The north face of Soay soars directly out of the sea towering
1239' at its highest point. It has no
shoreline. The breakers at
its base are caused by oceanic swells
formations just below the water's surface.
A Thumbnail History
Of The Soay Sheep
Of St. Kilda1
St. Kilda is an alluring place; it has captured the imagination of
travelers since Martin Martin first visited late in the seventeenth century and this
fascination continues with tourists even today. An archipelago of four islands, Hirta,
Dun, Soay and Boreray and several stacs, it lies in the heart of the north Atlantic storm
track forty-one miles west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides off Scotland. The closest
landmass to the west of it is Newfoundland in North America. Known for its ferocious
winds, unpredictable weather and spectacular granite and gabbro cliffs, which often rise
more than a thousand feet perpendicularly from the sea, the tallest in Britain, these
islands are home to the Soay sheep (Ovis aries L.), a small, primitive
breed of the northern short-tailed group.The Soay is considered by many scholars to be the
only living relic of mans earliest semi-domesticated sheep. Its fine, short
fleece gives scientists some insight into just how far Neolithic farmers had
advanced in the development of wool from a short inner
fleece found beneath the coarse outer hair of its wild ancestors. [Ponting, 1980]. While
no one knows precisely how or when the sheep arrived on St. Kilda, archeological evidence
leads them to believe it has been there for several thousand years. With certainty it has
survived in total isolation on the uninhabited isle of Soay since historic times. For much
of its past it had human neighbors on Hirta, a larger, adjacent island, but because of
Soays inaccessibility the two had relatively little contact and the sheeps
evolution was driven entirely by nature and the environment and not by any form of
artificial selection by man. As a result the Soay is now a living archive of the origins
of domestic sheep and an undiluted genetic reservoir for the future.
Figure 2. Soay approaching from the
South. The tip of the Cambir of Hirta is to the far right. Stac Biorach and
Soay Stac (with the arch) are in Soay Sound between the two Islands.
Historically the crofters of
neighboring Hirta gathered Soay wool in the summer when it was naturally shed. The fleece
was softer and finer than that of their husbanded sheep and it was used by the women to
make undergarments. The dark brown and tan fibers may also have been combined with their
white wool which was spun into yarn and later woven into tweed cloth.2
The men used the St. Kilda Tweed to fabricate their
familys clothing, to pay the Laird his annual rent and during the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries, to trade with seasonal tourists. During the summer several excursions
were mounted to the outlying islands, including Soay, one specifically for gathering wool.
Landing was (and still is) treacherous and could best be done when the seas were calm and
the wind was just a whisper. Barefoot, the cragsmen of Hirta scrambled onto the rocks from
their bobbing boat at the one landing site that gave them a relatively safe foothold and
access to the summit. Tethered together for safety they made their way, over immense
figure 3. South facing wall of Soay (to the left) looking
through the strait,
Hirta (the Cambir) is to the right, Boreray appears
beyond the gap four miles in the distance.
difficult, steep terrain to the sloped plateau and the
sheep above. Because the forbidding rock faces rose directly out of the surf not only was
there often no landing on the the island, there was no place to safely moor their open row
boat. Tied to the cliff face it could easily be smashed to pieces, stranding them
indefinitely. Therefore, the party, including dogs, was left behind with their provisions
and sheltered from the ever-changing weather in small cleits (stone huts) built for these
visits, they stayed a week or more.
Figure 4. The south facing slope
and the summit
of Soay where the sheep are often seen.
While the wool gathering was extremely hazardous work, both man and
beast could fall or be blown over the high bluffs into the crashing ocean below, it was
also exhilarating and this annual trek was a high point of the year. The dogs were trained
to chase and hold the sheep until reached by its owner and when the fleece had been rooed
(plucked) it was released to return to grazing. At a pre-arranged time, weather
permitting, the boat returned for the men, their dogs and their wool and they were rowed
back to Hirta where their bounty was stored until winter.
4a Detail south facing slope of Soay. Four ewes can be seen grazing among
Wool gathering here would have been extremely challenging. July
During the long, dark days of November and December the village was abuzz with activity
and the stored wool was taken out of the rafters, byres and cleits. At festive community
gatherings, which usually lasted late into the night, it was picked clean of debris, often
by the children and carded. It was then divided among the village households. Every
cottage along "main street" had at least one spinning wheel; many had two,
usually in the kitchen. There, by a smoldering peat fire, the women did their spinning. In
the mid-nineteenth century the art of knitting was introduced to St. Kilda and thereafter
the crofters wives used the handspun Soay yarn to knit gloves, socks, stockings and
scarves. The men wove the yarn into cloth on very simple wooden handlooms, which were
stored away in the off season. For two or three months in the spring nearly every man on
Hirta sat by his weaving many days from dawn until dark.
