Photographic exhibition showcases life of Yorkshire Dales shepherdess Alison O'Neill

Alison ONeill of Shacklabank Farm, Sedbergh
Alison ONeill of Shacklabank Farm, Sedbergh

An exhibition being staged in the Dales Countryside Museum, in Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales will see visitors flocking for an emotional glimpse into the everyday life and struggles of an inspiring woman inviting all to ‘come-bye’.

The Shepherdess – One Woman Farm exhibition showcases the immersive and compelling photography of Ian Lawson, a photographer already acclaimed for his books Saorsa: Freedom of the Hebrides and Herdwick: A Portrait of Lakeland.

The exhibition offers insight into his latest book and takes visitors on a story-in-the-round journey through a notional year in the life of a much-loved tenant hill farmer, Alison O’Neill of Shacklabank Farm, Sedbergh.

The circle of life that naturally imbues the world of farming, from early spring lambing to making the hard choice of which sheep to keep on a farm where budgets are tight and each mouth to feed another impact on finances, finds a superb backdrop within the Hawes’ centre’s atmospheric circular gallery. Lawson’s photographs have been carefully curated, to engage, enthral and visibly move visitors - reactions the new book, sharing the name of the exhibition, has already evoked amongst early readers.

This is the backstory to the existence of a real life shepherdess, born and bred in The Dales and battling continually to diversify, to bring in enough money to pay the rent, feed the flock and have enough to live on.

It is the true story of a woman who has inadvertently spawned a whole series of ‘shepherdesses’, who have seen hill farms as a nice investment, or who have a host of workers to run their farm, when the cameras stop rolling.

It is the story of triumph over adversity, in an ever-fragile world where one set-back could tip the balance the other way. It is about indomitable spirit, a personality that is a force of nature and one woman’s determination to survive and do so her way.

However, it is more than that. It is something truly incredible – a real exposé of life behind the lens, through the lens. For once, the camera does not lie. Art is not imitating life but interpreting it, through stunning images and authentic, heart-on-sleeve narration.

This extraordinary encapsulation of Alison’s life is sufficient reason to head to Shepherdess Country and truly understand the landscape all around, perhaps picking up the Shepherdess Map and going on to explore the Dales and Alison’s favourite spots after an exhibition visit. However, there will also be special dates in the diary when Alison will be in Hawes, talking about her life, in person.

This is a must-see exhibition for anyone intrigued by the story of a woman who has never said ‘die’ no matter what the hurdle, who has managed to attract global attention from her little tenanted hill farm in the Howgills and who has always stayed true to her shepherding upbringing and heritage.

The exhibition runs from May May 22 to September 8

Entrance to the Shepherdess – One Woman Farm exhibition costs £4.65 and the exhibition is open every day, from 10am to 5pm. The entrance fee goes a long way in helping with the conservation work of the Dales Countryside Museum, which cares for the unique heritage of this much-loved National Park.