A YOUNG woman supervises the shooting of an eight-pointer stag high above the sea-cliffs of Rum.
She grallochs the beast on the hillside and wipes the blood from her arms with handfuls of moss, then drags the body a few hundred yards to where the ghillies will pick it up. The client leaves. She eats lunch alone, looking out over the Minch and then, tired by a morning’s stalking, drifts off to sleep. After a time, some change in the air wakens her as a black shadow blocks out the light. As her eyes open, a golden eagle swoops down on her torso, its talons stretched out toward her breast.
A scream startles the bird and it pulls away at the last moment but so close she feels the rush of air from its wings.
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What to make of this? Portia Simpson may well have lost some of her readership in line three when the stag is shot for a client’s satisfaction. Others might read on with a certain unease, uncertain what this strange opening montage with its dreamlike alternation of light and darkness, its very different images of predation, and its oddly folkloric ending – “It was the first and last time I ever fell asleep out on the heather” – tells us about the psychology of Scotland’s first female gamekeeper.
The plainness of what follows, the story of a young girl who grows up loving the outdoors more than Barbie dolls, pet snails more than fashion, is strongly shadowed by the prologue. At the most obvious level, Simpson’s narrative is a fairly predictable one. Yes, she encounters considerable resistance and not a little sexism in her desire to qualify for the job. Like football managers, estate managers and gamekeepers are not always paragons of feminism.
And yes, she has to do some GI Jane stuff to show the guys that she can wield a felling chainsaw with the best of them and reverse a full trailer and quad in a straight line. There are other subtexts, though. She tells us very early on that she has declined three proposals of marriage during her career, but seems disturbed at certain moments that her fellow trainees and beaters regard her as “one of the boys” rather than a potential object of desire.
There’s no inconsistency there, of course, but her insistence on being wedded to the job is rather self-consciously flagged. It stems from early childhood and watching her tired mother iron a pile of laundered Y-fronts and vowing that she will never allow herself to surrender to that kind of domestic servitude. And yet that client on Rum was content to shoot his stag, walk away and spend his afternoon exploring the beach while she dragged the hollowed cadaver over the rocks and heather.
WHAT’S missing from the book is any real sense of Portia Simpson’s inner life, so that when injury forecloses her career in spring 2010 we observe her sorrow sympathetically enough, but only from the outside. There is little or no serious consideration of whether a female sensibility brings different perceptions to the job of gamekeeping, which in its essence is about maintaining a balanced ecology, and in its most familiar iteration, a balanced budget, too.
The middle chapters of the book are full of interesting factual titbits about life in what passes for wilderness in Scotland, but nothing about what is happening in Portia Simpson’s heart.
I have bad form with gamekeepers, possibly because my first experience of one was Duror in Robin Jenkins’ The Cone Gatherers, where he represents the serpent in Eden. Others I have encountered in real life have showed a curious appreciation of “balance” that seems like no kind of balance at all. The most recent was a man who showed no empathy for any living thing that didn’t have a long tail and a white ring round its neck. Apart from her obvious love of the outdoors, I don’t get a clear sense of what motivated Portia Simpson and how she deals now with a career, over just past the age of 30, which seems to have settled into a scrapbook of memories, particularly of Rum, and a few anecdotes about workmates, clients and Highland residents.
She seems a lonely rather than merely solitary person, who strikes up relationships with injured crows (including the characterful Stinky) but not so easily with her own species. And, perhaps because of that disturbing opening tableau, she seems excessively vulnerable for a life on the hills, and not at all because she is a woman. The knee injury that ends it all might need the services of an anthropologist rather than an orthopaedic surgeon, so predictably does it seem to fit the symbolism of the lamed hero forced to withdraw into seclusion.
The Gamekeeper left a strange impression, outwardly warm and almost conversational, but touched by something needier and raw. At the end, she is obsessing about the Y-fronts again, “still very open” to the idea of a relationship, as long as it is with a man who either irons or doesn’t see the need to. The net effect, sadly, is of a long entry on a dating site: an interesting CV, very different to most, but with a sadness at its core. One wishes her very well indeed, but with a wry smile.
The Gamekeeper by Portia Simpson is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £16.99