The Native Sheep of  North Ronaldsay  

A historic Introduction  

To 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 1486.

But nevertheless the Norse language had not been forgotten in North Ronaldsay as late as the beginning of the 18th century.

The greatest of Scottish prose-writers – Sir Walter Scott tells the following story:

“A 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 stanzas:-

Now the storm begins to lower.
Haste the doom of hell prepare,

Iron sleet of arrowy shower
Hurtles in the darkened air.

“But 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 Enchantresses.”

North Ronaldsay in the thirties      Copyright The Orkney Library

North 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 Adalsteinsson)

North Ronaldsay in the thirties      Copyright The Orkney Library

The 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 Laird.

Anyhow 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.

North Ronaldsay in the thirties      Copyright The Orkney Library

Paradoxically 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 to none.

Today’s 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.

Much 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.

Sheep-Isle 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.