Two weeks of physical labour left me with far more than just dirt under my fingernails.
From Glasgow to the Scottish island of Jura it’s half-an-hour by helicopter. Not having one of those at my disposal, though, it takes me most of the day to get there. First, a large bus winding along moody lochs and around mountains to Kennacraig. Then the big CalMac ferry to Port Askaig on Islay — which is little more than a pier, a pub and a hotel. And then another, much smaller ferry that battles swift currents to deposit me at the lonely jetty at Feolin.
A bus is meant to take me to my final destination on the island, but I can’t spot it. There’s a minivan with “Corporate Tours” emblazoned on the side that I assume is there to collect tourists. Only once it has departed and there’s no sign of any other vehicle that I realised that must’ve been it. I board the vehicle when it returns an hour later, one of only a handful of passengers — mostly children who attend the high school on Islay. The 25-mile journey northwards gives me a sense of the island: moors and peat bogs, secluded bays, the soaring breast-shaped Pap mountains, an occasional cottage.
Finally, about two-thirds up this narrow finger of an island, I reach Ardlussa: a deer-stalking estate and working farm owned by Andy Fletcher and his wife, Claire, with a large, ancient manor at its heart. I’d stumbled across it on the UK website of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which connects volunteers with opportunities to work on British farms in exchange for food and lodging. For a long time, the Scottish islands had intrigued me — their remoteness, their austere beauty. For a freelance writer on a tight budget, I figured two weeks working on a farm at the edge of the sea was a great way of getting an authentic taste of island life. And boy, was I right.
Every morning, I don Wellington boots and walk the Fletchers’ two dogs. Then, a cup of tea back in the house’s cosy kitchen before the hard graft begins — three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon, with a break for homemade soup and fresh-baked rolls between.
There is plenty to be done. It’s spring — calving season — and while the four Fletcher children can be relied on to do odd jobs and assorted feedings, Andy and the assistant estate manager are the farm’s only full-time pair of hands.
Occasionally I’m roped in to help herd adorably dim-witted cows into muddy pens or corral sheep into pasture — a team effort. But much of the time, I’m on my own.
There is weeding in the greenhouse, where I shovel clods of weed-choked soil onto the wheelbarrow, pushing this to the compost heap when it’s full.
In a ramshackle shed nicknamed the Crystal Palace, I heave chunks of pine to the juddering petrol-fuelled wood splitter. There’s the satisfying hiss as the blade slices into the wood, and thuds as the pieces fell to the floor. The scent of pine resin, sharp and sweet, stains the dank air. I’m in forest-fragranced heaven as I pick up the logs and chuck them onto a slowly-expanding pile.
One rainy morning, I dig a ditch into the side of a hill, slicing into thick, slurpy mud with a spade so that the water streaming downwards is redirected away from the road below. Another morning, I walk down to a storm-scoured cove and collect clumps of rotting seaweed to be used as a natural fertiliser. While I work, I also pick up sackfuls of rubbish that have washed ashore — a bounty that includes rope, fishing tackle and heaps of plastic.
Predictably, it rains a lot. There’s also a brief snowstorm, followed by dazzling sunshine. Slightly shocked, I wear sunglasses and strip down to a T-shirt to perform my most important task: juniper planting.
In 2015, along with two other local women, Claire Fletcher co-founded Lussa Gin, an artisanal distillery which operates out of the old stables on the estate. While juniper — the most important of the gin’s 15 botanicals — is currently sourced from elsewhere, it is Fletcher’s hope that in time they’ll be able to use a homegrown crop.
In a nutrient-rich former cattle pen, I lay down plastic sheeting which is meant to protect the plants and prevent weeds from growing up. Then, with an increasingly muddy pair of scissors, I stab the sheet, digging with a trowel through the slit, before placing a spindly juniper bushel into the hole I’ve carved. I’m worried that I’m doing it wrong — that the roots will be too squished once I’ve covered them with soil again. Claire seems confident, however, that they’ll survive. “They’re tough — these plants have been around since the Ice Age,” she says reassuringly.
Crouched down for hours, planting, is hard work. Occasionally, I stretch my aching back, pausing to admire the mainland’s purple and yellow hills and the milky teal of choppy sea which separates them from me. Spots of rain appear on my waterproofs, while I remain snug and dry underneath.
