We’re on our last leg of the EU tour of sheep and wool and have landed back in the native land of team Wovember: the UK. We’ve featured loads of content about the UK on the Wovember blog in the past so rather than trying to summarise everything we know about wool from this country we decided instead to share this very special post from Meg Rodger of the Birlinn Yarn Company about her seafaring Hebrideans. Like so many of the stories we have read this Wovember about wool production all over the EU, this is a tale of seasonality; of a breed that has adapted to a particular place; of a community that works together with the flock, the landscape and the weather to make wool; and of deep, long histories of shepherding that seem in some way common to all cultures. It is a wondrous tale of sheep, community and a sense of place, and we hope you enjoy it as the conclusion of what we hope you’ll agree has been a fascinating tour. All words and pictures © Meg Rodger and used with kind permission.
Hebridean Seafaring Sheep: The Birlinn Yarn Company
The Birlinn Yarn Company is quite a long title for what is actually quite a small family run enterprise. On our croft (small holding) at Sunhill on the Isle of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides, we produce sheepskins and knitting yarn from our flock of rare breed Hebridean sheep.
A long time ago (circa 800 A.D.) the Vikings arrived on the shores of the Hebrides in long boats, bringing with them their northern short-tailed sheep. In time they settled, their long boats built for speed and long sea voyages were adapted for inter-island passage and became the Hebridean galley or ‘Birlinn’.
This primitive and hardy Norse sheep evolved, travelled a bit and inter-bred, resulting in the Hebridean sheep that we rear on our croft at Sunhill today.
Our sheep arrived by sea and continue to be seafaring as we take them back and forth from the islands in the Sound of Harris for summer grazing. Given their link with the Vikings and their galleys, I felt that the story of the Birlinn encompassed the heritage of our seafaring Hebridean sheep.
One of the few surviving records of a Birlinn galley can be found in the form of a 15th century stone carving in Rodel Church in Harris. Thus, following a trip across the Sound of Harris (on a Calmac ferry) to visit the carving, we developed The Birlinn Yarn Company brand.
Our sheep husbandry follows local crofting practice, with the sheep lambing on the Berneray machair in April. The machair is the low-lying arable or grazing land formed near the coast by the deposit of sand and shell fragments and is virtually unique to the Outer Hebrides. Due to traditional crofting practice and low intensity agriculture, the rich biodiversity of these areas remains intact providing perfect ground nesting habitats for birds in spring and an abundance of wild flowers throughout the summer.
Once the lambs are strong enough we take them by boat to out lying islands in the Sound of Harris for summer grazing.
In late June, we get the family together, all the equipment we need and head out to shear on the islands. It is a very long day which starts with a lot of running around, plenty of tea breaks, good fun, sun burn, midge bites (small nibbly insects) and coming home aching from head to toe. A bit of an adventure and a great day out.
In the Autumn, we round up the ewes and bring them home by boat to the croft for tupping.
In November, the ewes are put out to the machair grazing once more, where we care for them over the winter and wait for the spring and lambing time.
Our products, like our Hebridean sheep, are rare and small in number. Sustainably produced, they glean their aesthetic qualities from the Hebridean landscape and culture.
Our pure wool knitting yarn is honest and artisanal. It knits up into warm and durable garments that will take a bit of weather and stand the test of time.
Ours is only one of many stories, which tell of the dedication and hard work that it takes to build even a small wool based enterprise such as Birlinn Yarn. We are, therefore, very grateful to Wovember for the support they offer in promoting our cause.
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Thank you so much to Meg for this concise and moving account of this special, seafaring sheep flock. Meg Rodger tends her Hebridean sheep and runs the The Birlinn Yarn Company with her family from their croft at Sunhill on the Isle of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland.