‘As a child, my sole ambition was to farm and raise livestock like my family had before me.’ And so, after studying literature and language at university, followed by stints pulling pints, felling trees and going to sea aboard a Hebridean fishing boat, Patrick Laurie returns to his native Galloway in southwest Scotland, a region that ‘has been overlooked for so long we have fallen off the map’.
He and his wife buy a farmhouse and begin stocking a few of his family’s fields with the region’s traditional cattle breed, whose ‘reputation for superb beef is countered by rumours of violence and awkwardness’. Haunted by nature’s declining fortunes (‘My generation has arrived at a party which seems to be ending’), he hopes that by bringing back ‘the old ways’ – mixed farming instead of monocultures, slow-growing rare-breed cattle instead of modern European beef breeds, a sickle and a scythe instead of a combine harvester – he can also bring back the wildlife that once thrived on Galloway’s farmland.
Philosophical and romantic, but also deeply pragmatic – farming forces you to be – Laurie is clear-eyed about the rather quixotic nature of his endeavour. His progress is marked by the thickening of the calluses on his fingers, his slow mastery of tractor mechanics, his growing grasp of animal husbandry, but also in the return of wild birds to his fields, in particular his beloved curlews. He details the many trials and tribulations of a farmer’s life – ‘I was starting to find that farming is a steady, draining slog’ – but also finds great joy in the small victories and in the ever-changing environment around him.
He’s a keen observer, of nature and of the general ebb and flow of the world, and he writes with a seemingly effortless lyricism about what he sees. The book itself moves at the pace of traditional farming and a certain profundity slowly accretes among the mundane details. In truth, not much happens, but the sheer poetry of Laurie’s writing carries the tendency to veer into inconsequentiality.
A charming evocation of the harsh realities of farming in the modern world, and the difficulties of marrying food production and conservation.