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Farley Mowat - Canadian Author With Caithness Roots Dies

13th May 2014

Photograph of Farley Mowat - Canadian Author With Caithness Roots Dies

FARLEY MOWAT, Canadian best-selling author, 'pioneer' ecologist and life-long left-wing campaigner who was proud of his Caithness ancestry, b. 12th May 1921 in Belleville, Ontario, Canada died 5th May 2014 in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada.

From Bill Mowat.

Farley Mowat, one of Canada's best-known authors, who sold an estimated 17 million books worldwide with several of his 40 titles translated into over 20 languages, died on May 5th at his home in Port Hope, near Toronto, just 5 days short of his 93rd birthday. One of his books, Never Cry Wolf became a successful Hollywood feature film, while several others spawned 'made for TV' movies.

Tributes flowed in for frequently-kilted, full-bearded Farley, a household name in Canada, from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Leader of the Opposition Justin Trudeau, who also has (maternal) family roots in Caithness, and from many others across a broad range of that country's political, literary and environmental leaders; he has even had Canada's flagship anti-whaling vessel named in his honour.

Farley's first book People of the Deer in 1952 was a best-seller; it dealt with the near-terminal decline of a small population of inland Inuit (Eskimo) whom he had befriended while undertaking Government biology research in Canada's Arctic Far North. He openly blamed the appalling plight of this peaceful group that had relied on caribou (a species of migratory deer) for sustenance, on official neglect and exploitation by (white) commercial interests that had brought them nothing but pain, ruin and multiple deaths.

World War Two veteran Farley, who had been deeply affected by the grim reality of his European war-theatre battlefield experiences, wanted to make a career of his childhood dream of studying nature at first hand in the solitude of Canada's vast icy 'barren-lands'. He graduated from Toronto University with a BA in biology in 1949, after volunteering at for officer training at 18, followed by front-line close-combat action in Italy in 1943/44, before being posted to Holland as an allied Intelligence Service officer in 1945.

He fiercely rebutted criticism from 'official' sources about the veracity of material in his first book in his second major work, The Desperate People of 1959. This time the gifted story-teller used actual names, not some pseudonyms, to drive home his 'truthful' defence of the Inhalmuit people (a family 'tribe'), whose numbers had plunged from 8,000 in the 1880s to less than 100 at the time of writing, and the environment that has traditionally sustained their living..

Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf of 1963 became an international best-seller. But a further twenty years passed before the classic storyteller's graphic first-hand tale of his 'winter wilderness' experiences as a young nature scientist living in close proximity to a wolf 'family' in the desolate snowy 'wastelands' of Northern Manitoba was made into a major Hollywood feature film.

In the Walt Disney Studios movie, a box-office success, Farley (who was 'renamed' in the usual convention) was played in Never Cry Wolf by US actor Charles Martin Smith, earlier a 'star' in American Graffiti (1973) and its 1979 sequel.

Smith was so affected by the near three years of difficult filming with wild wolves in lonely, blizzard-swept, locations in Canada's Yukon Territory and near Nome, Alaska, that he moved home 'permanently' to Vancouver, BC, to allow him more regular private visits to the primeval wilderness, almost on the Pacific city's back-doorstep.

But the book's central claim (reinforced to a 'new' audience by the movie, now available in modern 'formats' and in TV replays) that those wild animals hunted for food like almost any other species and were not the ferocious human-devouring 'big bad wolves' of legend, proved potent and helped lead to new Government wildlife-protection legislation in several countries, notably in the Soviet Union.

Wolf-hunting in all its vast expanses was outlawed after his book's publication in Russian as Wolves, Don't Cry.

Although Mowat had seen several of his books becoming best-sellers in the Soviet Union, there was seemingly no way of his getting paid any royalties, as the USSR rouble was, officially, a 'non-convertible' currency.

A young, indigenous, Yakut author, who had become a pen-friend of Mowat's, was able to solve the dilemma in a highly-productive manner in 1966, thanks to his membership of the USSR's Writers' Union. The latter group used its Kremlin influence to secure a 'special' trip for Farley in 1969 to visit key locations in Siberia that had been out-of-bounds (officially) to Westerners since the October 1917 Revolution and there 'to meet anyone he wanted to'.

Yakuts are close 'relations' to the Native Americans of Canada and Alaska. After travelling for around 20,000 miles and meeting representatives of several other 'indigenous' peoples amongst many others, Farley Mowat 's conclusion was unequivocal; the native peoples of Siberia were faring far better than their North America brethren.

Mowat proudly wore his kilt and tam o'shanter in Yakutsk (popn. 200,000) known as the World's coldest city, as winter temperatures on its site on the banks of the mighty, but frozen, River Lena can regularly plunge below minus 60 degrees C.

