Through all this film business that I’ve been throwing myself into lately, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a rather special couple, Jane and Duncan Bury. They invited me to spend some time on their 20 acre smallholding in the Scottish Borders… the magic of which, they say, is difficult to explain to people; one has to experience it.
I began to write this post 4 days after leaving their Independent State of Friarshawmuir, and during that time the subtle and pleasant feeling of elation that washed over me while in their company had stayed with me. It is a beautiful thing, when you spend time with people and within a place that gently raises you and carries you along on a wavelength you know you’re supposed to be riding. A weekend spent immersed in both mental and physical nourishment; a reset.
Jane and Duncan, along with two out of their collective six kids who’ve yet to fly the nest (plus a whole collection of extremely characterful animals that deserve a whole post just to themselves!), have been making Friarshawmuir their home for the past 4 years. In their previous lives, they were leading what for most people would be considered a very sought-after lifestyle: successful corporate business, comfortable suburban house etc., etc… Jane summed it up, ‘‘I got what I thought was a grown up job, because I thought I had to”.
However, being the free spirits that they are, they were dissatisfied. The constant drive to consume, the obsession with image, the bureaucracy; a life of ‘success’ didn’t sit anywhere near the spectrum of their values. So what did they do? They did what so many discontented-urban-dwellers speak of but rarely actually have the guts to go ahead and do: they uprooted themselves and set up life on a smallholding. Now, their days consist of tending to livestock, endlessly chopping firewood and, well, really just ‘being’.
It should be noted, their way of ‘being’ doesn’t mean they sit around in a state of relaxation all day. In reality, ‘busy’ is definitely one of the first words that springs to mind as you watch them go about their day. If Duncan didn’t sit still for the next 5 years he probably wouldn’t have even reached the middle of his list of tasks needing done around the property. Renovations, repairs, shearing, growing, digging… the list is endless. And Jane, alongside her similarly endless list of small-holding duties, is a dedicated horse-woman; not only learning from and training her own horses, but traveling around the country sharing her equine philosophy with others.
The idea of a merging work life with home life, of your all your choices and actions coming together into a way of being rather than a compartmentalised existence, is one I admire and try to embrace myself. However, I know all too well that a lifestyle like J&D’s is easy to romanticise. Dreams of waking up at the crack of dawn to collect the eggs from your happy flock, milking the goat for a topping on your bowl of hearty porridge that will set you up for a day of stress-free-countryside-living; contented dogs asleep in the basket, feet up by the fire in the evening. Ah, yes… very easy to romanticise. But the reality is usually more harsh. Self-reliance is key in almost every aspect of life – if you don’t know how to repair aga or jump start a tractor, it won’t be long until you’re forced to learn on the job.
I try to imagine their shift in perspective when they first took the plunge. They speak about ‘losing their corporate underpants’, which sounds light-hearted enough… but I believe it is probably quite challenging to stop concerning yourself with, and talking about, cash flow, income stream, pensions, holidays, car loans, credit cards, and the rest of it, when most people surrounding you are leading that life. When you’re trying to live life in different way, independently, you constantly question yourself.
I tend to agree with Duncan’s observation that, ‘the purpose of the government is to ensnare people in the taxation system, so they generate tax. Taxable income. What they want is for you to get educated, get a job, work 9-5, save for pension, then they tax on income, tax on income and then you die.’
… Part of that grand machine. Anyone who is brave enough to lead an alternative existence gets a thumbs up from me. Even with the self-doubt that often plagues those with questioning minds, it is that questioning mind that will help you to think creatively for ways to make an alternative lifestyle work.
J & D most definitely think and live creatively. From the shepherd’s hut they’ve built in the woods at the edge of the property to the young goat who is being brought up as one of the dogs, their whole set-up feels mentally and physically outside of the box. The two of them, plus, actually, now that I think about it, their children and the animals, ooze light-hearted wisdom and humour. Wisdom and humour that I am sure comes from embodying creativity and fortitude.
On reflection, the thing that touched me the most was the freedom the horses were given to be individuals. I’m tending to view more and more training methods in the equine-world as rather character-squashing for the horse…they’re so often trained in a very precise manner, in order that their behaviour fits into a very specific mould, without much allowance for the expression of differing types of personality that I’m sure are just as infinite in horses as in people. In Jane’s herd of eight horses, it was lovely to see eight distinctly different and expressive personalities. When it came time to doing work with young Jupe, Jane began her interaction with him at liberty (without any equipment/ropes etc) and throughout their work I got no feelings of any control being exercised… it was fluid, Jupe was willing and engaged; enjoying the synergy as much as us humans were. I was privileged enough to be allowed to ride Jupe, and although my technical abilities of the lateral movements leave a lot to be desired, the fleeting moments where it felt right were the moments where I only had to think about the desired movement and Jupe was in sync with the thought. It felt more than simply a trained response. Jupe and Jane, and the whole of Friarshawmuir, seem to be tuned into the same field of energy. With each creature having the time and space to express themselves fully as individuals, they seem to have a deeper shared connection together as a whole. To be able to feel that connection was, indeed, pretty magic.
I’m incredibly grateful, in fact, for the elated feeling that came over me there. The week that followed was what some might consider pretttttty stressful. Unexpected boy drama that had the power to unbalance me was the least of my worries when I was suddenly heavily snowed-in to my countryside pad and one by one, some of the most useful luxuries I have in my life decided to break down. In no particular order: laptop, car, boiler. It isn’t the first time I’ve been stranded at the end of a single track road with several foot of snow preventing me from going anywhere… but to be alone in a rural house with no heating or hot water for several days during the coldest snap Scotland has seen in a while could have been a wee bit rough. However, the Friarshawmuir way of self-reliant being and peace had stayed with me, and I breathed deeply and kept my cool. The attitude cultivated there amongst the horses and the humans alike can be carried forward into every aspect of life.
Although there is clearly a lot of passion in their advocacy of this way of life, J&D are aware that it isn’t for everyone and they try not to be evangelical about it all (although I am sure Duncan would like to start a revolution, hence his coining of Friarshawmuir as an independent state!). However, with their guest accommodation in the form of the tucked-away shepherd’s hut and the more civilised, but no less romantic, ‘sleepery’ by the main house, their small-holding courses/workshops, and soon to be yoga classes, I reckon this could be a cracking little wellness retreat in the making.
The Bury’s say they’re known locally as ‘those nutters on the hill’. If they’re nutters, then I want to be a nutter too.
P.s Imagine people taking their horses there for a long weekend of horsemanship and yoga… yes yes yes please!