Shetland Wool, taking all its
properties together, is perhaps the completest article of the kind in the
universe, possessing at the same time, the gloss and softness of silk, the
strength of cotton, the whiteness of linen, and the warmth of wool.
Sir John SinclairSeptember 22, 1790
This research began several years ago as I tried to reconcile the
different phenotypes so abundant in the broad population of Shetland
Sheep. In the text below I have drawn extensively from published and
unpublished historical documents relevant to the history of the Sheep of
Shetland. I have avoided rigorous adherence to references and footnotes to
lighten the burden of reading. I have perhaps over quoted from these
historical documents but I want to give the reader enough information to
draw his or her own conclusions. Full references may be found in the
unabridged version of this document, available on request.
Nevertheless, the interested reader will find the majority of the
underlying historical information in:
His Majesty’s Spanish Flock, Sir Joseph Banks and the
Merinos of George III of England, 1964, H. B. Carter, Angus and
Spain’s Golden Fleece, Wool Production and the Wool Trade from the
Middle Ages to the nineteenth Century, 1997, Phillips and
Phillips, Johns Hopkins University Press
The Sheep and Wool Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks. 1781-1820.
edited by H. B. Carter, 1979. The Library Council of New South Wales
in Association with the British Museum (Natural History).
I have preserved the original spellings and punctuations of the
correspondence cited, amending them only to provide clarity of meaning.
The intent of this article is to elucidate a critical phase in the
history of the Sheep of the Shetland Islands. That era, spanning less than
15 years, I believe, is a most critical point in the history of these
interesting sheep. For it became the line of demarcation between what was
a landrace population of broad phenotypic and genotypic diversity and what
was, through stages, to become the source of the finest hosiery in Britain
during the 18th , 19th and early 20th Century as described initially in
the 1927 Flock Book Standard and ultimately was refined to become the
Modern Commercial Shetland.
Prior to this time there is ample evidence to support the idea that the
Sheep of Shetland were by and large double-coated sheep of mixed Northern
European Short-tailed genetic heritage commingled with the indigenous
Soay-like sheep of the Islands with occasional and highly prized animals
nearly free of "stichel" hairs and more nearly single-coated.
Similarly, there is much known about these sheep in the 20th
Century, especially after the establishment of a standard for the breed
first promulgated in 1927 by the Shetland Flock Book Society.
However, despite the many historical references to the interest in the
Sheep of Shetland in the 18th and 19th Century,
relatively less comment has been made on the historical context and
significance of this period on what was to become the Shetland Breed.
During my research on this period I was delighted to have the opportunity
to read both published and unpublished correspondence between the
protagonists of a bold experiment that captured the interest, imagination
and full attention of King George III of England and the most prominent
men of science of the day as well as politically motivated men of
significant wealth and rank in Scotland, England, Spain and elsewhere.
The citations below are a minute sampling of more than 1000 letters and
private writings that I have read from the time period spanning roughly
the years from 1780 to 1810. The vast majority of these letters are from
the sheep and wool correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks whom many will know
as the "Father of Australia" and is less well known as the scientific
architect behind the experimental flocks of King George III of England.
Not cited here, but of great historical interest to the Shetland
Breeder, is a relatively new volume by David Kinsman, The Black Sheep
of Windermere published by Windy Hall Publications, 2001. ISBN
The Sheep of Shetland
An Historical Perspective
Shetland Wool, taking all its properties together, is perhaps the
completest article of the kind in the universe, possessing at the same
time, the gloss and softness of silk, the strength of cotton, the
whiteness of linen, and the warmth of wool.
Sir John SinclairSeptember 22, 1790
So wrote Sir John Sinclair to his good friend Sir Joseph Banks on the
subject of Shetland wool in the late 18th Century. That he could qualify
as a modern day genius in advertising is debatable. But his enthusiasm for
the Sheep of Shetland was probably second to none. However, his glowing
comments do not begin to reveal the issue that swirled through Britain in
his time. That issue centered on the strategic importance for Britain to
regain from Spain the leadership of the global sheep and wool industry.
To fully comprehend the implications we must remember that during a
period of roughly 300 years prior to the time of Banks and Sinclair, the
sheep and wool industry was by far the most important economic sector in
the economies of the major European nations and the British Isles. It was
an economic activity that was analogous to the Technology Sector of the
21st Century or the Steel Industry for much of the 20th Century. The
success and wealth of nations was directly linked to the quality and
productivity of a nation’s flocks.
