Shetland Sheep to North America the First Pioneers.

Continuing my research into the records of the late P.B.Hunter ‘Benjie, I was intrigued to find a single page with information about a small shipment of Shetland sheep exported to North America on July 1st 1948 for the Flett farm, in Saskatchewan. This came as a great surprise to me as I had never heard mention of this in all my years involved with Shetland crofters and farmers. I simply had to discover more, I contacted Benjie’s son Peter and he too had never heard about this. I spoke to a friend of mine Hazel Syme Vice chair of the Shetland Sheep Society from Glenrothes in Fife if she could make enquires. I am very pleased to say she came up trumps and for that I am truly grateful, she discovered an article in the Shetland Breed magazine from 1994 titled Historic Shetlands – The story of the Flett flock in North America adapted with permission from the article by Lanette Scapillato in the Black Sheep newsletter, winter 1994.

Monarch Fine Wool Shetland

The article is quite fascinating and deals with all the stages the Flett family go through with their small flock of Shetland sheep, I will not go into all the details and select the information on the supplier of the Shetland sheep to the Flett family and the characteristics of the sheep they acquired.

When I first saw the name Flett in ‘ Benjie’s’ records my first thoughts that is not a Shetland name more like a common name in Orkney. The latter turned out to be the case George A Flett who resided in Fort Qu Appelle, Saskatchewan after emigrating in 1912, enlisted a friend of his from Orkney, John T Flett to source native Shetland moorit sheep. As there were no Shetland sheep of this type in Orkney he turned to George Keith Anderson livestock agent for the Shetland Marts in Lerwick. When I read this I recalled conversations with my old bosses Jim and Eva Smith who had mentioned his name quite a few times and I also found in the Berry farm archives a statement showing a list of the five farmers/crofters who sent wool from Shetland and sold at possibly the first British Wool Marketing Board sale on 28th September 1950, the top of the list is G.K.Anderson. Incidentally the prices received at auction by the Shetlanders did not match the returns they could receive from private buyers so a decision was taken not to join the B.W.M.B.; the same is true to this day.


Moorit Ewe & Lamb
Moorit Ram

I now had a name and to satisfy my curiosity needed to find out more about G.K.Anderson and in particular his place of residence in the isles. Talking again to Peter Hunter he put me in touch with the nephew of the shepherd of G.K.Anderson who also put me in touch with the farmer who now is co-owner of Seafield Farm Lerwick former home of George Keith. The information I received from them provided me with background knowledge of G.K., his family owned the Globe Butchers in Lerwick where he helped out in the retail shop side of the business. He was also employed by the Shetland Marts as auctioneer, the marts was part owned by my old boss John ‘ Sheepie’ Smith, this was the connection Jim and Eva Smith would have had with him and why they mentioned the name to me.

Seafield Farm Buildings
Seafield as in the Name Close to the Sea

There was no doubting George Keith’s pedigree and knowledge of Shetland sheep hence why he would have been selected to supply the sheep in the first place. The type of Shetland sheep he was to supply is detailed in the article which I will quote from. ‘Pure bred Shetlands were becoming hard to find, as the clamour for larger meat and wool sheep had made crossbreeding a better financial move for most farmers. And white wool was in demand. Anyone breeding sheep to supply the wool market would tend to cull Moorits. The ewes were dainty and shy. The ram was a handsome reddish brown colour, with perfectly coloured horns. He also showed considerable long fleece around his neck and shoulders, similar to a Lion’s mane. This feature is called ‘ scadder’ and had been all but eliminated in the more modern “ Shetlands” by 1948 ‘. I can relate to some of the points made over 70 years ago, white wool and cross breeding is still the case. However I am pleased to say in my years in the J & S wool store I have come across ‘scadder ‘ fleece and in fact seen first- hand such an animal owned by a family of Shetland coloured sheep enthusiasts . The fleece from this ram, very much a character I may add, was similar to the ram described in the article the neck and shoulders and down the back were indeed a very long guard hair with around the neck resembling a Lions mane or ruff collar. However throughout the fleece you could fine small areas of superfine wool staple. This was aptly described in the report General view of the Agriculture of the Shetland Islands drawn up by the Board Of Agriculture by author John Shirreff  published 1814. On some of the wool quality of the Shetland sheep he reports and I quote. ‘And, though some of it is fine, it is of a quality unfit for any general purpose of manufacturing and the price low in manufacturing districts, the wool is partially coarse and hairy’. We find even to this day a fleece can be of mixed quality containing superfine wool and a much longer coarser guard hair staple.

Scadder Ram
Scadder Fleece

In January 2015 I received a collection of Shetland sheep samples from a farm in North Carolina, on viewing these I can clearly see similarities to fleece I have seen in my time at the wool store, superfine  soft crimpy staple and a longer coarser guard hair staple.. The person describing her sheep said she could see diversity in her flock from soft crimpy fleece to longer coarser staple length, in my mind that is typical of some of the Shetland sheep we can find in Shetland, and is aptly described in the fore mentioned article Historic Shetlands.

Coarse Wool Shetland
Fine Wool Tups Gremista Farm

I now am satisfied and glad I now know the origins of the first Shetland sheep brought over to North America they were supplied by two highly respected Shetland sheep men P.B.Hunter (Benjie) and G.K.Anderson. Thanks once again to Peter Hunter and his family for granting me access to ‘Benjie’ records and being able to share with those interested how the original flocks of native Shetland sheep journeyed across the ocean to their new homes.

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