Friday, 27 April 2007

Long may they continue to gather?

This will take a bit of time to read but it is well worth it.
I wrote it as a tribute to the Shepherds in Newtonmore after my visit with them.
Since then one of the band died last year in an accident more or less in the same place we had our incident.
I would like to think he is still gathering in heaven today.

A couple of Friends of mine invited me along to a sheep gathering in July a couple of years ago in Newtownmore.
As I had never seen this fast dying art I decided to go along and experience the daily toil of the hill Shepherds at first hand.
I arrived in Newtonmore one of my friends was spreading fertilizer. When he had finished we went inside for a bite to eat, we had not been indoors long when the phone rang, one of my friends neighbours was calling to ask if he could give a hand with clipping sheep.
We arrived on their steading about 15:30, I was introduced to the friends and family members of the sheep clippers, I was shown how to roll up the fleece as the shearer's removed them from the sheep, and there was over three hundred to shear. There were four men shearing also a brother and a wife of one of the shearer's sheading the sheep one at a time ready for clipping.
An old shepherd and I who was father to most of the boy's shearing; rolled and bagged the fleece, every thing was ticking away like clock work, all knew their jobs and carried them out with army like precision. The sheep may have protested but I bet they were glad to be a bit lighter, as they sprung through the doors to the outside world like spring lambs to join the rest of the flock.
When we were half way through we stopped for a break, the camaraderie and banter was something to behold, old stories of past clippings and tall tales of men long since past. Hero's of a past age, no longer with us in body, but still there in spirit and mind.
We returned to the matter in hand and finished the next batch of sheep. Once they were all sheared the work did not stop there, we all pulled together and cleared away every bit of wool, not a piece of fleece was left, it was as though no-one had been there at all.
I hung around in the shed for a while, when everyone went outside for tea, it was so quiet inside no sound of bleating sheep, droning of shears, or laughter and chatter, just stillness and silence.
It brought to my mind what feelings and thoughts the Farmers and Crofters must have had in the borders, when they stood in their empty sheds and byres, after their herds and flocks were destroyed because of the foot and mouth disease last year. Now the ravaging serpent of foot and mouth has slipped by how many of them have returned to their trade, picked themselves up and dusted them selves off and started all over again?
I joined the others; they were bragging amongst themselves, of who had sheared the most and the fastest, to tell you the truth I thought they were all champions.
My friend and I left and made plans for the gathering on the mountains the next day; I retired for the evening.
I was rudely awakened by the slamming of a door and dogs barking, I got up to see what it was, my friend was driving down the road in his pick-up, I got myself ready for the busy day ahead of me and waited for my friend to return.
My friend returned a short time later, he said he had been down to feed his calves, it was
now 6:30am.
The weather plays an important part as the sheep are strung out along mountain ranges some people could only dream of climbing or seeing, if the weather is bad it puts the gathering timetable back and the opportunity is lost in an instant.
The morning we intended to go out started with the mountains covered in fog.
The shepherds and I eight in all sat around in our various locations from 6:30arn waiting for a break in the weather.
When the fog started to lift about 11:30am, we set off along an old drovers track in two pickups laden with sheepdogs and men. The drovers track had been used for decades by man and beast and the average person would find it quite hairy to drive any kind of vehicle along these tracks, but these men knew the dips and hollows, every crook and cranny as this had been their way since boyhood. We drove out about two-mile along the old drover's track.
We arrived at our destination, five men and me, ten sheepdogs all different size's and colours, the dogs were running around like exited pups as they knew what was about to come, they sniffed each other running this way and that greeting one another like old friends long missed.
The men plotted out their various courses, who was going to be doing what, where and when, it was like listening to a tactical maneuver. We all set of in the same direction, I asked my friend what the mountain ranges were called, he told me that they were called the Monadhliath Mountains, but the locals called them the Cailleach and the Bodaich, which means old woman and old man in Gaelic.
On the way we chatted about this and that, I asked my friend how many shepherds there were in the area, he told me that once upon a time there was at least sixty, now there are only six, the farming industry is dying.
The young ones move away to get better jobs, once they are away they do not want to come back. I found it all rather sad that generations before him had walked these hills and when he passes it will be split up and sold, as the generations following do not want to carry on the tradition, which is fast becoming a distant memory. I suppose it is like the Shire horses no longer do they till the land because of progress, soon farming will follow in his once proud footsteps.
My friend and his companions climbed steadily through the day heading ever nearer to the top.
The old shepherd took his two dogs and left us a little earlier to move further around the hill to my left, I do not think I am unfit but compared to these men I felt puny. They climbed away never tired or gasping for breath. I on the other hand, felt as though the back of my throat had been scratched by a hungry chicken and that my legs were going to explode, with the lactose I was manufacturing, but I was not going to be defeated by this mountain, I climbed on without complaint.
As we climbed higher the day progressively got worse. My friend said in all the years he had been climbing these mountains he had never seen weather like this.
The mist was getting very thick now; we could only see 20 or 30 feet in front of us, the shepherds knew where they were going, as this has been their stomping ground for years.
We eventually reached the summit; it would have been a glorious view if it had not been for the mist. We reached what they called the picnic area, which was a lot of flat stones that were stood up and laid on the ground in various places, put there by other shepherds and them selves over the years.
