It’s ironic that Guy Gordon, aka The Highland Vet, and star of the Thurso Veterinary Team who stars in the Channel 5 reality show of the same name is in Edinburgh launching the TV tie in book of the series when his dog Milis develops a sore leg and paw back at home.
“Typical,” he says, as his wife Jennifer leaves us in the lounge area of the hotel where we meet to take a call from a friend updating her on the Labrador’s condition.
“Bit embarrassing,” he says. “We got a call from our friend who’s looking after her to say she’s a bit stiff and sore on one of her legs and wasn’t herself yesterday when they were out on a walk.”
He’s hoping his colleagues back in Thurso in Caithness can deal with it as he is uncomfortable treating his own pet for fear of becoming ‘the enemy’.
“Examining my own dog is a nightmare,” he says. ”She had a tick on her bum the other day and I was trying to get close to see if I could remove it, but there’s not a chance of me doing that to her in the house because she just slinks away and goes all pathetic. So I do try and get colleagues to do things to my own dog. It makes you not the enemy. I sympathise with owners when their pets are diabetic and they’ve got to inject them or if they have to put pills down their throats and their animals start to get very wary, hating them sometimes. That’s not why you have a pet and I don’t want to go through that with my dog.”
Jennifer returns and reports that the black lab has been examined by Gordon’s colleague David.
“They’re going to send the clinical notes. You might have to look at her when we get back.”
“Oh.” Concern for the family pet registers then is followed by “Did the cameras get it? No? They would have loved that. ‘Guy’s away and his dog’s sore.’ I’m surprised they didn’t leap on that. If it turns into some drama… ‘Guy’s having to operate on his own dog, dum, dum, dum’.” He laughs. It’s just ironic that it’s a leg problem and I’m not there,, ‘cos that’s my kind of thing.”
Whether Milis’s sore leg makes the final cut remains to be seen as filming is still under way for the latest series of the popular show that will air on Channel 5 from Monday [May 30] and now has a million and rising viewers.
Narrated by Phyllis Logan, star of Crime and Downton, the show, like the book, records the highs and lows of treating the animals at the UK mainland’s most northerly veterinary practice, DS McGregor & Partners in the town of Thurso. Now in its third year of filming, the show celebrates the animals, people and landscape of the Highlands, and viewers will be familiar with Milis, who appears alongside a host of other animals from livestock to pets with the occasional seal, puffin, python and alpaca too.
Now the book, The Highland Vet - A Year at Thurso by Guy Gordon and the Thurso Veterinary Team, authored by Guy, gives a fresh perspective by following a year in the practice which covers a vast rural area of over a thousand square miles, from lambs in spring to seal pups in autumn, with a daily roster of family pets arriving in town for treatment.
Gordon is happy to be back for a brief stay in the city where he studied, graduating from the University of Edinburgh in 1993, and working in Fife and Perthshire before moving to Thurso in 1997. It’s also where he met his wife Jennifer, who hails from Alness in the Highlands, and who took him home to the family croft when the time came to do the practical part of his course and he helped with the lambing at Easter.
“Thought I’d kill two birds with one stone,” says Guy. “Get my farming experience in and …
Jennifer laughs. A primary teacher, she also answers the phone for the practice, and keeps up a stream of good natured banter with her husband as we all chat.
“I grew up around that kind of life,” she says. “I would go round at five or six in the morning to see what was happening, see which new lambs had been born or if a sheep looked like it was in labour and tell my dad what’s going on.”
Having grown up in a small community and around livestock she was accustomed to the rural life, and for their two now adult daughters Brianna and Cara, it was always home, but for Guy, who was born in Aldershot and moved around the UK as a child, it was a new world. Leaving Inverness and driving north across the Flow Country in 1997 for an interview with the Thurso practice he wasn’t sure if he was making the right move, but now he’d never live and work anywhere else.
In the book he recounts the story of how the couple arrived at the local bank to ask for a mortgage and it was agreed on the spot without the need for documentation or identification.
“Of course they already knew who I was. The new vet,” he laughs. “That kind of small community wasn’t familiar to me. I’d always lived in suburbia or on the edge of the country and didn’t have a huge amount to do with farming or anything like that until I started to learn about it at university and went to work on farms as part of my practical experience, which included the croft.
“But I was happy to become a mixed vet with the rural aspect as well as the pet side. I enjoy the pet work, and do more of that now than ever, but I still enjoy getting out into the country and driving around, and doing the large animal work.”
Gordon’s descriptions of the Caithness landscape and lifestyle are equally as arresting as his entertaining anecdotes, and the rugged peaks of Sutherland and vastness of the Flow Country are as much a part of the attraction of the show and book as the animals and people.
“Last weekend because of the time of year, I had no calls to cats and dogs at all and it was all large animal work, delivering and treating farm animals and that’s nice and refreshing, especially when the sun’s shining. Although the weather can be sometimes a bit perilous,” he says, having experienced the full brunt of many a Caithness winter.
On one occasion en route to an emergency with a cow, he decided to take a road that had been closed during a blizzard.
“It was a genuine conundrum. The snow had been so bad they were saying don’t go out there. Stay in town. But when I got to the closed road there was no-one to ask so I just made an executive decision. I had no idea what was going to happen. My philosophy was I could see the snow drifts on the road so I just had to bash them out of the way. It’s one of those scenarios like so many things in life where you’re put in a tricky spot and have to make a decision. With hindsight you think yeah I made the right decision but if I’d ended up in a ditch I would be saying something else. I remember winding down the window to this snowplough driver and he wasn’t pleased at all. He was raging at me. I can’t remember his exact words, but he effectively said ‘What are you doing out here you idiot?’”
