“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe” wrote Donne. Well, Mike Tomkies tried his damnedest.
Tomkies’s books sold in their thousands in the 1980s, but in today’s Nature Writing Revival he is nowhere to be found. Both my Dad and cousin Colin (with whom I went birdwatching in my teens, chugging around Fife in his purple 2CV) bought the hardback volumes which appeared with impressive frequency, each of which seemed to contain “Wild” in the title.
A former Hollywood journalist1, Surrey-born Tomkies lived for a spell in the Canadian wild (told in the book Alone in the Wilderness) before returning to the UK to try a similar lifestyle in the West Highlands. He found a copy of Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water and was inspired to realise his own version of Maxwell’s Camusfeàrna. Between Earth and Paradise records his first attempt, on the islet of Eilean Shona.
This was short-lived, and at the end of the book he discovers the isolated house that was to become his home for the next decade-and-a-half: Wildernesse. Although he took great pains to keep the location secret, sharp readers could identify it as Loch Shiel. Google Maps makes it a matter of a few seconds to spy on the old cottage he tried to conceal for so long.
Presumably under the assumption that detailed studies of individual species would prove most popular to the reading public, his first books described his efforts to raise wildcats. His most famous work – A Last Wild Place – was published in 1984, and it was this – which told the rest of his story – that made his name. Further books also dwelt on his time spent tracking and observing (for instance) Golden Eagles; Last Wild Years, as the title suggests, is the tale of a man old and tired of his punishing lifestyle.
Re-reading Tomkies (and prompted to finally read Ring of Bright Water), I was struck by the links between not only him and Maxwell, but also with J.A. Baker and to a lesser extent the modern crop of writers, headed by Robert Macfarlane. There is a desire to immerse themselves in “the wild”, and all but cut themselves off from civilisation. That the concept of “wild” in this context is fallacious, I’ll come to later.
Neal Ascherson, in his masterful sideways glance at Scottish history Stone Voices, writes that “there has always been a danger inherent in reviving visions of “total ecology” or “living landscape”. This danger, which seems to tempt white European Protestants especially, is impatience with the human corner of the picture…too often, the undemanding majesty of the wild is set against the squalor of…man with his insignificant little concerns.”
It’s noteworthy that this immersion in “mother nature” and the shunning of civilisation shared by Maxwell and Tomkies is more often than not performed by men (Ascherson’s “white European Protestants”), which could lead you to some Freudian theories, I’m sure. To contrast on a more practical level, the writer who is at the fore of the current Nature Writing – Kathleen Jamie – had a university job and two young children while she wrote the pieces that make up her groundbreaking Findings. Nature – and the pursuit of it – had to fit in around employment and domestic duties. Civilisation is not, for her, something to be shunned, partly because (as we’ll see) there’s no true “wild” to be lost in.
Tomkies makes clear his unhappiness with western civilisation in Between Earth and Paradise. A man whose living revolved around the entertainment industry, he found as the 60s progressed that “a great boring porridge of kitchen-sink concepts…had invaded much of literature and entertainment…so few films or plays had any real vision”.
“The normal goals of ‘success’, the spare-time enthusiasms of city life such as movies, shows, sports – where most people were merely telly spectators removed from the physical action – now seemed to me colourless and mundane”
It’s a brave – or obtuse – writer who sneers at the lifestyle of thousands of their own readers. Hoping to meet Maxwell (and, tellingly, point out the mistakes Maxwell had made) he’s stunned to learn that the older writer has recently died. He visits the site of Camusfeàrna – gutted by fire shortly before Maxwell’s death – and toys with the idea of resurrecting it, before deciding to forge his own path. He later reflects that “I would have little in common with Maxwell as a wild-animal keeper, a wilderness dweller, or as a man.”
