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Authors: James Rebanks

The Shepherd's Life

BOOK: The Shepherd's Life
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Dedicated to the memory of my grandfather


And with respect to my father,



Towards the head of these Dales was found a perfect Republic of Shepherds and Agriculturalists, among whom the plough of each man was confined to the maintenance of his own family, or to the occasional accommodation of his neighbour. Two or three cows furnished each family with milk and cheese. The Chapel was the only edifice that presided over these dwellings, the supreme head of this pure Commonwealth; the members of which existed in the midst of a powerful empire, like an ideal society or an organised community, whose constitution had been imposed and regulated by the mountains which protected it. Neither Knight, nor Esquire, nor high-born Nobleman, was here; but many of these humble sons of the hills had a consciousness that the land, which they walked over and tilled, had for more than five hundred years been possessed by men of their name and blood.…







1) (
northern England
) A piece of upland pasture to which a farm animal has become hefted.

2) An animal that has become hefted thus.




Trans. (northern England and Scotland
of a farm animal, especially a flock of sheep:
To become accustomed and attached to an area of upland pasture.




Hefted: describing livestock that has become thus attached.


(etymology: from the Old Norse
, meaning



I realized we were different, really different, on a rainy morning in 1987. I was in an assembly at the 1960s shoddy built concrete comprehensive school in our local town. I was thirteen or so years old. Sitting surrounded by a mass of other academic non-achievers listening to an old battle-weary teacher lecturing us how we should aim to be more than just farmworkers, joiners, brickies, electricians, and hairdressers. We were basically sorted aged twelve between those deemed intelligent (who were sent to a “grammar school”) and those of us that weren't (who stayed at the “comprehensive”). Her words flowed past us without registering, a sermon she'd delivered many times before. It was a waste of time and she knew it. We were firmly set, like our fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers before us, on being what we were, and had always been. Plenty of us were bright enough, but we had no intention of displaying it in school. It would have been dangerous.



There was a chasm between that headmistress and us. The kids who gave a damn had departed the year before, leaving the losers to fester away the next three years in a place no one wanted to be. The result was something akin to a guerrilla war between largely disillusioned teachers and some of the most bored and aggressive kids imaginable. We played a game as a class where the object was to smash school equipment of the greatest value in one lesson and pass it off as an accident.

I was good at that kind of thing.

The floor was littered with broken microscopes, biological specimens, crippled stools, and torn books. A long-dead frog pickled in formaldehyde lay sprawled on the floor, doing the breaststroke. The gas taps were burning like an oil rig and a window was cracked. The teacher stared at us with tears streaming down her face, destroyed, as a lab technician tried to restore order. One maths lesson was improved for me by a fistfight between a pupil and the teacher before the lad ran for it down the stairs and across the muddy playing fields, only to be knocked down by the teacher. We cheered as if it were a great tackle in a game of rugby. From time to time someone would try (incompetently) to burn the school down. One day some kid climbed up the drainpipe at the edge of the playground, like Spider-Man minus the outfit, and then he sat on the roof of the gym, his legs dangling over the edge. He just sat there grinning inanely, thirty-five feet above the tarmac. The news went round the school like the wind, kids running to see the kid that had “gone crazy.” We stood below, curiously, until some joker shouted “jump” and everyone laughed. I stood back a few steps just in case. The teachers went crazy, running to and fro, calling the fire service and police. No one was quite sure if he'd gone up there to jump off. Eventually they talked him off the roof. No one ever really knew why he did it, but we didn't see him in school much after that.

On another occasion, I argued with our dumbfounded headmaster that school was really a prison and “an infringement of my human rights.” He looked at me strangely, and said, “But what would you do at home?” Like this was an impossible question to answer. “I'd work on the farm,” I answered, equally amazed that he couldn't see how simple this was. He shrugged his shoulders hopelessly, told me to stop being ridiculous and go away. When people got into serious trouble, he sent them home. So I thought about putting a brick through his window, but didn't dare.

So in that assembly in 1987 I was daydreaming through the windows into the rain, wondering what the men on our farm were doing, and what I should have been doing, when I realized the assembly was about the valleys of the Lake District, where my grandfather and father farmed. I switched on. After a few minutes of listening, I realized this bloody teacher woman thought we were too stupid and unimaginative to “do anything with our lives.” She was taunting us to rise above ourselves. We were too dumb to want to leave this area with its dirty dead-end jobs and its narrow-minded provincial ways. There was nothing here for us—we should open our eyes and see it. In her eyes to want to leave school early and go and work with sheep was to be more or less an idiot.

The idea that we, our fathers, and mothers might be proud, hardworking, and intelligent people doing something worthwhile or even admirable was beyond her. For a woman who saw success as being demonstrated through education, ambition, adventure, and conspicuous professional achievement we must have seemed a poor sample. No one ever mentioned “university” in this school. No one wanted to go anyway. People who went away ceased to belong; they changed and could never really come back. We knew that in our bones. Schooling was a way out, but we didn't want it, and we'd made our choice. Later I would understand that modern people the world over are obsessed with the importance of “going somewhere” and “doing something” with your life. The implication is an idea I have come to hate, that staying local and doing physical work doesn't count for much.

I listened, getting more and more aggravated, as she claimed to love our land. But she talked about it, and thought of it, in terms that were completely alien to my family and me. She loved a wild landscape, full of mountains, lakes, leisure, and adventure, lightly peopled with folk who I had never met. The Lake District in her monologue was the playground for an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers, and daydreamers … people who, unlike our parents or us, had “really done something.” She would utter the name Wordsworth in reverential tones and look in vain for us to respond with interest.

I'd never heard of him.

I don't think anyone in that hall, who wasn't a teacher, had.



Sitting in that assembly was the first time I'd encountered this romantic way of looking at our landscape. I realized then with some shock that the landscape I loved, we loved, where we had belonged for centuries, the place known as “the Lake District,” had an ownership claim submitted by outsiders and based on principles I barely understood.

BOOK: The Shepherd's Life
8.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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