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Tartan Ferret

Cheviot Wool

April 1939

HE two home-grown wools that are of the most interest to the Scottish manufacturer are Cheviot and English Downs. Both breeds are named after their native hills - the Cheviot from the range of that name which forms the traditional boundary between England and Scotland, and the Downs from the chalky ridge that stretches from the Kentish border to the extreme west of Wiltshire ; but while the latter sheep are still mainly to be found on their historic pastures, the Cheviots have invaded the whole of Scotland and Northumberland. Down Wool forms an important ingredient in the blend for many Scottish yarns, but we propose to deal with it in a future number.

Cheviot is the most essentially Scottish of all wools; it is grown at its best in Scotland, and the great bulk of the clip is manufactured in Scotland. It gives its name to a type of cloth which is characteristically Scottish, and recognised as such over all the world, so much so that it is inclined to overshadow the other products of our mills. The wool would seem almost to have taken on the character of the true native Scot, in that, under a slightly rough exterior, it is sound and honest at heart. It is in every respect a sound wool, strong and wear-resisting, and possessing that indefinable quality of " bone " which gives it life and strength without harshness. Technically, the wool can be described as regular, crimpy, lofty, clean, and dense. Off good grassy pastures it is a snowy white, but on mossy ground it is apt to become stained; but always it maintains its inherent brightness, and when dyed this adds lustre to the colour.

In a previous number we dealt with the history of the sheep; it might interest the reader to hear the annually recurring story of the wool, the clipping, the marketing, and its final transformation into cloth. The shearing of the sheep - or " the clipping " as it is always called - takes place towards the end of June or the beginning of July, according to climatic and seasonal conditions. The exact date at any farm is usually fixed by arrangement with neighbouring farmers, as the shepherds of each may assist the other at this function, which indeed is the most important of the year in a pastoral district. It is a day of strenuous work for all, not without its festive side; the bleating of sheep mingles with the barking of dogs, and above the din the occasional cry of a shepherd. There are alarms and excursions as when a sheep bolts or a dispute arises amongst the dogs, of whom there are probably about four pairs present; in the latter case their masters' attention is diverted from their immediate task and the matter settled with sticks and shouts.
Although the work starts at an early hour, the sun is usually low on the horizon before the last sheep is shorn and the last fleece packed. There have, it is true, been breaks for necessary refreshment, and the interpretation of " necessary " depends on the host's hospitable nature and his ideas of what is necessary and fitting; and on this, too, depends the trim in which, after a cheery parting, the neighbouring shepherds finally call off their dogs and start on the long tramp home.

A fine set of men these Scottish " herds," and their intelligence is matched by the wonderful dogs they have trained to assist them in their work. To see these dogs working at their daily round or at sheep dog trials is a revelation. Their wonderful patience with a refractory, frightened, or stupid sheep is a marvel of skill and restraint - an object lesson to humanity. To return to our wool: this is already packed, unless its ultimate destination is still undecided, in which case it will be built into a neat pile in a shed or barn, each fleece carefully rolled up with the clipped side exposed. Home-grown wool is almost invariably packed into sheets of a more or less standard size, say, 9 ft. by 5 ft., except where there are difficulties in transport, such as in the Highlands and Islands, where it has sometimes to be conveyed in rowing boats to the waiting steamer; under these conditions it is packed in long bags of approximately half the size of a sheet.

Packing is all done by hand, or to be more correct, by hand and foot. The sheet is suspended by ropes from a crossbar or hooks. One or more men throw the fleeces into the sheet, while another standing in it tramps them down. There is a certain art in this, and a well-packed sheet gladdens the eye of an expert. Dominion or Overseas wool is usually packed in square-ended bales under hydraulic or other pressure, and therefore occupies less space, weight for weight - an important matter in sea transport. The ordinary farmer's clip of Cheviot Wool contains a proportion of about a fifth of hogs or yearling sheep, shorn for the first time. This wool runs a little finer than that of the older sheep, and, if sold separately, brings a slightly higher price. If the clip is sold as a whole, the proportion of hogs is an element in adjusting the price. A large proportion of the Cheviot Wool is clipped in the washed state - that is to say, about a week or ten days before shearing the sheep are put through a pond or dammed-up burn, and thereby most of the natural grease and grit that adheres to the wool are removed. When this is not done, the wool is sold as unwashed or greasy at a correspondingly lower price level.

