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The Shepherd's View
Modern Photographs from an Ancient Landscape
By James Rebanks
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2016 James Rebanks
All rights reserved.
I'm running down the concrete path that leads from our council house to the gate on the road, because I heard Dad get home from the farm on his tractor. I'm wearing a cowboy outfit, with two holsters at the hips, and pink dungarees, and I have blond wavy hair (forgive me, it is 1978). I am four years old. As I get halfway, the gate hinges screech open. I run into his legs and he throws me in the air. He carries me over his shoulder back to the house and asks me how the pet lambs are doing. I tell him they are doing fine, that Mum and I fed them a little while ago, that they nearly knocked me over, they are getting so strong.
This is my first memory.CHAPTER 2
BETTY AND LETTUCE
My pet lambs were two runty orphans that lived in a pen built out of rabbit wire and were fed out of old lemonade bottles in our back garden. Like most pet lambs, they were a bit potbellied.
Betty and Lettuce grew up to be ewes in the flock. I was allowed to sell their lambs each year and keep the money for my savings. But as I got older, my interest changed to our finest pedigree sheep and my ambitions switched to breeding and selling tups (the males we sold each autumn to other flocks for high prices). That was where the real action was, and how you earned the respect of the other shepherds. By the time I was fifteen nothing else mattered much: I did a lot of the work on my father's and grandfather's flock, and was counted as one of the men when we prepared them for sale and then sold them.
I've been sheep-nuts ever since, though I also had a calf at the farm called Goldilocks. It was as small as me, but grew and grew until it towered over me and weighed about a ton.CHAPTER 3
HOW TO SPEAK SHEPHERD
When I was a kid, my cousins from southern England would come to stay, and they hadn't a clue what my dad was saying. We'd be working in a field, gathering some sheep, and he'd shout something like "Git yursel ower't yat and turn them yows down't lonnin." Throw in a bit of wind and the fact he was running across a field and shouting, and maybe it really wasn't clear to the ear. The cousins would shrug in complete bafflement.
Shepherding in this landscape has its own dialect that flows from the unique work that people here do. The writers who pitched up in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries found a people that didn't sound like they were English; they sounded more like survivors of the Viking world of which they were once a part. Today we "switch codes" between our own dialect and a northern version of the Queen's English, depending on who we are talking to. What follows is a taste of our dialect:
Yat: Gate. Shut it behind you.
Yows: Ewes. If you haven't got any, you are maybe not so local.
Tip: Ram. You live in West Cumbria.
Tup: Ram. You live somewhere else in Cumbria.
How's t' ga'an on?: Roughly translates as "How are you doing?" Usually said in a fairly noncommittal way because the asker doesn't care that much. A conversation opener.
Alreet: All right. When someone says "How's t' ga'an on?," Cumbrian etiquette requires you to say "Alreet" (even if you are at death's door or have a leg hanging off). It is considered fairly pathetic to reply in the negative, as in, "Actually I'm feeling under the weather." Technically you are always "alreet."
Alreet, luv?: Roughly translates as "You look ill, darling. Please don't die and leave me, as there is a lot of work to do and I don't even know how to work the kettle."
Ga'an yam: Roughly translates as "going home." I tried this in Norway and they understood perfectly. If you are at someone's house and the host says to their partner, "When r' theez sooners ga'an yam?," it is not good.
Sooner: Insult. Used as in "This fella is a sooner," the implication being that the man in question would "sooner watch the Jeremy Kyle show and eat crisps on the sofa than do a day's work."
Yew/yewers: Roughly translates as "you" or "it's yours." Used as in "That yow is yewers, it dun't belong to me."
Thine: Yewers, not mine.
Buke: Cumbrian for "book." There are only two, and they aren't written by Wordsworth or Coleridge. The "buke" is either The Shepherd's Guide, which gives the different flock marks, or the flock book, which captures the breeding of the sheep. Very few other books matter.
I's not being funny, but ...: Used in advance of some withering insult or personality deconstruction, as in "I'm not being funny or owt, but you look hellish."
