Northumberland and Durham Family History Society

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Sheep Farming in the Cheviots was the subject of a talk by Margaret Brown to members of the north Northumberland branch of the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society.

This talk stems from the Sheep Tales project which has collected stories and photographs from shepherds and their families in north Northumberland. Many of the old shepherding practices have changed over the years so this was an important attempt to preserve memories before they are lost.

We were treated to a host of fascinating photographs illustrating work on such farms as Commonburn, Threestoneburn, Langleeford Hope, Coldburn, North and South Middleton and Hetton Estate. We saw sheep-shearing done the old way by hand shears and learnt that the right side of the sheep was cut with the right hand and the left side with the left hand. This would be followed by the clipping tea when a magnificent spread would be prepared on the farm.

Sometimes men would go up Cheviot to clip rather than bring the sheep down. Nowadays shearing is carried out with electric shears often by travelling New Zealanders who work at an amazing speed.

In the past, shepherds travelled on horseback and, although Margaret knew of one who did so until as late as 1995, quad bikes have now taken the place of horses.

A wool packing machine was invented by Charlie Dagg and is widely used. What a pity he did not patent his invention! It was the job of children to tramp down 50 fleeces into the frame. Another task allocated to children was making crowdie for hens and pigs and making up food for the sheepdogs.

The severe winter of 1947 will never be forgotten by farming families in this area. We were told of drystone walls three feet high which disappeared under the snow at Southernknowe and a farm at Hagdon, near Bewick, where they were so desperate for fuel the tops of apple trees visible above the snow were lopped.

One notable event was the annual gathering on the summit of Cheviot when shepherds would meet to sort out the sheep for their owners. Companionship was important among shepherds and farming families. Tasks were often shared and done together on the various farms. Nowadays, with fewer workers, tasks are more likely to be done individually.

The oldest photograph in the collection was taken in 1869 showing Sir Walter Bosanquet of Rock with a magnificent Border Leicester sheep. Another dated 1957 showed shepherds standing around a sheep pen at Glendale Show. Many would be there again 50 years later.

To conclude this most interesting talk, Margaret showed us some old items which were once in common use on every farm. These included the egg-candler used to see if the egg contained a chick, the small neat apron worn underneath the working pinny and used to keep money in, the book of marks for identifying sheep from different farms in the northern counties, the water bottle wrapped in a sock and padded with newspaper to keep it warm and the homemade mousetraps.

Our next meeting with the title of Hatch, Match and Dispatch will be on Saturday, October 20, at 10am at Bell View Resource Centre, Belford. Members will contribute their own discoveries of births, marriages and deaths among their ancestors. Everyone with an interest in family history is welcome.