"Galloway: Life in a Vanishing Landscape" is Patrick Laurie's elegy to Galloway, his birthplace, a rugged, forgotten region on the southwest coast of Scotland. For centuries it was known for Galloway cattle, a slow-growing breed prized for its flesh, hardy beasts who thrived on the tough, wiry grass of the hills. The breed's existence was threatened, however, by the ruthless efficiencies of modern commercial animal husbandry, as well as measures taken against foot-and-mouth disease, resulting in the disappearance of more than 20 native breeds of livestock in Britain from 1900 to 1973.
Still, the Galloway survived in small herds kept by admirers. One of these is the author's and this is his account of establishing it, a quixotic tale of determination, endurance and wonder. Sharing center stage with the thick-coated, fluffy-eared Galloway is Laurie's beloved curlew, the elegant curve-beaked shore bird whose call, for him, is the sound of his childhood.
To the modern, profit-oriented eye, Galloway was a complete waste of space — until it was found suitable for commercial forestry. Now, dark, deadening, industrial conifer plantations for pulpwood increasingly cover its hills and moors, replacing the fields and tough, scrubby growth where birds once nested. Only the fox prospers, adding to the birds' woes.
Indeed, three-quarters of the curlew's population have been lost since 1990, "their hearts …broken by the forester's plough." Laurie has seen some species disappear altogether: "I knew the last black grouse by name and I was there to see the final lapwing's egg. Curlews are the last of a grand dynasty of hill birds which has crumbled into ash during the short course of my life."
Hoping to restore a bird-friendly habitat, Laurie adopts time-honored methods of animal husbandry, crop rotation and harvesting — methods which had once supported a teeming, varied population of birds. His strong penchant for the mixed farming of his ancestors dovetails with his notable lack of funds; thus, piece by rusty, rattling piece, he acquires and borrows old farm machinery.
His descriptions of these venerable contraptions are thrilling to read and include a stirring paean to a baler, the Hayliner, one of the "most complex and mercurial machines ever designed by pre-digital man." Its intricate mechanism accomplishes in an afternoon what would have taken him three days without it, and he exults, "Blood dribbled out of my blisters and I could have wept for joy." (Not for the first time we wish he had invested in a pair of leather gloves.)
This is a beautifully written, passionate memoir, its pages pungent with words that summon a past way of life — "smool," "cowped," gurning," "smirr"— one lived in intimacy with the weather (generally horrible), in touch with the sky and earth and its creatures, domesticated and wild. When, approaching book's end, Laurie sells his first Galloway after five years of nothing but outlay, we rejoice with him. And as he admires the bull he has nurtured into its prime, we simply agree: "There's nocht finer than a geed gallowa bull."
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
Galloway: Life in a Vanishing Landscape
By Patrick Laurie.
Publisher: Counterpoint, 272 pages, $16.95.