Obtaining a temporary lease on a cottage (Ballindona) on Eilean Shona, he severs most of his ties to his past in order to find “a way in which I could avoid disturbance, temptations and the social structurings of the city” so that he might find “moments of peace and beauty”. Maxwell had fled civilisation for similar reasons: “the earth’s surface is so overrun with mankind”. The name Maxwell gave his house – Camusfeàrna – means “Bay of the Alders”. For him, it symbolised
“freedom, whether it be from the prison of over-dense communities and the close confines of human relationships, from the less complex incarceration of office walls and hours, or simply freedom from the prison of adult life and an escape into the forgotten world of childhood” [my italics]
From the outset, then, Maxwell’s vision looks backward:
“Nothing in my early life had led me to question the prescriptive rightness of the established order…deer forests and hereditary chieftains; and the sheep, the hikers and the Forestry Commission were regrettable interlopers upon the romantic life of the indigenous aristocracy”
There’s too much in that to unpick in the space of this article, riddled as it is with class assumption, snobbery and entitlement. Tomkies’s vision is ultimately more progressive. The epiphany comes to him after months on Eilean Shona:
“It was no longer enough merely to enjoy the wilderness..I had to try and pay it back…try to understand the magnificent Highland wilderness deeply, factually, and writ[e] about it with reverence and love”
Later, inhabiting Wildernesse, he reflects that “the loch will outlive me and possibly all human life and all I can do is seek a little longer to know its heart”.
The radio, for both men, is a link to a society that is both craved and derided. For Maxwell, the patchy reception brings “intrusive and unwelcome strains of rock ‘n roll, mouse-squeak reminders of far-off human frenzy”. Their awkward relationship with civilisation – like that of a child asserting an independence which is entirely conditional – is captured perfectly by Maxwell: “I both resent the intrusion of the outside world and crave reassurance of its continued existence.”
No passage better summarises the shared mindset of these writers. For all that Tomkies proclaims that “I was a free man”, at the same time “I earned most of my living by journalism. Editors won’t wait…deadlines have to be met.”
So much for motives, what of Tomkies’s books? He was prolific: a book every 18 months or so from the mid-70s to the early 90s, with a further handful in his latter years. In this time he had a wealth of experiences and observations to draw upon. His first nature books detailed the time spent raising wildcats; the middle period covered his efforts to study and photograph golden eagles, and he wrote a touching book devoted to the life of Moobli his German Shepherd.
The chronology of his books skips about. Tomkies will follow a theme – the appearance of the common gulls on the islet just offshore, or the breeding attempts of rare black-throated divers – and move through the successive years of his stay as they pertain to this particular subject. Once done, he’ll move to a different species, at a different time, and the movement begins again. This allows a narrative to form based on species, rather than one that is doggedly chronological, and lets him – and us – spot patterns and, at the risk of anthropomorphism, get to “know” the animals as they grow, breed (or fail to) and die.
And narrative is Tomkies’s strength. A journalist by trade, his prose can be workmanlike but is efficient and he can tell a good story. No poet, he rarely attains the riches of Maxwell2, far less Baker3 and often lacks the skill that can conjure a metaphor. This makes his moments of epiphany feel like they’re being re-heated rather than re-lived:
“over all hung a haze of golden blue harmony in which boat and human seemed to move in an enchanted dream, and the sense of space and wildness was overpowering and sweet. I caught no fish but just to be there was food enough for the spirit.”
“Harmony” and “enchanted” are dead words here, conveying nothing to us of the actual sensation. It sounds blissful, but you don’t feel it. A little later, he comes closer:
“It was then I realised how wrong I had been to regard the woods as merely a quiet cathedral-like sanctuary…that afternoon, the vision of woodland as a whole came clear to me. No mere cathedral of nature, a wood is a great living theatre.“
This is better; he goes on to explain his revelation of the different levels of a wood, which seems unintentionally Zen (though the notion of “theatre” suggests that it all exists for the benefit of a human audience). Sometimes, though, he nails it with pleasing economy:
“To see the hunting flight of the peregrine is to re-evaluate all of nature, for it is a primeval god.”
For all that their respective prose styles are textbook examples of “show” versus “tell”, you feel J.A. Baker would be happy with that.
