We found the abandoned lamb at the edge of a field, bleating plaintively as it trotted towards us on wobbly legs, its mother nowhere in sight. The farmer scooped it up and tossed it into my arms as we climbed back into his four-wheel-drive. The little creature was all soft fleece, wet nose and warm wriggles as it burrowed into my lap, and it reminded me of cuddling baby goats when I was a child in a Nepali village. It also reminded me how much more fun research is than writing.
It was all in a day’s work for me as I developed my recently published novel Of Stone and Sky. It’s the story of a Highland shepherd, Colvin, who disappears and leaves a puzzling trail of his possessions leading up into the Cairngorm mountains. The idea began in the middle of the night one summer, but as soon as I began to write it, I realised I knew precious little about what a shepherd did all day.
This state of affairs had prevailed despite being surrounded by sheep. Where I live in Badenoch, the upper strath of the River Spey, it’s farming country. In fact, the flock from across the road not uncommonly breach their fences and colonise the neighbourhood, even raiding my garden. But apart from the legendary straying of wayward sheep, I didn’t know much about shepherds. Fortunately, several of the ones around me were only too happy to answer my many questions and let me trail around after them like a clue-less lamb.
An unfailingly kind source of information were the Slimon family of Laggan, who – like many locals – have farmed here for several generations. I have rarely been as excited by a literary discovery as when I fell upon Campbell Slimon’s book Stells, Stools, Strupag: A personal reminiscence of sheep, shepherding, farming and the social activities of a Highland Parish. (It’s all pacy, racy thrillers for me!) Even better was meeting Campbell and his wife Sheena and their son Archie and daughter-in-law, Cathy, and learning first-hand what the sheep farming life was like.
On a surprisingly cold day in May, I joined them in their draughty shed to watch the previous year’s lambs being sorted and processed for their various futures. At the juncture of their destiny, Archie heaved them one by one onto a wooden platform and pinned them into place to prevent kicking, while Campbell and Cathy delivered various ministrations. If you’re squeamish, look away now. Out came an enormous syringe for vaccination, a sharp knife for the docking of tails and a nifty tool for castration. The ones staying on the farm were also ‘keeled’ with a daub of blue paint on the bum, and got ‘lug-marks’ cut into their ears, a distinct pattern linked to each farm which dates back, in some cases, for hundreds of years.
In the summer, I watched Cathy clipping, impressed by the deft handling of disgruntled sheep and the speed of the shearing. Farmers here still help each other out, but community clippings are rapidly giving way to hired contractors. The Slimons gave me a copy of a beautiful film by Jill Brown Media of The Clippings in the Laggan valley, one of the last of its kind. It features local families, and the little kids bouncing on the wool bags grew up into teenagers that I taught at Kingussie High School. The first minute of Jill’s film became the opening for my Zoom book launch.
Then on a bright day in September, I went up the hills above Dalwhinnie for a gathering. Puffing my way up the tussocky slope behind Archie, I marvelled at how the slightest word from him had the dogs rippling out and back, as if joined by invisible threads. At the top, he sent me ahead to wait at the first burn while he prised some sheep out of a gully. Unfortunately, the dogs are not so good at rounding up lost writers, so Archie had to come trudging back to find me, at which point I discovered the trickle I had stopped at was not, in fact, The Burn. Whatever it was, the Slimons now call it Merryn’s Burn.
Another September, I met the family again, this time at the Kingussie sheep mart. Although it’s directly across the road from the high school, I’d never really paid it much heed. At one time one of the busiest livestock markets in the Highlands, it is now half an acre of outdoor pens around a low, weather-beaten, wooden building. From the outside, it looks little more than an oversized, round shed, but inside there was a bustling auction in full swing. Wizened farmers in dun-coloured jackets and tweeds leaned over the railings around the edges as bolshy sheep were herded into the ring, bid for and bought, and herded out the other side. Here was a whole industry, a whole way of life, a whole world, happening right under my nose that I’d never known about.
