Archaeologists working on Neolithic digs in Shetland have found the remains of Shetland’s native sheep dating back 5000 years. Throughout the early history a dense scrub woodland covered the hinterland of Shetland, which must have made catching small, agile sheep a challenge. As early agriculture developed the coastal areas were cleared for cultivation and grazing sheep, cattle and pigs were kept on the rest.
The sheep are of the northern short-tailed variety, probably, closely related to other primitive types such as the Soay of St. Kilda and the Villsau of Norway. The Shetland breed evolved to cope with its particular environment and has done so ever since.
Kept as hefted flocks grazing the hills and cliffs, their wool must have been critical for clothing. The sails of the Viking galleys, which crossed the oceans exploring new lands, were woven out of wool. While Shetland remained in Norwegian ownership taxes were paid in rolls of ‘wadmel’, a woven woollen cloth. Local fishermen working in open boats down the ages knew that woollen clothes kept them warm even when wet.
Nothing of the sheep harvest was wasted with skins being used as sieves, horns as sail couplings, dried inflated intestines as fishing buoys, and of course everything which was edible was consumed.
The dominant wool colour was ‘moorit’ or brown with the present predominance of white being a determination of modern spinning mills. Many other colour variations were found with each being given a Shetlandic name. These helped identification of individual sheep kept extensively in township grazings, ‘scattalds’.
The Shetland crofters, in deciding to have their organic wool spun, have for the first time in recent history been able to let the true character of the wool speak for itself. Their Organic yarns are unadulterated by chemicals and the prejudice of dyeing. Shetland Organic wool is an ancient fibre with a modern spin.
Shetland sheep examine an organic wool scarf.