"Main Street" St. Kilda. Three of six restored 1860
cottages. Round stone structure in foreground is an earlier
house from the 1830's. August 2003
Because the sheep on Soay were the property of the Laird and a tax had to be paid
for each one taken, they were only rarely hunted for meat. To the St. Kildans Soay meat
was a delicacy and a welcomed change to their diet of birds, eggs and their own domestic
mutton. New Years was the traditional occasion for such a feast. After the turn of the
twentieth Century, as the population dwindled and the number of able-bodied men declined,
making their traditional means of subsistence increasingly difficult, more summer hunting
expeditions to Soay seem to have been made. As many as a dozen sheep were captured live
and transported back to Hirta where they were slaughtered, butchered and divided among the
families. The meat that was not consumed immediately was salted stored in cleits and later
From prehistoric times until the middle of the nineteenth Century Soay Sheep are
believed to have only been found on the 244-acre island that bore its name. During the mid
1800s, with the advent of the steam engine, yachting became increasingly popular and
St. Kilda became a much sought after exotic destination. Near the turn of the twentieth
Century a few wealthy visitors took an interest in the little brown sheep and began to
import small numbers to the mainland. These were taken to private estates and parklands
where they were often selectively bred to meet an individual owners criteria of what
a Soay sheep should look like. Today these sheep are referred to as Park Soay.
The most widely known of these flocks was kept at Woburn Abbey. Imported in 1910 by
zoologist H.A. Russell, the 11th Duke of Bedford, the flock was culled of all polled or
scurred rams or ewes and all animals that were not brown mouflon (wild) pattern, in
keeping with his (or possibly the Duchesses) idea of how a true Soay should appear. This
has misled many over the years to believe that polled or scurred ewes and blonde,
self-colored or animals with white markings were not true Soay.
Figure 5 Woburn Abbey
Deer Park where the
Duke of Bedfords flock of Soay still is today.
This flock is still at Woburn Park in Bedfordshire, England where it
has existed continuously since its importation in 1910.
Somewhat earlier (prior to 1900) another important flock was kept at Rushmore, the estate
of Lt. General Fox Pitt-Rivers in Cranbourn Chase, Dorset. Pitt-Rivers was considered by
some during this era of amateur scientists, to be the father of British
Archeology and was known as an innovator who valued detailed and complete records.
He realized that the context in which an artifact was found was often as important as the
artifact itself. To better interpret the fragments he unearthed at the Romano-British
sites on his estates, he used bones from his own Soay flock, which he recognized as an
ancient breed, for comparisons. These examinations gave him a better understanding of the
early farmers who had inhabited this part of Britain.
From these estates, the Duke of Bedford, Fox Pitt-Rivers and other wealthy landowners, the
sheep gradually found their way into different parklands throughout the UK.
In August 1930 the few remaining residents of Hirta left for what they believed would be
an easier life on the mainland, ending nearly two thousand years of continuous occupancy.
Their livestock, a few cows and a large number of domestic sheep, were taken off the
island with them to be sold at market in Oban. The few remaining animals were shot,
leaving the islands vegetation to grow unchecked. Shortly thereafter, in 1931, after
six centuries of MacLeod ownership, MacLeod of MacLeod sold the islands to the Earl of
Dumfries, later the 5th Marquess of Bute, an avid ornithologist. The following year the
new landowner hired a group of islanders who eagerly returned to their old home for the
duration of the summer. Their task was to capture and transfer wild sheep from Soay to
Hirta and by August a flock of 107 (of mixed sexes and ages) had been moved. This was the
first time in memory that Soay sheep existed on both islands. By 1952 the population had
grown to 1114.
Between the evacuation in 1930 and the beginning of World War II in 1939 there are
indications that some animals were removed to the mainland but there are apparently no
records of where they went and thus following them is all but impossible.
