It was a ‘dark morning,’ as we say in Cumberland, that first Monday after the twentieth of July, that had been fixed in the Shepherds’ Calendar for the day of ‘give and take’ on the Helvellyn range (p. 379)….
And what is the Shepherds’ Assembly? And why assemble up so near the clouds? Cannot these sons of the mountain descend to the commonplace levels of our valley life for their ‘moot,’ their ‘thing,’ their parliament? (p. 379)….
As our friend spoke we rested by an old sheepfold at the top of the steep ascent and gazed back wonderingly over the Naddle vale and hills, away to Bassenthwaite and the great littoral plain that swept towards the Solway white as silver. The Armboth fells that Arnold knew, the Thirlmere lake that Faber sang of, and by which Rossetti mused, gleamed dark and purple beneath the sea of heavy mist that swam or hovered above it. A raven cried and dogs barked. (pp. 382-383)….
‘But, then,’ I said, ‘surely these sheep can’t detect one another’s particular marks, the punch-marks in the ears, the horn-burns?’ ‘Noa, noa, but they ken varra weel t’ feace on ’em, just as a man knaws the feace of his friend; and they sniff a deal round a strannger, they seun knaw what flock he’s been amang by t’smell on ’em. But there are two things that plague us shepherds a deal in keeping our flocks to their “heafs”—dogs and galloways. Let a dog come houndin’ a “heaf” one day in three months, and the sheep seem always to have the fear of that dog on ’em, and they seem to be flayte and restless, shy of their heaf; and if one of those mountain ponies that they breed in Threlkeld pastures or the moors out Greystoke way come on to these Helvellyn pastures, they fairly scare t’ life out o’ sheep, and flocks get mixed all t’ way along Helvellyn to t’ Raise. You see, the ponies like the sweet grass and follow it, and lambs like it and follow it, but whar the ponies coom sheep will not stay.’ (p. 383)….
‘Why, you see,’ broke in the yeoman, ‘after all, our fellside shepherd system is one of goodwill and good neighbourhood, and our meetings help that way. There is no rule which can oblige me to heaf or home my flock on any particular pasture; as a commoner or tenant of the lord I can claim equal rights of pasturage on all the common of Helvellyn, subject to the lord of the manor and his court’s ruling. If some one else who was a commoner chose to settle or heaf his sheep on my heaf I could not prevent him, but custom and good-fellowship prevent him. And so my sheep are left in undisturbed possession of their home, which they have had for generations of years. (p. 384)
Of course it’s a bit tempting at times to get a nibble off a neighbour’s heaf, but then goodwill prevents one giving way to the temptation, and there is such strong feeling of honour and trust among the shepherds, that they would never take occasion, even in the absence of all strict law to prevent them, to trespass with their sheep on any neighbour’s home.’ It takes a good man to make a good shepherd. (p. 384)….
‘But, then,’ said I, ‘what are these shepherd meetings, and how do they minister to this feeling of good neighbourhood?’ ‘You shall see presently,’ my friend replied. ‘That man ahead of us, carrying a lamb on his shoulders, will find it a heavy load before he has reached the place of meeting, for Stybarrow pass is 2,500 feet above the sea, and we meet on Stybarrow Dodd, above the top of the pass; but I’ll be bound he’ll carry it whole way up, and all for love. He has found it straying on his “heaf” among his flock, and he will take it to restore it to its rightful owner. You know we miss some sheep at all gathering times, or times when we bring them off the fells, whether for washing in June, for clipping in July, for dipping and sauving in October. At such times we miss some that have strayed and find others that do not belong to us, and so we Helvellyn flock-masters agree to meet three times a year; once here on the first Monday after the 20th July, on Stybarrow Dodd above the Sticks pass, and we bring to that meeting the stray sheep that we have found, mostly woolled ones, and give and take. I daresay as many as 100 or 150 sheep will be returned to their native heafs to-day. We all meet again on the first Monday in October in Mosedale Ghyll, by the side of the road that leads from Wallthwaite to Dockray, and give and take to one another any strayed ones again. That meeting is mostly for lambs. (p. 385)….
‘Dogs ken the way,’ said my friend, as we staggered on through the mist. ‘Fauld is not far off, but I reckon that the shepherds will be very near starved to death waiting for us; it’s well we carry the lunch.’ (p. 389)
Then the cloud-wrack lifted, and we saw a long low wall; dogs leaped up on to the coping of it and barked; shepherds’ heads appeared one by one above the grey stone barrier and gave us good-day. The shepherds’ ponies near neighed at us, and we were soon sitting with the Helvellyn shepherds, true sons of the mist and the mountain, learning the various incidents of the day’s ‘hounding’ of the fells for ‘the gathering,’ as it is called. (p. 389)….
There was something very touching in the silence that fell upon the group of weather-worn men resting there with their backs to the wall, waiting for the late arrival of this or that ‘shep,’ with his contribution of strayed sheep from the fold. (p. 390)….
The crack went on, and with the crack went round the loving cup in true Viking fashion. I must confess that there was an entire lack of bread and cheese, and perhaps more liquor than was needed to keep the pulse actively going; but, with a single exception, and he not a shepherd but a hired carrier, there was no excess visible, and it was observable that when the cup went round the shepherds often only just wetted their lips and passed it on. Presently the hat went round for the sixpence contributed to their mountain lunch. Then two shepherds were summoned to take charge of the wayward sheep that had been scattered on the hills, and drive them, one down the western, the other down the eastern slope of Helvellyn, to the fell farmsteads. And then the careful drafting of the flock in the pen into their two companies was effected. Each sheep had its lug-mark questioned, its smit, its letter, its horn-burn looked to, and the double fold was then opened, and away, to the sound of three cheers for the shepherds—three cheers for the Queen—went through the mist and cloud upon the heights to the bright afternoon in the valleys the thirty or forty men and their thirty or forty dogs, and the mountain assembly was dissolved till next year, the first Monday after the 20th of July. (p. 393)
We followed our courteous yeoman friend, who took as much care of us as if we had been his own kin. The dogs knew that they were to take us straight for home, and down the slope unfalteringly we went after these clever little guides. They ran ahead, but always returned from the mist, and went ahead again, till the dark cloud-wrack in a moment seemed to fly above our heads, and with a great cry of surprise we looked into the sunlit happy depths of the distant valleys. (p. 393)
Down towards the meadows, full of haymakers, down to the rippling river, down ’o the deep dark silver mere of Thorold the Dane, our Thirlmere, did we pass. And so by the old peat track and the sheep pool in th ghyll, till the farm by ‘Stony water’ hard by the Castle Rock was reached. There, sitting in one of the poet Southey’s own armchairs, in a cosy farm parlour, we partook with the hospitable yeoman and his good wife of the cheeriest of meals, and thought of the quiet patience and honour of a shepherd’s life, of the power of the Cumberland hills to make trustful and generous, to educate and refine, and deemed ourselves not a little privileged to have been admitted among the shepherd sons of Helvellyn, to that mist-wreathed mountain assembly. (p. 394)
(Cornhill Magazine, 15 (October 1890), 379-94)