In 2001, the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was a strange and unsettling time. Much has been forgotten, especially since the recent human pandemic. But back then, in Britain’s first major outbreak of foot-and-mouth for 30 years, nearly 6.5 million sheep, cattle and pigs were slaughtered in an attempt to control the epidemic. That’s one in eight of all farm animals killed, shot, and their carcasses burned. Film and photos of burning pyres of animal carcasses shocked the country.  

The general election, originally scheduled for May 3, 2001, was delayed; in many areas the tourist trade suffered badly, particularly in the Lake District; public rights of way across the country were closed; and a complete ban was imposed on the sale of British pigs, sheep and cattle. For those of us outside the farming community, the restrictions seemed draconian.

A month later in June, when restricted access to footpaths and the Lakeland fells was allowed, walkers had to dip their boots into increasingly dirty buckets of diluted chemicals. There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the disinfectant solution was so strong that the boots of an eminent high-profile mountaineer disintegrated.

Against the backdrop of this strange and unsettling time comes a strange and unsettling debut novel, The Borrowed Hills by Scott Preston. It’s the story of people – almost exclusively men – who are driven to desperate measures by the impact of foot-and-mouth on their farms and their lives. It’s a story of savagery and brutality. If, as is claimed, it’s a reimagining of the American western for the fells of northern England, you’ll find no goodies versus baddies. There are only baddies, no empathetic characters whatsoever. There’s ruthlessness and lawlessness. I disliked it intensely but felt compelled to carry on reading. And that’s because Scott Preston writes very well indeed. 

A former chef, copywriter and cleaner, Preston grew up in the Lake District where his father was a drystone waller and his grandparents were national park wardens. He knows this landscape, and he knows the livestock with vivid and detailed accuracy. The early part, as the foot-and-mouth outbreak takes hold, attacks all of the senses – you can smell the acrid smoke from the pyres. And then, as the tale transitions into strange and not always understandable road trips, the author morphs from raw Cumbrian Melvyn Bragg into hustler Hemingway. 

For me, there’s too much death and blood and mud, and although they are strong enough to invoke dislike and even loathing, Preston’s characters are often two-dimensional. The exception is the one female protagonist, Helen, inexplicably married to the most unpleasant of all the men, with whom the narrator falls in love and brings her to glorious, animated 3D life: 

‘This was a lass who made her own clothes – frocks, fit for a lady’s magazine. Wore velvet scarves in summer and flowery shirts in winter. Kept wine in the fridge and used a knife and fork even when her hands were clean But then I saw her work them animals. All the ground she walked on seemed firm. Hidden muscles in her arms. Freckles woke up on her face. You’d point to any fell and she knew its name. Told the clouds when to burst and saw gales on the backs of sparrows and read every shade of the sun. Taught me better how to spot scours and worms and stiff lambs. Where to find mallow, asters, deadnettle, sweet pea, or wormwood and when to give them to the ewes to stop them getting poorly.’ 

But the men! Oh, how I hope never to meet fellas like these. Having said that, there’s a lurking anxiety that Scott Preston writes with such veracity of a fictional world that may very well be closer to reality than many a murder mystery. 

By Eileen Jones

Main image: Scott Preston, Credit John Preston.

The Borrowed Hills is available to buy now

Scott Preston will be at Waterstones Deansgate in Manchester on April 25, 2024. For more information about the event, click here.