IT is tempting to slip into the language of timelessness when describing Scotland’s rural landscapes. Whether in Victorian-era tourist journals or modern travel articles, words such as primal, ancient and eternal abound.

There is one feature so ubiquitous, so quintessentially linked to this vision of an unchanging pastoral idyll, that many at home and abroad instantly associate it with Scotland.

I am talking, of course, about sheep.

It may then come as a surprise to learn that not only are sheep not native to Scotland, the large flocks seen on fields and hillsides in nearly every corner of the country are not the contemporaries of the Roman invasions or Robert the Bruce, but of the Industrial Revolution.

Let’s rewind. The first sheep to graze Scottish grasses were very different from today’s. They arrived during the Neolithic period, their bearers bringing with them new farming techniques and an increasingly sedentary way of life. The Neolithic sheep endures today in the form of the Soay breed from St Kilda – the Norse word for that archipelago was “Saudaey” – “Island of Sheep”.

This breed is much smaller than its modern counterparts, even being described as “dog-like”, and produces relatively little wool or mutton. It was raised in small numbers and remained marginal to the rural economy.

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It takes an enterprising and already wealthy sort to embark on the creation of large-scale sheep pastures. It was not great barons or nobles who first did this but monks. By the late 13th century, those of Melrose Abbey in the Borders owned a flock of more than 13,000 sheep, the largest in Scotland at the time. Lands acquired by the monks of Melrose in Ayrshire, Galloway, the Lothians and Berwickshire included significant swathes of sheep pasture.

For monastic communities, there was a self-fulfilling logic to the sheep business – the more wealth they acquired, they rationalised, the better they could serve God’s will on Earth.

Elsewhere, sheep were a relatively small part of most communities’ agricultural outputs. Cattle were far and away more important. They were central to the economic and cultural rhythms of the Highlands especially – though many Highland cattle were sold at Lowland markets, or trysts, well into the 19th century.

The next great leap for sheep came with the introduction of the Blackface breed, which quickly replaced the native stock due to its much higher yields and greater hardiness.

From the 1790s they, in turn, were replaced or supplemented by the Cheviot breed that still dominates today. Both were known to Gaels as Na Caoraich Mora, “the big sheep”. The result was nothing short of the transformation of the countryside.

Blackface and Cheviot sheep needed far more grazing ground than their predecessors, so large-scale sheep farming was only possible for large landowners with immense amounts of capital. The breeds also needed access to low-lying ground to survive the winter.

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This put them in direct competition with cattle, the previous linchpin of the rural economy, and far more often than not it was the sheep who won out. As Tom Devine observed, this contributed to the end of the old shieling system which had endured for centuries.

Breadalbane was one of the first, and most intensively affected areas under this new hegemony of sheep. From the 1770s the immensely wealthy Marquis of Breadalbane, whose line became the single largest landowners in Britain, converted deer forests into sheep farms. They imported not just the newer sheep breeds but Lowland estate managers to oversee them.

This deepened a cultural gulf between the local Gaelic-speaking population and those managing the way the land was used. In part, as the profitability of sheep became clearer, comprehensive clearances were enacted throughout large estates including those of Breadalbane and Sutherland.

There was resistance – 1792 was Bliadhna Nan Coarach, “The Year of the Sheep”. High wool prices across Europe accelerated land clearance, as landowners sought to take full advantage with enlarged flocks.

The price rise was driven partly by the demand for cheap clothing for enslaved people on plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean, which many Scots had a large stake in.

AN insurrection occurred in Easter Ross in response to the creation of large sheep farms and the driving of cattle into the agricultural fringes, and smaller acts of resistance simmered across the country.

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Clearance and the consolidation of small holdings into massive, single farms walked hand in hand. From the early 19th century, large landowners were preaching the gospel of clearance couched in Enlightenment rationalisations, which many others followed.

In 1835, for example, all of the inhabitants of the isles south of Barra, including Vatersay and Mingulay, were evicted to make way for sheep. Lady Gordon Cathcart, who later purchased the islands, ran all of Vatersay as a single sheep farm. This was met with resistance from the Vatersay raiders, who seized back parcels of their lands and built houses.

It was only from the mid-19th century that much of the Scottish countryside took on the appearance it has today, with large single-tenant farms surrounded by square or rectangular enclosed fields.

The previous landscape was much more a patchwork, albeit one that sustained a more evenly distributed population and greater agricultural variety. The intensification of sheep farming was one factor in this total transformation.

Far from being an eternal feature of Scottish rural life, as it is so often imagined to be, large-scale sheep farming was a major factor in some of the greatest socio-economic disruptions to that life.

Two contrasting quotes show this conflicting reading of the countryside.

A poem written by no less than Robert Burns inside the inn at Kenmore, on the Marquis of Breadalbane’s lands, likens sheep farming to nature itself:

Admiring Nature in her wildest grace,

These northern scenes with weary feet I trace;

O’er many a winding dale and painful steep,

Th’ abodes of covey’d grouse and timid sheep

A Highlander, John MacCodrum, took a very different view in this excerpt from his lament, Òran do na Fògarraich (A Song to the Exiles), here translated into English:

“It’s sad to reflect

How the land’s being enslaved –

Our people suddenly went

And sheep came in their place”