History of Boreray Sheep

The ancestors of Boreray sheep, indeed all the North Atlantic Short-Tailed sheep, were brought into Europe by the earliest Neolithic farmers.  Research into the skeletal remains and stone tools used in spinning and weaving give some indication about how the sheep were managed by Neolithic farmers.

For the Vikings, the Short-Tailed sheep were extremely important.  Their unique double coated fleece had properties essential for the sails that powered their boats and longships, as well as providing clothing that could withstand the wet and cold.  Work reproducing woollen sails has shown other qualities of the wool of these tough little sheep that made it possible to have woollen sails.  Calculations of the work involved in making these sails and the number of sheep required give insights into Viking life.

In the Highlands of Scotland, before the Clearances of the mid-to-late 18th century into the mid-19th century, the subsistence farmers relied on their little horned short-tailed sheep for virtually all the clothing worn and much of the protein in the diet through its milk, often made into cheese for keeping.  These sheep, now extinct, were known as the Scottish Tanface or Old Scottish Shortwool.  This painting, from 1859, shows what appears to be one of the last Highland flocks with Tanface sheep.

The crofters on St Kilda also had some of these Tanface sheep, along with Soay sheep.  As the Tanface sheep were driven to extinction in mainland Scotland, they survived almost unchanged on this remote archipelago far out in the Atlantic ocean.  Those on Boreray Island were left behind when St Kilda was evacuated of its people and the livestock on the main island of Hirta in 1930.

 

The Boreray sheep now found throughout the UK are descended from these sheep, with a small number being taken off Boreray Island in St Kilda in the 1970's.