In the years following the construction of the levee, when the human population of the island still numbered in the hundreds, one of the first tasks of the sheep court was to divide the levee of sheep into “chains”, a measurement of length used to apportion the responsibility of the levee. The number of chains a household owned depended on the size of the farm or farm (which also determined how many sheep they could keep). In recent decades, younger generations have increasingly left to find an education and work elsewhere, leaving only nine farmers with the overwhelming task of maintaining the dyke.
For residents of North Ronaldsay, “bygging” or levee building has always been a major social event, when family members return and the community comes together to rebuild broken sections of the wall. But, in 2016, it became clear that they needed more hands, and so sheep festival was born. The annual summer festival invites volunteers to the island to help rebuild the sheep dam for a week or two while immersing themselves in local hospitality, music and traditions.
Following the success of SheepFest, the island created the post of Sheep Dike Keeper in 2019. Siân Tarrant, the first, left the East Sussex village of Icklesham to take up the post. For two years she worked to fix the sea wall, but admitted it was a “Sisyphean task [given that] there are so many walls to rebuild and repair, about a quarter of the 13-mile-long structure. The island is currently advertising for a new caretaker.
Cycling under a hazy sun, I passed an alarming number of abandoned farmhouses, their broken walls and warped roofs testifying to the depopulation suffered here over the centuries. They are also a stark reminder of the challenges faced in this isolated outpost. Without young farmers willing to carry on the tradition of raising these sheep, their very existence will be in question.