I often wonder just who is in charge here on Ballachly Farm, me or this girl in the picture above, “Boss Ewe”. In the end it is a moot point, we both want the same things, peace and quiet while we eat well and have plenty to do and see around the place. Boss is the only named sheep I keep. She acquired that name as she rose through the ranks of sheepie matriarchy to be the lead sheep, first through any gate first to any new feed and the girl who noisily tells me whenever she sees me wandering around that “she would like some sugerbeet thank you. “Right now!”
Boss is a perfect example of both the quality of “True” North Country Cheviots and the relationship between sheep and Shepard I seek here on Ballachly. To this end I have her piebald fleece processed as a single unit producing just 15-17 100g double knitting skeins a year.
I look to keep up the tradition of “Hill” Cheviots that goes back 230ish years here in the far north. Some call this sub-type of the breed “Lairg” or “Hill” I call it “True” North . Whatever it is called the sheep type is several things that are important to Yarn quality. The “True” type is perfectly adapted to the weather and soil conditions here in Caithness and North Sutherland, after all its had long enough to settle in. The girls produce a strong wool of very high quality to stay warn and dry, it has a wonderful natural white that makes for excellent undyed yarns that were traditionally used for fisherman’s and farmers working jerseys like The Guansey. The white picks up dye accurately making a great base for subtle shading or for firm bold colours.
Lastly I have an unusually relaxed relationship with my Cheviots, Boss is a great example. When I walk up to a gate the girls run towards me in anticipation, not away in fear. This makes me very happy. It, also means the sheepies are relaxed, unstressed, and thus happier and healthier lives. Being Happy and healthy I contend makes for better wool and thus better Yarn.
When you buy and wear Caithness Yarns from Ballachly sheep remember these points every time you put on or see our Yarn. This is a Natural Sustainable product, produced with the welfare of the animals as the priority, traceable to specific years and flocks, even sometimes to individual sheep like The Great and Bold “Boss Ewe”
North country Cheviot
I love my sheepies. The joy, contentment and satisfaction in being a sheep farmer of “True” North Country Cheviots is the centre to my life. I find my sheepies endlessly entertaining, despite their reputation I find them funny, quirky and interesting. They will break your heart by dying suddenly but the occasional sadness just adds sweetness to the rest of the time I spend with my sheepies. I have never felt such a depth of peace and contentment as I feel in sitting in a pasture, late may or June surrounded by ewes and lambs. I look out across the Strath of Dunbeath across the river to Milton where my dads mum was born, up the river where I ran wild as a child and feel a sense of purpose and belonging in following in the footsteps of my dads family here as a sheep farmer.
The character and presence of the “True” North Country Cheviot is a large part of my sentiment towards being a sheep farmer, they are just great company and easy to keep. I first got sheep from Donnie and Jessie (see my blurb on their sheep further down) when I settled here after dodging around the world and doing the university thing for ages. I find these non pedigree sheep of the old fashioned type compliment my temperament well. I don’t want or need to drive the sheep or “impose my will”, I find will come to me to move fields or helped during lambing without pushing and force, this makes me happier and them too I expect.
I say “old fashioned type”, this is what I mean. Here in the far North we still have remnant populations of Cheviots whose commercial value lay in the quality of their fleece, not as a meat animal. I have been told that adjusted for inflation and all that stuff, the value in the mid 50’s of a kilo of prime Cheviot here was £50. I cannot say this is absolutely true but what is true is that the fleece here was the main value of sheep when they first moved here displacing many people in the late 1700’s.
The fleece of a “True” North Country Cheviot is thick and strong, all the better to withstand cold and wind and rain. When you shear it off it looks like the sheep half in size, the change is startling and a wee bit funny. The value of the fleece is apparent when you look at it from the underside, the wool is white, just a touch ecru. This sounds like it should apply to all sheepies, alas no, most “white” wool from British commercial sheep once washed is yellowish or grey. There are many reasons for this but a key one of importance here is that for the last 40-50 years wool prices have collapsed to nothing. The Wool Board who Buy nearly all wool offer for top Cheviot around £0.95 a kilo at the moment. It costs more than this to shear the sheepies. As a result farmers have had to use different criteria for selecting which lambs to keep, size and speed of weight gain are the main ones. This has led to a reduction in the overall quality of the fleeces on Cheviots as regarding its use as a Yarm wool. But here in the North of Scotland our old fashioned genetic lines have been sometimes maintained by stubborn farmers and crofters (like Donnie and Jessie), They have continued to include in their selection of sheep to retain and breed from the quality of their fleece just as their families have done for 200 odd years.
