The Unlikely Flock of North Ronaldsay
A Merino Alternative
To survive the cold snap last year, we released the Lunan – a hat made from the remnants of the great Harris Tweed. This year we wanted to find an even better merino alternative, something no one had seen before. Finally, we found it on North Ronaldsay – a tiny island past the tip of Scotland, at the northernmost point of the Orkney archipelago.
In its skies fly rare vagrant birds from all over Europe. There’s a lighthouse with a light so dim that it actually sank ships and it’s here that the story of the Tangi begins. The name given to a sea spirit, the Tangi would take the shape of a small goblin-like horse covered in seaweed, designed to send chills through the bones of lonely travellers. Usually, a story like this would fade in time, but on this tiny island, the tale of the Tangi has persevered. Today, a flock of sheep roam the black, rocky beaches, grazing entirely on seaweed. The only other land animal apart from the Iguana to do so.
An Unlikely Flock
How these sheep even found themselves on one of the northernmost points of the British Isles remains a mystery. Some suggest their descendants – the hardy, adaptable and long-lived European short tail – migrated to the island at the end of the last Ice Age. Others say that they have been there since the Iron Age. What can be proven is that for nearly 180 years they have been confined to the shore by a 13 mile dyke
Left to roam, they have made it their own; the beach now known to the locals as the Clowgang. Their seclusion has given them more than an unusual appetite. They are now one of the world’s only untouched breed of sheep. A rare thing, as most others breeds have mixed with merino sheep, to make them bigger and more profitable, at the expense of losing the characteristics that make them unique. Meaning that a merino alternative is a rarer and rarer thing. Feral, the North Ronaldsay sheep are shepherded by the tides, but twice a year, the flock are rounded up by the farmers of the island and hand sheared. It’s a tough job – the sheep know the coastline well, and they’re adept at evading their keepers. But it’s a worthy exercise; to withstand the cold, stormy climate of the Norwegian sea – the North Ronaldsay have two coats.
The outer is thick and tough, giving them protection from the wet weather and stormy seas; while the inner is fine, soft and supple, allowing them warmth in the winter winds. Once sheared the wool is processed entirely on the island: cleaned and spun and ready to be shipped back to the mainland.
So as the island risks being swallowed by modernity and the rising tides, and as the population diminishes from 500 to 60 inhabitants, North Ronaldsay has found an unlikely lifeline in the shape of seaweed eating sheep, and you know that the hat is keeping more than just you wrong. Maybe they’ll keep the Tangi at bay for another century too.