Shetland lug-mark book, 19th century
Brian Smith from Shetland Museum and Archives speaks to Jon Bauckham about an unusual volume that was used to identify animals belonging to members of a farming community
ometimes it’s easy to become stuck in our ways and act as if the research road ends at census returns, parish registers and civil registration certificates. But occasionally the most name-rich records are those that family historians wouldn’t normally give a second glance.
This month, Brian Smith from Shetland Museum and Archives discusses an unusual document that not only provides an insight into bygone agricultural practices, but also offers a wealth of information about members of a Scottish island community during the 19th century.
Which document have you chosen?
I’ve chosen a document that may well be unique to the Shetland Archives. It’s a register of sheep and cattle marks – sometimes called a lug-mark book – kept in the little communities of Sandwick in Cunningsburgh, on the South Mainland of the Shetland Islands.
At the front of the book is an extract from the proceedings of a sheriff court held at Tow in Cunningsburgh in 1813. The sheriff, himself a native of the parish, stated that he was “much convinced of the necessity of renewing the practice of keeping a register of sheep and cattle marks, as a means of preventing and punishing crimes, as well as preventing… disputes”. A series of clerks kept the register up until 1894.
What does it reveal about the lives of our ancestors?
Shetland is usually regarded as a fishing community – and so it is. But every Shetland family kept sheep and cattle as well, and looked after them with care.
There was always the danger, of course, that animals might stray, or that one’s neighbours might claim or even steal them. A system of marks was devised, of notches in the beasts’ ears, to make the ownership of this or that one crystal clear.
It’s a practice that exists in societies throughout the world. Shetland Museum and Archives recently hosted a lecture about reindeer lug-marks by a professor from Sweden. Little-known as the practice is, it was vital in the rural communities.
Shetlanders created their own nomenclature for the marks. It was complex and abstruse. On 16 May 1845, for instance, Margaret Halcrow in Aith registered her sheep and cattle mark. It is no. 742 in the register: “Right lug a bitt behind, left lug a cleep in the top and a bitt behind”. From then on there should have been no difficulty in identifying her animals.
In 1889, George Leask in Rumpa, Channerwick, registered his mark – no. 1245. It was simpler: “Right lug two holes and no more mark”. And in 1894, Thomas Jamieson in Jampies in Cunningsburgh claimed as his mark: “Right lug a cleep in the top, left lug a cleep in the top and a hole.”
The ethnologist Sandy Fenton has published drawings and descriptions of 28 lug-mark types from Orkney and Shetland ( The Northern Isles, 1978). From his careful work we learn that a ‘cleep’, for instance, was a v-shaped nick in the tip of the animal’s ear, and a ‘ bitt’ was a small half-round notch in the side of the ear. On the other hand, a ‘ hole’ was just a hole!
Our register of sheep and cattle marks was maintained for 80 years. It was very tattered on arrival in the archives, and had to be repaired.
The book’s scruffy state was proof that the community took the matter very seriously.
Why did you choose this document?
I chose the lug-mark book because it is unexpected. Record offices are full of court records, registers of deeds, letters of all shapes and sizes, ledgers and manifold kinds of business record. But there can be very few registers of sheep and cattle marks extant.
I like it, too, because it is a
The book’s scruffy state was proof that the community took
the matter very seriously
community document. Granted, the sheriff presided at the meeting where it was decided to establish it; but he was acting as a friend of the community, rather than in any very official capacity. The register was kept by clerks in the local district, no doubt in their houses, and, as we have seen, it was written in a language accessible mainly to owners of animals.
Since the volume covers a long period, we can work out the marking arrangements of nearly every household in Sandwick and Cunningsburgh: there are 1,335 registered marks in it.
There is also scope for research by ethnologists and linguists. I have a feeling, from what I have seen, that a ‘cleep’ and a ‘rit’ in Cunningsburgh might have been different from notches with those names in different parishes!
Tell us more about your collections…
The Shetland Archives houses local government collections (records of Lerwick Town Council, Zetland County Council and its predecessors as well as Shetland Islands Council); crown records (sheriff court, procurator fiscal, police, customs and excise, etc.), held under ‘charge and superintendence’ of the Keeper of the Records off Scotland; gifts and deposits of every shape and size; oral history material from the 1950s onwards; and the most extensive collection of published works about Shetland anywhere.
The Shetland Archives came into existence in 1976, in very cramped accommodation. In 2007, we joined our museum colleagues in the brand-new Shetland Museum and Archives, at Hay’s Dock in Lerwick.
BRIAN SMITH is Archivist at Shetland Museum and Archives
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