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. 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 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 something you will understand if you have ever been in the confines of a sheep 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 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. Sounds simple, I know, and I watched the farmer doing it with practised ease.

However, wading through a 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. If you do get hold of the sheep there is then the undignified reality of 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 shite. This results in your clothing and face being covered in the poo, and your pride somewhat dented. That said, it’s surely a privilege indeed to be a part of such a farming tradition?

How they smirked.

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