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Tartan Ferret

About Cheviot Sheep

February 1936

Day set on Norham's castled steep,
And Tweed's fair river, broad and deep,
And Cheviot's mountains lone.

As the car breasts the summit of the Carter Bar, after the long pull up from Catcleugh, and begins to glide smoothly down the steep descent to Jedburgh, the occupant suddenly becomes aware that he is entering a new land. The hills, it is true, do not differ in character from those be has just left behind, but instead of closing in on him they are spread before him in an endless vista, range upon range, rolling or conical, dark brown or green, showing where heather or grass predominate. Hills, hills, nothing but hills, this is Scotland, and surely by no other gate could the entry be more impressive.

He may or may not know, but he is gazing over Teviotdale, Liddesdale, Eskdale, Ettrickdale, Yarrow, and Tweeddale, for far in the distant west the giant Laws of Peeblesshire close in the view and leave to the imagination, what is true in fact, a vision of more and still more hills. To left and right runs the long line of the Cheviots, the traditional boundary between England and Scotland, Carter Fell, Peel Fell, and Larriston Fells stretch towards the Solway, while The Cheviot and Yeavering Bell lead the eye to the low lands that border the North Sea. In few places in the British Isles can we get such a sense of space or a greater feeling of being alone with Nature. Only down in the wooded depths by Jedburgh or in the rich lands of the Merse that bound our northern horizon does there seem to be any evidence of human habitation.

As we swing round the first bend of the zigzag descent the huge bulk of The Cheviot comes more directly into our ken- this is the hill, there are no mountains so-called in the Borderland, that for the moment holds our interest, for on its broad slopes have grazed from time immemorial a breed of sheep which bears its name. This is the very home of the breed, and all the hills within our view, nay many in the far Highlands and beyond the seas, are its by conquest.
We have used the word immemorial, but we have no intention of delving too deeply into the origin or evolution of the breed. It is stated on several authorities to have been introduced into Scotland about the year 1372, but our interest in it really awakens towards the latter half of the eighteenth century.

At the beginning of that century agriculture in Scotland was in a very backward state, methods were primitive to the verge of barbarism, cultivators were poor, and to say that they were unenterprising and showed the greatest aversion to new ideas is possibly to understate the case; but owing to various reasons, political, economic, and social, this state of affairs underwent a complete transformation during the progress of the next hundred years. The emergence from what was practically a crofting system to one of large farms tenanted by men of some means, of wider vision and more open to new ideas would naturally lead to an awakened interest in sheep breeding, thus we find in the year 1760 attention being turned to the improvement of the Long or White-faced sheep, for by these two names the Cheviot sheep was then known.

The Cheviot is classed as a Mountain sheep, a name that is self-explanatory, and distinguishes it from the lustrous or long-woolled sheep, such as the Leicester, the Lincoln, or the Border Leicester who graze on the lower and arable lands. It shares the hills of Scotland with another Mountain breed, best known as the Scotch Blackfaced. Both these breeds are said to have originally come from the North of England, and have completely ousted an older, if not primitive, sheep known as the Tan-faced.

The Tan-faced are but a memory, though a trace of their blood may linger in the stock of the White-faced invaders. The Blackfaced and Cheviot now Unchallenged share the pasture of the Scottish hills and mountains, and a long battle - if one may apply the word to anything so peaceful and pastoral - has ended in a draw.
The Blackfaced were first in the field, and had penetrated far into the Highlands while the Cheviots were still grazing only on the hills of that name. In Ettrick Forest up till after the middle of the eighteenth century the Blackfaced, variously known as the Heath, Linton, Forest, or Short sheep, reigned supreme. It was about 1760 that in the Borders the long controversy as to the merits of the two breeds first arose. It is here perhaps necessary to explain that in the production of wool the aims of the manufacturer and the farmer are by no means identical. The manufacturer has one constant wish, the production of a good standardised wool that will suit his requirements either for combing or for carding. He wishes the breeds to be kept separate, so that in blending he knows where he is. Naturally, he wishes them to be brought up to the best possible standard within themselves and, even by a certain amount of crossing, to be improved.

The farmer, on the other hand, is torn by conflicting emotions, so it is a wonder that, like Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, he does not die of them. He has to consider in the first place the question of profit. Wool may be cheap or dear, and according to that the question of the manufacturer bulks in his view as of less or more importance. A larger and heavier fleece may not mean more money. A fine fleece may mean more delicate sheep and the consequent risk of loss by death in a hard winter. He has also to consider the butcher, and if the price of mutton is high the importance of the manufacturer recedes. Also he has to consider the market price of the sheep itself. As none of these values are constant he has difficult decisions to make, and being human he does not always make the right one.

