The Horizontal Oak: A Life in Nature
Birlinn, July 2022
Nature has always been at the heart of Polly Pullar’s world. Brought up on the Ardnamurchan peninsula where her parents ran a hotel, their extensive menagerie included a swearing parrot, and Lulu, a blackface lamb who accompanied her mother to serve the guests’ early morning tea, and Polly to school. Polly roamed freely, observing red deer, otters, seals, and golden eagles, in an era when wildcats were plentiful too. With her passion for livestock, she spent days gathering sheep with crofters and shepherds. An otherwise idyllic childhood was marred by family secrets, eventually leading to tragedy. Her charming father was an alcoholic with hilarious delusions of grandeur. When Polly was seven, her flamboyant mother could no longer comply with his behaviour, and after their divorce, remarried. Her fun-loving stepfather became her mentor and greatest support. But Polly was sent to boarding school, where she was desperately homesick, and her father’s erratic visits were deeply unsettling. Later, Gordonstoun with its outdoor ethos was different – here there was sailing, and hill walking. On leaving school, she helped her father run a hotel in Exmoor. Though the frequent Fawlty Towers moments provided humour, she uncovered disturbing revelations about his personal life and her own identity. Her affinity to animals always brought solace, and later she relished working with exotic animals at a zoo and when married became a stock farmer. Returning home devastated after her father’s funeral, she found a young kestrel that became a constant companion. Her son was raised surrounded by tawny owlets, red squirrel kits, buzzards and peregrines. When her marriage collapsed, Polly rebuilt her life, earning a reputation as a wildlife expert and nature writer, respected for her ability to rehabilitate wildlife. In the final pages of this remarkable moving and at times wittily humorous memoir, Polly returns to Ardnamurchan and reflects on how the love of nature, found in that magical place, has shaped her life, given her the strength to understand her parents, and helped her find an equilibrium.