Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Cheviot Sheep
By John Hobson (1930)

In tracing the origin and history of the North and South Country types of Cheviot Sheep, it is easy to give a full account of the North Country breed, as its history is known from the time it was first introduced into the North of Scotland in 1792 down to the present day. Of the South Country or original Border breed, it is more difficult to give any exact account, as a species of sheep appears to have been, from the earliest times, indigenous to the Border Country.

That flocks—which in the eighteenth century were known as the “Long Sheep,” in contrast to the forerunners of the Black-faced Sheep, which were known as the “Short Sheep” —had been kept on the Border hills as far back as the Middle Ages is a well-known fact. Cosmo Innes devotes a whole paragraph to a description of the "Sheep-farming Monks or Churchmen of Teviotdale.”

In the eighteenth year of the reign of King Alexander II. of Scotland (1232) we find mention of one, John of Hawelton, having stolen, along with cattle and horses, 200 wethers and ewes, of the value of twelve pence each, from Wark in North Tyne, and having driven them to Sewingsheilds and detained them there.

Again, in the thirty-first year of the same reign, one De Bellingham of Hesleyside lost an arbitration case over the upkeep of ditches and hedges with Nicolas of Plenderleith, Abbot of Jedburgh, who had been given a lease of the grating of Ealingham by the Scottish king.

In a final settlement the Abbot had to have free access to the Common Pasture of Hesleyside within the open time, for all his flocks of Ealingham, and without the hedges at all times of the year, but the flocks “shall each night be on the East side of Stirkscleugh.”

When one remembers that the inhabitants from both sides of the Border were nearly always fighting or raiding, one gathers there would be little inducement to improve the sheep of these districts; but from the fact that they were thus constantly mixed up, one may surmise that they would be one breed—the Long Breed.

That these raids did not always bring happy results to the perpetrators, and that some of the troubles of the present day were then not unknown, appears from the following, which took place early in the sixteenth century.

The Robsons of North Tyne made a raid on Liddlesdale, which was Graham country, and took back with them a flock of sheep which happened to be infected with scab. The disease spread to their own flocks, and this so incensed the Robsons that they returned, captured and hanged seven of the most substantial Grahams, saying, “The next time gentlemen cam’ to tak’ sheep, they war no to be scabbit.”

It is, therefore, unlikely that until after the ’45, when both sides of the Border were finally disarmed, much improvement was effected; but from that date we have evidence that the Borderers had turned their swords into crooks and attempted to improve their flocks and herds.

In the year 1756 we learn that three Border farmers, Mr Robson of Philhope (he went to Scotch Belford in 1760 and later to Chatto), Mr Charles Kerr of Riccalton, and Mr Edmistoun of Mindrum, brought fourteen tups from Lincolnshire. Whether these were the improved Leicesters of Bakewells, like those their near neighbours, the Culleys, brought from Durham into Northumberland in 1767, or Lincolns, has always been a debateable point; but in a letter to the ‘ Farmers’ Magazine ’ in 1803 a writer seems to point to their having been the latter. Signing himself “A Northumberland Farmer,” he writes : “As a proof of the fineness of Lincolnshire wool at the period alluded to (1760), I need only observe that the late Mr James Robson of Chatto, a most respectable man and breeder of Cheviot Sheep, who then lived at Scotch Belford, purchased some tups from Mr Mumby, near Barton-upon-Humber, Lincs., who at that time stood high as a Lincoln ram breeder. These tups, without injuring the quality of the wool, greatly increased the quantity, and gave Mr Robson such a decided superiority over his hill neighbours that for many years after making the cross he sold more tups than one-half of the other hill farmers.”

These facts are not in agreement with Varney’s evidence before the House of Lords in 1828, when he states : “Cheviot wool is deteriorated very much in point of hair, and will not make fine clothes now, as it once would. It is coarser and longer, a state attributed to the Cheviot having a partial cross of the Leicester.”

Culley, in his ‘ Observations of Live-stock,’ writing about the end of the eighteenth century, says of the Cheviot breed: “Their mutton is excellent, fleece about three pounds, which is in great demand, bringing high prices. The breed has been much improved of late years, though there is still a want of depth in the forequarters and breadth both there and on the chine.” This description would at the present time be much nearer the North Country type, one large flockmaster having recently said: “The difference in the two types was that the South had been improved while the North was the old unimproved type.”