Learning something of its story and characters was one of the great joys of writing Of Stone and Sky. The account of sheep in Scotland is complicated and fraught with divergent perspectives. When I began writing – knowing from the beginning it was a story about the land as much as the people – I walked in blissful ignorance where angels fear to tread. Now that I know more, I acknowledge the difficulties but also realise that, perhaps, that is what the book has been about all along. It is the story of struggle, of relationships with the land that are as much wrestling as embrace, and of a people forever marked by it. Early in the novel, my shepherd Colvin’s mother, who grew up a Highland Traveller, learns the sheep farming life from her father-in-law. My own learning is captured through her eyes.
“She witnessed his bond. To the sheep and the dogs and the land, to the seasons and the weather, to the neighbouring shepherds in time of need, but mainly to this solitary walk; this ancient herding windblown way.”
Of Stone and Sky is available in hardback and ebook wherever you get your books. You are warmly invited to an evening called The Shepherd’s Tale at the Badenoch Heritage Festival at 7.30 on Friday 24th September in Kingussie. Exploing the many ways the sheep farming story is told, it will include readings from the novel, conversation with the Slimons and Jill Brown, along with a showing of her Blaragie Clippings film and live music by traditional musician Hamish Napier.
I am also appearing at the Nairn Book & Arts Festival this Friday 10th September to share about the book. You can get tickets here.
Setting off for an overnight climb and camp in the Cairngorms, our mountain guide friend, John, tucked a shepherd’s crook down the side of his pack and led us, a small flock of two, down the trail from the Sugarbowl carpark. Passing through woods of birch, rowan and oak, we came out beside a rocky stream bed where a new, sturdy footbridge spans the Allt Mor. It replaces an old bridge that had been cracking under years of mountain weather and the changing tempers of the burn. An old, lichen-spattered stone still sits beside it, and you can just make out the words Utsi Bridge.
It is named for Mikel Utsi, a Swede who visited in 1947 and saw a habitat so reminiscent of the reindeer pastures of Lapland, and so abundant in lichens – reindeer’s chief food – that he was convinced the creatures could thrive here. He was right. The Cairngorms, which are the largest area of high ground in the British Isles, are often called a small slice of the arctic, with a tundra-like environment on the tops. Reindeer were, in fact, native here, once upon a time, but the last traces of them date from 800 years ago. These include the 12th century Orkneyinga Saga that recounts the Earls of Orkney hunting red deer and reindeer in Caithness. A low lying, boggy landscape at the far north-eastern tip of Scotland, the conditions there would no longer support reindeer, so, evidently, a combination of over-hunting and climate-change wiped them out.
By April 1952, however, Utsi and his wife, Dr Ethel Lindgren, had secured all the necessary permissions and preparations to found their Reindeer Company, and shipped across two bulls and five cows from Sweden. The reindeer settled and thrived and more have been added to their number every few years to maintain a healthy gene pool. Now 150 strong, the herd is split between the Cairngorms and the Cromdale hills.
We crossed the Utsi bridge and walked up the forested trail on the other side, coming out onto the open moor. Ahead is Airgiod-meall, ‘Silver Hill’ in Gaelic, which was the new reindeers’ first home. Although they now roam freely across 10,000 acres, the herd are still privately owned and are routinely brought into an enclosure here for extra feed, care and management. This practice follows the ancient traditions of reindeer herding that go back thousands of years and span nine countries and 30 different people groups, mainly in the arctic regions of the world. Of the 5 million reindeer on the planet, 3 million are completely wild and the rest are semi-domesticated in close relationship with the people who follow their migratory patterns. Traditionally, they are a resource for transport, meat, milk and skins, though the Cairngorm ones provide only pleasure for their many visitors.
