December 6, 2008

The shepherd's stick? Online guide to the Border stick-dresser's craft

By Clive Dalton

My first decent horn-head stick

I was lucky enough to be given my first decent stick with a horn handle at age 13 by a noted Border Shepherd, Michael Anderson (see picture at left, courtesy of Bellingham Heritage Centre collection painted by Miss Kingston-Walker), when I plucked up enough courage to ask him how to bend a sheep’s horn. He was generous with his knowledge and honoured me with a stick. It was a memorable visit to his workshop with few tools but much wisdom.

But a shepherd’s stick is more than a tool of trade. When a Border Shepherd got up from his chair leaving the warmth of the fireside to go outside, he did two things. He first reached for his cap, and then he took his stick from the rack in the ceiling beams above the fireplace. A good shepherd not only “gaveth his life for his sheep”, he nivor left his stick (or his cap) lyin aboot either!

Choice of stick
Which stick he chose depended on the mission. At lambing time he’d choose the long wide-necked horn-headed stick which could be hooked around a departing ewe’s neck to bring her to an abrupt stop. Fixing of the head to the shank of this stick was critical, as you could be left with a shank in your hand, a departing ewe with a horn necklace and some biblical quotations from your mouth

If a shepherd was off to “look the hill” or “caa the sheep oot”, he’d take a much shorter and lighter plane-headed stick. The correct length for this stick stretched from your left should joint to the outstretched finger of your right hand. This length was grand for walking on the hill among rough tussock “bull snoots” and a help for crossing drains. This stick could get a fair bit of wear ands tear over time, and I’ve seen many with new shanks spliced on with black insulating tape. It was never wise to ask “whaat brok yor stick”?

If you were off to the local market or the village to see the bank manager, then you’d choose your “mart stick” which was a bit more fancy than your daily herding stick. It would certainly have some decoration on the handle and perhaps your name and the farm name, but certainly not a trout or a cock pheasant’s head. These real fancy sticks were only for show.

Stick to attend the local show
The other important spot to show off your good stick was at the local Show where you knew that all your fellow shepherds would be there, just quietly skiting about their sticks without saying a word.

Picture of Michael Anderson (left) with pipe and stick taken from film
of Bellingham show, probably around the 1950s

Stick for church
There was one other very special place where you could do some stick skiting; it was at church.
Here you’d take a smallish top quality bit of art and craft, as you knew it would be seen during sermons when minds tended to wander. At the end of the pew was a brass handle that held sticks and umbrellas and stood in a drip-tray at the base. Here also was the place to see the lovely light and decorative ladies’ sticks.

Stick as a presentation award
Often a stick is given as a prize at a Sheep Show (like the one I made below) or for a winner at a dog trial. (Any stick used in a NZ Dog Trial can be no longer than 1 metre).

The trophy for the Supreme Chamption Wool Breeds' Ewe
Presented at the NZ Waikato Show by David and Jean Welch, OMATA Perendale stud 2009

There was just one other place that a shepherd needed a stick for – to lay on the top of his coffin.

Historical uses for a shepherd's stick
  • To help walking over rough ground and among rocks, especially when coming down hill.
  • As a weapon to ward off predators of the flock.
  • As company - to give a feeling of security when out on your own.
  • As a status symbol - the shepherd always had high status among farm workers.
  • To catch sheep by the neck or the back leg.
  • To move awkward animals such as old rams which may turn on you if provoked.
  • To extend your arm to direct a dog when it was working a long way off.
  • To extend your arm and block sheep when working at close quarters.
  • As a leaning post when resting to support your front or back side.

Click here for a link to the latest Knol from Clive Dalton with the detail of making a stick in the manner of traditional Border craftsman.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating insight into the ultimate shepherd accessory. Lovely to read.
    from a great granddaughter of a Galloway shepherd.