Twining: Still can't believe that this isn't used everywhere. Roughly translates as "moaning." Used as a verb, as in "Stop yewer bloody twining and get on with it."
Iz that t' fashion?: Something you say to young people to make them feel insecure about their dress sense.
Ratching bugger: Sheep, dog, or man that strays somewhere it shouldn't be.
Tek care lambs ont' road: Road sign used locally. Means "Slow down your car, because this isn't Daytona and if you don't you will crash into my sheep round the next corner."
Mowdy: A mole. Small velvety-skinned creature that burrows under the ground and hunts worms viciously. Very likely from the OldNorse "mowdywarp." I have no idea what Vikings were doing with moles.
Foreigner: Not from this valley, possibly from as far afield as Penrith. To be distrusted; unlikely to be useful.
Incomer: Colonist from beyond Shap Fell. Almost certainly useless.
Supper: Evening meal.
Tea: Copious amounts of cake, washed down with a gallon of milky tea at midafternoon.
Dinner: Not a posh meal at 8 p.m. Midday meal.
Dinner party: Unlikely.
Thuz done alreet: Ultimate compliment. Only uttered when someone wins a Nobel Prize, or something of real importance like the most prestigious sheep show here, Eskdale Show.
Thuz wrang: You are not right.
Thuz not reet: You are very wrong.
Thuz a long way frae reet: You won't be asked to do this again. You are an idiot.
I'm cum to keep ya reet: I'm going to hang about whilst you do this job and tell you (and anyone else who will listen) how badly you are doing it.
All of the above should be shouted aggressively, as if it's windy, even if it isn't.CHAPTER 4
LEARNING TO BE (UN)COOL
When I was seventeen I learnt to drive, and it was agreed that I should spend my savings on a car. That's what all the cool lads did, and it seemed to help you get a girlfriend. But I went to an auction and fell in love with one of the best tups I've ever seen.
He was a beautiful sheep, proud and stylish and everything I thought our flock needed. He had incredible bone (thick, chunky legs) and a lot of swagger. We were in Kelso, in the Scottish Borders, at the tup (ram) sales. This is one of the largest sheep fairs in Europe, maybe the world. Thousands of tups are sold in one day in a dozen or so different sale rings, all at the end of a large tent full of some of the finest sheep you'll ever see. Because all the sale rings operate simultaneously, tups from the great flocks can be sold at the same time, which means we might try and fail to win a tup in one ring while missing out on a potential purchase in another. This was all much worse before mobile phones. That year I was sent to one ring where I saw the tup I wanted up for sale.
I bought him for twenty-two hundred guineas (a guinea is one pound and five pence: we always make our sales in guineas instead of pounds; farmers are keeping the old currency alive), emptying my savings account of my "car fund." My dad seemed slightly shocked I'd spent so much, but I think he was rather proud of my financial priorities. When word got around about it, it enhanced my shepherding street cred: I was clearly a lad who meant business. For the next few years I had to borrow my dad's car to go anywhere, and I had no luck getting a girlfriend, but I wasn't that bothered, because I had a great tup.CHAPTER 5
When I was about twenty years old, I met my wife-to-be, Helen. She was an art student and was on a mission to see all the paintings she loved in the galleries around Europe. Her university course involved foreign museum tours to Berlin and Madrid. I didn't want to seem like some narrow-minded provincial jerk, so, for the sake of love, I went with her and dragged my feet around the endless rooms of the art galleries on various summer holidays, wishing I were at home. I'd go around the galleries like I went around sheep sales, 99 percent of the pictures getting only a perfunctory glance until I fell in love with one painting and was unable to stop staring at it.
I might be an all-or-nothing kind of person.
However, I discovered a surprising amount of rural life in those art galleries, albeit idealized in all kinds of ways. I'd find myself gravitating to the nineteenth-century rooms, where painters turned to rural life for their subject matter and tried to portray it with some realism. I also fell in love with Bruegel's landscapes full of working people, Constable's clouds, Van Gogh's orchards and landscapes, and everything painted by Turner. People sometimes say they like the photos I take on my phone — the composition, or the light — and I hope I learnt a little from all those paintings I looked at reluctantly.
