Review: The Dun Cow Rib: A Very Natural Childhood

The Dun Cow Rib: A Very Natural Childhood The Dun Cow Rib: A Very Natural Childhood by John Lister-Kaye
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

For the last 40 years, John Lister-Kaye has run the Aigas Field Centre, an old Georgian manor house just to the west of Inverness and set in the beautiful highland landscape. Lister-Kaye discovered the place in the mid-1970’s and since then has made this a world leading and award-winning centre for environmental education. This latest book, The Dun Cow Rib tells the story of the long and winding route that he took to get there.

Born in 1959 to John and Helen, he was the latest member of an ancient family were landowners in Yorkshire with active financial interests in mining and quarries. He had a fairly happy childhood playing in the local countryside and keeping pigeons until he was sent to boarding school. He really could not get along with the head there. After a couple of incidents, one of which was a prank, the other of which was nothing to do with him, he was asked to leave, much to his father’s fury at the school and the head in particular. This meant that he had to go to another school and fortunately he ended up at Allhallows School on the Devon and Dorset border. For Lister-Kaye this was a lucky break as he was right on the doorstep of Lyme Regis and the wilderness that was the undercliff. He joined the natural history society and by the time he finished at the school, he was totally and utterly in love with the natural world.

He longed to do something in the natural world, but his father lent on him heavily to accept a post at a steelworks as a management trainee. He did go and hated it, turning more against working in unsustainable industries after the massive oil spill in the Isles of Scilly in 1967. Shortly after that, an opportunity arose to work with the now famous author Gavin Maxwell on a book on mammals and opening a zoo on Skye; he quit and moved to Scotland. Both projects were abandoned after Maxwell was diagnosed with cancer and died after a short illness. The thought of going by to a desk job was too much to bear, so he stayed in Scotland and wrote The White Island, a book about the short but intense time spent with Maxwell. From the book came another opportunity and Highland Wildlife Enterprise was formed with the help of Richard Frere and this was what was to become the Aigas Field Centre.

I quite liked this book, he writes in an interesting and entertaining way about all the events in his early life and it is full of amusing anecdotes and snippets. He had a privileged upbringing, he is a baronet after all, and he loved growing up with his grandparents at the manor house where the Dun Cow Rib was always hanging from a chain. He had a distant relationship with his father but was much closer to his mother. She suffered from severe health problems with her heart, caused by an illness when she was a child and exacerbated when she gave birth to John and managed to live much longer because of the efforts of Paul Wood and Russel Brock, two cardiologists who worked at the cutting edge of heart surgery, this book is a tribute to her from him. Having read the Douglas Botting book in the last month, it was useful to find out his side of the story of his brief work with Gavin Maxwell too. I have only read one other of his, The Gods of the Morning, and will be adding some of his others to my reading list.

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  1. LyzzyBee

    This does sound interesting; is there a lot of detail about setting up the centre?

  2. Paul Cheney

    It was quite interesting Lyzzy, but there was almost nothing on the centre; I guess that will follow in another book.

  3. William Robertson

    Found the book boring and a complete repeat of White island.He writes in a pompous narrative in which he tries unsuccessfully to replicate Maxwells writing format.
    He has been playing on Maxwells success his entire life.Richard Frere;Botting even Tex Geddes are move revealing.Kathleen Raine in Lions Mouth is best in understanding Maxwell.The real Maxwell Brothers best seen in Cannetti book Blitz but be prepared for his revealing expose.

    • Paul

      Hi William. I’ve not read White Island so can’t comment as to whether it is close to it or not. I don’t think that he is the best nature writer out there, though it could be said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…

      The best book on Maxwell I have read is Douglas Botting’s biography. He doesn’t really hold back in his opinions in that

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