After the War, in 1945, John Crichton-Stuart (the 5th Marquess of
Bute), a dedicated conservationist and the owner of St. Kilda, was elected president of
the Zoological Society of Glasgow (now The Zoological Society of Glasgow and West of
Scotland). His early gift to the new zoo, prior to its opening in 1947 was a small flock
of Soay sheep.3
Figure 6. Sheep graze the meadow in the Village area on Hirta in
Upon his death in 1957 the Marquess bequeathed the St. Kilda Islands to the
National Trust for Scotland and from its earliest days the Trust has supported the
research of scientists who have studied (and continue to study) the sheep with great
interest. An annual census of the sheep began in 1955 and continues today. In 1963 Dr.
Jewell and his colleagues on the Soay Research team brought a flock back to the mainland
so that they could continue their studies in more detail. In selecting the animals they
made great effort to get a truly representative flock of the sheep as they found them on
Hirta; white markings, polled and horned ewes, self-colored, tan and brown mouflon
patterns, etc. These Jewell referred to as Hirta Soay. This flock was split
into two groups. One went to the Royal Zoological Society of Edinburgh (The Edinburgh Zoo)
and the other went to Whipsnade Zoo in England, which had kept Soay sheep since the 1950s.
Eventually the Edinburgh flock was transferred to the Animal Breeding Research
Organization in Roslin, Scotland and the animals at Whipsnade went to Reading University
west of London. From there small groups were dispersed to several keepers including Joe
Henson at Cotswold Farm Park and Dr. Peter Reynolds at Butser Hill Ancient Farm. A small
flock Dr. Jewell took with him to Royal Holloway College. Eventually these made their way
into the hands of enthusiasts in England and Wales. Some of the Edinburgh flock ultimately
went to the Nature Conservancy at Bangor in northern Wales.
Figure 7. A group of St. Kilda rams, Soay and Boreray, on a hillside in
Wales. The Boreray,
seen here in the middle, has the typical markings and coloring of the breed.
The other rams
illustrate the variety of color and markings found in the Soay.
While it has been the policy of the National Trust to not allow the removal of
sheep from Soay or Hirta, it is known that a few have come off Hirta since the
1960s, often orphaned lambs adopted by military personnel stationed on
From flocks on the mainland animals have made their way to other parts of the world. In
1974 a group of four animals was exported to the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg,
Ontario, Canada and in 1975 a group of twenty went from Knebworth Flock to a Mr.Grom near
Frankfurt, Germany. Grom, who had already acquired ten sheep from European Zoos, was
eager to participate in the RBST's registration program. This is believed to have been the
first export to a private breeder in Europe. [ARK, 1975]. In 1990 a second group was
exported to North America this time to Montreal. Ten years later the Montreal flock was
exported from Canada to the United States. The Soay is now also found in Belgium and the
Netherlands with a few in France. On farms in all of these countries the Soay is valued by
handspinners for its soft wool, by conservationists for its reclamation of sensitive lands
from the over-growth of scrub and by specialty butchers who have found there is a demand
for its flavorful low-fat, low-cholesterol meat. It is also found in wildlife parks and
interpretive centers throughout the UK. Although the Soay is no longer considered
endangered by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, numbers worldwide remain very limited.
Figure 8. Part of the
Little Gaerllwyd Flock, remnant of Peter Jewell's
original 1963 flock of Hirta Soay kept at Holloway College now in Monmouthshire
This little sheep, arguably
the oldest and best preserved cultural artifact in Scotland is a unique living link
to our prehistoric past.4 As such,
it enables archeologists to get a clearer picture of how advanced Neolithic agricultural
practices had become. With its short but fine wool researchers can see early mans
deliberate attempts to refine the thin hair covered undercoat of its ancestors, possibly
the European Mouflon (Ovis musimon), into a true fleece. The Soay also remains
important for a number of other reasons not the least of which is the contributions it has
made to research in the study of immunology. Because of its closed but widely diverse gene
pool, its blood serum has been ideally suited to antibody research. This same genetic
diversity, which has allowed the Soay to adapt to a very harsh and often hostile
environment, may also provide future farmers with the building blocks they need to bring
breeds back to the more diversified and less
specialized agricultural practices from which they
have drifted. As livestock animals have been selectively bred to meet current economic
demands much valuable genetic material has been cast aside in the name of economic
expediency. Modern breeds of dairy cows for example, produce tremendous amounts of milk,
but can only thrive on the richest pasturelands and diets supplemented with expensive
grains. As prime farmland is lost to urban housing, these rich pasturelands become
increasingly scarce. When the pendulum of agricultural fashion swings back to less
specialization and the use of more marginal lands, the primitive breeds once again become
important. For this reason breeds such as the Soay are a safeguard against an uncertain
future and should be protected. Unlike modern strains of sheep, the Soay is not dependent
on man for anything. Its adaptability and survival in the extraordinarily harsh conditions
found on its rocky out post on the edge of the world have made it adaptable
and self-sufficient; this may very well be the trait that we most value in the future.