This have-a-go and just get on with it attitude and resourcefulness exhibited by Gordon and his colleagues is possibly fuelled by their location away from the main centres of population - Inverness is a two and a half hour drive south - where hard decisions are not unusual.
“This fella had a spaniel that had broken its elbow and this was a particularly bad one because it had knocked both knuckles off, split apart. I told him quite firmly down the phone ‘no I can’t do this, it’s beyond what we can offer you’ and he said ‘well, I’m not taking it anywhere else, you can either do it or it doesn’t get done’. So I ended up saying ‘OK, I’ll do it’ and the dog did fine, I managed to piece the elbow together. It’s one of those situations, where I’d operated on a previous dog of his and he said ‘I’ve got faith in you, I know you can do it’. And I thought you might have faith in me but have I got faith in myself? This could go very wrong, but I pieced it together and it healed, so it actually paid off. But that was a situation where referral down south was just not going to happen.”
Gordon obviously relishes talking about the practicalities of his job - explaining the ins and outs of the procedures performed by the team at the vets.
“We had another situation where a dog had a fish hook stuck in its oesophagus and the owner had just moved up to Thurso and didn’t have the resources or time for a referral and just put us on the spot. It was an interesting moment of right, let’s just do it. We just clipped up the chest and got on with it. If you shouldn’t be doing it then you do have to be firm and say it has to be referred, but if it’s on the boundaries of ‘we don’t normally do this, you’d get a much better result if you went to see a specialist, but if you really force me into it, OK’… Obviously the Royal College of Surgeons wouldn’t be happy if you just took on something that was just downright stupid, like brain surgery,” even if Guy can be overheard on camera suggesting it for his nervous lab Milis.
“Yes, to try and relieve some of her behavioural issues,” he says, while Jennifer interjects: “He’s got a very dry sense of humour. Some people don’t get it. He says things deadpan and some people don’t realise he’s joking.”
He agrees. “I get that in the consulting room occasionally. I’ll crack a joke and it’s like tumbleweed and I think ‘come on, that was a good one.’”
The success of the show has taken the practice by surprise as it’s what they do every day, but perhaps it’s to be expected from a nation of animal lovers.
“I don’t know what the fascination is with all things veterinary and animals on television but we do seem to love dogs and cats as a nation,” says Gordon. Television has had an impact and there have been so many programmes, like Supervet for instance, so people are seeing what’s available. If people have the disposable income they are prepared to spend it on treatment that they would expect themselves as a human being.”
The book differs from the show because it allows Gordon to go into more detail on the procedures being performed on the animals,
“I try and explain stuff to the camera but I can see full well...
“Eyes glazing over…” says Jennifer.
“Yes, too many words. I know that two-minute explanation is going to get shortened to about five seconds, but you can expand upon that in a book. I enjoy that, the how does a cow’s stomach work, and rabbit’s guts are quite fascinating actually, and how to calve cows. The challenge is to get that across and make it comprehensible. I love drawing pictures for clients on my whiteboard and trying to explain things.”
“And I’ve had people say it’s great to see behind the scenes too, because usually people go in the consulting room and don’t see beyond. They drop their dog off then they get it back with a bandage at the end of the day and don’t know what happens in between. So they find it fascinating and eye-opening to see how it all works through the back where you’ve got nurses doing this, that and the other, the anaesthetics and the surgery.”
Also popular are the drone shots of the landscape, the series showing off Caithness in all its glory.
“It’s put us on the map,” says Gordon. “Not that we needed desperately put on the map in recent years because the North Coast 500 - but Caithness is worth seeing because The Flow country is unique. A lot of it is very flat and you have this spectacular cliff line as well and then rolling countryside with more agriculture which is why there’s so much work for vets. Then it spreads west into Sutherland where I love going because the terrain changes and it becomes mountainous.”
While the book may be authored by Gordon, he is keen to emphasise that it is the work of the entire Thurso Veterinary Team, a communal effort.
“There are stories there from one or two other vets because initially it was going to be a practice thing, but we needed one vocal point to drive it, and that ended up being me, then the publisher helped pull it all together and get it down on paper. The fact that I’m on the book and my name’s on the book and everything, it’s all like me, but it’s actually a team thing. I’m not The Highland Vet, we are The Highland Vets, and everybody gets filmed and I’m sure everybody out there has their favourites: there are Tom fans, Shondie fans… and David has had fan mail from Germany or something.
“That ‘oooh it’s the Highland Vet’ thing we get with the occasional tourist wanting a selfie, but we don’t get that with the local clients because we’re just their vets, doing what we do.”
The book format also gives Guy the space to tell anecdotes culled from his 30 Years in practice, something there isn’t time for in film, although he has taken care to anonymise most of names - well, Thurso’s a small town.
“I’ve tried to be as faithful as I can to the stories from what I can remember and there’s some artistic licence but I did change most of the names except for one or two where I knew it was perfectly OK to keep them in. To protect the guilty,” he says and laughs. “But I’ve plenty of stories left, and when I retire from practice, maybe I’ll put them in a memoir…”
The Highland Vet - A Year at Thurso by Guy Gordon and the Thurso Veterinary Team, Published by Ebury Spotlight, 28 April, £16.99
The new series of The Highland Vet starts on 30 May on Channel 5. Watch trailer here.