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

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - QUESTIONS & ANSWERS -

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

Who Do You Think You Are?

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.