Written by Books

Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir and Heiða Ásgeirsdóttir

This book captures the fascinating world of a remote sheep farmer in Iceland. Heida (or more properly Heiða) is a sheep farmer who single-handedly runs her farm, Ljótarstaðir.

Having previously read James Rebank’s A Shepherd’s Life, about how things work in the Lake District, you discover that while some things are the same – everyone relies on quad bikes to get around – many things are different.

Heida also has bigger worries. She is fighting the loss and destruction of her land, with plans for a massive power plant to be built in her rural idyll, with a massive damn and the attendant flooding. These plans invariably cause splits in communities – some perhaps happy to take the money and run. But Heida is a fighter and she takes political action, ultimately standing for election.

She might live alone on the family farm, her mother no longer able to help as much as she once could, and illness sometimes taking her away, but Heida’s life is fascinating and busy. She runs a pregnancy scanning operation for ewes across the country. She regularly enters sheep shearing competitions, traveling abroad to take part. Indeed for a lonely sheep farmer, she’s pretty cosmopolitan – having rejected an earlier potential career as a model.

But mostly, she’s in love with her land. She’s a poet, and this book is filled with her work.

For an urbanite such as myself, it’s sometimes hard to read about shooting animals injured beyond help – Heida finds it unpleasant work too – and the reality of having to work basically around the clock during lambing season. Yet, this book gives me new insight into that life, and it’s fantastic to hear the words of someone so protective of that way of life.

The book is quite conversational in tone. Although it broadly follows the structure of “a year in the life”, it has regular diversions into whatever’s on Heida’s mind.  Steinunn Sigurðardóttir has captured her tone of language, so many sentences are relatively short and abrupt. Yet you believe that it’s a real person behind it.

It certainly left me wanting to explore some of the more remote corners of Iceland in the future.

Thanks to John Murray Press and Netgalley for the ARC. Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World is out now in hardback.