It is more than ten years since the largest flock of sheep in Britain was cleared off the high ground around Loch Katrine, at the western extremity of Perthshire. Twelve thousand Scottish Blackface sheep were driven off the 27,000 acres surrounding Scotland’s twelfth largest loch, along with a host of suckler cows and most of the people in the glen: a twenty-first century Highland Clearance.
Now, just like a well hefted sheep, the last employed shepherd of the Glengyle hirsel is heading back to his old stamping ground, as if drawn by the same instinct. Already I am beginning to think that this might not be such a good idea, there are bound to be a great many changes; probably ones which I will not like. Where once stood a substantial family home, a range of stone-built farm buildings and sheep fank, is a house now inhabited by strangers, and everything else has been turned into a modern complex of holiday-let accommodation. Well, the scenery is still as stunning as ever but, apart from the trickle of the burn, there is an all-pervading silence to the place.
The first heart-stopping moment is when I find there are no tail-wagging dogs in the kennels. In fact, there are no kennels, just a vast empty space where a team of lively collies used to live. The call of the hill hurries me on through the lower, tree-clad slopes, where I would expect to encounter a woodcock nest or two – nothing. Ungrazed and unkempt, the vegetation is proving quite difficult to walk over. As I quickly climb out onto the open hillside, I begin, little by little, to feel like I am coming home again. There is an old adage “Once a shepherd, always a shepherd.”
Contrary to modern belief, there are really only three requirements to being a hill shepherd: a good pair of boots, a cromach (crook) and a team of good dogs. Proper hill boots will have soles designed to keep the wearer on his toes, all the better for climbing steep slopes. The cromach is useful in extending your reach to catch fast moving, recalcitrant sheep. It is also a safety device any time you trip, stumble or slip, as can happen many times on a days’ hill herding. Research has shown that just by using a “walking-pole” you can reduce the loading on your legs by 35 tons every hour. Again, good data on working hill dogs records them as covering around 100 miles of rugged ground during a full working day. There are very few fat hill shepherds and no fat sheepdogs.
Gaining the highest ground, at a top of 2,400 ft., I can see far away into nine surrounding counties. The rising morning sun climbs steadily, exactly to the east. Days will now give us ever lengthening hours of daylight, compared with our southern neighbours, one of the advantages of living this far north. Come mid-summer, the sun will hardly set at all. Coming on a familiar flat-topped boulder, I sit to take my ease. In the quiet, I can hear a rattling train on the West Highland Line, five miles to the west, on the far side of Loch Lomond. A gentle breeze stirs the ungrazed grass at my feet and wafts my thoughts back to a time of sheep and men with first-rate dogs at heel.
Suddenly, I can hear a “bye-to-me” whistle in the distance, sending a dog casting out up the hill-face and alarming the resident ravens. The male takes raucously to the wing, the female sitting tight on her clutch of mottled green eggs, usually four, the nest of substantial twigs and heather stems lined with moss and wool. Early in the year as it is, these eggs will be about to hatch, the young and adult ravens alike taking advantage of the carrion about to become available. In March, mortality of sheep, deer and feral goats will be at its highest, not to mention the possibility of an odd hill-walker. As the “home shepherd” I hike out the farthest, taking my own sheep off the highest ground, leaving the house before my five shepherding colleagues arrive at Glengyle. Augmented by the northshore gamekeeper and a couple of estate workers, they will have split into two teams to sweep the ground to be gathered from both sides – a classic pincer movement. Military precision will be required, already a few of the older, more cunning ewes will be taking off, out of view, hoping to avoid capture. If once they escape, then it becomes a bad habit, often taking a few others with them.
