Laird of the Manor

Five years ago, a Londoner (and his mother) bought an estate in northern Scotland. Against the odds, they've turned it into a successful, eco-friendly business

Featured April 12 Words by Andrew Hankinson/ [Hotos Helen Abraham
Laird of the Manor

IT SOUNDS LIKE the script for a feel-good film and not a very believable one at that. Two Londoners with no property-development experience decide to buy a 200-acre estate - complete with creaky Edwardian house and crumbling outbuildings - and uproot to the Scottish Highlands. Borrowing a million pounds from the bank and putting themselves in hock to family and friends, they live, day to day, on their wits and the goodwill of others. Then, somehow, they turn their gamble into a gold mine.

But this story is true. "Everyone said we'd gone mad," says Lucy Micklethwait of her and son Walter's 2007 decision to invest their (and others') life savings in Inshriach House, a Scottish estate. "A lot of people didn't think it was going to work," agrees Walter. "Some said you need half a million in the bank if you take on something like this, just in case anything goes wrong."

The naysayers had a point. The purchase left them with a huge asset, lots of debt and no cash. In their first week, they couldn't even pay for heating oil.

"We were standing in Tesco," says Lucy, "wondering whether we could afford a loaf of bread or whether we should just have half a loaf."

Moving into one of the estate's modest cottages, the pair created their own five-room home (kitchen, living room, bathroom, and Walter and Lucy's bedrooms) while they converted the Edwardian house into holiday accommodation for up to 17.

Their first paying guest, a restaurateur from Edinburgh, saved them. He wanted the house for a staff feast, arriving with a car boot full of dead piglets and a cheque they used to buy oil. The heating went on.

Since those anxious beginnings, the Inshriach estate, in the foothills of the Cairngorms, has become a fashionable destination. Just a few kilometres from Aviemore (and 56km from Inverness airport), it has turned from potential money pit into a successful business with plenty of guests, a travel-media buzz (featuring in The Times, the Guardian and Condé Nast Traveller) and even its own music festival.

The reason for its success? Unquestionably, it's Walter. An old Etonian (he winces at the elitist connotations), he's no hard-nosed financier, but a 33-year-old bohemian who wears hoodies, smokes roll-ups and listens to folk music. He is, however, also incredibly well connected - there's no area in which he doesn't seem to "know a man" and his phone constantly rings. He's not afraid to get his hands dirty: one of his contacts showed him how to build a yurt (a Central Asian-style tent), so he built one, complete with double bed and wood-fired stove, that he rents out through "glamping" company Canopy & Stars.

He also erected a one-bed hut to be used as an artist's retreat for the Royal Scottish Academy.

It's a bit of a change from his life in London, where he made his living from dealing antiques - a kind of boho Del Boy. There was, however, an emotional motivation behind this strange career move.

Inshriach belonged to his maternal grandparents, who bought it when Walter's grandfather retired from a high-ranking army position in the 1970s and Walter spent his school holidays here. But then his grandfather died, followed - five years ago - by his grandmother, and the estate was left to Walter's mother and her two sisters. But while Walter's aunts were happy to sell it, his mother wanted to keep it. "We couldn't bear to let it go," she says.

They needed to raise a huge amount of money to buy her sisters' share. Walter and his sister Molly helped - Walter by selling his home in London, his sister by taking in lodgers. Then they sold their belongings, arranged a huge mortgage - and borrowed and borrowed. Then came the difficult bit. Walter's sister stayed in London, but Walter and his mum moved to Scotland to start restoring the main house.

"Most families probably wouldn't have done it," says Walter. "Not unless they had a banker's bonus so they could do it as a luxury. That's the sort of market you're in when you talk about Scottish estates. It's a way of spending millions of pounds that you have going spare, not rifling through people's pockets to buy it."

It's an unconventional life, but Walter and Lucy are unconventional people. She attended a French finishing school, is strikingly beautiful and very cool. Divorced from Walter's dad, her main companions are Walter and their dog, Monty. She's written several art books for children and is in charge of the estate's accounts. Walter's in charge of everything else: namely, building restoration and the upkeep of the 200 acres, which includes woodland, moorland (with grazing Highland cattle), a loch and the River Spey. The estate is dotted with small buildings and places for visitors to stay. Along with the main house and their own cottage, there are two other small cottages, a chicken shed, farmyard, a beautiful squash court and a workshop for which Walter has plans.

"I'm thinking of building a recording studio," he says. "I know someone who has all the equipment." He's also restoring half a dozen vehicles, using his varied contacts to turn rust metal into profit. One of his biggest successes is a 1950s fire truck he converted into a mobile home complete with bed, sink and AGA, which is being rented out to holidaymakers. If it sounds familiar, that's because it's been featured in Country Life, the Daily Mail and The Sun. Another sideline is Insider, an annual folk festival he holds in June that's attended by hundreds of music lovers.

Then there's the 100-year-old main house, a serious upkeep job in itself. The centrepiece is a beautiful, long dining table with eclectic candlesticks and an open landing above it. Paintings hang on the walls, there's a piano in the corner and a stuffed badger on a tabletop.

They've certainly come a long way, but, despite being full of guests year round, money is still tight. Walter earns extra cash by scouting for film locations, his mum gets book royalties (she's just been published in China) and they economise. They recently installed an eco-friendly wood-fired boiler to reduce fuel costs and they've got several solar panels. They can afford such investments now and they're getting by.

"If it hadn't been for the recession, we might have been in trouble," says Lucy. "But we've got a tracker mortgage and the interest rates dropped." They don't miss the old life. "I've met more interesting people up here than I ever did in London," she says.

They don't regret their big move, or the debt or the hard work either. "We don't regret any of it," says Walter. "It's been an awful lot of fun."

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