Book review: Wild Winter, John D Burns

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John D Burns is familiar with the Highland landscape, having spent more than 40 years walking its mountains and moors.

However, in Wild Winter he begins to perceive there could be much more to that world than he has previously seen.

Over the course of one winter, Burns decides to go searching for Highland wildlife: whales, beavers, hares, otters and pine marten are all on his list. From the outset, he states he is no naturalist, although I do think he is overly hard on himself. His knowledge of animal tracks is fascinating, he is keen and attentive and he walks in landscapes he knows well.

Laced throughout are his memories of the mountains and the people he has shared them with. Also evident are brief touches of lives once lived in what is now defined as remote. His imaginings of the Highlands before humans are lovely, especially when placed amidst his images of the world as he sees it today.

Burns reflects on the changes that humans have made, focusing on grouse moors and shooting estates. Against that terrain and his own concerns about aging, he balances the passion and knowledge of the younger walkers he meets and the places that have set out to restore biodiversity through rewilding.

His need for freedom in the land is palpable but, as the book was written in the winter that preceded Covid-19, so is the rapid shift from freedom to lockdown. Reading this a year after lockdown began is a tonic, a mental stretching of the legs across snow-covered hills.

Where this book really shines is when the author has his boots on. The writing that describes the winter landscape is beautiful. Winter may be a time of darkness, but Burns’ sensory descriptions bring you right into the elements of that world and into the warmth of bothy fires.

Some of his attempts to tick off his wildlife wish-list are successful, some are less so. What he gets instead is a world changed by unexpectedly wild weather and an environment changed by humans. This is a wild winter that leaves you with the open question of what might happen next.

Wild Winter, by John D Burns, published by Vertebrate Publishing is out on April 1.