Louis

Robert Louis Stevenson, by John Singer Sargent

I am obsessed with Robert Louis Stevenson. He has become a habit, and it’s costing me a fortune in books.

Like many famous authors, Stevenson is surrounded by a fog of mythology and legend. It seems unfair that he should be remembered for children’s stories like Treasure Island and Kidnapped when his work sprawled across all kinds of varied and challenging terrain. Most people know that he suffered from recurring illness throughout his life; it’s a curious piece of pub trivia that he dropped dead unexpectedly in Samoa. But beyond those scanty impressions, the man himself is oddly obscure.

During a cold weekend in October, I buried myself in Richard Woodhead’s 2001 book The Strange Case of RL Stevenson. It’s a biography in the loosest sense of the word because the book is only partially true. In a bid to shed light upon the precise nature of Stevenson’s life-long illness, Woodhead imagines a series of interviews with several doctors who cared for the author during the course of twenty years. The narrative is based on medical notes, diaries and extensive research, but the gaps are patched with fabrication and guesswork.

And it’s entirely fitting that the real Stevenson should shine like a furnace in this odd hotch-potch of fact and imagination. His personality is revealed with such warmth and excitement that I could’ve leaped into the pages and hugged him. Forget that dry, establishment figure who recently passed his 170th birthday; here is a giddy, passionate boy, wracked by illness and burning with extraordinary love for the world around him. He’s mercurial, rapturous and desperately vulnerable; torn by Presbyterian guilt and yet simultaneously driven forward by a wild and desperate rebellion against authority. I simply warmed to him with every passing page.

We’ve all stumbled over the name “Robert Louis Stevenson” for so long that it was a joy to realise that he was merely “Louis” to his friends (pronounced Lewis). Stripped away from his novels and the cult which emerged to consume his work after he died in 1894, I was able to see Louis fidgeting with excitement in a haze of his own cigarette smoke; giggling and bright-eyed with some fresh adventure or dream. After this glimpse of the man himself, I am desperate to revisit everything I know of his work, including many books and writings which I have never seen before. It’s a kind of pilgrimage, and it delights me more with every passing day.

The Strange Case of RL Stevenson is printed and circulated by a small publishing house in Edinburgh. It’s a marginal text for a niche audience, and I doubt we’ll see it on any bestseller lists. But as a frame to capture and express a personality, I don’t think I’ve ever read such a compelling “biography”.

I’d like to write an awful lot more about Stevenson over the next few months on this blog, but it’s worth throwing down a marker now that, for me, it all began with this strange biography.

Adder

The bull calf and his mother

In my line of work, progress comes with such ponderous slowness that I am rarely satisfied by it. Unless you take stock and raise a pint now and then, it’s easy to forget that you’ve made any headway at all.

Gathering, sorting and loading three beasts into a trailer today, I looked up and found that I was engaged in complex, challenging work. And there was nobody to help me; and I hardly cared about that absence. I used depend upon friends and family members to walk me through even the simplest tasks – now I realise that I can do most things on my own. Of course there will always be some chores which require an extra pair of hands, but it’s a fair boost of confidence to realise that I have come to think nothing of jobs which used to overwhelm me.

And bigger still, there’s a good reason why I gathered those beasts and loaded them up in the bright and watery sunshine. One of my first riggit cows had a bull calf this year, and he’s just about perfect. He’s thick and blocky in the shoulders, and there’s a fine blue smudge around his lugs which simply makes me smile. There’s a fair margin for personal preference when it comes to riggits, but in following my own taste, I think this calf is as good as I’ll get. However, there’s small demand for riggit galloways in the modern world, and only a handful of bulls are sold each year. It costs a great deal to raise a bull if you aren’t sure that you’ll be able to sell him. In a normal year, he would’ve been castrated by now as a matter of course. It wouldn’t have mattered that he shows style and promise – he’d have been earmarked for the abattoir.

But this boy has found a buyer; a farmer in Northumberland who’s looking to set up a herd of his own hill cattle.

That’s a fine, prestigious endorsement. A bull is more than half your herd, so to have a stranger come and buy an animal you’ve bred? – well, that’s getting near to being an honour. The deal was done in August, and I’ve enjoyed seeing the boy grow on towards maturity. His brothers were castrated on a bright day in October (on which perhaps more to come), but the bull calf was kept back and allowed to remain intact. He’s been given the name “adder“, and once that’s been approved by the Riggit Galloway Cattle Society, he’ll go down as the first pedigree beast I’ve bred and registered.

Adder will head to his new home in February, and then I’ll get to follow his progress from afar. I know that he’ll make a handsome beast, and I’ve started to think of him as a spark flung from my project to start a fire elsewhere. I find that very satisfying indeed.

So I loaded him into the trailer with his father and brought them both home after a long summer; back to the sheds and the in-bye fields where I can cosset them both and oversee their progress into the winter. I want to be proud of that calf when he goes. For all that he shows promise, there is still work to do; and when he proves to be a success, I hope we’ll share it together.

So I look up and realise that as weeks and months glide past without celebration or comment, there is plenty to be proud of.

New

After several years of writing this blog, I was beginning to feel like I’d made some progress. Working for Grouse had become a substantial piece of work, and it was a pleasure for me to sift through that back-catalogue of records and notes which spanned more than a decade. I believe that there’s sufficient material in Galloway to fill a century of journals and diary entries, but I also began to worry that simply recording my days was only part of the picture.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time working inside a genre called “nature writing”. That wasn’t a conscious decision, but since my book Native was published in April, it was interesting to see where that label placed me on a map alongside other writers. I was a little uncomfortable with what I found. I’ve often struggled to connect with “nature writing”, which can lean towards some fairly staid and cosy principles. More often than not, the countryside is represented as a fragile but restorative escape from the hectic reality of urban life. Nothing could be further from my experience of living and working in the hills of southern Scotland.

And while I’ve made snooty complaints about “nature writing”, that genre has expressed similar discomfort about me. I don’t really belong. I’m reckoned to be one of the “bad guys” because I used to work as a gamekeeper. Those nasty old habits die hard, because I still shoot guns, set traps and burn heather as part of a farming life which can be staggeringly immersive.

In seeking to write well and honestly about my experience of Galloway, it’s been jarring to find that many readers consider my approach to be obscure or offensive. That was never my intention; I’m not here to court controversy or start arguments. I started to write this blog because I was excited by birds and wildlife. And now I’m beginning to see how those subjects tie into all of us and the experience of life itself. I’m desperate to approach these new angles with passion and clarity.

So while pushing on with some well-established threads of this blog, I’d also like to go outside the normal flow. I was tempted to convert Working for Grouse into a vehicle for grumblings and dissent. That would’ve been fun, but I think it might be more useful to focus upon subjects and ideas which I find inspiring and exciting. I’ve been writing reviews, stories and essays for several years. They’ve been abandoned on my computer, but there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be publishing this kind of stuff here. Perhaps it’ll seem disparate at first, but I hope that sharing it will help me to work out where I’m going.

Having found that my writing lacks an obvious home, I think it’s a fair response to make one.