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Read | Review: A Native Talent

7th April 2020

The naturalist, writer and regular Wigtown Book Festival chairperson Polly Pullar gives her thoughts on Patrick Laurie’s new book about farming and Galloway, Native – Life in a Vanishing Landscape.

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Perhaps it was inevitable that as a countrywoman with a passion for nature,
native livestock breeds, and rural characters in far-flung corners of Scotland,
Birlinn's publication of Native, would prove a magnetic draw. This expectation
that lures me to similar genres of books can sometimes prove bitterly
disappointing.

However, it’s a long time since I read anything so profoundly affecting.
Laurie's glorious style of nature writing is lyrical yet frequently brutal,
triggering strong emotions while raising and offering answers to numerous
intelligent questions. It’s the moving story of a small Galloway hill farm, of
countless setbacks, and ceaseless abuse from the elements. It is also an
intensely personal story with emotional threads skilfully woven to create an
intriguing web of great intricacy. Laurie mourns the loss of a way of life in a
swiftly changing landscape dominated by commercial forestry and agricultural
intensification. He examines the tragic demise of the curlew, a large wader
whose haunting, melancholy calls epitomise our diminishing wild places.

Beguilingly unflinching, Laurie is also given to self-denigration and
introspection. Still, there is little doubting his tenacious spirit as he follows his
heart and chooses an ancient breed of Galloway – the attractively distinctive
and rare riggit, instead of following the herd with a vast swift-growing

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Continental breed. “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.”

At times dark, there is nothing mawkish about the fact that he sees farming as
a vital part of the solution to the current environmental Armageddon and not
the problem. He practices his mantra the hard way with spade and scythe: “I
couldn’t help thinking of the old rotations, which naturally kneaded the soil and
brought curlews tumbling down from the clouds to glut and stuff themselves in
the margins. I never saw those systems working, but they seemed to offer
some chance of mending the collapse of wild birds. Besides curlews pull their
grub out of the soil: they howk for worms with their pincer bills, so it made
sense to start at mud level.”

Laurie follows in the revered footsteps of another great Galloway nature writer
– the late Ian Niall. As one who adores his work, I wondered if perhaps I might
make comparisons. While Niall’s alluring descriptions are captivatingly
beautiful as well as honest, and at times brutal, so too are Laurie’s. Both
paint glorious Galloway with an intricate brush missing no detail. Comparisons
should not be made.

There is an alchemy to Native, further enhanced by sensitive black and white
chapter headings by artist Sharon Tingey. The whole is akin to a glorious
Pibroch - free in rhythm and consisting of theme and variations. And like all
good Pibrochs, it lingers long in the memory.

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