Half way along our walk, in a cleft shrouded in mist, we come across part of the herd. They are lying quietly together in a patch of grass, all facing the same way and all motionless apart from their rhythmic chewing. It looks like a solemn ritual or the reindeer equivalent of a mindfulness retreat. They are unafraid and undisturbed by us stopping to take photos and gaze at them. We don’t move close, but their thick pelts, furry antlers and large, dewy eyes are captivating. Accustomed to people, they sometimes wander across for a greeting and in hope of food. But if this ever happens, never feed them unless guided by their herders.
This human bonding to once-wild animals goes back into our most ancient history and deepest instincts and lies at the root of our relationship with sheep. Most of the world’s domesticated varieties have their origin in the wild mouflon sheep from the Caspian region of Eastern turkey. Among the earliest animals to be domesticated (though well after dogs), they were first tended in what was then Mesopotamia about 10,000 years ago. Initially kept for meat, milk and skins, it was only later that wool became a valuable resource. Gradually, through migrations and trading, sheep farming has travelled to every continent (including, briefly, to Antarctica!) with adaptations across a vast range of climates and cultures.
Sheep play a significant role in the history of Scotland, triggering the Highland Clearances and changing landscapes from coastal areas right up to the hilltops. They’re an important element of the rural community where I live, in the upper valley of the Spey, which stretches across the north-east of the Cairngorm mountains. And – much to my surprise – they formed a key thread in my novel, Of Stone and Sky. Surprise, because I didn’t really know much about them before a shepherd strode into my imagination one night and compelled me to tell his story.
In my post last month, I talked about that night eight years ago and of our recent camping trip in the Cairngorms on the summer solstice. It was both the anniversary of the book’s conception as well as an opportunity to plant a copy at the top of Angel’s Peak, which features in the novel.
I registered the deposit on BookCrossing.com and await with interest to learn its destiny. That was the same trip where we saw the reindeer and John carried a crook. He brought it, because, in the story, the shepherd disappears and leaves a strange trail of his possessions leading up into the Cairngorm mountains. The last to be seen is his crook, caught in the cliff on Angel’s Peak. Although, is it really there? The presence of the crook remains as much of a mystery as the vanishing of the man.
John’s crook, like many in sheperding families, has been passed down through the generations. It was made by his great-grandfather, John Fairbairn, who was a tenant farmer on lands in the Borders of Scotland. Like many crooks, the shaft is made of hawthorn, varnished to a honey brown. It is also surprisingly short, though we don’t know if it once broke or the maker was just a very small man. But while many crook handles are a simple curve, often made of smooth buffalo horn, this one is a perfectly curling sheep’s horn. In fact, it would be useless for hooking a sheep by the neck, so probably served more as a walking stick.
Another fascinating feature of the crook is the story of the ewe from whom it was made, which is partly told in the horn. On its edge, there are two clear cuts. This passage from early in Of Stone and Sky, explains their significance:
‘On one of the gates, a length of plastic twine flipped in the breeze where Colvin had tied a ewe by her horn so he could check later if the lambs were feeding well, as her teats were so large. She was the last to birth and he had made two cuts in her horn. As every shepherd round here knows, ewes that are barren or need help with delivery get one cut, and if either event occurs another year, a second. But big teats warrant two cuts straight away, and two cuts mean a difficult mother not worth the effort. She will be sold for mutton.’
We do not know what John Fairbairn’s ewe did to deserve her fate, but it’s somehow comforting that he nevertheless memorialised her in the making of his crook, carried her for the rest of his days, and that her memory lives on in the family’s hands. To crown it all, she has now risen to the heights of Angel’s Peak and a starring role in the climax of Of Stone and Sky.
To see the Cairngorms Reindeer, in their base at Glenmore or on a walk up the hill, visit their home site here. For a guided walk in the Cairngorms – or anywhere in Scotland – with John Lyall, who is a climber, a qualified British Mountain Guide and a member of the Cairngorms Mountain Rescue Team contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org. To get a copy of Of Stone and Sky, see here.
