It was in the late 1970s when I first became aware of a serious interest in Shetland sheep from outside the isles. I had heard from local crofters that some Shetland sheep had been shipped to the U.S.; I knew two crofters quite well who had been involved in this project, and if my memory is correct their breeding stock were shipped to a U.S Colonel.
Over the years I came into contact with Shetland sheep breeders from the mainland who visited our wool store. I became good friends with some of them and through listening to them realised they had a passion and commitment to the humble Shetland sheep. Most of these people were small time flock owners, selectively breeding for extra fine wool quality, unlike Shetland crofters who depended on the sheep as a livelihood. I became close friends with one individual from England; his father had been a member of the original Shetland Flock Book committee tasked with setting the Shetland sheep breed standards in 1927.
I heard, from him, how the Shetland Sheep Breeders Group was formed in 1985 to help breeders outside Shetland maintain flocks conforming to the 1927 breed standard. He invited me on more than one occasion to come down to the mainland and see the work carried out by the group, helping preserve and promote Shetland sheep. Sadly, I never took him up on his offer all those years ago.
When the group next invited me down to England to talk to them, I agreed to travel as long as my ‘minder’ Catherine travelled with me! On Friday 16th November 2018, Catherine and I set off from Shetland to Birmingham; I had at long last agreed to give a powerpoint presentation on my working life with Shetland wool, sheep and crofters. On the Friday night we were invited to have a meal with some old acquaintances and met with several other group members.
On Saturday morning Catherine had organised with David and Lynne White owners of the Ashby Shetland sheep flock to see first- hand their animals. On route we visited David & Lynne White’s home to pick up ewe’s food. While we were getting ready I looked out their front room window and to my surprise at the foot the hill leading down from the house saw what looked like rows of parked boats! “What on earth are they doing here so far inland?” I asked. David explained that it was the Braunston Canal and the narrow boats were hired out in the summer tourist season. The canals used to be an important part of moving goods throughout the country.
When we arrived at the Ashby flock my first sighting was of a group of Shetland Katmogit sheep, my first reaction was how small they were and they resembled sheep I had seen beside the late “Benjie” Hunter back home in Nesting. I was able to handle some of the sheep and what really took my eye was the fibre fineness of the wool. Not only was that, but also very surprisingly the handle (softness) was very good despite the sheep grazing on very rich pasture. I was always led to believe that if you take a Shetland sheep off the native hill and put it on green grass it would alter the handle of the wool, making it bulk up a bit. This was certainly not the case with these sheep, and the subsequent moorit and black sheep I examined. Overall, I was very surprised with high standard of the flock and the husbandry used in managing the sheep. What I had witnessed dispelled any doubts I had about how Shetland sheep were being bred outwith our islands. It was a shame I had left it so late to see what my old friend had told me on his visits to the wool store. Still better late than never!
On the way back to our hotel, David said he would take us on a scenic route through the village of Braunston and he explained this was a very historic part of England. As we had some time to spare he took us to what, in my opinion was besides the sheep, the highlight of our short holiday. We parked up in the drive of the Ashby St Ledger church; a beautiful building and one of the most intriguing and historic in England. Entering the church it was if I had gone back in time, the décor and layout had changed little since its construction in the 14th century, parts of the site dated as far back as the 12th century. We were most fortunate to have a local guide in David who informed us of the interior of the church and the various areas where the nobility were kept apart from the more humble parishioners.
At the rear of the church stood a very regal imposing mansion that was the Manor House of Ashby St Ledgers. From 1375 to 1611 it was the home of the Catesby family. In 1605 Robert Catesby and his fellow conspirators including Guy Fawkes plotted to assassinate King James 1st by blowing up the Houses of Parliament in a notorious act of treason. What a great privilege to actually be at the site of such a significant part of England’s history, especially one which played such an important role in my growing up and building all those bonfires throughout my childhood!
Travelling back through the village and still recovering from our historic visit, David informed us that 2 of their young Moorit rams had escaped from a field next to the church yard. He would have to round them up; he disappeared into the neighbouring field and after a few minutes out from the grave yard came the missing rams and David. So, I had witnessed my first “caaing” of Shetland sheep in England!
To round off a very eventful trip David took us to a huge shopping complex on the outskirts of Rugby. Catherine could not believe her good fortune and did quite a bit of shopping! We were both overpowered by our day and could not be more grateful to our host David for his hospitality and kindness, showing us their flock, taking Catherine shopping and our journey into one of the most historic events of our country.
On the Sunday morning, as part of the Shetland Sheep Society’s conference, I presented my power point and my life with Shetland wool; including some of my crofting stories and answered quite a few questions. There was also some fleece on display and, again, I was impressed by the quality of the wool. When asked to judge the fleece I found it extremely difficult. I discovered there were around 30 judges, inspectors, and trainees present from all over the UK and saw the level of commitment the group has to their Shetland Sheep.
This was definitely one of the most memorable events in my working life, I had presented powerpoints and talks at various universities and textile gatherings, whilst quite interesting and challenging they could not hold a candle (pardon the pun) to our visit to the heart of England!