However, after the middle of the eighteenth century the breed rapidly improved, so that when that great agricultural improver and first Minister of Agriculture, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, examined all the mountain breeds of sheep with a view to increasing the value of his own property in Caithness and the North of Scotland, he decided that the Long Sheep of the Borders answered his purpose best, and called them Cheviots after their native hills. In 1792 ho gave an order for 500 draft ewes to be bought for his estate of Berriedale, now owned by the Duke of Portland, and still carrying one of the best flocks in the North.

These sheep did so well that Highland lairds decided to turn their lands into sheep farms, and in order to do so caused numberless crofters to be evicted. They were then able to let large tracts of land to South Country sheep-farmers, who not only brought north with them Border Cheviots but Border shepherds as well. Some of the lairds engaged South countrymen to manage their farms, with the result that the North was, with few exceptions, stocked with Cheviots. The original sheep, called Kerries, which, according to MacDonald (‘Highland and Agricultural Society’s Transactions,’ 1875), “were small, narrow in the frame, short, very unshapely and slow in growth, the wool and mutton producing qualities very poor indeed,” gradually became extinct, the last of the species being seen on a few crofts along the north coast of Caithness.

This change-over from Kerries to Cheviots, which caused much more money to be circulated in the North, was almost entirely brought about by introducing South Country sheep. It was unlike the way the farmers in Ettrick Forest, &c., according to Hogg, changed their native sheep to Cheviots by introducing Cheviot tups till the breed showed all the Cheviot characteristics. Further, it was largely helped by the disastrous years 1806-7, when, owing to rot or Liver Fluke in the North, not only the Kerries but even goats were practically decimated.

Thus, it seems, even nature had some hand in helping on the quick change-over from a practically worthless breed to one which has made a name for itself all over the world where sheep-farming is engaged in.

Considering that the first Cheviots went North only in 1792, and well as they are known to have thriven in their adopted home, they could not have increased from a few thousands at the commencement of the century to over two hundred thousand in 1820 without a huge number having been taken yearly from the South. In 1820 one grazier sent from Sutherland a hundred thousand fleeces and twenty thousand ewes and wedders.

With these yearly additions from the South there can have been little difference in the types for a number of years. How this difference of type did eventually take place it is difficult to say. Some maintain that the North Country sheep, especially the Caithness type, had another cross of alien blood, Border-Leicester, thus causing the heavy drooping ears and greater size. After the country became stocked with wedders on the high grounds, and ewes on the low grounds, scores of South Country tups were bought at Hawick by Messrs Todd, &c., and afterwards by the late John Murray, and sent North. Since the latter’s death it has been the custom of several of the principal sheep-breeders in the North to buy for themselves the best tups at Hawick sales.

It is certain that at the present time there is very little similarity between the two types. Proof that this difference arose during the second half of the nineteenth century may be drawn from the fact that at the Highland and Agricultural Society’s Show at Kelso in 1832, Mr Paterson, Bighouse, Sutherland, successfully exhibited a tup, which was then purchased by a Border breeder and very extensively used by most of the leading breeders on the Cheviot Hills. This fact evidently shows that he had been considered a good example of what a Cheviot tup should be, or his breeder would not have taken what must have been a very tedious and expensive journey, nor would Border breeders have used him so extensively had they not particularly fancied him.

Shortly after this there appears to have arisen a difference of type in the South Country itself, the Border breeders sticking to the type produced by the use of the Paterson tup, while in Dumfriesshire, Mr Brydon, who amongst other large farms held Moodlaw and Kinnelhead, began breeding a type, longer and lankier, with open coats, which for a time carried all before them both in show and sale. Mr Brydon’s tups were greatly sought after, and at his annual sales at Beattock they fetched big prices, farmers purchasing them from all over Scotland.

