If you know what skiting around a fank is like, then I’ll wager you are a farmer, or have at some time or another been coaxed – perhaps with the help of several bottles of red wine – into helping with sheep on a local farm.
Personally, I drank the red wine with my farming friends and actually asked to help with the sheep. It seemed a more exciting option than looking after my small child at the time, and happily left my daughter with him indoors and headed off for my ovine adventure. I arrived smiling and enthusiastic; my farming friends just smirked from start to finish.
Most traditional farms will have a sheep fank (also known as stells or buchts). In wilder, more remote areas of the Scottish upland landscape, they are usually dry stane structures and can appear incongruous and forsaken on a remote hillside. For most of the year, they sit peaceful and vacant, but there are times when the interior is jumping with life, and the din of bleating sheep could render you deaf for a week.
In these more remote areas of Scotland the neighbouring farmers traditionally come together at important times of the year to bring the flocks down from the hills; shearing, worming, marking lambs, separating the lambs from their mothers etc.
Shepherds work their collies in one great pincer movement, down off the hill and towards the fank. The older sheep tend to know the routine and lead the young lambs and hogs into the structure, and there they are corralled.
The farmers then wade through the sea of moving sheep, identifying their own – by markings on the wool, horn or ear – and handing them to their own folk at the side of the fank. The sheep are then shorn or lambs set aside, and eventually the sheep are funneled through the various pathways or ‘races’ and get spat out at the desired exit point. Some Shaun The Sheep ovine characters decide upon escape and simply hurdle the walls to escape the process.
This coming together of the crofting and farming community to do the sheep has been a part of rural life in much of the Highlands and Islands since their introduction to the landscape.
Less remote farms usually have their fank close to the farm itself. Some are still made with dry stane, but more modern ones are fenced structures with gates and corridors use to funnel the sheep.
There is a mention earlier about ‘skiting’ around the fank, and this is the memory that most will retain should they have ever been within the confines of a fank heaving with sheep. A collection of anxious sheep generates a fank-full of slimy green shit. Which brings me back nicely to my smirking farming friends. Sheep are not necessarily the docile creatures you might think, particularly when they don’t fancy cooperating with a novice townie in their midst.
All I had to do while helping in the fank was get hold of the larger lambs, by now really quite robust and nearly the size of their mothers.
Wading through the seething mass of wool to a selected fat lamb, the others crush around your legs and knees, doing their level best to take you off you feet. A lunge at the victim can result in a miss, the sheep leaping up to butt your face or your getting a hold of the wool and being towed all around the fank. It’s impossible to get a foothold, and there is nothing to do but hold on and skite in the shire.
Think of the moment in JAWS when Robert Shaw harpoons the beast and the canisters are being towed behind at great speed through the water. It’s like that, with the shark being a sheep and the medium being sheep poo. I was hardly detected by the escaping great white (sheep).
Upon catching a supersized lamb, all I had to do then was lift it and upend it. Weak as a kitten, with flailing hooves slicing the skin and poo splattered across the face, neck and shoulders, it’s surely a privilege indeed to be a part of such a farming tradition.
How they smirked.