I was soon to discover why they were stood up. The wind came howling over the top of the mountain and hit me full force in the face, it was bitterly cold, and we all sat down on the stones which were laid flat and huddled behind the standing stones for shelter from the wind.
We opened up our flasks of hot tea and ate our packed lunches, whilst we waited for the wind and rain to die down.
Further planning of routes to take were being prepared by the men. I could hear the distant sound of a motor, my friend told me it was another shepherd coming from the other side of the mountain on a quad bike, he was to drive the sheep towards our position, and it seemed to be working. In the distance just in eyeshot of the mist I could see a scattering of sheep, they appeared to be staring at us, they were probably wondering what we were doing in the middle of their grazing patch.
Anyway, one of the men decided to try and get behind them with his dogs, he set of and quickly disappeared from sight as the fog was still quite heavy, I asked my friend if he would get lost, he responded no with a grinning face. I forgot that these people have traveled the length and breadth of these mountains most of their lives. My friend told me to stay close as we broke camp, two of the other shepherds went off to my left with their dogs, we set of towards the front of the mountain.
My friend told me to keep the wind on my right cheek whilst we were heading down, just in case I got separated from him, it was not hard to feel the wind as it was taking the skin clean of my cheek. So we all had our courses plotted out we were heading down the mountain in a sort of V shape to capture any sheep in front. It was still difficult to see anything, the shepherds shouted to one another when the wind died a little.
I could hear the old shepherd on the mountainside opposite; he was making his way down the side of his mountain.
The two shepherds that left us at the summit were also calling to the old shepherd; they were just below the mist and could see sheep just disappearing in to the mist on the old Shepherds Mountain.
He sent the dog after them but with the mist being so thick he called the dog back as it was like trying to guide in the dark.
Anyway we all gradually came in to view of one another all spread out over three different parts of the mountainside. It was quite eerie coming out of the wind and mist into the warm sunshine. I could see the whole valley stretched out before me it was a sight that I will never forget, the valley was dotted with white fleeces all heading down hill and bleating in protest as they plodded on.
I stood for a while watching the sheep filter down in to the valley below like small streams heading towards a mighty river, they walked along paths that were cut out of the mountainside by generations of sheep before them.
I could hear whistling sounds echoing around the mountains, from the shepherds guiding their dogs this way and that, steadily pushing the sheep onwards. The hills as they say were alive with music, well to my ears anyway; to the shepherds it was all careful instructions to their four legged friends.
As we moved down into the valley we were soon joined be the old shepherd and his son.
The old shepherd pointed out that the sheep he had tried to bring down earlier had boxed themselves on to a plateau further up the mountain, his son said he would go back up to try and turn them around.
His son made his way back up the side of the mountain; he was quite agile, I found out that he was a stalker, so I suppose he had to be fit. Anyway he reached the spot where the sheep had come to a stop, he made his way around them and sent the dog in after them, some of the sheep were quite stubborn, they started to resist the dog, putting their heads down to him, they were standing then: ground.
One of the sheep made a lunge for the dog; the shepherd called his dog out, as he was standing on the edge of an overhang. As the dog moved out the sheep decided to make a dash for it and a few of them jumped the over hang on to the other side making a dash for the back of the hill. We could not see the son or the dog at this time, then as the sheep were jumping the overhang, one must have miss-footed and fell about 50 feet with another one close behind, at once we all leapt to our feet. We all held our breaths the silence was broken by the old shepherd shouting his son’s name, we all started to shout, then with a great sigh of relief he popped up over the other side of the hill with his dog. For one dreadful moment we thought he had been pushed over the side by one of the sheep.
The two sheep that had fallen off the overhang, were put out of their misery, they had both suffered injuries. It was unfortunate that the sheep had to be destroyed but it would have been cruel to let them suffer.
We all waited for the son to come back down the hill with his dog; we were all relieved to see he was not the one lying at the bottom of the cliff. He explained that he had seen the other sheep running over the top of the hill. He took his dog and tried to cut them off but they beat him to it, then he heard us shouting not knowing what had just happened until he came down and saw the two injured sheep. He put them both to sleep, instead of letting them suffer.
We sat down and had a tea break, talking about the events that had just unfolded, how we all thought the son had fallen, the shock and relief of it all. I could see in his father's face that he was very relieved that his son was not injured.
We set off back down the hill and watched the sheep steadily march on deeper into the valley; we met up with the other shepherds and told them the tale of the miraculous escape.
As we neared our journeys end daylight dwindling, I looked back on the day's events there were highs and lows, but I can truly say I would not have missed it for anything in the world.
As one day all this gathering will be a thing of the past, like so many things that man has started then tossed aside because of progress.
There will be no need for these shepherds in the future. When I look around now there is hardly a sheep to be seen on any hill.
As this once great country begins to import more meat like so many other things that we import farming will be a dying trade, just like the fishing, coal mining and steel industries, the villages that go with them, no hope, no work, no return.
I never thought of the dangers in these mountains, it could be so easy for one of them to get lost in the mist, take a wrong turn and be at the bottom of a cliff.
I take my hat off to these guys for their strength, perseverance, camaraderie and most of all there open armed welcome to a virtual stranger.
I would like to say a warm and heart felt thank you to each and every one of them for a wonderful experience. It will be something I will treasure for the rest of my days.
Long may they continue to gather?
By Anne MacDonald

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am enjoying your posts! I'd love to hear more about your crofting life- keep up the good work.

Connecticut, USA