The mention of price brings us to the subject of marketing. To the pastoral farmer the sale of his wool is an all-important matter. It is often said that the wool pays the rent, but whether it yields a surplus or leaves a deficit depends on the market level of the commodity. To indicate how much the price factor may affect the wool grower, it is only necessary to quote a few figures which illustrate the violent fluctuations that have taken place since the war period. In 1920 most farmers would get about 42d. per lb. for their Washed Cheviot; in the following year they were lucky if they got 9^d.; in 1924 it was up at 27d. and fell to 8d. again in 1931. Actually, we know of a farmer who received £1500 for his Cheviot clip in 1920, and for a similar clip £350 in the following year. It means that a man for the same outlay and effort and risk of capital may get in one year a return of only one-quarter as compared with another. There is, of course, an economic price at which the wool can be grown, and if it falls below that no one appears to benefit, and even the ultimate wearer of the cloth pays the same price for his suit.

Generally speaking, the farmer has three main outlets; he can send his wool to a broker to be sold at auction; he can entrust it to a wool merchant or dealer, who will either buy it outright or act as an intermediary; or he can make his own bargain with a manufacturer. This last-mentioned method, common enough in those happier pre-war days, has gradually been abandoned, and we must confess to a certain sentimental regret, because, before the speeding days of motor cars, these private purchases often involved long and pleasant excursions into the glens and calls at many friendly farmhouses. To the writer the mere sight of a Cheviot sheep, the handle or smell of a fleece, will call up memories of forty or fifty years ago - of glorious June days spent in Yarrow or Ettrick, of long cracks (talks) in farm kitchens - the usual reception room except on state occasions - kitchens where the Border Minstrel or the Ettrick Shepherd had or may have sat; the very names of the farms, Altrieve, Eldinhope, Tushielaw, Deloraine, etc., summon up the " ballad notes " of which the air is full. Or if the guidman was outby we might follow him on to the hill. In memory we can " still feel the breeze down Ettrick break." Are the June days ever so fine as they used to be? The hills seem to have grown steeper.

The farmer certainly knew the purpose of our call, but the subject was not broached with any indecent haste; not till the weather and current topics were exhausted was the subject of wool mentioned. The approach would as a rule be casual. By a time-honoured custom the purchaser of the clip in the previous year had the first refusal. If you happened to be in that position there was really nothing to do but settle the price; but both parties knew full well that the price would not be settled that day - wool was not bought and sold in that way. The conversation would drift on about the state of trade, the merits or demerits of the particular clip or the price of Colonial wool; the bull points would be stressed by the vendor while the would-be purchaser adopted an unqualifiedly pessimistic outlook. The final words were almost always " Well, we'll be seeing you at Hawick," perhaps coupled with instructions to send over your wool sheets. This meant that the bargain was practically concluded and the price would be amicably adjusted at Hawick Fair a few weeks hence.

Hawick Fair - now, alas, no more - was held on the Tower Knowe in that town on the third or fourth Thursday of July each year, where for the day would be gathered most of the Border sheep farmers, the wool brokers and dealers, and other buyers. Here would be fixed the prices that would more or less rule for months to come. The arguments were long and apt to be tautological, lasting often into the late afternoon, till some hardy spirit would break the ice, a bargain would be struck, the news passed round in a flash, and then there was a scramble to sell or to secure the wool. Within the grey walls of the rather mediaeval hostelry which overlooked the busy scene, many bargains were clinched with the customary rites. Hawick Fair was held for the last time in 1915.

While Hawick was always the principal Fair for pure bred Cheviots, there were others in the Borders of greater general importance and earlier date at which much wool changed hands. St James's Fair, held at Kelso, dates back at least to the days of David I. in the twelfth century. It used to last eight days, but has now dwindled to one. Its proximity to England rendered it popular with the people from across the Border, and to this day much of the wool there is sold to English buyers. In the days before our union with England quarrels frequently arose between the patrons from the two nations. A feud of more recent date was apt also to disturb the serenity of the Fair - that was between the Magistrates of Jedburgh, the County town, and those of Kelso. Jedburgh claimed the right to collect the market dues, a claim resisted unsuccessfully by Kelso, but not until many broken heads and minor injuries had been incurred. This feud lasted over many years, but presumably is now settled or at any rate abandoned.
It is to be noted that in the Proclamation of the Fair all old and new feuds are prohibited; this prohibition, however, would not weigh much with the hot-headed Borderers. The Fair is held on St James's Green, a haugh between the rivers Tweed and Teviot, surely one of the most beautiful spots in Scotland. The ghosts looking down from the mouldering ruins of Roxburgh Castle, the site of which dominates the scene, must sometimes have been reminded of Old unhappy far-off things, And battles long ago.

