Review: Isolation Shepherd, by Iain R. Thomson

This is a book that I’ve been wanting to read for a while. A couple of months ago I clicked on the Amazon link to say I’d like this on a Kindle and then a few weeks ago Amazon told me it was to be available shortly. I must have pre-ordered it because last week I was surprised to find that it just arrived on my machine! Still, I am glad that it did!

Isolation Shepherd is the story of four years that Thomson spent as a shepherd in Strathfarrar in the Scottish Highlands. Thomson was there at the end of the fifties, living with his young family on an isolated estate on the banks of Loch Monar; their only neighbours were to the South on the opposite side of the Loch at Pait Lodge.

This is a fascinating story and historical document. the way of life experienced by Thomson was more or less the same as it would have been anytime from the clearances on. While this isn’t the best prose i’ve read recently the content is, in the main, fascinating. Thomason walks us through life in the glen and on the loch. There are stories of the changing seasons, working with sheep dogs, the rearing and caring of sheep, life in the glen as well as accounts of stalking deer, catching foxes and so on. This was clearly a harsh and hard life, but it was led within the rhythm of the seasons and the land. The only concession to modernity here seems to have been the outboard engines on the small boats that provided the crucial link to the main Glen to the East.

The continuity of life on the Loch has an almost surreal effect at times. Thomson can be talking about, say, an incident when out rounding up sheep or hunting deer. He’ll then refer to another great story of the glen which sounds contemporary but which features incidents and characters from several generations before. But the certainty of the seasons and the continuity of tasks means that these reminiscences remain as relevant as if they had only happened the year before. And while the life was hard there’s a lot of joy here as we get to know the tiny community that live around the Loch.

As a result we not get a fascinating account of life at the end of this period of tradition but we get a wonderful pen picture of historic life in this isolated part of the Highlands although, of course like elsewhere in the Highlands, these areas were more heavily populated than we can imagine before the coming of the sheep.

Sometimes this book feels dis-jointed and the author lost me but inevitably I found that dragged me back with the next section. This book will appeal to anyone who loves the highlands and especially to anyone who has ever walked the paths and the hills in this area.

Tomson was there until the end. The construction of the dam at the East of the Loch — and the creation of the reservoir — spelt the end of this way of life. The neighbours over the water at Pait left first with Tomson and his family leaving just as the dam was completed.

The dam raised the level of the Loch by 100 metres of so. The small croft that was home was demolished before being flooded, a fate shared by many of the other places referenced in the book although Pait remains though now much closer to the water line.

There is much to admire about this timeless account of a more genuine and innocent time. I guess it will be in print for a long time. Recommended.

Comments

  1. Peewiglet says:

    I read it on the 2009 chally when we were walking/camping in the area. Good stuff!

  2. Peter Crispin says:

    If you enjoyed this (as I did when I first read it in a friend’s croft on Skye several years ago) try his other two books – The Long Horizon and The Endless Tide

  3. peter says:

    read it last year very intresting read into a world lost :(

  4. There is a book, possibly quite similar to this called “Red Sky at Night” non-fiction by a guy who lives (or lived) in Rob Roy’s house and was a shepherd in the highlands in the mid 1980′s can’t remember the author’s name but a good read. I think it was the story of the passing of one year on his hill farm.

  5. Picked this up after seeing your review Andy, excellent choice, a very enjoyable read.

    • Glad you enjoyed it Paul. No great literature I guess, but a wonderful insight into a lifestyle that survived for seveal hundred years!

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