Book review: Reindeer - but not as we know them
Trevor Fishlock reviews Running with Reindeer: Encounters in Russian Lapland by Roger
12:01AM GMT 25 Feb 2003
You might not have thought much about the traditional way of castrating a reindeer. It is typical of
Roger Took's eye for detail in his absorbing and almost encyclopaedic account of northern travels that
he describes how to do it. It will colour for ever your thinking about Father Christmas.
Periodically someone will say that the travel book is finished as a genre because most people have
been everywhere, a dubious and world-weary proposition; but the story is the thing, and this one is a
Although he disliked cold weather, bogs and mosquitoes, Took, an art historian, went to Russian
Lapland because he wanted to see Russia, but not the usual parts, and because a conservationist called
it "Europe's last wilderness".
It seemed, says Took, "as good a place as any for an adventure". The adventure began before he set out,
with two crash courses, one in the Russian language and the other in self-protection and gun-handling
with Mike, an ex-SAS man, who taught him to strip a semi-automatic and shoot to kill. This was the
1990s, the Soviet Union had fragmented and Russia was full of the new capitalists and gangsters in
black leather jackets.
Russian Lapland is the eastern part of the vast shoulder that peaks at the North Cape and consists of
undulating tundra, forest and bog, sequinned with lakes and veined by streams. It lies mostly within the
Arctic Circle but its northness is mitigated by the Gulf Stream and, of course, the 24-hour sunshine of
Politically it is within the Murmansk Oblast, or region. The huge Arctic port of Murmansk itself,
home of the Northern Fleet and symbol and instrument of Soviet colonisation in the north, rises in all
its concrete tower-block brutality. Russians flocked there for the high wages that bought them three
months of basking in the Crimea.
They had no interest in their hinterland, but Took was bewitched by the wilderness and became the
first foreigner for 70 years to travel it extensively. He grew to know the remnants of the Lapps, a
people repressed in Soviet times, who call themselves Saami and are part of the Nordic cousinhood of
Saami. They have been hunting on skis for 2,000 years and exist on a fragile edge. Sympathetic and
persistent, Took journeyed on sledges with Saami reindeer herders, went logging, rounded up deer and
lived in the snow. Out of his story emerges the beauty of the land, the well-observed character and
comedy of the people, the smells of food and smoky tents.
There was a time when girls considered a herder a good catch as a husband, but for many modern
young women the tundra looks less appealing. Took, however, remained optimistic that Lapland offers
a future for people associated with reindeer and the wilderness. He felt he had "chanced upon a
remarkable land", and returned to Britain knowing how lucky he had been to experience it, though
wisely feeling there were still mysteries he had not penetrated.
As for reindeer castration, well, one man pins the creature to the ground and another, easing the hind
legs apart, takes one testicle at a time firmly in the mouth and bites. The testicles come free "like
large plums" and the reindeer trots away.
Running with Reindeer: Encounters in Russian Lapland by Roger Took (John Murray,