A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I bought this book at The Ceilidh Place bookshop in Ullapool last week. I’d just taken a blowy boat trip to the Summer Isles, and wanted to read Frank Fraser Darling’s account of rejuvenating their soil by his own labour (and that of his wife, their son, and passing friends as well). Island Years, Island Farm is a reprint from the delightfully reliable Little Toller Books, which specialise in nature publishing. Their design aesthetic is impeccable, and the choice of books they publish is gorgeous (see my review of their edition of Robert Gibbings’ Sweet Thames Run Softly). Frank published Island Years in 1940, written on the Wester Ross island of Tanera Mòr when he was laid up with a broken leg, and Island Farm in 1943. His first wife Marian Fraser (he took her surname, and called her ‘Bobbie’) is on the front cover of the Little Toller edition, ‘Bobbie at the peats’, carrying a vast wicker creel full of peat like the expert she was. The raglan sleeves of her doughty tweed coat and her waterproof headscarf evoke wartime style without a hint of hideous austerity: she is a fashion-plate in her authenticity.
When I was in Dingwall a few days later, I found first editions of both books. I could have bought them both for the same price as the Little Toller edition. Flicking through the originals, I could see which of Frank’s photographs Little Toller had found and reused, and which had been left out. I could see what the rebuilding of the Tanera Mòr quay looked like, and could see portraits of the heifer and gardens not in the reprint. But Little Toller have included the photographs of Bluebell the cow, Lily the goose, and the difficulties of ferrying sheep in a rowing boat. I longed to see a photo of when Fraser Darling toppled backwards into icy water with a sheep in his arms while trying to round the dratted things up, but no. There are pictures of the Trusty tractor and the tents and huts that the family lived in: they barely seemed to have had stone walls about them in any of their island sojourns. When their naval vessel contact returned to the extremely remote island of North Rona after a particularly bad storm, the captain wasn’t so much concerned with checking that buildings were intact as counting the population, which was just Frank and Bobbie. I’ve never read such a calm account of extreme living in the British Isles, all for the sake of science and a passion for making rural living possible again in the Highlands.
Frank Fraser Darling was a Sheffield agronomist who became a pioneering farm restorer and a distinguished ecologist topped with a knighthood. He studied dairy farming, then the genetics of blackface sheep at Edinburgh. When he won one of the first Leverhulme grants for scientific research, he and Bobbie and their son Alasdair headed for Wester Ross on the north-west coast of Scotland, to study the red deer of An Teallach, an intimidating collection of fearsome peaks overlooking The Minch on Little Loch Broom. In 1936 Frank won another research grant, and the family moved to Eilean a’Chlèirich, or Priest’s Island, one of the Summer Isles a few miles north. Alasdair had his eighth and ninth birthdays living in a tent on this island with his parents while they counted birds and studied the social behaviour of local and migrant species. In 1937 they moved to Treshnish, a group of islands further south, near Mull. Alasdair missed out on part of this trip, having been sent to school at Gordonstoun on the other side of Scotland, so he also missed his mother’s attack of scarlet fever, and the arrival of seals in the breeding season. Frank’s seal research was of interest to the Ministry of Agriculture as his work would help the fishing industry, so the family were moved on, and off, the island by naval cruiser instead of a local boat.
Their expedition to North Rona was bedevilled by the newspapers, who were determined to make a drama of the perfectly ordinary situation of a husband and wife marooned on a North Hebridean island in winter to count birds. Alasdair came for the summer, and the family lived and worked in a wooden hut this time, once again transported and built for them by the Royal Navy.
The final episode of these books describes the years on Tanera Mòr, the largest of the Summer Isles, and practically a metropolis compared to the isolation of North Rona. The nearest settlement, Achiltibuie, is visible from the shore, and sheep are regularly brought over for grazing. Frank and Bobbie had managed to buy a ruined stone house and its demesne on the island, but not for the building. It was wartime, and – unable to join up due to his age – Frank was determined to do something useful for the war effort by bringing deserted farmland back into cultivation, and to restore the quay and make it possible for fishing vessels to dock again.
All through the books Frank’s personality bounds through the pages like an eager red setter. He plays around with the idea of being a Highlander, using a curious syntax that suggests transliteration from the Gaelic that he didn’t speak (though his son did, having been a boarder at the Achiltibuie school in the stormier seasons). He is devoted to the way of the life in these remote areas, determined to maintain what is good and help to bring back what has been lost. His capacity for hard physical labour is prodigious, and his passion for the wildlife and geology of the islands is impressive, if daunting. However, what interested me far more is the silent presence of Bobbie, the wife who cooked three-course camp meals apparently uncomplainingly among rats, seals, sheep and stormy petrels, under gale-force conditions and whiteout blizzards. Her scarlet fever was got over entirely without medical help because evacuating her to the mainland would have been more dangerous than keeping her warm and hydrated in bed. She doesn’t appear to have published anything of her own, which is a sad loss of her account of this driven, extreme but apparently happy life in the British wilds.
Frank Fraser Darling, Island Years, Island Farm (Little Toller Books, 2011), ISBN 978-1-908213-01-3, £12