Four of the six northshore shepherd were named John, but only one will actually answer to that. The others have become Iain (the head shepherd), Sion and Jock. Charlie and Alec complete the team. Our six hirsels stretch unbroken for more than ten miles, east to west. Loch Katrine sits in our lap. Over on the southside of the water are another six hirsels and another six shepherds. And a pretty disparate crew we all are, gathered from near and far. A few are local, most are Highland, to some degree or other, and there are a couple of islanders. One is native to Islay, famous for heavily peated malt whiskies, the other has arrived here via the Falkland Islands. Some are sons and grandsons of shepherd but, quite contrary to the belief that you must be born to the task, others have come by alternative routes. All have two things in common, an innate understanding of sheep and an ability to work with a team of canny collies. Naturally athletic most play, or used to be involved in sport. Of course, in Scotland, curling on ice and the indoor, table-top game, known as summer-ice, are popular. Football, rugby and shinty, a Celtic form of hockey, also feature. The shinty boys can be identified by their bad knees, particularly sore when coming downhill. Some have skills in carving and stick making, one or two can bring a dead engine back to life. Most have a house-cow or two, bees are kept and plenty of good gardens tended. A convivial bunch, families often get together for ceilidhs and dances, always with the sharing of a dram or three of whisky.
The march-line between ourselves and northern neighbours is simply the watershed. A line of ancient iron standards, from a long-vanished fence, marches off in both directions. However, these sheep are well and truly hefted to their ground, and, without too much trouble, drift away to their own side of the mountain. All Glengyle stock carry a distinguishing scarlet buist-mark on the near (left) hip. This gather is only bringing in the low-end sheep, a big enough job in its own right. Two men will be walking in below me and, when the head shepherd makes the top ground in front of me, there will be two more shepherds below him. At this time of year the ground is quite clear, last year’s bracken browned and flattened by the winter cold. It does, though, provide enough shelter to allow a bite of early grass, but only under favourable conditions. The hillside above the fank whitens as the sheep come together, with much whistling and shouting at various dogs. The few renegades seeking cover amongst the trees, will be soon hunted out onto open country and swept up to join the rest. Then it is into the fank for the first “handling” of the year.
Scottish Blackface sheep are truly hardy, well able to live out their working lives on the open hillsides, even in the worst of weather, without any supplementary feeding. Blackface fleeces can vary in length, we tend to keep ours on the short-side, Lanark style, to avoid excessive balling-up in heavy snow. The coat appears thick and dense, but there is enough space between the fibres to permit adequate airflow, enabling the fleece to dry out quite quickly, when it stops raining. With an annual rainfall in excess of 100 inches, this ability is most useful. Another beneficial facet of wool is the fact that when it gets wet, wool will naturally produce heat; 27 calories of heat per gram of wool. Suitably clad, both sheep and shepherd can guarantee to stay warm.
In the stonewalled fank, each ewe is turned over onto her rear end, dosed against fluke and intestinal worms, vaccinated to impart broad spectrum immunity for both ewe and foetus, and checked to see if she is actually in-lamb. Eild ewes are marked at the back of the head. At this point, any wool growing around the udder area is gently plucked off – a practice called udder-locking. Teeth are checked and overgrown feet trimmed and if necessary, treated with chloromycetin spray. Finally, having dealt with the internal parasites, it is into the cold water of the dip-tank and a complete immersion. This should ensure external protection from scab, lice and, when the warmer weather comes, disease-laden ticks. Once let back out to the hill, the sheep will quickly make their way home, to their own hefts. This instinct is so strong that each ewe will give birth to her own lambs just feet from the spot she was dropped. Tradition dictates that flocks actually belong directly to the hill, not the farmer. When a hill farm is taken on, no matter how far in the past, if vacated, the same number of sheep must be left on the ground. Now, all we have to do is wait for the month of May to bring forth lambs – and hope that spring brings new grass in plenty of time.
Whilst it is all-action and noise in the fank, having done their work well, the dogs can relax in their parrocks, tailor-made individual boxes, snug and draught-proof, where they can rest in complete peace and subdued light. They’ll soon be back out on the hill. Although mostly Border Collies, they come in a range of sizes, a variety of colour and marking, even the coat varying from extremely short, bare-skinned, to long, thick and very hairy. The few Beardie Collies come at this end of the range, the beard and bushy eyebrows of old now replaced by heavy, all-over facial cover. Such are the trends of fashion. The Beardies and a few of the Collies have good “voices”, very handy for rousting out sheep skulking in hidden places, especially when the summer bracken is standing high.
Enough of this reverie. Time to walk away and leave this silent, empty wilderness for another day.
By John Barrington, author of “Red Sky at Night” and “Of Dogs and Men”