Another strength is – literally – his physical capability, perseverance and ingenuity in fashioning an existence for himself in the least-forgiving of circumstances. The amount of time spent building and fixing and hauling, or steering a boat across treacherous waters – or diving in to swim after it as the tide takes it out to sea – is genuinely awe-inspiring. It’s nit-picking to point out that the more he adapts his environment to human needs, the less “wild” it becomes. It’s a necessary part of his existence, both physical and spiritual. As Maxwell noted, “every living creature exists by a routine of some kind; the small rituals…are the landmarks, the boundaries of security, the reassuring walls that exclude a horror vacui“.
To what extent does Tomkies succeed? Well, his mood swings wildly. For all that he shuns civilisation, it has a huge bearing on his mental wellbeing. Moments such as those mentioned above can lift his mood, but moods are fragile. It takes an effort – a boat trip and drive – just to collect his mail, and bad news in the post can plunge him into despair. When the book of his Canadian adventures is repeatedly rejected:
“I was now a failure, in every sense. No wife, no children. Hope receding, resignation setting in…no real friends left”
Yet immersion once again in the lives of the wild creatures around him can take him out of this. At such times “one is close to the animal state itself”.
His perseverance is incredible, but then his choice of lifestyle leaves him no choice. Nonetheless, he doesn’t just live in this environment, he studies it unflinchingly. Hours – a thousand of them, he counted – cramped in a hide studying Golden Eagles at nest or at feed revealed new facts about their lives, and his findings contributed to surveys and scientific studies throughout the 70s and 80s. He was forensic, too. Upon finding a red deer carcass one September 19th, he leaves it untouched to track the decay:
“By September 22nd she was covered with torpid bluebottles, all females laying eggs in the sudden bonanza of flesh…three days on, the maggots were working the edges of the flesh. By the 28th the exposed areas were festooned with maggots, larger now…I estimated there were some 4,000. Two days later they were flensing the skin off, working so frenziedly they had caused a foam to form. The fevered pulse for life as each struggled blindly for survival was quite eerie.”
If that isn’t staring into the abyss, I don’t know what is. And he does it alone, or at least devoid of human company. His dog Moobli is his sole companion, and though periodically he thinks of women he once knew and reflects that there is no chance of, or opportunity for, romance, he realises that sharing such an existence could not be done with just anyone. “Loneliness for one seems better than a spiritual jail for two. Alone there is hope”. And he lives on hope: hope that his articles or books will be published; later on, he (by his own admission, naively) hopes that a TV production company will take up his eagle footage: “I was making a wildlife movie that would astonish the world”.
Filming eagles takes up most of Last Wild Years, and if there’s a more harrowing and painful read in the nature writing canon I’ve yet to find it. By the time he leaves Wildernesse he is pushing sixty, and more than feeling it. Although suffering from osteoarthritis he makes little effort to ease off: his increasingly forlorn hope that the eagle film will make him money drives him harder than ever to undertake the “Killer Climb” up the 3,000 foot mountains that surround him.
“These hills are waiting to suck me in. You never best them. They allow you to fight them when you are young, seem to help you when you are in your prime and learning most, but finally they destroy you and suck you back into their depths”
He slips and slides, straining muscles and injuring his back in lugging the heavy camera equipment up Scotland’s peaks. His intake of cheaply homemade wine increases as the book – and his travails – goes on.
“I felt weak, exhausted, hopeless. By going into the wilds nineteen years ago I had pronounced my own sentence. And now, it seemed, it was being carried out…it was not as though my books were earning enough to make life much easier in future”
Last Wild Years is a bitter book, too. Frustration at his failures and what he perceives as his failing body is evident on almost every page. By the time he rescues a mallard egg – the mother had died by the nest and Tomkies warms the egg in a makeshift incubator – and after a few feeble days’ of life the duckling dies in his arms – it becomes almost unbearable.
He feels assailed from all sides. The fish farms that have been established on the loch disturb the local (and very rare) black-throated divers and pollute the waters; increased boat traffic keeps him on edge. Away from society for so long he imagines every human that hoves into sight could be a potential threat. Yet the passersby – where before there were none – are a direct result of the success of his books. These people (“well-meaning seekers after solitude…trample down and disturb the delicate balance of nature”) are coming to get a taste of Tomkies’s wild, and he doesn’t take it well. He feels “besieged” as – ironically – they watch him from the far shore through telescopes or film him as he goes about his business.
