plans or literary aspirations, it’s a modern, business reality. They are finding sympathetic, ecological and clever ways of working the land, living in the wilderness and making a profit.
This shift is detailed in a tranche of publications such as the German magazine Landlust and also Modern Farmer. The latter is a new magazine recently launched by Monocle’s former New York bureau chief Ann Marie Gardner, for “herb growers, career farmers, people who have chickens [and] people who want to have chickens.” Modern Farmer also contains elegant and contemporary prose about farming issues, a kickstarter for the fields and “brave new crops".
For many, hot days in the office are over. They are not just lusting after or even reading about the land, they’re ploughing, fishing, sowing and stalking it instead. Here’s to that.
Sophie Grove is business editor for Monocle.