The Dun Cow Rib by John Lister-Kaye

Updated: Jul 18, 2019

Review by The Wild Book Spy

Well, I must say, this was a wonderful recollection from a master story-teller and a huge pleasure to read. It is the author’s account of his childhood and early adult years to the point where he buys a wrecked house and its land, near Beauly, in the Highlands which he has since transformed into the renowned Aigas Field Centre. Though not a native to Scotland, he fluidly conjures the timeless beauty of the country that has been his home for many years now.

“Ours is a land of golden eagles tilting on glider wings and the metallic screams of 

peregrines echoing from the walls of the river gorge.”

However, the majority of the narrative concentrates on his childhood which is a gradual recognition of his attraction to the natural world around him, and its importance in its ability to help him navigate through the many trials he experiences as a child. It is also a vivid evocation of a time and countryside that sadly is no longer accessible to us. It could be seen as a beautiful lament for what has passed but a greater hope, is that it will actually remind us of what is really important to our well-being and spur us on to try and replenish what we can of our wild country, with Nature an ever-ready collaborator when given the chance!


Early in the book we learn of John’s Mother’s chronic heart condition which has a pervasive and devastating impact on his

family and himself and causing him to be sent away.

“ Then came the sudden and unwelcome event that would harpoon itself into the delicate flanges of my memory forever – school, boarding school. I was still only five.”

There are rich descriptions of his boarding school life – some of which are warm or highly amusing whilst others recount the petty cruelties and misunderstandings that he frequently encounters.  An incident with peacock feathers being the dramatic finale to his boarding career at one particular school which casts a sad reflection on attitudes that can seek to douse the natural joie de vivre of curious and lively children.

These more domestic descriptions of his early years are beautifully counterpointed by his observations of the natural world and the release he feels when he is exploring its secrets.

“ I habitually went to explore the muddy wonderland of the riverbank. Wind-rippled, light-flung, cursed by the heron’s rough crake, I knew it as the land’s secret edge. Water voles plopped into the slow stream and moorhens scuttled into the reeds fluting alarm, leaving a pointillist trail across the weed-stippled surface.”

Slowly, times change and the boy becomes a young man and must confront the expectations of his father who believes that John must take up a position as a management trainee at a steelworks to help restore the family fortunes. However, John is eventually lured away to work for the ailing Gavin Maxwell of ‘Ring of Bright Water’ fame. This is a friendship that will actually change John’s life forever because it is the springboard to new ventures in Nature that eventually leads him to buy Aigas. It is surely a fitting landing place for the trajectory of the child he describes in his enchanting memoir where:

“ from early childhood every encounter with nature, each little glimpse of truth and comprehension of the natural world had braided together to make me who I am.”

Definitely an inspiring book which rewards close thought and


An entirely absorbing read.

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