The Sheep of Shetland

A Historical Perspective


by George Benedict

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 Sinclair
September 22, 1790

Explanatory Note

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 In the text below I have drawn extensively from published and unpublished historical documents relevant to the history of the Sheep of Shetland.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 I have perhaps over quoted from these historical documents but I want to give the reader enough information to draw his or her own conclusions.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 Robertson,

      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 0-95402-830-9.


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 Sinclair
September 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 the world.

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 the King.

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 findings.

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.

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 Sheep…

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 Sinclair
September 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.



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