Isolation Shepherd

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.

to_ben_oss_and_lui.jpg

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.

sheeps.jpg

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.

from_ben_oss.jpg

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.

sunrise_jan2007_2.jpg

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.

8 comments

  1. opax’s avatar

    Mik,
    That was beutiful, and good. Thanks for the post.

  2. Mike’s avatar

    Thanks Olli 🙂 That’s very nice of you. Have a good one.

  3. Adrian’s avatar

    I understand the wanting to be from somewhere. I was dragged around as a kid, never spending more than a couple of years in one place. It’s amazing how quickly you can pick up an accent so as not to stand out.

  4. Mike’s avatar

    I know exactly what you mean adrian. I (for my sins) used to have a slight American twang. Bit of a Llyod Grossman mid atlantic accent. Glad that’s gone..!

  5. Karen Elise’s avatar

    Dear Mike.

    What am I, a Danish lass, doing here on a fishing website!! Well, I am reading the wonderful book “Isolation shepherd” at the moment, and happened to find your comment here about the very same book.

    I can only agree with you in your words about home… home doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical place, but can just as well be a sense or a feeling.
    To me Scotland and especially the West Highlands and Skye are “home-places”… but when not being able to travel there, I can move into my other home, which is the feeling of Scotland that I always carry with me in my heart and soul.

    I had 14 glorious days in Scotland this September and travelled around in the North West region and Skye. I found the book in a small bookstore in Durness, but did’nt get to read it until yesterday at my nightshift at work.
    I haven’t put it down (almost) since then, and it is one of the best books I have ever read. I can picture the scenery and everything in my imagination, and it feels as if I am there myself in person.

    I could easily see myself living such a life… at times very hard and probably always simple, but having this sense and feeling of belonging to because I would be able to feel at one with the mighty nature.

    I can move into a book if it is interesting enough… Isolation Shepherd has become a home to me for as long as I am reading it.

    Just a few words and thoughts from Denmark.

    Karen Elise Sørensen.

  6. mike’s avatar

    Hi Karen,

    What can I say? Thanks very much for taking the time to write such a nice message, with many thoughts and feelings that echo my own and I’m sure those of a lot of folks who read the book. It’s always nice to hear from someone new who’s stumbled across the blog via one of my alternative posts.

    The north and west really are magical places. I’m yet to set foot in the hills of Iain Thomson, but I’ve been dreaming about it for quite a while now. They are some of the most remote and beautiful hills and mountains to be found in the highlands. I have the OS map of the region stuck up on my wall to remind me that there are still some large tracts of land in this country without any roads.

    Have a nice day, and thanks again for visiting.

  7. Cath’s avatar

    Hi, I just read your review and I can appreciate how wanting to belong somewhere, have roots and knowing neighbours in a place you can call home. I just finished my time with the Army after 22 years; I move around countries and the UK more that 12 times which was quite fustrating. During the last 10 years I made an effort and bought a house outside Inverness so that when i had a bit of leave i could go “home” and meet up with my husband who was also in the Army. We also spend a long time apart due to Army rules and regs so it was quite importaint to us to get to our special place. What made it even better was the fantastic neighbours we had, there were only a few around but Iain Thomson was one of them. I have to say spending time with him and getting to know him was a privilage. A really nice man who works so hard at everything he does. I dont know where he gets the energy. Obviously I have read his books and talked in depth about times gone by. There are few people who could do it and most of them are gone.

    I spend a fair part of summer running and walking round the Strathmore area. Love it, it’s a special place. make sure you get the chance to spend some time there.

    all the best Cath

    1. mike’s avatar

      Hi Cath,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to post a comment on my blog. I read your words first with keen interest, and then with amazement when you mentioned having known Iain. That really made my day 🙂 Isolation Shepherd is one of my favourite books and I regularly recommend it to friends and family.

      I often wondered where Iain and his family went after the flooding of Strathmore, very interesting to here that he settled around Inverness. I can’t help wondering if it ever felt like home in the same way as high in the glen.

      Thanks so much for your comment,
      Mike

Comments are now closed.