This account of the gathering of the sheep into the Gisla fank for the clipping was written by David Henderson and first published in the Scots Magazine in August 1995. These large-scale community gatherings are now, sadly, a thing of the past. There are more pictures in the gallery, and of the fank at Loch Suainebhat here.
In the diffuse crofting culture of the Western Isles, the summer gathering of the sheep from the moors is one of the main highlights of community life. The practice has remained virtually unchanged since the arrival of the sheep in Lewis, and is a ritual I, as an incomer on holiday from Musselburgh, was priviledged to take part in. The gathering made the highlight of my stay.
My uncle Jim and I woke at dawn. The weather looked poor – drizzle and mist hid the view of Loch Roag from the kitchen window. I was sure the gathering would be put off – wet weather meant damp fleeces, difficult clipping and hours of drying for the Blackface wool we were to harvest.
Donald Calum Morrison, our crofting friend from Valtos, arrived at 7am as planned, refusing tea and looking skyward. “It looks awfully dull,” he said, “but no one’s phoned me so the gathering’s still on.”
Soon I was huddled in the back of Donald Calum’s austere van, sharing floorspace with an excited sheepdog who seemed to know what was in store. We rattled and bounced down the single track road, through Miavaig and on to the road south, pulling into passing places from time to time for a competing car, Donald Calum waving to them with the easy grace of one used to the island etiquette. Then we reached Gisla for the start of the walk into Morsgail Forest, a barren moor between Lewis and Harris where the Valtos crofters’ sheep roam their common grazings.
More than a dozen cars were gathered there. A brief discussion took place in the rain. All the crofters were annoyed that the weather had closed in – during the fortnight before, it had been “just like the Sahara,” as one local put it. There were pensive faces, shaking heads, pursed ips and whistling through teeth. “If it doesn’t dry up soon, the wool will be soaked,” said one man.