Thursday, 3 December 2015

Book Review: Isolation Shepherd

by Iain R. Thomson
This is the book which was largely responsible for sparking my interest in the hills and wild places of Scotland. It tells of the life of a family in (at the time it was written) remote glen Strathfarrar in the west highlands of Scotland.

The Cover of Isolation Shepherd
In 1956 a young shepherd and his wife, along with their small daughter and infant son, found themselves in a small boat on Loch Monar with a storm raging around them. They were heading for a small cottage at the western end of the loch – a cottage which was destined to be their home for the next four years.

Isolation Shepherd is the story of their sometimes harsh life in this remote place. Employed ostensibly as a shepherd by the local estate Iain Thomson also looked after cattle and deer on the hill – often away all day (occasionally overnight) in all weathers, leaving his wife and two young children to cope as best they could.

They were not entirely alone however. Their nearest neighbours were another shepherding family – on the opposite side of the loch! Communication and contact largely depended on the weather. In foul winter conditions they could be cut off for some time.

Iain’s description of their life in this isolated place and his days spent on the hill tending to the sheep and cattle and keeping an eye on the deer herds which formed a part of the estates' income paints an evocative picture of a hard existence in a harsh land.

The sheep, the cattle, the loch and Iain’s sheepdogs spring to life from the page as he describes sheep gathering, cattle drives, recalcitrant sheepdogs and dangerous hours on the loch coping with temperamental boat engines and sudden storms.

He tells tales of clever and obstinate deer and sheep (and sheepdogs). He describes a battle between two huge bulls the like of which few people see. He speaks of hunting deer for the larder – and dragging the carcasses home behind him. He waxes lyrical at the landscapes he sees on a daily basis. He writes of high lochans and secluded corries, raging rivers, calm summer evenings, soaring eagle and wily old foxes. He describes wild winter days and how he almost drowns in the loch. He speaks of the loyalty of his dogs – and the treachery of one.

Location of Glen Strathfarrar
Map by Eric Gabba (Sting)/Wikimedia/CC-BY-SA 4.0 International

His connection with the land and the creatures found there was very real and sometimes harsh. Yet it was not an unbearable life.

There were many good times had in pleasant evenings spent in the company of their neighbours and the occasional visitor and Iain’s tales of transporting goods and supplies up the loch on the Spray will cause you to both gasp in disbelief and chuckle with mirth!

I first read Isolation Shepherd about 25 years ago and it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that this book caused a change of direction in my life. I wanted to see this land - my land - and know something of the life of which Iain writes so passionately. I wanted to know what it was like to spend nights in remote corries. I wanted to stand on the top of a mountain and know that there was no-one else within miles. I wanted to see the hidden corners of the highlands with my own eyes and imagine seeing them through Iain’s eyes.

All this I have done, thanks to Iain Thomson and his book and if you wish to know what life was like for an isolated shepherding family in the highlands at this time then I can highly recommend this book to you.


  1. This sounds like a great book! Even if a person can't get to Scotland, this book and your review makes it feel like they are there!

    1. I would have loved to have included some of Iain's photographs from this book but copyright rules don't permit it - ''Fair Use''.can only be pushed so far!

  2. Maybe I will read this book, sounds like I could jump inside and know exactly what the place is like.

    1. Iain's descriptions of the life he and his family led are quite detailed.

  3. I'll be looking for this as soon as I have a few spare shekels. It's a book that appeals to me - just as that sort of life once appealed to me. Lol, with age comes wisdom they say and, now that I'm "of a certain age" I'm partial to my comforts!

    1. I am also of that ''certain age'' and I also look forward to my home comforts whenever I return from the hills. Iain's book is available on Amazon and I believe there is also a Kindle edition.