An Ancient Lakelander, The Herdwick
Arthur Evans, retired schoolteacher, and Jim Melville's son-
The terrible outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001 resulted in the slaughter of many thousands of sheep and cattle. It certainly threatened the continued existence of a breed of sheep unique to the Lake District. This is the Herdwick, a tough, goat-
The first record of the name that I can find dates from the early 16th century -
Some modern Herdwick, like the animals of old, still retain a devotion to their patch of home ground called the "heaf. Indeed, such animals formed a lifelong attachment to a specific area. There are many examples of this in animals sold and transferred elsewhere -
Herdwicks were once unique to the Lakeland fells. Now, Yorkshire Swaledales, Westmerian Rough Fells and other similar hardy breeds are replacing the indigenous Herdwick. One very popular breed in this group is now the Welsh Mountain Black, though to date they seem to be held only on milder slopes or within the better valleys. On the mountain slopes proper, the Herdwicks are yet the hardiest, but their numbers diminish year by year. Herdwick meat is reputedly the sweetest, but the tough, wiry wool is proving to be virtually unsaleable these days. Much of the unsold 2000 clip was burnt in sheer despair. Which is a great pity for this wiry, tough material is almost unique. It may be harsh indeed to more delicate skins, but it is virtually waterproof, warming, and very hard wearing indeed. A few brave pioneers battle on with it, but theirs is a difficult job. This wool makes tough, hard-
Where did it originate? There is a wild story of Spanish origin; the first Lakeland animals supposedly swimming clear of a wrecked Spanish Armada vessel. Others insist on a Viking origin -
One peculiarity (amongst many others) attached to the Herdwick breed is the use of "Celtic counting" by their shepherds. Each major Lakeland valley has its own version, but all of them show some affinity with the Old Welsh language of long ago. Welsh numerals, which also show some affinity with the "Celtic counting" up to ten -
1: Un 2: dauordwy 3: tri or tair 4: pedwar or pedar 5: pump
6: chwech 7: saith 8: wyth 9: naw 10:deg
Compare these numbers with the
1: un 2: dou 3: tri 4: petuar 5: pimp
6:chwech 7:seith 8: wyth 9: nau 10: dec
And with the Coniston version of the
1: Yan 2: Taen 3: Tedderte 4: Medderte 5: Pimp
6: Haata 7: Slaata 8: Lowra 9: Downa 10: Dick.
Modern Cumbria covers much of the area once held by the "Cimri" -
Did you swim from splintered drakar
Hard aground on Cumbrian sand?
Or came you from Armada's galleon
Perhaps you walked with cowled Cistercians?*
Bleating over new-
Or did you come with Stone Age trader?
By rings of stone? Or pagan wells?
Did you know the Beltane bonfires
Or Druids' oak, or Celtic grove?
Who first clipped that wiry grey wool?
And who was he who first it wove?
Who were they who gave you number
Yan and twan, and tethera, dik?
Who called you firstly, tup, or twinter
And herded you with crooked stick?
Who marked your fleece with greasy crimson,
Named you "gimmer", "yow", or "hogg"?
Who took you first upon the mountains,
By whistle, voice, and eager dog?
What, exactly, is your lineage?
Who bred you? Tough, and white of face?
Who brought you here, O Cumbrian Herdwick?
Are you the last of ancient race?
Where did they originate? And when?
Cumbria, particularly on regions of mountain and fell. There is a folktale that the first Herdwicks scrambled ashore from either Viking drakar or Spanish Armada galleon somewhere between Bootle and Ravenglass. The breed may be much older than either story suggests, though a Norse origin is suggested by some. Another possibility is that Neolithic farmers Ca. 4000 years ago introduced it
Another clue is that the old counting method mentioned in the poem is probably Celtic in origin -
*Certainly Herdwick sheep and wool created much of Furness Abbey's wealth.
Arthur Evans being presented with a watch in 2001, after completing nearly 50 years of writing articles for the Evening Mail. His wife Jean is on his left, holding a bouquet. The Editor, Steve Brauner is on his right.