Here’s an obscure nature classic for animal lovers who can’t get enough of Gerald Durrell and James Herriot. It was a bestseller and a critical success when first published in 1957, and the fact that it has been reprinted several times in the new millennium is testament to its enduring appeal. It’s the account of seven years Farre spent living in a primitive Scottish croft (no electricity or running water) with her Aunt Miriam, starting at age 10. Despite an abrupt beginning, a dearth of dialogue and slightly rushed storytelling, I found this very enjoyable.
Like the young Durrell, Farre kept a menagerie of wild and half-domesticated animals, including Cuthbert and Sara the gray squirrels, Rodney the rat, Hansel and Gretel the otters, and – the star of this memoir – Lora, a common seal pup. Other pets came and went, like an ill-tempered roe deer fawn, a family of song thrushes, and a pair of fierce wild cat kittens. Early chapters about the struggle to keep all these ravenous creatures fed and wrangled are full of humorous mishaps, like Cuthbert falling down a chimney into the porridge.
Farre acquired Lora on a trip to Lewis. Like dogs, seal pups are very loyal and attached. Farre fed Lora a bottle on her lap and let her sleep at the foot of the bed. Lora was also strikingly intelligent: she recognized 35 words, collected the mail from the postman, unpacked groceries and had an aptitude for music, including playing the mouth organ and xylophone and ‘singing’ along to piano accompaniment. She and the otters, along with Ben the dog, loved to frolic in the water and slide down snowy hills in the winter.
Besides capturing animal antics, what Farre does best in this book is to evoke the extreme isolation of their living situation. Aunt Miriam had saved up £75 a year for them to live off, but also painted designs on wooden bowls for extra cash. The regular summer routine of storing up food was not about passing the time but survival. Near-catastrophes, like getting lost in a mountain mist or the goats raiding Lora’s food supply, showed how precarious life could be. There was little to do on winter days, and only five or six hours of daylight anyway;
“Another hour in the croft and I would have had a nervous breakdown,” said Aunt Miriam. Life up here got you like that sometimes.
Really there are very few adults these days who possess the mental and emotional self-sufficiency necessary for leading satisfactory existences in these remote parts.
A life with animals is bound to involve some sadness. One pet gets picked off by a peregrine; another is injured in a trap and has to be put down. Ben’s fate is particularly sad. Lora’s, by contrast, is just mysterious: after seven years at the croft, she simply disappeared. Farre never learned what became of her.
At age 17, Farre had to decide how to make her own way in life. She took solo camping trips to contemplate her future, doing some informal seal research on Shetland and Iceland. Especially after Aunt Miriam met a Canadian man on an extended trip to visit friends in Berkshire and got engaged, it was clear that their crofting life together was soon to end. Farre hints at what happened next for her: she would go on to travel with British gypsies and journey to the Himalayas, subjects for two further autobiographies. The book ends on a melancholy note as Farre returns to the croft five years later and finds it no better than a ruin.
Farre died relatively young, aged 57 in 1979. Alas, an afterword by Maurice Fleming introduces an element of doubt about the writer and the strict veracity of her memoir. For one thing, Rowena Farre wasn’t her real name. “Piecing Daphne Lois Macready’s life together is like laying out a jigsaw from which some bits are missing and others faded,” Fleming writes. We know she was born in India to an Army officer and the family moved around the Far East for a number of years. However, Farre does not account for her formal schooling, and no evidence of the croft has ever been found. In other words, we don’t know how much is true.
Does this matter? It doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of this lively animal-themed memoir (after all, Herriot also did plenty of fictionalizing), but it does make me wonder whether some of Lora’s feats might be made up. Are seals really as intelligent and personable as she makes them out to be? I was left feeling slightly uneasy, and wanting to do more research about both Farre and seals to figure out what’s what. Still, this is a wonderfully cozy read to pick up by a fire this autumn or winter.
With thanks to the publisher, Birlinn, for the free copy.