Published: February 18th 2008January 18th 2003
I once spent three months farming sheep in Iceland. It was a bit of a drunken mistake applying for the job in the first place. Well, I say that but I can’t actually remember. Maybe it was a very carefully considered decision I made. I’d seen an Icelandic band play in a pub on the Saturday night and had gone home and checked them out online. From their site I found another and then another and eventually ended up applying for a job as a sheep farmer. So the farmer contacted me on the Monday, asked me if I could start on the Friday, I quit my job on the Tuesday and flew out on the Thursday. I stayed on the farm with the farmer and his wife but I had my own cottage out the back. This photo was taken out the back of their house one morning. The whole time I was there I saw fifteen different people, on windy days I could sometimes tune into Radio Scotland. My job was fairly straightforward. Every morning I would get up at half five and take the 154 sheep I was in charge of onto the mountain to graze. Throughout the day I’d check them all and make sure they didn’t have any injuries. I got to know them pretty well (insert joke here). I would be back in my cottage every evening by seven o’clock.
One particular morning I went to take the sheep out as usual. It was winter and it was like night-time all the time and very snowy, so I had to take them quite far from the farm to find grass. We had been walking up the mountain for maybe an hour or so when all of a sudden I fell through a snow hole. I must’ve fallen about forty feet into a river that had snowed over. When I looked up at the hole I’d fallen through against the sky, it was the size of a two pence piece. I tried to climb out for a couple of minutes but there was no way that was going to happen. I realised the only chance I had would be to follow the river down the mountain and hope it led back to the farm. The gap that I walked down was about 3 feet wide by 5 ft high. I was never claustrophobic before that. Now I’m terrible. By the time the tunnel opened out I had no idea how long I’d been walking- maybe 20 minutes, maybe 2 hours. But the second I stepped outside my clothes froze solid, with the wind chill it was like minus 25 degrees Celsius. Even though I knew where the farm was from where I came up, all I could think of was that I’d left the sheep at the hole where I’d fallen through and needed to rescue them or the farmer would kill me. So instead of heading back to the farm I decided to head back up to find them. On hindsight, I must’ve been not thinking properly because of hypothermia. But I never knew this at the time. Anyway, the mountain that I was on had four different names in Icelandic, depending which angle you were looking at it from. From where we looked at it, from the farm, the name translated to “The mountain that should not be climbed”. That’s because it was covered in 400 and 500 feet sheer drops. And because of the hypothermia, I didn’t realise this at the time, I lost any sense of depth. So I was walking along and couldn’t see if these cliffs were five metres away or 500. It became really really difficult. I ended up crawling along with my hands out in front of me, terrified that I was going to go over the edge of one of these massive sheer drops. Eventually, after I don’t know how long, I decided to call it a day. I lay down in the snow and realised that I would die there. The funny thing was that I didn’t mind too much. I was quite happy in fact. I was warm (or thought I was), I loved the place I was and the sky was beautiful with the northern lights. I don’t know how long I lay there either. But suddenly I noticed something out of the corner of my eye and turned my head to see better. There was a spider standing next to my head. I remember thinking this was a bit weird, that there was a spider at this altitude and temperature. But it was there. Then it starting dancing about, like tap dancing, and I watched it for ages. I thought it was brilliant. Then it tap danced slowly down to the left side of me and down below my feet so I had to sit up to see it properly. It danced there for a while before I realised what it was dancing on: a sheep shit. With this realisation I came to a bit more and saw that there were sheep tracks everywhere around me. They came from up the mountain on my left and followed it down on my right hand side. I don’t know where I got the energy but I jumped up and followed them down. After a while I saw them: standing about at the bottom next to the farmer and his jeep. When he saw me he ran over and picked me up, put me in the jeep and took me back to the farm for a bath. He’d been so worried because I’d been gone so long that he’d come out looking for me and had found the sheep. They’d made their way down the mountain on their own. Anyway, I was fine after that. I couldn’t feel my left hand properly for about six months and now I dream about my sheep saving me pretty regularly, but apart from that I’m totally fine. It was just one of those things that doesn't really feel like it actually happened anymore.