The Strangeness of Coloured Sheep, 2

(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.

shepherds watchingIt’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.

Charles Jones painting

On the Hills of Scotland, Winter by Charles Jones; courtesy Royal Institution of Cornwall

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.

Ayrshire Landscape

Ayrshire Landscape by George Houston; courtesy Glasgow Museums

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’…

220px-BaaBaaBlackSheepMGMYou 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!



10 thoughts on “The Strangeness of Coloured Sheep, 2

  1. Barbara

    Being a reader but not a wool grower, may make me unable to give a [knowlegable] comment….but I am anyway…I love the black sheep and honestly…even in folklore about the black sheep in the family I tend to favor them. Many turned out to be pretty darned smart!
    I know because I lived on a farm, that animals can be treated poorly, but I hope any black lambs are now humanely treated and not just “knocked in the head.” That phrase may be outdated. I HOPE SO.
    Please be KIND.

    1. kate Post author

      I strongly suspect that I’m a black sheep myself, you probably are too, definitely a more interesting option!

      I do hope you’re right…

  2. croftgarden

    I wasn’t sure that my sensibilities could cope with the sequel, I had to find out what happened next…………….! Black lambs are common on the islands as are various strangely spotted ones. Now whether this is a genetic trait or to do with the Hebridean rams being preferred by the Heinz variety ewes, or being better at jumping over fences that the local tups, one could only speculate. Do the offspring count as mules, or shouldn’t I ask the question?

    1. kate Post author

      Given your imagination, I’m not surpassed you were nervous!

      The sheep diversity sounds rather like Shetland, and I think it’s because the dominant sheep breed in both cases is ‘primitive’ (I hate that term, really, seems so perjorative) and therefore closer to the darker, wild original. We’re dealing with a recessive gene, so give it half a chance and it recesses away = more dark and blotchy sheep. I bet you’re right about the Hebridean tups!

        1. kate Post author

          They do keep you on your toes…
          I don’t think they have to be feral to behave like that, though I’m sure it helps. Mind you, my only experience is of mountain / island sheep, who may be naturally brighter and more bolshie. We had a lead sheep once, many moons ago when the world was young, who worked out how to roll over cattle grids. So the whole flock, plus some stragglers a.k.a. opportunists, were soon charging away down the valley like a load of naughty schoolchildren. Some people were baffled by the resulting gate/cattle grid combo and flatly refused to believe it, but there’s another mountain flock round here, right now, who have also worked it out.

          Group mind, or natural canniness? Let’s hope it’s the latter!

  3. Annie

    I really do hope you’re planning to put all your fabulous sheep info into a book! I’d buy a copy for each of my knitty friends.

    I wonder if at times when black cloth was in high demand black sheep were more in vogue, given that it’s one of the hardest colours to dye well.

    1. kate Post author

      Sigh – would love to. Ah well… now there’s a thought!

      The fact that shepherd’s plaids traditionally incorporated coloured wool has been cited as a reason for the coloured sheep retaining more ‘value’ in parts of Scotland, but I’d have thought that sheep ranges belonging to, for instance, Benedictine monasteries would have needed a high proportion of black sheep for the monks’ robes. It is indeed a pig of a colour to dye – and before the logwood trade, really nightmarish. Interesting line of thought…


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