How the sheep and lamb from the Scottish Borders earned its reputation
Some of the finest meat available in Scotland
Sheep were the making of the Borders economy, and today sheep outnumber Borderers eleven to one. Sandy Neil investigates the life of the ‘Lammermuir lion’ from heft to ashet
Sheep have been grazing on Border hills since at least the 12th century, yielding wool, milk and meat – mostly eaten as braxy when the animal died by disease, old age or accident. While in the Highlands sheep were farmed for subsistence, in the Lowlands sheep were an industry. Founded by David I, the abbeys of Melrose, Kelso, Dryburgh and Jedburgh built up some of the biggest sheep farms in Europe, exporting via the river Tweed and Berwick port to Flanders, France and Italy. The demand for wool and skins set the agricultural pattern in the Borders: arable in the valleys, sheep on the hills.
Powered by the soft, fast-flowing waters of the Teviot, Ettrick, Gala, Jed and Tweed, great Border mills washed, spun and wove the wool, or woo, to send into the world on the Waverley railway line. But now the direction of travel has reversed: Border mills import softer fleeces from Asia and Australasia, and local shepherds, whose wage once came from the ‘wool-cut’, rear sheep to sell as breeding stock and meat.
Lamb is at its best arising from landscapes where life is by no means easy: think of mountain breeds such as Rough Fell, Welsh Mountain and Cumbrian Herdwick. The pure white Cheviot is a native sheep bred as hardy as its shepherds, and dotting the Southern Upland valleys of Megget, Tweedsmuir, Teviotdale, Ettrick, Yarrow, Liddesdale and Eskdalemuir, the horned Scottish Blackface, or ‘Blackie’, is the epitome of the mountain sheep. Tough, intelligent, and with a keen sense of survival sheltering in stone circle stells, and a clear knowledge of home on the hill, called a heft.
In the solitude and silence of the hills, the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’ James Hogg (1770–1835), author of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, wrote poetry watching his flocks. ‘At evening fall, in lonesome dale, he kept strange converse with the gale; held worldly pomp in high derision, and wandered in a world of vision,’ reads Hogg’s statue overlooking the Loch o’ the Lowes and Tibbie Shiels’ Inn, the pub where he and Sir Walter Scott swapped Border tales, perhaps wearing the ‘shepherd’s plaid’ trews of white and black check as portraits of both men depict. While much in a shepherd’s way of life has modernised, the Border collie, crook and seasons are as constant as in Hogg’s day.
The majority of spring lambs are born from March to May, and thrive in the summer while suckling from their mothers and grazing on the high pasture. Come late summer, autumn and early winter, the lamb is at its sweetest prime, perfect for roasting and serving pink. Grass or forage fed lamb has a more intense flavour than grain-fed. A lamb in its second spring and summer (one-year-old plus) becomes a hogg or hogget, and from the third onwards, its meat is known as mutton. This was once common fare in Scotland but its popularity has waned. The days of sheep’s heid broth followed by ‘boyled’ or ‘rost’ joints of mutton on the laird’s table are gone – for now.
Typical lamb cuts in a Borders butcher’s counter are as follows:
Leg or gigot
Roast fast and serve pink or bake slow for flesh falling off the bone.
The lamb equivalent to a sirloin of beef. An excellent roasting cut whole, with ribs still in and the fat untrimmed. The eyes of loin chops (single vertebrae) make miniature fillet steaks called noisettes: the most delicate cut, perfect flash-fried.
Knuckle or shank
Rich in gelatinous sinew, this rewards long, slow cooking, with wine, stock and herbs.
Where leg meets loin, the ovine equivalent of a rump of beef, making a nice little roasting joint on or off the bone.
Rack of lamb
The first eight ribs, very fine roasted whole or trimmed of fat and backbone (or ‘chine’) and sliced into cutlets.
The belly or breast, which although fatty, can be rolled up around a dry stuffing (for example, breadcrumbs, garlic and herbs) to make an economical, slow pot-roast.
Another cheap roasting cut. Boned, rolled and stuffed with herbs, this has plenty of fat to baste the meat from within.
Neck and ‘scrag’
Neck muscles are constantly working, so the meat is tough and a little sparse but no less tasty. Filleted neck makes good stewing meat.