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11 November 1994
IAN ANDERSON SELLS STRATHAIRD
It has been said of Ian Anderson, the Jethro Tull flautist and Salmon farmer, that he will not use one word where 12 will do. This is a useful character flaw for any journalist who manages to contact him. Contacting him though is the problem.
Once you have made the connection, however, the man who became famous playing the flute while standing heron-like on one leg, clad in a tramp's coat, will happily flap back and forth over his eventful life.
On Tuesday the 47-year-old rocker agreed to sell his spectacular 15,000 acre Strathaird estate on Skye to the John Muir Trust, which aims to purchase wild lands to preserve them for the benefit of conservation and the local community.
Anderson was in that rare position of being able to pick and choose between potential purchasers, with less that half an eye on the price. The price was around £750,000, but he was not selling to make money.
Despite the advancing years and the receding hair, his band appears to be as popular as ever — concerts are arranged up until 1996 and his 49th birthday.
And, as if that wasn't enough by of financial success, his salmon farming business based in Inverness, last year turned over £12 million and employed 250 people.
But it was the continuing success of the music, more than anything else, which left Anderson stretched between rock and hard place of the volcanic Cullins (extinct by the way). Music has remained 90 per cent of his life, his great passion and what he does best. And his continuing desire to perform and to be near a studio has finally ended his lairdship of the isles.
In his 16 years as owner of the crofting estate he has built up an excellent reputation as a landlord, even if he became increasingly uncomfortable with the landowning rockstar tag. He did two things right at Strathaird: he set up a small salmon farming business, employing two or three people locally, and, secondly, he did little else. He was appreciated by the crofters because he did not attempt to impose great changes.
In mid-life, however he has come firmly to the conclusion that it is better if large areas of highland land are not owned by individuals. He believes that the John Muir Trust will make a better job than he did of representing the growing public demands for access, recreation and conservation.
"I didn't want to sell the estate to some hunting shooting, fishing type, and the JMT were one of the few bodies which would have the public interest well to the fore."
The estate include the brooding, black mass of Blaven, the Cullins, Loch Corruisk and the crofting township of Elgol, which enjoys a setting straight out of Lord of the Rings.
During regular trips to Skye, Anderson, second wife Shona and children James 17, and Gael 15, lived in the some comfort in Kilmarie House, with a regular gardener and housekeeper. He is selling the house separately, for around £250,000, and has found a buyer who has no plans to upset the status quo.
But the house and the island did not add up to the idyll he had imagined in 1978, at the age of 31, when he had purchased the land. Instead, he was forced to learn business administration and the management of a salmon farming business which has grown dramatically.
Is he sad to go?
"I am very, very sad to go. In 1978, I envisaged when there would be a time, some years in the future, when I would no longer be a working musician and I would enjoy the benefits of a more restful lifestyle. That never came to be because I decided to create some local employment with the fish farm, and because I am still very active as a musician. I am busier now than I have ever been.
"It was buying the estate that got me into serious business that forced me to learn skills that I didn't have.
"The single most important thing to me was the learning experience that went with it, rather than the fun and games. You don't have to own a Scottish estate to feel the wind and rain in your face. You just need to drive up there and get out of your car. It doesn't belong to any one land owner, it is a gift from elsewhere."
Anderson switches effortlessly to his third love (after family and music), the Ian Anderson Group, which is currently building a new smokehouse in Granton-on-Spey and expanding its Inverness operation.
His success in a highly fragile business is down to the fact that he recognised the importance of economics of scale in making salmon farming and processing work. Since his debut in the business, dozens of small fish farmers have gone bankrupt or been swallowed by big multi-national companies which dominate the industry in Scotland, and worldwide. Of course, he also had his personal wealth behind him.
He expects his medium-sized family business — he and his wife are the shareholders — to grow again in the near future, with the possible acquisition of another food-based company based in the Highlands. He suggests that with a £12 million turnover in fish, it may make business sense to try another product.
And he plans to keep an eye on the operation by buying a house in the Inverness area, to replace Kilmarie. Sometime in the future he foresees a market flotation of the company.
Undoubtedly, the 'real business' will sustain him beyond his rocking career, but he is now confident that he can perform for ten years more.
"There are limits because of the physical realities of the sort of music I play, and the way in which I play it. It is a bit like asking Nigel Mansell to be driving a racing car on another ten years' time. He probably will be, but it is unlikely to be in Formula One.
"You either manage to change the way you do what you do, and still retain your independence, or you stop. It is easier for people like Eric Clapton, or David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, great musicians, but they are not expected to put a great deal of physical effort into their performance. Whereas Tina Turner and Mick Jagger are, and Michael Jackson is. I am somewhere between the two groups."
In a rare quieter period he is presently recording an album for flute and orchestra, under EMI's classical division, which will be released in the spring, followed by a classical tour. Later next year, Jethro Tull sets off on another marathon tour through Europe, the UK and America.
What is the secret of the Jethro Tull success? Without changing gear Anderson explains.
"A lot of the bands that have been around for a long time established themselves at a point when rock music was inventing itself from a number of quite varied influences. It appears that most successful rock music has continued reinventing itself from within the genre."
His own favourite Tull album is Aqualung, including the hit single 'Living In The Past' [sic], which was released in 1971 and was the bands most successful production in financial terms.
Nearing his London studio, Anderson is happily steered back to the subject of Strathaird — "a very sensitive place" — to reflect that he never had a hard time as a landowner either from the local residents, or from the media.
"I have had a very easy ride, not because of anything I did, but because of the things I didn't do."
The same tactic may help to explain his phenomenally successful music career, his remarkable salmon business and the fact that the media is still being kind to him.
"Anyway. That's your lot," he declares. "You'll have to make do with that, for now."