Sir Joseph Bank’s (1743-1820) work as an explorer and botanist was
among the most important in the eighteenth century. His principal claim to
the continuing regard of posterity was the founding and stocking of Kew
Gardens as the foremost botanical repository and research institution in
In 1768 he traveled with Captain Cook on a botanical expedition to the
South Seas, collecting hundreds of previously unknown plant specimens. He
also served as president of the Royal Society for forty-two years. But,
equally important, Banks was chosen by the King to tackle the problem of
the Wool Industry in Britain; a matter of utmost importance to the Crown.
King George III, a "Scientist King" if there ever was one, had given a
mandate to Sir Joseph Banks to find or breed a sheep of such quality that
England could once again compete against the Spanish in these markets.
Banks, an Etonian and Oxonian of no mean background first met George III
in 1771 and became a life-long friend of the Royal Family and Advisor to
To Sir Joseph Banks:
The King is much hurt he was not
apprised on Tuesday that Sir Joseph Banks was at Kew; or he would have
found time to have seen him. The King is much pleased that two (Merino)
Rams and four (Merino) Ewes are sent for, and should wish the commission
could be extended to twenty Ewes and ten Rams…The King trusts that this
number from Bilboa will not stop the attempts of getting some through
France as well as others through Portugal.
George III, H.M. King
August 10, 1787
This period of time of course, also marked the birth of modern animal
husbandry in Britain and Western Europe. During the 1780’s and early
1790’s, Banks and his compatriots searched the world diligently to find
possible sources of breeds that might help him in his quest to breed the
English counter part to the Spanish Merino. Few expenses were spared as
Banks examined sheep from as far away as Tibet and as near as England
itself. And this was also a time characterized by a great flurry of
experimental breeding and husbandry with scientific discussions of the
Banks himself thought that the best approach might entail cross
breeding the finest Merino’s with the best sheep that Britain had to
offer. The only problem with this approach was that Merinos were
impossible to obtain because King Charles of Spain had banned the export
of Merinos from his country.
The note of approval above from George III to Banks references a covert
operation put together by Banks in an effort to get even a few of these
mysterious sheep out of Spain. In all, he attempted soliciting contraband
Merinos through agents in Portugal, Austria, France and even directly from
Spain had gained control of the industry with the continued breeding of
its "mysterious sheep" known as the Merino. As a result, more economic
value was derived from sheep and wool than all the plundering of the New
World could produce during that period.
The Merinos of Spain were a critically important resource if not an
economic weapon. So much so that exportation of these animals was a
serious crime against the state and in defiance of King Charles of Spain.
Much has been written about the transhumant herding culture that
characterized the Spanish sheep industry throughout this time. With well
over 4 million animals at its peak, Spain exported on average more than 14
million pounds of washed wool annually.
As might be imagined, this episode in the history of the Merinos and
the Sheep of Shetland was characterized by a pervasive sense of high
intrigue and covert activity. The wealth of nations was at stake.
I stated fully that I was not empowered to make use of his Majesty’s
name in the Transaction… and we agreed that it would be highly improper to
have it known in the Court of Spain that the King of England wanted Merino
Banks to his compatriots attempting to
spirit away specimens
Of the famed Merinos of Spain.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, Sir John Sinclair and others seized upon the
Shetland as perhaps the best candidate for the purpose of improving the
wool of Britain. It had long been known that the quality of stockings and,
particularly hosiery from Shetland was second to none.
"The Finest Shetland Stockings I ever saw passed through my hands two
years ago as a present to His Majesty[.] they were of ample size for a
tall man & yet both together passed thro Lady Banks’s wedding Ring in
these tho no doubt the utmost care had been taken…"
Sir Joseph Banks to SinclairSeptember 17, 1790
As a result, Hosiery made of Shetland wool became the King’s favorite
and the Hosier to the King regularly procured wool from Edinburgh for the
purpose of making hosiery for His Majesty, the King.
Shetland Stockings are I am told Lighter & warmer than any others[.]
since I have had the Gout I have dealt much in warm Stockings[.] Pray buy
me a good Lot as many as will Last me some years…"
Sir Joseph Banks, June 16, 1791
Sinclair and Banks exchanged letters and continued to argue the pros and
cons of the Sheep of Shetland. Specifically Banks, who, by 1791, is
already leaning toward the use of the Merino, observes that he has yet to
see raw Shetland wool that did not have "stichel hairs" present in it
despite Sinclair’s vigorous arguments to the contrary.
Sinclair counters that Banks has simply not seen proper Shetland wool
and offers to send more samples to prove his point to Banks. Further, he
will send a full fleece to show that there are "kindly" sheep of uniform
fineness to rival the Merinos of Spain. And, indeed, he promises to send
live animals of the "kindly bred" to amend the King’s flocks.