(The one without Keanu Reeves, or indeed anyone you recognise from The Strangeness of Coloured Sheep 1. Of course It needs a portentous subtitle, like ‘Return of the Wool or ‘The Wool Strikes Back’… and the more high-flown the subtitle, the worse the film. Ahem.)
Sorry about that. Time, now, for some surprising facts specifically about coloured – generally described as ‘black’ – sheep. The first is really timely, so get out into the lambing sheds.
It’s very lucky if the first lamb you see in spring is black (but what if you breed Black Welsh Mountains or Zwartbles or Ouessants? Are you always lucky? And does it work if you’re watching Lambing Live on the telly?)
Anyway, if you see a black lamb before any white ones, you should make a wish immediately. This is particularly true in Scotland, where naturally coloured wool was valued because it was used in the shepherd’s plaid. It’s absolutely not true in Shropshire; in fact, it’s the opposite: extremely unlucky if the first lamb born in a flock is black, and even more so if it’s black twins (but black twins are also bad news in Scotland). And here’s another negative one: if the black lamb is the first one, the farm will be in mourning before the season’s out.
The ‘throwback’ effect gives the occasional black sheep quite naturally, of course. This can happen in the other direction: on Ouessant, for example, where the native sheep have been bred selectively for their black fleeces, there can be the occasional white animal.
In Sussex it was a good thing to have one of these surprising black lambs in a flock – very propitious. But only one; more than that and you might as well be in Shropshire. And yet all the Mediaeval shepherds in Books of Hours with their multi-coloured flocks seem to have been extremely lucky, given that angels chose to appear to them – so the specific superstition can’t go back that far. Or can it?
The bad luck thing – it’s also present in some parts of the Highlands – is probably where the ‘black sheep of the family’ expression originates; it could also come from a mis-transcription of an early Bible in English. However, it’s so widespread that it can’t be specifically that: the ‘black sheep’ idiom for a wayward member of a group is present in many different languages (le mouton noir, for example), not just in English.
Black wool, of course, was less valuable because it couldn’t be dyed. In the eighteenth century it was even seen in some places as being the mark of the Devil. And yet it often appears in traditional cures (mind you, I suppose that could be why it was associated with all things devilish). Wind a black thread round a limb which is sprained or broken and it will heal, and George III was given black stockings to help his rheumatism on the same basis. Using coloured threads like this goes back at least to Roman times, and links in to votive offerings of cloth at springs, something which I have seen in places as far apart as County Clare and the Caucasus.
Scottish seers – local fortunetellers who sometimes gained a wider reputation, like the Brahan Seer – sometimes used the blade bone of a black sheep for seeing the future. It had to be prepared properly, though, with all the flesh removed without touching iron or steel. How it was used varied from region to region; on Lewis, it was held by the seer in a line along the length of the island, as it were. In other places an assistant would hold the blade bone up over the left shoulder, and the seer would look through the thin, flared out part. The whole iron thing ties it in to very old superstitions and reaches right back into prehistory. Black sheep were also used in some parts of Africa, where the fat of a black sheep was effective against evil.
Let’s have some more positivity. Black sheep were very useful for ranchers in the US, at one time, and not that long ago. In the West, black sheep were used as markers when counting sheep – one for every hundred, making counting a flock much easier. A 1940s description of life on a Montana sheep ranch noted that it was impossible to count the entire flock on the range, but the black sheep could be counted and any missing ones would indicate that some white sheep had also gone astray (Call, Golden Fleece, 1942). They do give a nice bit of contrast to a landscape, anywhere.
I suppose the closest many people come to black sheep is when they are children, so let’s just think about ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’…
You may think it’s just a nursery rhyme, but it’s turned into quite a contentious issue (as have many nursery rhymes, of course). Baa Baa Black Sheep is generally believed to be eighteenth century, but it may be older. Some people think it commemorates an ancient wool tax and some believe it’s linked to the abolition of slavery (but most scholars don’t). I don’t care, really – it’s another positive, or at the very least neutral, reflection of the glory and long history of coloured sheep. Yo!