Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape

Patrick Laurie

Birlinn, £14.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

THE field of nature writing is ploughed by many different hands: keen-eyed thinkers and observers, like Edward Hoagland, who can hide, still as statues, for hours on end. There are intellectuals, like Robert Macfarlane, reflecting on the meaning of wilderness from the comfort of their study; and those compelled to describe a sunset, bird or tree, sowing indelible deeper meaning into their imagery, such as Norman MacCaig or Kathleen Jamie. And while you don’t need to be a poet to write about nature, the sight of hills and the smell of grass seems to unlock a lyricism in the flintiest souls.

There is no doubting the genuine feeling of all these writers for the natural world, but their relationship to it is less hard-earned, and in some cases unabashedly romantic when compared to those who work the land. For Patrick Laurie, who owns a smallholding in Galloway, nature is not a pastime, but the means by which he intends eventually to make a living. Such spare time as he finds is for journalism, to pay the bills. The rest of his hours are devoted to rebuilding drystane dykes, feeding his livestock, stacking sheaves of oats.

What demanding work it is. In this memoir of buying a farm a few years ago, the Galloway born and bred Laurie is ambitiously intense. It is a trait that seems to define him. His father eventually gave up farming for the law, but his grandfather raised cattle all his years. Searching for his own identity and purpose Laurie bought a rundown property, near Dalbeattie and, with his wife, settled in for the long haul. During a visit to a cattle mart Laurie had an epiphany: he wanted to raise cattle. And not just any old cows. His eye was on a rare Galloway breed, which takes years to rear, and whose meat is a delectable taste of bygone generations.

That moment of revelation was to change his life dramatically, though it did not make it easy. A history-loving literature graduate, Laurie has a descriptive talent, finding beauty and meaning in whatever he surveys. His story is not quite the return of the native, since he was away from the south-west for only a few years. When he decides to settle, however, “Galloway poured back into my boots like peaty water”. This is rediscovering his roots and finding his feet, in the most profound sense. Galloway, past and present, is the bedrock of this book, a granite foundation on which Laurie is to build his future.

Birds are his dearest passion, as seen in his first book about black grouse, but none is closer to his heart than curlews, “the year-long sound of my childhood”. This plaintive wader is in almost terminal decline in Galloway, its population reduced by three-quarters since the 1990s. It is no coincidence that since the Second World War, three-quarters of the region’s hill country has been planted with trees. If there is a villain in this book, other than foxes, it is forestry.

Curlews swoop throughout the book, but the focus of Native is cattle. A conservationist drawn to the old ways of farming, which allow species and land to coexist and thrive, Laurie finds the perfect breed: a recessive strain of Galloways called riggits. Not dissimilar to Belted Galloways, which are black with a cummerbund of white, riggits have a white ridge along their spine, like the zip on a cushion cover. They can be brown or black, with irregular splotches of white, and are a child’s picture-book cow: furry eared, soft faced, squat and seemingly cuddly (in reality, anything but). It was love at first sight, as Laurie recalls: “These beasts smelled of cud and honesty, lightly shaken from the leaves of a history book.”

When his beasts arrive, they rumble out of the truck and disappear into the rough. Unlike more commercial breeds they are self sufficient to the point of wild: “weather breaks upon them as if they were rocks on the shore”. In an effort to locate them on the hillside, Laurie “fell to tracking their movements like a big game hunter”. Some of the most vivid, interesting passages are spent in their company, Laurie becoming to riggit Galloways what George Stubbs was to horses. They might not be big, but they are strong. Pens are built from concrete and railways sleepers. If you came across one unknowingly, he writes, “you could assume they were built to contain dinosaurs”.

Written to span a calendar year, Native is an unflinching account of what it takes to turn into a farmer, bearing callouses, bruises and scars. The main story is of rearing cattle, learning how to fix an old tractor, growing, harvesting and threshing oats by hand. Beneath this runs the painful personal story of the author and his wife’s attempt to start a family. As his young bull is allowed among the heifers, Laurie reflects on how glad he is to let nature take its course, rather than employ a vet to do the job by syringe. The comparison with his own situation is implicit, and his evocation of a sterile, neon-lit Glasgow fertility clinic could hardly be more stark.

It’s impossible to read Native without thinking of another naturalist who spent his formative years on his grandfather’s Galloway farm. The journalist and countryman Ian Niall knew the graft a farm required, and the toll it took. Never happier than with a rifle cocked over his arm, Niall’s style and tone are conversational and understated. Laurie, on the other hand, is a modern man, his feelings to the fore.

Only in the cattle mart does he try to adapt to the old ways: “It’s forbidden to show any emotion as the bids are made. You shrug and suck your teeth. If you can attract the auctioneer’s attention by throbbing a vein on your forehead, then you’re starting to get the idea.”

There is a propulsive energy to Native, that carries it across pages where his lyricism or introspection threaten to bog him down. Favourite words are frequently over-used (drooling, dribbling) and for a writer with an innate sense of rhythm, a few sentences jar: “Hope drained out of me, and the depth of my investment pressed into my brain like a steel helmet.”; “clouds of flies rubbed their clammy hands around his eyes”.

His final chapter begins, “In dire fettle and foundering, I push up through the broken ground to find altitude.” This last sentence hints at distress whose cause we can perhaps guess, but which is never made explicit. It points to another of Laurie’s shortcomings: neglecting to tell the whole story. When a bull comes rushing at him, he stands his ground, mastering his fear in order to master the beast. But we never learn what happens as the frothing, lust-maddened creature reaches him. Nor, when it is time to slaughter his pigs, does he say who did the deed. By drawing a curtain over their end, is it the reader he is sparing, or himself?

Despite these cavils, this book will win many friends. Frankly and confidingly written, it is so obviously a labour of love it inspires awe for Laurie’s heroic dedication. Few could fail to be impressed by his resolve to bring some kind of ecological balance back to his few acres, at considerable personal cost. As he writes of the farming traditions that are now only memories: “We can never measure the loss of old hill cows. We’re only just beginning to see that our trusty old natives called for a kind of farming which improved everything it touched.”

His attempt to reclaim some of that older and better way is moving as well as inspirational. This Galloway farm might be just one stamp in an album, but if a butterfly wing can cause a hurricane, what about a rampaging bull?