By the late afternoon, I’m fairly exhausted. I soak in the huge bath (an enormous luxury as back home, Cape Town is still fending off the effects of prolonged drought). Even after scrubbing my fingernails, there is still dirt under them. I don’t mind — I wear it as a badge of honour.
Claire is an excellent cook. Dinner, shared with the family, is typically something hearty — a Spanish omlette, for example, or chilli con carne, washed down with a nice glass of red. Sometimes I’ll join them afterwards to watch TV by a crackling fire. Then I retire to bed with book.
On the weekends, when I’m free to do as I like, I go on long, solitary walks. I make a pilgrimage to Barnhill, an isolated cottage where George Orwell wrote 1984 – not long before dying of tuberculosis. I also tramp across squidgy peat bogs to the windswept western side of the island where a rustic cottage — known as a bothy — offers a free sanctuary for overnighting hikers. I stumble across a wild goat and her kid — two of roughly 500 that dot the island. No one is totally sure how they ended up here — one myth suggests that their ancestors were left here when the Spanish galleons carrying them got shipwrecked on Jura’s rocky shore. I poke my head inside.
I visit Jura’s only village, Craighouse, where most of the island’s 230 residents live. In addition to its handful of houses, primary school and a community-owned grocer, Craighouse is also home to the Jura Distillery, where the island’s eponymous whisky is made. The Filipino conglomerate which owns it has recently redesigned Jura’s bottle to make it more enticing to the American market, elongating its once distinctive, squat shape. The flavour profile has changed too — across the main range there are now hints of the peatiness so typical of the whiskies on neighbouring Islay. All this change has caused consternation among some of the islanders, who grumble about it being a sell-out.
In the village’s only pub, affixed to its only hotel, a local lass is celebrating her birthday. People are friendly, and the drams of whisky I order soon put me at ease. There’s live music and singing, followed by dancing. Amidst the din, a scruffy building contractor from the mainland informs me, with a knowing look, that there are lots of single women on Jura. Clearly, he doesn’t realise that I’m gay, and I don’t feel all that comfortable in enlightening him. I’m less reticent when the island’s bricklayer asks if I have a girlfriend, though. He’s impressed by the frankness of my admission. (I, too, have surprised myself — I blame the whisky.) Clearly attitudes here are changing — but it’s always difficult to gauge exactly by how much.
Sunday evening. Back at Ardlussa, the new-leaved trees are silhouetted against pale blue sky. I leave the Fletcher family clustered around the TV, and walk down the lane to take photos. The sea is mirror-calm.
My fortnight on Jura has ended far quicker than I wanted it to. I’ve felt at home and content here in a way that feels almost uncanny. Physical labour is tough: frequently tiring and occasionally boring. Still, I’ve found it hugely rewarding. There’s been the sheer bliss of being of spending days outside in the country, by the sea — and far away from the noisy, frantic bustle of urban life and digital distraction. Here, in this decidedly analogue world, I’ve had the satisfaction of seeing physical changes as a result of my efforts — whether its rows and rows of juniper I’ve planted, or a ditch that I’ve dug.
Much as I love my writing day-job, I’ve relished being away from a screen, doing a day’s work with my body, not my mind. This way of life is new but, at some deep, wordless level, profoundly familiar. Maybe I’ve been communing with all the generations before me who worked the land — as recently as my late grandfather. When duty called in World War Two, he, a pacifist, took up plough and tractor instead of gun and tank, helping to feed wartime Britain. Me planting juniper might not be as noble. But still — it’s a way of being a bit closer, a bit more connected, to the parts of me that were formed by the past. The parts of me most at home in an outside, rural, analogue world.
A Jura resident told me that most people who come to the island are escaping something. Did I come here to run away? No, not really. The past two weeks have felt like I’ve been running towards myself. Towards the kind of life I’d like to live: one with more nature and less screen-time; more meaningful moments grounded in the present, and fewer superficial and superfluous distractions.
On my last morning, as I climb aboard the little bus that will take me to the ferry, I feel a wrenching. The ensuing ache lingers for longer, even, than the stubborn dirt under my fingernails.
An edited version of this appeared in Business Day on 23 October 2019, under the heading “Holiday of ditches, dirty nails and rotting seaweed.”