Feast of crows and other wild creatures

The Gamekeeper, by Portia Simpson is an intrepid tale of a female grouse beater, vermin trapper, heather burner, ghillie and deerstalker. 

Portia Simpson
Simon & Schuster



Portia Simpson tells in a very direct way of her life as a gamekeeper and deerstalker in Scotland, clearly conveying  a  passion for the outdoors and its creatures.

As a child she was always outside and observing the creatures in her environment. Her father was persuaded to make her a snail house to keep all her pet snails and, at the age of 12, she had her first true pet — Tennis, a crow — followed by a regular succession of pets, many of them challenging but much loved.

A raven, Babe was curious and inquisitive and tore everything with her sharp beak and when that failed, hid items in the most unlikely places. Babe, alas, simply vanished on an outing to territory that had nesting eagles. Even Stinky, described as a bad-tempered vicious crow, was admired and pampered by Portia. Not only birds, but wild creatures such as squirrels and a polecat were cared for.

An equal passion for the wild, remote country where quail, deer and grouse would thrive is evident, and on the Scots island of Rum, the rocky shore and the sea is described in intricate detail.

These telling anecdotes reveal the impact of the challenges and rewards of the changing seasons, both for the animals and the humans: living in a Mongolian yurt was fine in the summer, but winter rains led to it being abandoned and more conventional accommodation sought.

Portia entered bravely into a training course for a male-dominated occupation and spent her working life in a series of seasonal jobs: tree surgeon, grouse beater, vermin trapper, heather burner, ghillie and, finally, fully fledged deerstalker.

Each of these had its own challenges and rewards, but the issues arising from being in a minority were ever present. She worked to not just succeed but to exceed her male counterparts, while doing this as a woman with full make-up and never moving house without her hair straighteners.

Eventually, the unreliability of her knees made this physically demanding life impossible. She was fortunate to find work with the Save Scotland’s Red Squirrel Project, which rewarded her love of being outdoors and caring for a species of animal.  She notes that she is a bit of a free spirit and the changes in her working life suited that. However, now she is more settled and misses the novelty of those frequent moves.

- Willie Campbell is a Dunedin educator.


Win a copy

The ODT has five copies of The Gamekeeper, by Portia Simpson, to give away courtesy of Simon & Schuster. For your chance to win a copy, email books editor shane.gilchrist@odt.co.nz with your name and postal address in the body of the email, and "The Gamekeeper" in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, June 6.


Winners of last week’s giveaway, The Suicide Club, by Sarah Quigley, courtesy of Penguin Random House: Wendy Sherriff, of Green Island, Murat Ungor, of Dunedin, Bronwyn Hegarty, of Waitati, Dana Christiansen, of Lawrence.

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