The view from Goldenacre looks out across Loch Insh to the Feshie hills beyond. John Anderson, who is nearly 80, serves me tea and Victoria sponge beneath the window as he tells me the story of his family. He has discovered an unexpected connection between us, which is why he asked me over. I went to boarding school in the hill-station of Mussoorie in North India and the school – Woodstock, named for a Sir Walter Scott novel – was in the Raj-era cantonment of Landour. John’s mother had been born in India while her doctor father, David Wilson Scotland, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Medical Service. He shows me a sepia postcard sent from Glasgow to the Scotlands at ‘Church View, Mussoorie, India’ and another addressed to their home back in Colinton, Edinburgh, where they had named the house, ‘Landour’. He knows nothing more about their time in the hill station, but I speculate that Dr Scotland may have served in the British army sanatorium established in Landour in 1827.
It’s a small world. A particularly small world in the village of Kincraig where both John and I live, though I am a relative newcomer, having been here for a mere twelve years. He has been in the area on and off through his youth and for the twenty years since retirement, but laughingly tells me he’ll never be considered ‘local’. When he was born in 1939, his parents were tenant farmers at Banchor Mains, 10 miles south-west of here by Newtonmore, and they moved from there through Lochiel, Loch Rannoch, Invereshie and Strathmashie, graduating at Loch Rannoch from tenancy to landowning.
Years later, when sheep from the local estate were ravaging the Goldenacre garden, John contacted the shepherd, who was the late Donnie Ross, legendary in these parts for his outspoken views on crofting, the environment and anything else to do with land management, but also for treating others with respect. He sent one of his strapping sons to deal with the sheep, but the young man also saw fit to berate the ‘English incomers’ for always complaining. John did not argue, but when the son reported to his father, Donnie told him, in no uncertain terms, “John Anderson’s father gave all his tenants at Strathmashie the right to buy. You go straight back down and apologise.” He did.
John himself never followed in the landowning or farming walk of life, to his father’s disappointment, but did study agriculture in London and joined what was then the Edinburgh and East of Scotland Agricultural College, now part of Scottish Rural College. His chief role was monitoring farm incomes in South East Scotland and covering the fortunes of the potato sector for which he was perhaps better known, having contributed a monthly commentary on it for 23 years without missing a single edition. He challenges me to match that writing record, which shames me into scuttling straight home afterwards to type up my notes.
John’s story, like so many in this area, is one of deep history with the land. I ask him how he feels about it. “I’ve lived in beautiful places all my life,” he says. “At Fassiefern House we had a view of Ben Nevis. But I never climbed it then. People ask me why, but when you had sheep and hill cattle, you only went up the hills if you had to.” When I ask his views about tensions between farming and conservation interests he says, “It’s complicated.” And that’s about the simplest way of putting it. What is clear is John’s own quiet dedication to caring for the landscape as he goes out regularly clearing litter from the village. “I fill a wheelie bin a month from one kilometre of road – can you believe it? Why? Why do people do it?” “Laziness,” I suggest. “Some people just don’t care and can’t be bothered.”
We agree it reflects a loss of connection. A loss of connection with the land, with the animals who are dependent upon it and with the people who call it home. Ultimately, littering also seems to me a loss of connection with a deeper part of ourselves; a part that dwells fully present in our environment, that does not experience it as just a backdrop, or a playground, or indeed a workplace, but as much a part of us as our breath and bones.
The light from the window dies softly in John’s living room, where my feet rest on a one-hundred year old rug from India. (The Asian in me has left my shoes at the door.) Long and lean as a stork, with hair as white as the scant snow on the Feshie hills, John holds his mug in gnarled hands as he tells me of a walk with his late wife, Frances. “We climbed to the pictish fort of Dun da Lahm above Laggan and we could hear the stags roaring in the woods below and the echoes of it across the valley. And she turned to me and said, ‘This would be a good place. You can lay me to rest here.’”
He looks up and smiles, a pattern of light and shadows on his face, and I know why I have come. It is not so much to talk about historic links to India or the local land, but to share time and presence on this passing day; to experience something at the root of what our environment and people so badly need: connection.