July 15, 2003
Step Back in Time
(From the July 1911 National Wool Grower Magazine)
?Scottish Sheep Lore? by Hon. John Clay of Chicago
Scotland produces more than the ?braw braw lads of Gala Water,? and the dainty dairy maids of Ayrshire. Prominent among her human products are the shepherds. They thrive well in Highland Glens and amid lowland vales, and when they emigrate they leave a trail of work and worth behind them. They have left their footprints all over this continent. Like Caesar, they come, they see, they conquer ? peaceful victories, in eastern valleys, on Vermont hills, on sage brush plains or steep mountain sides on great divides, wind swept in winter, blistered by burning suns in summer. Next to the miner and hunter the shepherd gets nearer nature than any other dweller in the west. Many of them got their education from the same school as the writer. Their knowledge came from the lips of tender mothers, as they heard the folklore songs of their native land; imbibed from fathers made of the sterner stuff, men under whose shaggy eyebrows was a wealth of experience and knowledge. They had it by inheritance. They had married and inter-married among themselves. For generations they had lived in the same place, in the same way, had herded the same hirsels, born, lived and died in the same house. Their ambition did not go beyond their work. They were content to do it well and they rested easy under its canopy. Sometimes one of them, more ambitious than his neighbors, drifted into a farm and usually raised a family who did credit to their enlarged opportunities. In the Borderland a thrifty shepherd named Scott came from his shepherd?s shieling to a fertile farm. His sons, able and intelligent, followed fast in his footsteps and now his grandsons are farming many a broad acre in Southern Scotland. But the great bulk of these shepherds are tied to the land of the green hillside.
I love to talk to them, buy you have to do it cautiously. They are suspicious of the pumping process. You must approach subjects in a round about way, and let them tell their own story. To one like myself, who can speak the language of Burns, it is easy to win the way to their minds to find the deep philosophy imbedded there, to catch on to the finer points of outwardly ragged natures. How greatly they can tell of the peculiarities of their flock, of the weather and its vagaries, of past years, all of which had some red mark on it. They live the simple life, but it is not a daily grind. There is continual change, a shifting panorama of climate and conditions, which tends to make interest and keeps the brain going. It is this active mental work that has made long generations of Scotch shepherds into logicians, politicians, theologians, never amid these enticing pursuits forgetting the main work of their vocation. The low country shepherd, working among tame grasses, turnip fields and using endless quantities of concentrated foods, has not the opportunity for reflection and thought that falls upon his brother worker on the green hillside or the purple moorland. The one is surrounded by hedge rows, a smaller world of enclosures, but the genuine hill ?herd? has open space, unlimited freedom for his gaze, the swelling hills, the sparkling streams, the mottled scene of brown and green ever a joy to the eye, the springy turf a solace to the root. Then what weather prophets those men are! From childhood they have watched the signs and they have listened to their fathers and grandfathers tell the story of cloud and sky, of sun dogs and northern lights, of twinkling dawn and dreamy night, the movement of the flock, the motion of the birds, the changing wind. All this rolled up into sort of a distinctive knowledge of what is coming. No Gloucester fisherman can beat them as weather prophets.
In many of this depth of character and their solitary work has developed a religious fervor. They are Presbyterians to a man. They may belong to different sects of this religion, but they all tend towards the same place, and have an inveterate hatred for that wily gentleman named the devil. They seem to be ever on the watch for him, and he gets the blame for many things. The spirit of the Covenantors still lives in those men of modern times. In my younger days I saw much of this side of their life. There was a little village on the edge of the Lammermoor hills. There were two churches there. One would serve the people, but the irony of fate, or whatever you like to call it, has over-churched Scotland. How such a state of affairs came about is too long to tell here. We went to a little modern kirk. The ivy grows over it now but as a boy when I went there first it stood out with bare walls. Time had not mellowed it, and inside were the hard, stiff pews that a Scotchman is doomed to sit upon when worshipping God. Our way was across green fields, through woods. The odor of the pines was blended with the perfume of the flowers that decked the meadowlands. When you get near the church if you were a bit early you could see people from all quarters wending their way to the village. Northwards it was open hill, and they took the nearest way. The dogs of ten came with their masters, for many of them who were miles away had to ?look the hill? on their way to worship. It was a solemn scene inside ? a smell of peppermint and a free interchange of the snuff box. I see them yet, a loved picture in memory?s frame. The big intelligent men, the women with high colored cheeks and quaint hats with bits of color, but withal a somber scene. During the prayers they stood up, and while singing they sat. That was part of their religion. They had their moods, just as the Roman Catholic or the Episcopalians have theirs. When the sermon was fairly started a sleepy effect came over the congregation. The minister labored hard but the close air of the church after a long walk was too much for the sturdy, healthy shepherd. His head drooped, and he was off to the land of dreams. I never heard the minister reprove them, although a neighboring minister used to do so. And he did it in one day in this way. Stopping in his sermon, he addressed one of his congregation thus: ?John Tomson, if ye dinna stap snorin? ye?ll wauken the Laird.? The Lord of the manor is a sort of a sacred object and his rights had to be protected, even at the expenses of pulpit dignity.
Although it is a long time since I left those scenes, I like to go back and think about them. Although life was simple, there was a freshness and vigor about the people and their ways that will ever appeal to my heart.