Without Moobli to scare them away, even the sheep impinge on his peace:
“They came to symbolise not the true Highlanders, who did not run sheep, but the Lowland and English wrecker, who brought the sheep to these hills after the scandalous Highland Clearances”
His existence has hitherto been monastic. Not only has he cloistered himself away from humanity and its temptations, his lifestyle has brought him closer to his personal God (he relates to the Native American concept of the Great Spirit): “studying the rarest wild creatures…is for me a mission that has a real religious feeling”.
“Any insights gained have always come suddenly…that hell and heaven and paradise are in this moment NOW, and all plotting and worrying about the past or the future are stupid and meaningless”
However, not thinking about the future has its drawbacks when it dawns that you’re no longer cut out for the life you lead:
“I realised for the first time that I had been less than intelligent about my own future..I had given no thought to old age, or the security of having enough money to own a property”
Ultimately, he feels no sadness at departure. When he had departed Ballindona all those years before, he had felt “a strange emptiness and everything sounded louder, as if I were sitting in a drum, a void”: Maxwell’s horror vacui. This time he is almost relieved.
He then spent 5 years in Spain, experiences which he published as In Spain’s Secret Wilderness. The climate helped restore his health and stamina, and he continued to make films which he advertised for sale in the back of his books well into the 2000s. He retired, initially, to the Scottish Borders but his last years were spent in his native south-east England. When he died in October 2016 it was a full 30 years – almost to the day – since he’d left Wildernesse, worrying how long he had left.
Why is Tomkies so little-read in the midst of this golden era for nature writing? It feels churlish to be too critical of a writer I have enjoyed at different times of my life, but a closer re-reading has revealed much I never noticed before. Unpicking this further may help explain why most of his books are out of print and his name is largely forgotten.
He is no J.A.Baker, and while that can be taken as a reference to his prose, what I also mean is that Baker, as Kathleen Jamie put it in Findings (which introduced me to Baker) “has utterly effaced himself from his book”. Tomkies lays himself bare on every page.
In the few interactions we see him have, Tomkies seems socially awkward. He strikes me as a man whose isolation has left him unable or unwilling to compromise; he makes no concessions to other people’s expectations or manners. “Perhaps I had grown apart from human society. Maybe I had isolated myself too much from the main ambitions of my fellow men”. If you leave civilisation because you no longer fit, then being apart from it for two decades while its fashions and attitudes grow further from your own is only going to make assimilation more difficult. He seems candid and straightforward – what need for guile living among wildlife? – but rendered brusque by his self-imposed isolation.
Both Tomkies and Maxwell appear to have been fond of individuals, but suspicious or intolerant of humanity en masse: Tomkies mutters darkly about industrial action, and makes a contemptuous reference to “some overpaid unionized worker”.
This hints at right-wing sympathies, although by the time of Last Wild Years, the ideology of the Thatcher government has rendered the environment something to be accounted, sold, made to pay its way or built over, and Tomkies rails against this. Perhaps his politics were closer to the true meaning of the word “conservative” than the radical neoliberalism that now occupies the name.
We also need to look at his terms of reference. He talks repeatedly of “the wild”; it or “wilderness” features in the title of at last ten of his books. Yet as Kathleen Jamie has written (á propos Robert Macfarlane):
“There’s nothing wild in this country: every square inch of it is ‘owned’, much has seen centuries of bitter dispute; the whole landscape is man-made, deforested, drained, burned for grouse moor, long cleared of its peasants or abandoned by them. It’s turned into prairie, or designated by this or that acronym; it’s subject to planning regulations and management plans. It’s shot over by royalty, flown over by the RAF, or trampled underfoot in the wind-farm gold-rush. Of course there are animals and birds, which look wild and free, but you may be sure they’ve been counted, ringed maybe, even radio-tagged, and all for good scientific reasons. And if we do find a Wild Place, we can prance about there knowing that no bears or wolves will appear over the bluff, because we disposed of the top predators centuries ago, and if we do come unstuck there’s a fair chance that…we’ll get a mobile signal, and be rescued.”