In 1867 the late Mr John Miller, Scrabster, Thurso, paid 185 guineas for Craigphpdrig, which had been first at the Highland Show that year, and Mr Miller at Broubster and Mr Paterson at Bighouse used him very extensively along with his sons. From records in the possession of Mr John Miller, Scrabster, of sales at Georgemas, they sold many of his progeny, which were bought to go all over Caithness, Sutherland, Lewis, and Orkney, at what were then high prices. It appears the Brydon sheep were found to be too soft on the Borders, with its severe storms and bare hills, but that they suited the North seems likely, or such prices would not have been paid for them or their progeny. First and reserve Champion, Highland and Agricultural Society Show, Alloa, Bred by John Robson, Esq., Millkuowe, Duns, and sold at Hawick, for £400 to Messrs T. R, Elliot, Altonburn, and John Robson, Jun., Lynegai, Watten.

Perhaps it was the influence of the Brydon sheep which changed the type in the North, or must it be put down to the changed conditions of soil and climate, or solely to selection?

Probably all three have had their share in its development, as it is wonderful what a difference soil and climate makes. Clay subsoil seems to produce heavier sheep and more wool than the bare grassy hills, which in their turn tend to encourage shorter wool and harder hair, while heathery lands keep the wool longer and coarser.

The Lammermoors grow sheep with more bone than the Borders, and the difference can be seen in the same sheep, if changed, in a year or two, so that it is quite evident a century can make an enormous difference in appearance.

In the South, owing to the very severe winters which came in and after 1879, the soft-coated Brydon sheep were unable to survive. A much smaller, thick-coated, well-haired lamb, having withstood the snow and cold, possibly led South Country breeders into breeding a smaller type than was desirable, but since the ’90’s the size has tended to increase, while still retaining the other features.

As the breeders of each type should know what suits their own district best, it is evident that the difference has been caused partly by the requirements of each country, and partly by what is the fashionable type in each district.

On the Borders, hardihood, wool, and beauty, along with wide-sprung ribs, good shoulders and gigots, a size which the land will carry, have been the qualities aimed at.

In the North size has been the first consideration. It is possible that the breeders of both types have erred considerably, the one paying too much attention, to style, £he other too little. It is certain also that the law of the survival of the fittest has had a great deal to do with the enormous difference which is now apparent between the two types of sheep.

That in the North a softer sheep will survive can be partly attributed to the climate, which, helped by the proximity to the Gulf Stream, tends to give more equable climatic conditions. In Caithness especially there is the further fact that a very large majority of the flocks are treated in the same way as Half-bred ewes in the South—i.e., from January onwards they get hay, oats, or turnips, while on the Borders ewes only get hay during a severe storm, and never oats or turnips, except that a very few of the lean gimmers receive a little help.

The wintering of the ewe hoggs again favours the North, as they are invariably sent to arable ground in August and September. Many go to Boss-shire, and still farther south to Aberdeenshire, where they get aftermath followed by stubbles, young grass, &c., and in February turnips. They return home at the end of March.

On the Borders they are generally kept on a part of their own farm or sent to a hill farm which is taken for hogging. It is certain that the North Country sheep does not succeed on the bare South Country hills, though it does well in fields and on low ground. There it has, during the last decade, made great headway, principally helped by the belief that it is clear of, or less liable to be infected by, scrapie than the Border Cheviot.

When brought South on to good keep, Northern ewes undoubtedly do well, and produce a crop of big Half-bred lambs. As long as they do this they will always have their advocates, if not their admirers.

Those pens of great wether lambs which we see at the Christmas National Fat Stock Shows are almost without exception a cross between the two types—Southern tups and Northern ewes.

There is a good demand for North Country lambs, the wed-ders largely going to Cumberland and Dumfriesshire to be fed. It would be interesting if a comparison, between the North and South, of their weights and age when fat could be obtained.

One large South Country dealer always preferred to have a good proportion of Southern blood in the lambs for the Christmas shows and sales, saying that the Northern Cheviot did not put on a proper back until after clipping. This dealer was in the habit of buying thousands of sheep from the North.

Fortunately there are to be found buyers who are advocates of both types, so it is difficult to get an unbiassed opinion. In -passing, it is interesting to note that for the last seventy years, without a break, the Sandside draft ewes have been bought by the Sproats of Kirkcudbrightshire.

In spite of the way the Southern type of sheep is looked down upon by the North Country breeder, it would be difficult to find any flock without a good admixture of Southern blood in it. One of the reasons a large wool buyer gave for the North Country wool not being so good as it used to be was that there was not more South Country blood used. Further, when flocks were large the owner bought one good tup, and by using his progeny gave to his whole stock a simi-' larity, whereas with the dividing up of the sheep farms into holdings each smallholder bought a tup which was quite possibly a different type from his neighbours’, and the result was that very many different kinds of wool came from the North. The wool at one time was more or less similar.