They say it takes light eight minutes to travel from the sun to the earth, and it is worth the journey because when it lights up this valley it takes your breath away.
The sun throws one finger at a time over the fell and into the darkness of the valley floor. It casts long shadows through the oak trees in the dykes, and the tree shadows walk across the fields.
The south-facing grass glows an early-morning green. Some lambs race along the fence by the house.
I can't sleep again now.
The fields are calling me out.CHAPTER 6
DON'T MENTION THE DEAD SHEEP
For every day of beauty there are innumerable days of fury and storms, days of heartache at the death of one of my best tups, moments of blood, afterbirth, and shit. I don't tend to record these; there aren't many photos of the weather that we live and work in through the winter months. No one really wants to see pictures of dead sheep, and there are only so many pictures you can take of rain or mud. Something in your brain wants to censor it and focus on the beautiful sunset that follows. And of course there are practical reasons: on wet, windy, and rainy days, it is harder to take a picture. The bad weather puts the pressure on to feed and look after the sheep more quickly than usual.
We joke that we have nine months of rain and three months of snow, and it is true that, for all its beauty and character, this landscape often throws the weather in our faces, burning the skin and swelling the hands. So I try, when I can, to take pictures of the rainy days, the snowy days, the grey days. I am always dreaming, then, of getting warm by the fire.CHAPTER 7
INTRODUCTION TO SHEEP SHOWS
Shepherding isn't just about looking after the sheep, or standing on biblical hillsides looking for twinkly stars; it is about the breeding sheep that are to be sold.
My job as a shepherd is to look after my stock and their lambs so well that I have surplus of lambs and ewes to sell each autumn (by producing and keeping alive more sheep than I need to maintain the number in my flock). Many of these spare sheep are sold to other shepherds in the autumn sales, in September and October, to bolster their flocks with new genes. Lots are sold to the lowland farmers who use the mountains as a nursery for their commercial flocks.
But the key question is why do they want to buy my sheep, rather than those raised by any one of hundreds of other shepherds?
As with any other thing for sale, I need my sheep to seem like they are better than everyone else's, worth the attention and money it will take to buy them. A long time ago, the shepherds here became deeply competitive with their flocks. When they gathered the fells in the autumn, they did what shepherds do, and started to comment on each other's sheep.
"Joseph's are bigger than yours."
"Isaac's live longer because they have better teeth."
"Anthony's produce tastier meat."
"Mine are tougher and survived the snow better in the winter; yours might be more productive, but I have more left than you."
And because a flock of sheep only needs a small number of tups (they can each mate a hundred or more females), the natural way to improve a flock or add characteristics is to buy a tup carrying the genetic qualities you admire or need. So the handful of tups have a value that far exceeds that of a normal sheep; they are, we say, "half the flock," literally worth half the value of the flock.
So the flocks are watched very carefully for subtle little qualities that another shepherd might require in his own flock. This standing, looking, and talking about the sheep morphed over time into formal competitions called shepherds' meets, in which sheep were judged based on everything from the quality of the teeth to the wool to the finer breed points. A respected shepherd from another valley would be asked to come and judge. And the bragging rights in the valley were earned by winning the shepherds' meet and having the champion sheep in the dale.
Fast-forward many centuries, and we still have shepherds' meets. What we do at a meet might seem odd to anyone who doesn't understand its roots or its functions, not least because the prize money is trivial, but these things matter as much today as they did a century ago.
When I take my sheep to the sales, I want my pen to be crowded with other shepherds who have been impressed by my sheep at the shepherds' meet and come when it counts at the sales to spend their money on them.CHAPTER 8
BEAUTY TREATMENTS, PART 1: HERDWICK
We once moved house while I was at a sheep sale. I didn't know anything about it until my wife called to tell me we had moved and that when I came home I should go to the new house.
