Sheep of North Ronaldsay
get the feel of Orkney it should be remembered that more than half the recorded
history of the islands was spent under Norse sovereignty from aprox. 750 to
nevertheless the Norse language had not been forgotten in North Ronaldsay as
late as the beginning of the 18th century.
greatest of Scottish prose-writers – Sir Walter Scott tells the following
clergyman, who was not long deceased, remembered well when some remains of the
Norse were still spoken in the island of North Ronaldshaw. When Gray’s Ode
entitled the “Fatal Sisters,” was first published, or at least first reached
that remote island, the reverend gentleman had the well-judged curiosity to read
some of it to the old persons of the isle, as a poem which regarded the history
of their own country. They listened with great attention to the preliminary
the storm begins to lower.
Haste the doom of hell prepare,
Iron sleet of arrowy shower
Hurtles in the darkened air.
when they had heard a verse or two more, they interrupted the reader, telling
him they knew the song well in the Norse language , and had often sung it to him
when he asked for an old song. They called it the Magicians, or the
Ronaldsay history starts long before the Norse settlements, so sheep has
certainly been on the island long time before the Vikings went ashore. However,
what we see today is probably almost an unspoiled version of the little tough
double-coated short-tailed sheep brought by the early settlers. This is what
happened to other North Atlantic islands and it seems to be generally accepted
among scientists. (Stefan
decade 1830–39 was a very important one in North Ronaldsay. Partly because the
sheep-dyke was build, partly because regulations between the Laird and the
tenants, the so-called “Land-squaring” was implemented. Since this time a
lot of regulations has seen daylight, latest in the late sixties when the
tenants got the possibility to buy the land they up to then had rented from the
the first regulations opened up for the more valuable cattle. The native sheep
was thrown outside the dyke, and has since then been living of seaweed on the
foreshore except for a short lambing period in late springtime.
the dyke saved the native sheep from extinction. Their disappearance elsewhere
in Orkney has been caused by cross-breeding with larger breeds such as Merinos
and Cheviots to improve the body-size and wool-yield – exactly the same story
as all over Scandinavia!
But outside the dyke the native sheep was second
concern for the future of the native sheep from North Ronaldsay is not whether
they can survive on seaweed or not
– since a dim and distant past they have proved it! The concern is more
whether the chaotic state of things on the British Mainland or elsewhere in the
EU due to deceases like BSE, scrapie, etc. could give a negative impact on the
North Ronaldsay Sheep.
seems to indicate that the North Ronaldsay sheep like other primitive
populations has a nontypical genotype. This may cause problems in relation to
the British Scrapi plan. The “Sheep-dyke” on North Ronaldsay has long been
classified as worthy
of preservation. The very reason why the sheep-dyke – the North Ronaldsay
sheep – ought to be given the same kind of considerations.
would like to thank The Orkney Library for the historic photos as well as for
the permission to quote from the book Island Saga by Mary A Scott.