The “True” Cheviots here still have the traits of strength whiteness and softness that make the yarns I am now offering here so great.
This does not end the story here. In order to push the quality to its maximum potential I do two things to make our Cheviot yarn the best it can be. Firstly all wool including the Cheviot wool from my own and everyone else I buy from is hand sorted for quality. I throw away nearly a third of all the fleece as being to harsh or hairy. A fleece is not uniform, the best bits, the choice cuts if you like, are the neck, the front shoulders and the back. The bum and belly is coarser and hairy, the sheeps sit on the belly and point the bum towards bad weather so its rough hairy and coarse. you and me don’t want hairy course yarn, so I just don’t include that bits, its better to have better yarn than more yarn.
The other thing I do to push yarn quality is complex to explain, I have not had to articulate it in explicit detail yet and is still developing so I will just sketch the broad details here and go into greater detail in stories later. Simply Put I have changed the crop of Ballachly from store Lamb to fleece for yarn. This means every management decision is made with a view to pushing sheep health and thus fleece quality to its utmost, this is different from lamb production which prizes fast growth and size . Think of it like this. If sugar is bad for my health (and it is) why is it good for sheep? it is not. What you get is fat Graeme and fat sheep, neither of us as healthy as we could be.
The idea is Health sheep produce better fleece and thus better yarn for you. I also content that happier sheep makes for better yarn by raising the health of the sheep, less stress means healthier yes?
If you want to know more I will start writing much more on these topics in stories but for now I pause in my obsession for my Cheviots and their potential as a great Yarn breed. The best way to prove to yourself that what I say is true is to come to any show I am at and have a feel of the yarn. Once you squeeze a ball of our “True” North Country Cheviot yarn, you will know the truth of what I say, “Happy Healthy sheep make great Yarn”.
Castlemilk Moorits are one of Britain’s rarest native breeds, and many of you will not know them or have heard of them so let me tell you how I came to enjoy the company of 40 here on Ballachly. I first saw A Castlemilk Moorit at the Rare Breed Survival rust stand at the 2015 Royal Highland Show. I stopped and marvelled at this smallish brown sheep with a clever face and a noble presence. It was fate that just a week or two later I saw an add in the local community website offering pedigree Castlemilk ewe lambs, I called the fella and went that night and came home with four wee girl lambs.
I learnt my first lesson that night about how different Castlemilks are from Cheviots, they have the loudest and most demanding voice of any sheep, “WANT OUT!!!”. They did not appreciate the journey home. Second lesson that same night was they run like the wind, leaving me flailing around trying to control them. The answer has been of course to not try, allow them to be in control, make them want to do what you would like. So I purchased their affection with food and thus we became friends. Because people if there is one thing I understand it is the route to a ladies heart goes through her stomach. And Castlemilks are great Ladies indeed.
I now have forty Castlemilk girls and boys and they are a joy for me. They make me happy with their antics and shear charisma, they are quite a differently behaved sheepie than Cheviots, more highly strung and much more nosey. In turn they pay their room and board with around a kilo each of the most brilliant fleece. The wool is a very dark brown down at the base but it sun bleaches at the outside to a Café Au Late tip. The wool is soft and very oily, it is also quite short for such a hardy breed, it makes up for a smaller weight of fleece with density and tight crimping which when added to the abundant oil in the fleece makes a wind and waterproof covering.
I have chosen to blend the Castlemilk fleece I get from my own sheepies with Alpaca for now, future Castlemilk yarns will perhaps be different, but for not I think the two fibres compliment each other to make fantastic naturally coloured undyed yarns. each fibre, alpaca and wool has strengths and weaknesses that the other fibre makes up for. The Castle milks great drawback is the shortness of the staple typically 6-8 cms, this can lead to breaking, the Alpaca has a longer staple length whish stabilises the yarn and gives great tensile strength. The Alpaca lacks a crimp and bounce that returns the fibre to normal after being stretched, the Castlemilk has an abundant crimp and spring whish gives the final blended yarn an excellent spring to it.