It is also becoming much more difficult to find good tups. Whether the dividing up of large farms, which successive Governments have vied with each other in bringing about, will be advantageous to the country as a whole, time alone will show, but it appears already to be effecting a change in the North Country Cheviot.

In spite of its greater size the North Country sheep grows a lighter fleece than the South Country, which again may be caused by soil and climate, or partly by selection. Until recently, however, it has always (except for a few South Country clips) been well worth about twopence a pound more, although latterly there has been very little difference. Whether this is owing to fashion, or the undoubted fact that there has been improvement in South Country wool and probably deterioration of the North Country kind, it is hard to say; but it is known that some of the farmers in the South, who sold off their Border type and introduced ewe stock from the North, have found their wool has deteriorated considerably.

As an example of how locality affects the wool, it may be mentioned that, at Hawick tup sale a few years ago, a very large flock owner and wool expert from the Falkland Islands was making an examination of the tups, and on coming to a lot of pure South Country type he opened the wool and at once remarked: “ These sheep come from quite another district: the wool is finer.” These sheep came from Caithness.

Another wool expert remarks: “North Country wool undoubtedly holds first place and is finer than South. This is, of course, taking an average all over. There are a few South Country dips, and especially one or two in Northumberland, which are equally as fine and good in colour as any of the North Country ones. Again, there are North Country clips which are being bred away from the pure Cheviot. There appears to be two distinct strains in the North Country sheep. One might be called the original; the other shows a longer and stronger fibre. The wool of the former, or “original” as I have called it, is short and fine, and has a denseness of fibre. It is this quality which has made North Country sheep famous for wool, and which is much sought after by manufacturers of the best Cheviot suitings. The latter is not the original North Country Cheviot. I should say that at some date the sheep growing the stronger fibre was bred through a Half-bred (Border Leicester x Cheviot), as quite a number of clips show up “ breedy.” This, no doubt, pays the farmer better from a mutton or lamb point of view, but he will have to take a lower price for his wool.

If farmers could combine the two types and get a longer Style of fibre and retain much of the fineness, it would pay them. They would get a heavier fleece, and still keep the size of the sheep and lambs.

South Country wool, like the Northern, varies according to the different land on which the sheep graze, the altitude of the farm, and breed of sheep stocked. On the whole, South Country is a very good commercial wool.

A large manufacturer on the Borders says that North Country wool would spin two counts more than South Country wool. That is to say, if the South spun to 18 “cut,” the North would spin to 20 “cut” (“cut” is a Scottish spinner’s term for the thickness of the yarn, and means so many threads to the ounce). He was likewise emphatic about the way wool had changed in quality since 1913-14. His cloths were coming up different to-day owing to the wool being coarser. Where Cheviot wool used to spin to 20 “cut” pre-war, it will only spin to 16 “cut” to-day.

The average weight of fleeces is as follows :—

North Country Cheviot ewe, washed . . 3 lb.

South Country Cheviot ewe, washed . . 3 to 3½ lb.

North Country Cheviot ewe, unwashed . 3½ to 4 lb.

South Country Cheviot ewe, unwashed . 4 to 4½ lb.

As a result many consider wool as only a by-product, and with the high prices given since the war for stock, farmers have probably paid less attention to wool than when lambs and ewes were much lower in value.

One of the main considerations fifty years ago, in keeping tup lambs, was to see that there was no kemp. If there was, however good the lamb looked, he was castrated. Now many think a little coarseness of the brich means a hardier sheep, and undoubtedly there is more kemp in North Country wool now than used to be the case.

If an analogy were wanted between the two types, as regards shape, one might compare the North Country type to the dairy Shorthorn—long, wider behind than in front, and standing higher; while the South Country type is like the Cruickshank Shorthorn—square, set on short legs, wide, deep, and full of mutton to knee and hock.

We may conclude with the saying of a well-known old shepherd: “I aye think it a pity that thar warna twa breeds of Cheviots—ane for yowes, anither for wedders.”

Return to our Agriculture Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus