Catherine and I attended the 7th North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool Conference on the Isle of Man between 12 – 15 October 2017. The purpose of the conference, held annually was to celebrate the native short tailed breeds of the North Atlantic. I was looking forward to visiting the beautiful Isle of Man and giving a presentation on Shetland and its crofters, sheep, yarn and the virtues of our islands. I unfortunately had missed the visit to Iceland, the Lofoten Islands and Faroe Islands due to unforeseen circumstances.
The aim of the conference was to promote the fleece of these sheep, in particular discussing how to add value and interest in these rare sheep. A series of lectures, farm visits, craft workshops and fairs were included. This year it was the turn of the Manx Loghtan sheep’s story to be told in its native setting.
Approaching the islands by air, one could have been forgiven for thinking we were off the coast of Shetland as the similarities were very obvious; breaking sea on rugged cliffs. Travelling to the town of Douglas we passed through abundant green pastures which are a very rare sight in Shetland. We arrived at our hotel (aptly named the Mannin Hotel), conveniently situated close to the waterfront and with picturesque views out over Douglas harbour. We registered our arrival with the organisers of the event and were introduced to our fellow delegates. Attending the event were people from the North Atlantic; Norway, Sweden, Aran Islands, Ireland, Faroe, Iceland, Orkney and the Western Islands of Scotland, as well as visitors from the U.S.A., Texel Island, Australia, France and Germany.
A series of visits and lectures took place concerning all things wool, a visit to a weaving mill, a fashion show showcasing products from the attending delegate regions and three farm visits. We began with a visit to a local sheep farm, and this was my first sighting of the native breed and their wool. The similarities between our own Shetland Moorit sheep and that of the Loghtan breed were very obvious, especially the characteristics of the wool.
Our spare time was spent discovering the Island. In order to do this I hired a car which helped us seek out hidden gems of the landscape, however I found driving extremely stressful, the roads windy and not easy to navigate, I could only guess how spectacular and dangerous the annual Isle of Man TT motorcycle race would be!
The unique culture and heritage of the islands Viking-past was wonderfully preserved in the museums and visitor centres. We visited Tynwald Hill, one of the island’s most distinctive landmarks and a signal of the Isle of Man’s independence as a self-governing dependency. The hill hosts an opening ceremony once per year and was established by Norse Viking settlers over a thousand years ago, he place where the Vikings held their parliament. Shetland’s ancient Viking Assembly was supposedly held on a small island situated on a loch in a valley called Tingwall.
At the time we both remarked on the close similarities of our islands, however a closer personal link appeared earlier this year when I was contacted by a researcher looking into the origins of the Castlemilk Moorit Sheep. The group has been conducting research of the Castlemilk Moorit sheep since its development at the beginning of the 20th century at Castlemilk Estates near Lockerbie in Scotland. During their investigations they had found letters, dated March 1929, from the Castlemilk estate to none other than my old boss John “Sheepie” Smith who appears to have sold two Moorit Rams to the Castlemilk estate. Reading the Manx Loghtan story, which records the decline and revival of this primitive breed, there is no doubt a strong definite link to, Castlemilk Moorit, Manx Loghtan, and Shetland sheep. I had always known we had similarities with the Isle of Man, both island groups were part of the ancient Viking Principalities of Trondheim. Shetland and the Isle of Man are the only two areas in the U.K. that are not in the British Wool Marketing Board. Our Moorit sheep and wool are also very alike, and with the discovery of a direct link to my old boss “Sheepie”, I feel even closer to the Isle of Man and its vibrant Loghtan sheep.
I shall post another blog later on about our visit to this beautiful part of our British Isles.