Although Tomkies’s experiences pre-date GPS and mobile phones, much still holds true. The Scottish countryside is not unknown: the mountains4, every corrie or knoll, has a Gaelic name which speaks of centuries of occupation. This is a landscape that has always lived, and been lived in.
The public appetite for nature writing, to judge by the display tables in Waterstones or Blackwell’s, is insatiable. Books from the era before Tomkies’s have been resuscitated, so it isn’t a question of age. Indeed, he seems to have been a lone voice bridging the gap between Maxwell’s era and our own. Is the uncompromising character off-putting? Is it the implicit misanthropy, concealing a small ‘c’ conservatism? Certainly most of the current nature writers are left-leaning and if Tomkies’s politics were indeed right-wing, although I certainly don’t share them I can look past them to much that is of value in his work (and by that argument, nobody would read Tarka the Otter these days).
It doesn’t help that he lacks a champion. No Robert Macfarlane or John Lister-Kaye has shone a light on his hidden charms, although Jim Crumley – himself an under-heralded nature writer who deserves a far higher profile5 – wrote his Scotsman obituary. There’s a certain breed of nature/wildlife writer whose 70s paperbacks my Dad still has – Tom Weir, Lea McNally – whose works also remain obscure. I’m not suggesting that all wildlife writers from decades ago necessarily deserve to be rediscovered – as we’ve seen, there are attitudes implicit that wouldn’t sit well with today’s audience. But it makes me wonder what it is that drives the genre’s current popularity, and what its limits are.
A large part of our fascination for this type of writing is for the vicarious contact with nature it provides. Global warming is the catastrophe on the horizon: our governments are supine, the multinationals whose products we rely upon (and by extension, us) are complicit in it’s onset. We feel powerless and disconnected. Do these books then perform a shamanic role? A writer with vision brings knowledge back from nature to help us shape our lives? Or are they a form of virtue signalling: reassurance that all is not lost, and look, I am showing my concern for the natural world by buying this book? I don’t have any answers. I think there’s a study to be made which examines our current need (and I am far from immune) for books of this sort.
Perhaps the role of shaman is closer to the mark, though The Peregrine is a far more visionary piece of writing than anything by Tomkies. Nonetheless I used the word ‘monastic’ earlier to describe his humble, almost ascetic existence. Monasticism – any form of religious devotion – is something our secular age is not so comfortable with. He may well be correct when he ventures at the end of A Last Wild Place that “spiritual unease has long been manifest. The lessons will not wait for ever to be learned”. Is Tomkies’s voice simply not the right one to carry the message we need right now? Or did he achieve thirty years ago precisely what nature writing is providing us now: a spiritual balm by proxy? Track down some of his books and see for yourself.
1 As told in My Wicked First Life – Before the Wilderness (Whittles Publishing, 2006)
2 In Tomkies’s defence, he can tell a story – or stories – right to the end of the book. Ring of Bright Water runs out of steam (spoiler alert) after Mijbil’s death, and the latter part of the book – which tells of his replacement Edal – lacks the magic of the earlier pages.
3 But then, who does?
4 To preserve their anonymity he gives the local features names such as “Guardian Mountain”.
5 And to whom Last Wild Years is dedicated.
Ascherson, Neal: Stone Voices (Granta, 2002)
Baker, J.A.: The Peregrine (Collins, 2012)
Jamie, Kathleen: Findings (Sort of Books, 2006)
Maxwell, Gavin: Ring of Bright Water (Little Toller, 2009)
Tomkies, Mike: Between Earth and Paradise (Whittles Publishing, 2006)
Tomkies, Mike: A Last Wild Place (Jonathan Cape, 1984)
Tomkies, Mike: Last Wild Years (Jonathan Cape, 1992)
Author photo is from the Scotsman obituary and is uncredited. I am happy to credit it if you are the copyright holder.