Last night I finished reading a book. I’m not a particularly fast reader, so this was a relatively rare event and worthy of mention. Rather more worthy of mention however was the book itself. Isolation Shepherd by Iain R. Thomson is now among my favourite books. It’s a wonderfully simple premise: the life and times of a shepherding family who lived in one of the most remote and beautiful glens in all of Scotland. From Strathfarrar in the east, up the great expanse of Loch Monar and into the upper reaches at Strathmore, this is a book set in the finest of Scottish landscapes. Great mountains lie all around. The fantastically remote Sgurr na Lapaich and An Riabhachan to the south, Sgurr a’Chaorachain to the north and the Bowman’s Pass to the west are just a few of the many fine hills and valleys. There are rivers and lochs as well. Monar itself, the Gead lochs to the south west and the myriad streams and burns running off the peaks. A little piece of isolated perfection nestled into the far north west of this island.
The book chronicles the life of the Thomsons during their tenure as keepers of the great flocks of sheep that roamed far and wide through these remote parts. There are a huge variety of stories and experiences. From life as the postman to the massive hill days needed for collecting sheep at the end of summer, you are taken in to the world of the glen and it’s shifting moods. Gradually I was drawn into this world, and it began to feel like a home each night that I settled down to read before bed.
That was in the 1950’s. The Thomsons were the last family to live at Strathmore, and seemingly among the last of a bygone generation of people who worked the land of the remote parts of Scotland. Loch Monar was dammed in the early 1960’s, and much of this area has now been lost to the waves.
Isolation Shepherd has made me think about home. The Thomsons lived in Strathmore for a number of years, and it’s clear from the pages of the book that the glen gave the family a deep sense of home. Life certainly seemed a challenge at times, but the attitude of self-reliant people in such parts was defined by flexibility and mutual help and this must have been invaluable for getting through the week. The most important people to the family, outside of their own four walls, were the Mackay’s who lived across the water at Pait. The trust and reliance these two families had for each other seems remarkable. I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with a neighbour in any of my flats. Rubbish, these modern times.
When I was a nipper my family moved around to many parts of the world. Home was the family. I still struggle when folks ask me where I’m from. ‘Eh, well let’s see now.. I’m from Edinburgh, Sheffield and some other places’. It’s all good fun of course, but sometimes I just lie and it makes things nice and simple. I don’t think that people who’ve lived in the same city whilst growing up think too much about home. Certainly, most of the pals I had from the UK came from stable homes with mortgages and a garden. Home was a brick walled house where dinner was served and the grandparents came at Christmas. When I was in my teens this troubled me somewhat. Damnit, I wanted to be from somewhere. Isolation Shepherd has helped me to realise that a sense of home is important, even if it’s not a place. These days my sense of home comes when fishing one of my favourite rivers. It doesn’t have to be a particular spot, or even a particular time. It’s a feeling.
As a city dweller for much of my life the book has left a moving impression of life in the real landscape. The thought of waking up in the morning to a dawn chorus of summer birds, or watching a creeping winter sun paint the hills golden white can only be made real a handful of times every year. If the weather is clear I can sometimes see the sun shed first light over the Pentlands, and on occasion I find myself on the roof at work watching a pastel sky dissolving westwards. Small wonders, perhaps, but important. In the end I find myself slowly drawn to the idea of this kind of life. Simple, but good.
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