• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Farley Mowat

Writer

Writer

Born: May 12, 1921; Died: May 5, 2014

Farley Mowat, who has died aged 92, was a best-selling Canadian author, ecologist and campaigner who was famously proud of his Scottish ancestry. The frequently kilted, full-bearded Farley sold an estimated 17 million books worldwide, usually on the theme of man's relationship with nature and the environment. His most famous book was Never Cry Wolf, made into a film in 1983, which is credited with changing attitudes towards wolves and helping to end the widespread hunting of them.

His first book was People of the Deer in 1952, which dealt with the near-terminal decline of a small population of Inuit whom Farley had befriended while undertaking Government biology research in Canada's Arctic Far North. He openly blamed the plight of this peaceful group on official neglect and exploitation by commercial interests.

Farley was a veteran of the Second World War and had been deeply affected by the reality of his European war-theatre battlefield experiences. He wanted to make a career of his childhood dream of studying nature at first hand in the solitude of Canada's icy barren-lands. He graduated from Toronto University with a BA in biology in 1949, after volunteering for officer training at 18, followed by front-line action in Italy in 1943/44. He then moved to Holland as an intelligence service officer in 1945.

Pursuing a writing career after the war, his second major work was The Desperate People of 1959. This time the gifted story-teller used actual names, not pseudonyms, to drive home his defence of the Inhalmuit people, whose numbers had fallen from 8000 in the 1880s to fewer than 100.

Four years later, Never Cry Wolf became an international best-seller. It told the story of Farley's experiences living close to a group of wolves in the wastelands of Northern Manitoba. The book's central claim that wolves were not the ferocious human-devouring big bad wolves of legend, proved potent and helped lead to new Government wildlife-protection legislation in several countries, notably the Soviet Union. Wolf-hunting in all its vast expanses was outlawed after his book's publication in Russian as Wolves, Don't Cry. The book was made into a film in 1983 starring Charles Martin Smith as a character based on Mowat.

Mowat was born in Belleville, Ontario, but traced his descent from a soldier from Caithness who was sent to Canada during the Napoleonic Wars, and settled in Ontario on a 200-acre land-grant on the completion of his enlistment. He thrived in the new country to the extent that his grandson Sir Oliver Mowat (Mowat's grandfather) became premier of Ontario in the late 1870s and later visited his ancestral home, citing the tiny Caithness communities of Freswick, Staxigoe, East Mey and John O'Groats as places where relatives lived.

Mowat was the only son of a librarian Angus Mowat, who moved around Canada during the inter-war depression looking for employment. While living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, while barely in his teens, he started contributing a regular nature study column to the local newspaper.

He was enthralled when an uncle took him on an excursion to Churchill, on the shores of Hudson's Bay, famed for its wildlife, especially polar bears. He later wrote about these boyhood memories in books for children.

After Never Cry Wolf, he wrote The Siberians about a trip to Siberia that had been out-of-bounds officially to Westerners since the October 1917 Revolution. There, he met the Yakuts, close relations to the Native Americans of Canada and Alaska. After travelling for around 20,000 miles and meeting representative of several other indigenous peoples amongst many others, Mowat's conclusion was unequivocal: the native peoples of Siberia were faring far better than their North America brethren. Mowat proudly wore his kilt and tam o'shanter in Yakutsk, in wintertime known as the World's coldest city, where temperatures can drop to minus 40C.

After the publication of The Siberians (elsewhere titled Sibir: My Discovery of the Siberians) Mowat was accused of either being duped by the KGB or by having his mind fuddled by the numerous vodka toasts, into presenting a sanitised version of Siberia, of which he was one of a tiny handful of outsiders to experience. He fiercely defended himself stating that he had not been manipulated by anyone in Moscow.

In 1985, Mowat was barred from travelling to the US under a McCarthy-era Act, as he prepared to embark on a book-signing tour for Sea of Slaughter, his powerful work of 1984 that detailed the destruction of Atlantic Ocean sea-life off eastern Canada and the north-east of the US.

It told of whales nearly exterminated and great auks reduced from many millions to extinction, with walruses, cod, seals and cormorants nearly meeting the same fate.

Mowat was keen to publicise what he is said to have considered his most important work, but was barred under US Cold War-era legislation aimed at communists, anarchists or anyone deemed prejudicial to the public interest. It emerged much later that Canadian intelligence had been sharing information on its own citizens with the CIA, in a similar manner to that recently exposed by Edward Snowden.

Sea of Slaughter was made into a two-part movie documentary by the publicly-funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Mowat met and married Frances Thornhill in 1947; the couple had sons Sandy and David, but divorced in 1960. Five years later he married Claire (nee Wheeler) who survives him; they had no children but spent almost 50 happy years together.

In 2012 Mowat published his final book Eastern Passage, but he was working on another until the day before his fatal heart attack, still using his trusty mechanical-era typewriter.

Contextual targeting label: 
Arts and Entertainment

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

232943