In many ways the Castlemilk Moorit Alpaca yarns are our most attractive. They are naturally coloured unbleached undyed and will vary as a result slightly in each batch, but this is because the yarn I still developing. The future complexion and feel of the yarn will reflect its own individual experience, More sun = greater sun bleaching for a lighter colour, wash anything made with it repeatedly and feel the yarn relax to contour your body like and old friend.
I could go on, but will pause here, if you want to know more of my experiences with these lovely sheepies I will post tales in our stories section. In the meantime look for the new lambs, which are just adorable, next summer they should start to arrive mid May.
Strathy Point Croft 104 Cheviot
Croft 104 Strathy Point belongs to a great lady Jessie and my dear friend Donnie is her man. They are both the kind of people you don’t get now, they are both kind, interesting and decent people with roots in the North like ancient Oak. They are near the end of their time as crofters, they are both now nearly too old to cope with the physical demands, when the go we will not see their like again.
On a more Sheepie note, it was from Donnie that I first got sheep. we sold me a dozen very fine sheep of the old “True” North or Lairg type. That is hill sheep of a type that has been in Caithness for at least 200 years. The girls are very hardy and still have the kind of fleece that commanded serious money before the rise of synthetic fibres. In fact the only problem with these girls and their decedents is their overwhelming maternal instinct. At Lambing they WANT a baby whether its theirs or not, I have seen ewes steal another’s lamb, five ewes all in a pen claiming motherhood of a new born, they lust after my wee dogs and cats as being the right size (are they a lamb?!), I even once saw a ewe desire a rock.
Life is harder for sheep in Strathy Point than here in Dunbeath, is rougher ground and more exposed to the weather, and the fleece and yarn reflects this. The yarns is a touch less soft than my sheepies give from the same gene pool, but it is still softer than the yarn my granny used when I was wee.
The Aran and Chunky Yarns are strong and quite fine, they are firm of form and produce a pronounced structural stitch when doing rib work. If your doing a jersey or hat and want definition in your work then these are your yarns.
Teeswaters from Dene and Simon
The first time I saw Dena’s new Teeswater sheep I nearly drove off the road. That shock was a common reaction in Caithness the Teeswaters are just so very different to the other sheep up here. The girls are just starting to see, they are big, very big, and their wonderful lustrous fleece hangs in kinks like 80’s perm hair. A few days later I just drove up and introduced myself and asked to see these fine sheepies. I must say Dena and Simon were just lovely, and their sheep liked them a lot. I believe you tell a lot about a person by how their sheep react to them, these sheepies came running and were tame and trusting. I love to see this happy relationship between keepers and stock, I knew then these were people and sheep I wanted to work with.
I thought hard about what type of yarn I wanted to make with these fleeces. To start with it is soft with a very long staple length; also famously the Teeswaters wool has lustre and a natural sheen. So I am going for the lighter end of the scale, 2ply or even 1 if it can be done. I think this could be a great option for the future of this endangered native British Breed, Laceweight for traditional shawls. Well let’s see how it goes. If it can be done it will be here in November
black North Country Cheviot
How times change! in my Grandads time having black colour turn up in your lambs was shameful, to be hidden, now the Blacks are desired as lovely animals in their own right. This change is maybe due to the collapse in the overall value of wool at the Wool Board who just don’t want coloured fleece in with the white. Well I do!
This yarn is sourced from several folks I know in Caithness who have a scatter of Blacks in their flocks, so in many ways this is our first “All Caithness” yarn. The idea for this stated in late summer 2018 when a couple of neighbours offered me their coloured fleeces (thanks Magnus), I took them to the Loch Ness Knit Fest and they sold like hot cakes, AHA! I thought. so I have advertised and plotted and soon we will have an Undyed Natural “Black” North Country Cheviot yarn, Double knitting to start and the I am hoping for a Gansey weight later in the year.