Portia Simpson is notable as perhaps the first female to hold gamekeeping qualifications in Scotland. Graduating in 2003 and spending her working life in a male-dominated and traditionally conservative industry, you can imagine tabloids being interested in her story – with such memorable moments as lunching with the Royal family on shoots at Balmoral and working on the Ardverikie estate during the filming of Monarch Of The Glen.
But the real beauty of this book is in its ability to open a door on a career that was an unlikely choice not because Simpson is a girl, but because she is from an urban family with little appreciation for country ways. The route from tomboyish child with a collection of pet snails to her first gralloching of a stag is a fascinating one.
I’m reminded of the hoax review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Field & Stream from 1959 which complained of the “extraneous material” which detracted from the “account of the day-to-day life of a gamekeeper”.
Simpson describes the intricacies of her job but also covers her relationships, living conditions and the precariousness of her chosen career. She is even most engaging when discussing the characters she meets, from the young trustafarian party animal in possession of a Scottish shooting estate, to the unhygienic quirks of the ghillies sharing her accommodation.
Her take on the eccentric habits of the tiny community on the isle of Rum during the winter months is hilarious and even in describing characters such as Normski, the owner of the island’s shop who wears fancy dress every day, Simpson manages to talk with a deep affection, without being patronising.
Simpson’s powers of description come into their own on the brutally beautiful landscape of Scotland and its rare sights, such as the courtship of a pair of sea eagles who “performed eye-popping mid-air routines, grappling their talons and spinning each other round in an airborne Highland fling as one plummeted from the heavens and the other soared upwards.”
She doesn’t shirk from describing the more stomach-challenging aspects of her profession, which she defends convincingly as necessary for conservation.
Simpson comes over as immensely likeable, from her insistence on hair-straighteners in all circumstances to her love of rescuing injured animals. Her account of living with a rescued raven is uproarious and heartbreaking – but that is true of the book as a whole.
*The Gamekeeper, by Portia Simpson, Simon & Schuster UK, £16.99