The Blackfaced fleece is coarse, long, and open. It contains a considerable proportion of kemp or short dead hairs, due to the poverty of the feeding on much of the mountain land. The wool is only fit for carpet yarns, or, when not too coarse, for the rougher sort of homespun cloths. The mutton, on the other hand, is very fine.

The Cheviot fleece is relatively much shorter and finer, it is crimpy, clean, and dense, and the finest is almost free from kemp. The bulk sort is very regular and eminently suitable for Scotch Tweeds, in the production of which it has played a great and distinguished part. The mutton is also very good.

Another element enters into the controversy and the hill farmer's calculations, an important one in our climate of widely varying winters, that is the relative hardiness of the two breeds. Here also opinions are divided, and while it is generally conceded that the Blackfaced will do better on extreme altitudes, the Cheviot will go into the mossy and marshy hollow where the other breed will not follow. To generalise, the former will do relatively better on heather and the latter on grass. The Cheviot, let it be said to its eternal credit, is a contented sheep - that is, it will readily adapt itself to circumstances, and by keeping its mind easy will thrive under adverse conditions - a lesson to humanity.

The peaceful penetration of the Southern Uplands of Scotland by the Cheviot breed appears to have begun about the date we have mentioned, 1760. The Scottish farmer gradually came to recognise that here was a breed that was possibly as hardy as his Heath sheep, and probably a great deal more profitable. In 1776 when the battle was fully joined, we find that "Mr Thos. Scott on Carter Fell, a mountain 1600 feet high, exchanged with Mr Walter Hog, in Ettrick Forest, five white-faced for as many Blackfaced rams, but had every reason to regret the experiment, which was far from being the case with Mr Hog." Writing about 1790, Sir John Sinclair remarks : "So much convinced are the farmers of Ettrick Forest, of Tweeddale and Liddesdale of their superior excellence that they are now converting their flocks as quickly as possible into the Cheviot breed."

Ten years later the argument is still raging, for in the summer of 1801 we find Sir Walter (then Mr) Scott on a hunting expedition in Ettrick Forest, not as the Scottish kings of old for deer or game, but for Border ballads, met at Ramsaycleugh for a social evening with the neighbouring farmers, including the Ettrick Shepherd himself. The conversation, instead of running on the legendary poetic lore of the district, which was uppermost at the time in the Border Minstrel's mind, kept interminably to the everlasting question of the Long and the Short sheep. Scott was frankly bored. Perhaps the story is best told in Hogg's own words : "So at length putting on his most serious calculating face he turned to Mr Walter Brydon (his host) and said, 'I am rather at a loss regarding the merits of this very important question. How long must a sheep actually measure to come under the denomination of a long sheep?' Mr Brydon, who, in the simplicity of his heart, neither perceived the quiz nor the reproof, fell to answer with great sincerity, "It's the woo, sir; it's the woo that mak's the difference, the lang sheep hae the short woo and the short sheep hap the lang thing, an these are just kind o' names we gie them, ye see.' Laidlaw got up a great guffaw, on which Scott could not preserve his face of strict calculation any longer, it went gradually awry, and a hearty laugh followed." Hogg adds, "When I saw the very same words repeated near the beginning of the 'Black Dwarf', how could I be mistaken of the author? In "The Forest" at least the Long sheep eventually won, for Lord Napier, in his evidence before the House of Lords in 1828, says of Selkirkshire (Ettrick Forest), "... the Blackfaced sheep have all been driven out of that part of the country and substituted by Cheviots."

Captain Tom Elliot, a name of world-wide fame in Cheviot sheep breeding, to whom we are indebted for a good deal of our information, furnishes a simple explanation of the terms "Long" and "Short". As a matter of fact, there is no difference in the actual length of the sheep of the two breeds, but if a man is dressed in a shaggy overcoat he will naturally look shorter than a man of the same height wearing a close-fitting Chesterfield, so the Blackfaced sheep with his coarse, open, wide-spreading coat looks shorter than the Cheviot with his compact, close fleece.

We have referred to Sir John Sinclair, and he deserves honourable mention, for not only is he the godfather of the Cheviot sheep, but it was he who first introduced it to Caithness, the most northerly County of Scotland, in the year 1791. From there it rapidly spread to the neighbouring County of Sutherland, and has given us the famous Sutherland wool, which has been used in producing many of the choicest tweeds. Here again the conflict of ideas regarding the relative merits of the breeds was renewed, but ended in a substantial part of the county's acreage being absorbed by the sheep from the lowland hills.