Shown a diamond mine, (the region is now second only to Johannesburg's Rand as a source of the prized precious stones) the mine-manager revealed to Farley that what he had been told in the city was true; only four of the twenty known 'pipes' (i.e. vertical 'seams') of diamonds were being actively mined.

Through his translator, Farley asked the obvious question ; -'Why don't you work all the pipes flat out to f--- up the South Africans?' to which the manager smiled wryly, rhetorically suggesting : 'The women of the World wouldn't like that, now would they?'

It was twenty years later and only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of South Africa's 'apartheid' regime, that the truth was confirmed; there had been a diamond price-fixing agreement effectively between the two Governments that purportedly so detested each other.

On a visit to the once-forbidden city of Magadan, on Sea of Okhost , an arm of the North Pacific washing the coast of Far Eastern Siberia, Farley was publicly feted by the mayor of the town sometimes called 'Russia's El Dorado' because of its gold and silver riches; but those had been earlier mined by forced labour deported there as 'convicts' of Josef Stalin's notorious 'gulag' prison system.

An old lady whispered in his translator's ear that Farley wasn't the first Westerner since the gold had been found there in1929 to visit; famous US diplomat Mr Averell Harriman, its ambassador to Moscow in 1944, had been there then 'to check that the Soviet Union had the money to pay for war-supplies from America'.

Again it was not until an Aberdeen-based team of North Sea divers retrieved gold bars off Norway in 1981 from off the sunken wreck of HMS Edinburgh, a war-casualty cruiser, that the world learned that Russia had been paying Britain in gold for the vital supplies being sent via the brave sailors of the Arctic convoy ships from Scotland, which had to run the German gauntlet as well as facing ferocious storms, before reaching its ice-free White Sea ports.

After the publication of his book The Siberians (elsewhere titled Sibir: My Discovery of the Siberians) Farley was accused of either being duped by the KGB or by having his mind 'fuddled' by the numerous vodka toasts, into presenting a 'sanitised version' of Siberia, of which he was one of a tiny handful of 'outsiders' to experience.

He fiercely defended himself stating that he had not been manipulated by anyone in Moscow; perhaps he was correct in contrasting Soviet intelligence-gathering with America's CIA's activities in the West.

In 1985, Mowat was barred from travelling to the United States under a McCarthy-era Act, as he prepared to embark on a book-signing tour for Sea of Slaughter, his powerful work of 1984 that detailed the destruction of Atlantic Ocean sea-life off Eastern Canada and NE America; whales nearly exterminated, great auks reduced from many millions to extinction, with walruses, cod, seals and cormorants nearly meeting the same fate.

He was keen to publicise what he is said to have considered his most important work, but was barred under US Cold War-era legislation aimed at communists, anarchists or anyone deemed 'prejudicial to the public interest'.

It emerged much later that Canadian intelligence had been sharing information on its own citizens with the CIA, in a similar manner to that recently graphically exposed by Edward Snowden about the British secret service.

Sea of Slaughter was made into a two-part movie documentary by the publicly-funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Farley Mowat traced his descent from a soldier from NE Caithness who was sent there during the Napoleonic Wars, and who settled in (now) Ontario on a 200-acre land-grant on the completion of his enlistment with the defeat of France.

He thrived in his 'new' country to the extent that his grandson Sir Oliver Mowat (Farley's grandfather) became Premier of Ontario in the late 1870s and later visited his a Far North ancestral home, citing the small Caithness communities of Freswick, Staxigoe, East Mey and Duncansby ( re-named John O'Groats in 1907) as places where relatives lived.

Farley was the only son of librarian Angus Mowat, who moved around Canada during the Inter-War depression for employment.

While living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, while barely in his teens, schoolboy Farley started contributing a regular 'nature study' column to the newspaper in the Prairie town.

Young Farley was enthralled when an uncle took him on a pre-War excursion to Churchill, on the shores of Hudson's Bay; famed for its wildlife, especially polar bears.

He started writing some boyhood memories, later published as books for children, when facing the ferocious German resistance to the Allied move Northwards in Italy, aimed at blocking short trans-Alpine Allied bomber raids on Munich and other industrial Bavarian cities and towns.

His experiences of combat provided material for The Regiment
in 1954 plus And No Birds Sang in 1979.

He met and married Frances Thornhill in 1947; the couple had sons Sandy and David, but divorced in 1960 following his alleged extra-marital philanderings, whether or not, as rumoured, including Canadian rock guitarist/songwriter Neil Young's mother may now never be known.

Five years later he married Claire (nee Wheeler) who survives him; they had no children but spent almost 50 happy years together.

In 2012 he published his final book Eastern Passage, but he was working on another until the day before his fatal heart-attack, still using his trusty mechanical-era typewriter.

His extensive library had been donated to Canada's McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

His passing will see the on-going programme of re-releasing his major works that started in 2012, continue into the future for some length of time.

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