"But who moved everything?"
"Removal men, you idiot. I hope you made good prices with your sheep, because you're paying them."
Doing well in the autumn shows, winning prizes, catching the eye of other shepherds, helps to showcase the quality of your flock, which helps you to sell your sheep for higher prices in the autumn sales. So the keenest shepherds become artists at making their sheep beautiful and turning them out in peak condition.
Herdwicks are a hardy breed, bred by very practical folk, so the preparations for shows and sales are minimal. Some shepherds bring them straight from the field and do a quick wash in the show pens, though they are subjected to some tut-tutting for not having done this the day before.
But most of us shepherds still have our beauty rituals for the sheep. We would no more send a sheep to a show or sale in its natural condition than Dolly Parton would go out without her makeup.
THE WEEK BEFORE THE SHOW OR SALE
Bring sheep into the barn or pen. One shepherd should hold the sheep while the other applies the "Herdwick Show Red" to its back. Herdwick Show Red is a kind of raddle (a coloured powder mixed with water or oil that is applied to a tup's chest, so that when he mates with a ewe we know she has been mated). It replicates the colour of the iron ore rust in the fell sides. It has been applied for so long we don't exactly know why we do it. The Herdwick Show Red is mixed with a dash of water or oil to make a sticky paste. Then you cover both your hands in it and pull them towards your body, from the sheep's neck to its tail. If the sheep is a "good colour" (i.e., its fleece is a lovely slatey blue) then you don't need to apply much, just a two-hands'-width stripe along the top of the back. If it is a whiter-fleeced sheep, then you can plaster it on in a vain attempt to hide this flaw. It is traditional to get covered in raddle yourself, until you look like a mass murderer covered in dried blood.
THE DAY BEFORE THE SHOW OR SALE
Bring sheep into the barn or pen. One person should hold the sheep tight under the chin, and the other wash the white heads and legs with soapy water, leaving the wool and redded bits alone. Then let the sheep go and marvel at how idiotic they can be as they rub their white bits on their raddled bits and defeat the point of the whole washing exercise by going out with heads and legs a smudgy red.
SHOW OR SALE DAY
Bring sheep into the pen, add final touches of raddle, and wash heads and legs again with warm soapy water. Then curse like a trooper when you get to the auction or show field and discover the sheep have all rubbed on each other and are smudgy red again. Wash heads and legs repeatedly, with a damp cloth, throughout the day. Make a resolution not to red your sheep next year. (Next year you will ignore this resolution and repeat the whole process.) The finished article is a sheep with white legs and head — "hoar-frosted," to use the technical term. The legs and head look brighter and more brilliant because they contrast with the redded fleece. To us, a redded Herdwick in peak condition "just looks right."
Excerpted from The Shepherd's View by James Rebanks. Copyright © 2016 James Rebanks. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Setting the Scene,
BETTY AND LETTUCE,
HOW TO SPEAK SHEPHERD,
LEARNING TO BE (UN)COOL,
DON'T MENTION THE DEAD SHEEP,
INTRODUCTION TO SHEEP SHOWS,
BEAUTY TREATMENTS, PART 1: HERDWICK,
BEAUTY TREATMENTS, PART 2: SWALEDALE,
A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO JUDGING A HERDWICK,
THE SHEPHERD'S GUIDE,
THE SHEPHERDS' BAKING COMPETITION,
WHY I LOVE THESE HARDMAN PHOTOS,
THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE FELLS,
ROBERT AND HIS FELL PONIES,
JEAN WILSON: QUEEN OF HERDWICKS,
THE FREEDOM OF BIRDS,
MAKING PEG SHEEP, MASKS, AND BISCUITS,
WHAT ARE SHEEPDOGS FOR EXACTLY?,
HOW TO SPEAK SHEEPDOG,
A SHEPHERD'S BUCKET LIST,
WHY I LOVE MATTERDALE,
ALSO BY JAMES REBANKS,
About the Author,