Patrick Sellar remarks that "... from 1805 to 1820, from a few hundred Cheviot sheep that the County (Sutherland) then contained, their number had so increased that 100,000 fleeces were sent annually to the manufacturer." In 1837 we read further that "... the contest is still carried on between these valuable breeds, but decidedly in favour of the Cheviots." Evidently, like "The Gael", the Blackfaced "... maintain'd unequal war." Experience has, however, more or less solved the question, and it can now be said that as a rule the flocks of one breed or the other occupy the pastures that are best suited to their different natures.
An interesting echo of this migration from South to North is referred to in the reminiscences of a Highland lady, writing of Wester Ross in the late eighties of last century. We believe the practice that she refers to still persists, but is gradually dying out:-

"Talking of shepherds, it had never struck me how little imagination they displayed in naming their collie dogs. In our part the prevailing names were Tweed and Yarrow. Later I was told that those were a survival of the time when Cheviot sheep were first introduced into the North. The dogs, owned by the shepherds who drove them up from the Borders, were usually called after their own rivers, and so the names clung to our district. And it never, until later, struck me as curious that all our shepherds, who, in those days, could not speak a word of English, always delivered their instruction in that language to their collies. "Come in to ma fut here" was a usual expression. Again, I am told, this has been handed down by the Border shepherds who, of course, addressed their dogs in English - or rather Scots."

When Sir John Sinclair introduced these sheep to the far North they had never been known by any other name than the Long or White-faced sheep, names that had little meaning where other breeds could be so described. He therefore christened them Cheviots, and by that name they have been known ever since, a name that has extended itself to a large class of fabrics woven in Scottish mills. It may interest our English and Overseas readers to know that the proper pronunciation is Cheviot as in cheese, and not Cheviot as in level, or Sheviot as sometimes pronounced by our friends across the Atlantic.

While the sheep were undergoing these introductions to pastures new the question of the breed's improvement was also receiving considerable attention. It is to be assumed that in the unsettled state of Scotland during the preceding 400 years little heed would be paid to this matter, although earlier than that, while Berwick was still a Scottish seaport, there is a tradition that a Spanish (Merino) strain was introduced. It is also possible that some of the qualities that attracted the improvers of the late eighteenth century may have been derived from this source. Berwick, in 1318 and the succeeding years, was the chief connecting link between Scotland and the whole of the Continent of Europe, and its exports of wool and imports of sheep were considerable.

In the Borders the idea seems to have been more towards the strengthening of the frame and increasing the size of the carcass, and with that object Lincoln or Leicester blood was introduced.

In the North the inclination tended towards a fine fleece, and crosses with both Merino and Down sheep have been tried. The Southdown sheep is derived in part from the Merino. Speaking broadly, these two divergent ideas have accounted for some of the differences still observable between the Sutherland and the Border Cheviot. Both, if carried very far, were open to serious objections. To increase the size of the sheep could only be done at the expense of losing to a great extent those qualities for which the wool was justly prized; a certain softness of constitution would also manifest itself, and breeding for fineness alone would endanger the stamina of the sheep in a climate which, though generally mild, is subject to occasional winters of great severity, and, especially on the high ground, to violent climatic changes. Thus after many experiments the farmers seem to have accepted the idea that the best improvement can be carried out by selective breeding within the breed itself.

A curious difference in the habits of the Merino and Cheviot sheep is worth noting. In a flock of Cheviots you find that the sheep range apart in twos and threes, but the Merinos keep together like a drove passing through the country. They form a sort of camp at night, and nothing will induce them to lie abroad, as the shepherds call sleeping on their own particular bit of ground, like other mountain breeds. The second of these traits manifests itself in the cross, but curiously enough not the first. So you find a Cheviot sheep, with a strong strain of Merino in it, feeding apart during the day, but returning at night to camp with its fellows. It can easily be appreciated that on a large hirsel of several thousand acres an individual sheep that has chosen the outlying ground has a considerable journey to make both morning and evening.

But the breed has wandered far since their immemorial ancestors first looked out from the lofty slopes of their native hill over the wide Borderland and grey North Sea. In New Zealand, in Punta Arenas, and the Falkland Islands, on lonelier mountains and by more turbulent waters their descendants may now be found peacefully grazing.

Wherever Scottish farmers have penetrated and wherever climatic conditions suit, they have introduced this hardy breed, as honest and as sound as the fleece they annually yield to the shearer and as the cloth into which it is ultimately woven. A contented sheep.









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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