Figure 9 Foggy
Morning Village Meadow Hirta, August 2003
For more pictures of Soay Sheep on St. Kilda, please
visit our St. Kilda Soay Sheep Photo Gallery
Alderson, Lawrence. 1978 Chance to Survive, Rare Breeds in a Changing World.
Cameron & Taylor, London
Allan, Richard J. P. Scottish island sheep, The ARK, Vol. XI, No.6 June
Clutton-Brock, Juliet. 1999 A Natural
History of Domesticated Mammals. Cambridge University Press, London, . Pg. 71
Clutton-Brock,Tim and Pemberton, Josephine,(eds) 2004 ,Soay
Sheep, Dynamics and Selection in an Island Population. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Darling, F. Frasier, & Boyd, J. Morton. 1964 The Highlands and Islands.
Harman, Mary.1987 An Island Called Hirte, A history and Culture of St Kilda to 1930,
Isle of Skye, Maclean Press
Jewell, Peter, The Soay Sheep (Part 1), The ARK, Vol. VII No.2 February 1980
Jewell, Peter. The Soay Sheep (Part 2), The ARK, Vol. VII No.3 March 1980
Jewell., P A, Milner, C and Morton-Boyd, J 1974.
Island survivors- the ecology of the Soay sheep of St. Kilda, University of London,
Athlone Press, London
Ponting, Kenneth. Sheep of the World in
Colour, Pool, Dorset: Blanford Press, 1980 pg.69
Quine, David A. 1982 St. Kilda Revisited, Frome: Dowland Press
Quine, David A. 1988 St. Kilda Portraits,
Revised Nomination of St. Kilda for Inclusion in the World Heritage Site List, Crown
Ryder, M.L. Sheep and Man. 1983 Gerald Duckworth and Co., London
Steele, Tom.1990 Life and Death of St.
Kilda, The moving story of a vanished island community. Fontana Paperbacks
The ARK, Vol. II, No. 9, pg. 213
Correspondence between Kathie Miller and C.M.
Correspondence between Kathie Miller and Education Department, Woburn Abbey, October 2002
Correspondence between Kathie Miller and National Trust for Scotland
Correspondence between Kathie Miller and Scottish National Heritage
Photo 5 Post card 1910, collection of the author
Photos 7& 8 R.A. & C.M. Williams
Gaerllwyd Flocks of Rare Breed Sheep, Little Gaerllwyd, Gaerllwyd, Chepstow, Monmouthshire
NP 16 6AR, Wales.
All other photos taken by the author
Figure 10. Village Bay August 2003
|1 Until the twentieth Century the spelling of the Island of Soay in the St.
Kilda group and the spelling of the Soay sheep was Soa. There are several Soay Islands off
the coast of Scotland. return to article
2 The domestic sheep kept
by the crofters undoubtedly originated with the Soay, which was crossed over the centuries
with breeds brought from the Outer Hebrides. Ultimately it was a blend of the now extinct
Scottish Tan-face and the Scottish Blackface. About 1870 a few Lewis Blackface tups were
introduced to the island to cross with the Tan Face that was there. The hope was to
further improve the breed. These sheep were kept on Dun, Hirta and Boreray four miles
away. In 1930 when the archipelago was evacuated and all the livestock was removed with
the St.Kildans weather prevented the retrieval of the sheep still on Boreray. They have
existed there in isolation ever since and because of this isolation the Boreray Sheep is
now considered a breed. In 1971 three pair were captured and taken to ABRO near Edinburgh.
Eventually a few were released to approved farms and today they are kept by a small number
of breeders. They are one of the very few sheep carrying the genes of the extinct Scottish
Tan Face and for this reason are important to preserve. Many have tan faces and tan on
their shoulders, however, some do have black on their faces. They are short tailed and
shed their fleece as the Soay does. return to article
3 In 1944 a group
of Soay sheep was released on Lundy, a small island eleven miles off the coast of North
Devon in the Bristol Channel between England and Wales. They were also introduced to the
Cardigan Island off the west shore of Wales. Sheep on both islands originated from flocks
on the mainland and they can still be found there today return to
Nomination of St. Kilda for inclusion in the World Heritage Site List, Crown Copyright
2003 p. 19 return to article