The Fair was originally "cried" on the fifth day of August, the festival of St James the Apostle, the Patron Saint of the Parish. It is now held on the first Monday in August. Another Fair is St Boswells. Its importance, at least in former days, is at once put in its proper perspective by the story about James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. His friend. Sir Walter Scott, had with considerable difficulty secured a much coveted invitation to the Coronation of George IV. This Hogg regretfully declined as it would have interfered with his attendance at the Fair. John Lang in mentioning the circumstance adds : " My sympathies are with the Shepherd." This was at one time a great horse, sheep, and wool fair, but much of its glory has departed. It is held on St Boswells' Green on the eighteenth day of July in each year, or, should that fall on a Sunday, on " the next lawful day." Naturally, being partly a horse fair, the gypsies are always there in force. When it was held on a Saturday or Monday their arrival or departure disturbed the Sabbath calm of the rural parish, a fact lamented by the Ministers in both " Statistical Accounts of Scotland." The countryside is more accustomed nowadays to having the peace of their Sundays broken.

The wool sold here is mostly half-bred. St Boswells, incidentally, fixed the dates of Hawick and Bellingham Fairs, the first being held on the Thursday immediately following and Bellingham on the Saturday after Hawick. Bellingham is in Northumberland, and some of the best Northumbrian Cheviot Clips are disposed of there.Much more could be said or written about these Fairs. Their story is much interwoven with the domestic and national development of Scotland and particularly with the development of the Scottish Woollen Trade, but it is rather beyond our present purpose to go more deeply into the subject. No mention of Fairs, however, would be complete without reference to the Inverness Fair. Here the produce of the large flocks of Caithness, Sutherland, Ross, and Inverness are still disposed of by private bargain. Much of the wool is the finest Cheviot in the country. The Fair, which lasts two or three days, is also something of a social function, and in days gone by was the great annual outing of the sheep farmers from the counties we have mentioned.

Most of the wool now goes to auction, where it finds its relative price level; and the farmer who improves his breed and gets up his wool in good condition is encouraged, and he who neglects these things is not. The trouble in the old days was that each farmer, apart from his expressed conviction that his wool was the best in the " watergate " (valley), always expected and usually got exactly the same price as his neighbour irrespective of merit. The principal auctions for Cheviot Wool are held in Edinburgh, Leith, and Hawick. The wool is exposed in the brokers' warehouses for one or two days before the sale takes place. As there are hundreds of lots to value, they are fatiguing days for the valuers, who are in some cases wonderfully expert, and, with the assistance of a few brief notes on their catalogues, can retain a sort of mental picture of each particular lot amongst the many that they have to value. The atmosphere of the sale-room is excited or depressed according to the state of trade; the lots are knocked down rapidly, probably at the rate of five a minute in a good market, but at other times the sale drags and the buyers simulate an indifference which they may or may not feel. The sale over and the lots claimed, the buyers hurry off in their motor cars, and there are few opportunities for the social intercourse which we used to enjoy in the long waits for the infrequent trains of bygone days. In a few days the warehouses will be emptied of most of their contents, and the wool will have departed on what is probably its last journey in the raw state.

Received at the mill, the wool, after being weighed in, will remain for a longer or shorter time in the wool store, but it will eventually appear at the sorter's table. The sorter takes out each fleece from the sheet separately and spreads them, one at a time, on the table with the exterior upwards. He then proceeds to take from the different parts of the fleece the various qualities and throws each sort into the baskets or boxes which surround him. These qualities may run to six or eight, or even more in number, according to the purpose for which they are being sorted. The fleeces may vary a good deal, but a good fleece will yield a large proportion of the bulk sort and proportionately less of the lower sorts, which may have to be sold or disposed of in another manner from the manufacturer's main purpose. According to the percentage yield of the bulk sort, taking other factors into account, the buyer's judgement will be confirmed or otherwise, and he be satisfied or the reverse with his purchase. At any rate, a lot or clip may " sort up " well or badly, and the matter is noted for future reference. At the sorter's table we say goodbye to the Cheviot Wool as a raw material; its transformation into Cheviot Cloth will be referred to at some later date.

Our illustrations are by Mr Robert Burns. The first is a typical scene of the arrival of the wool from the farm at one of the Border Mills. It shows the type of cart still largely used and the way the Cheviot Wool is packed. The little initial letter is also a bit of Border scenery with the small black and white collie dogs now mostly used by our shepherds. The wool sorter is typical of what may be seen in any modern Scottish Mill. The sheep is really a portrait " painted from life." It is a fine Cheviot Ram of the Leaston flock belonging to Mr Charles Stodart and bred by Captain Spence. The small landscape is the Shepherd's cottage at Damhead of Traquair, where Mr Robert Beatie grazes an excellent flock of Cheviot Sheep. This is very typical of the smooth, steep hills of the Border sheep country.









E.S. Harrison



One of a series of fascinating articles written over the decades  by Edward Harrison who ran Johnstons of Elgin for 46 years from 1920 - 1966.

Commencing with the first in November 1931, the essays were published anonymously by the National Association of Scottish Woollen Manufacturers.

All these essays - and a host of other articles - are freely available in our Archives to Members of the Scottish Tartans Authority.

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