Meat on the Plate

We now look at the sheep. Questions can be asked about whether it had been seen as a delicate animal in Wales. More questions can centre on its diseases before finding out how the healthy animal was shared within the small community.
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                   ‘Bless the sheep for David’s sake, he herdit sheep himsel’   [more at * near the foot of the page}
                                                                   (Old Galloway Grace)
The story of sheep in the course of Scottish history is a significant one. We have already seen in Chapter Four that the Highland Clearances caused a great social and demographic upheaval and it is somewhat surprising that any Scottish prejudice directed towards a specific animal omitted the sheep. To omit it from our social history would be to ignore the contribution that mutton had made to the protein intake, not to mention clothing, over many centuries.
It is an easily controlled beast once fences have been put up and capable of winter storage being smaller than the cow and pig. It was a long time before the potential of the sheep was realised and Haldane162 has pointed out that “Sheep were originally supposed to be so delicate that they could not face the Scottish blasts and they were therefore cooped up in winter and only released in spring. It was by accident that the discovery was made that sheep are hardy animals …”. The majority of larger animals were slaughtered at the onset of winter and what could not be preserved by smoking, drying, curing, salting etc., was consumed in the Martinmass feasts.
Before it was discovered that they were hardy, sheep often died even in the coup. Rather than place the bodies in the pit, mutton hams were made and such fare was known as braxy mutton.  Warrack163 gives braxy as meaning “an internal inflammation in sheep; … the flesh of such sheep …” Even Boswell and Johnson may have eaten braxy mutton. At one stage on the Isle of Coll they are entertained by a family which spends some time discussing whether to have tea or dinner on their arrival. Tea won. Boswell records: “He said to me afterwards, ‘you must consider, sir, a dinner here is a matter of great consequence. It is a thing to be first planned and then executed. I suppose the mutton was brought some miles off, from some place they knew there was a sheep killed.’ His minute observation strikes me with wonder.”164
The main ingestion of braxy mutton occurred in spring and summer:
“In Scotland there is a disease called braxy, which attacks the sheep and lambs in spring and early summer … the disease kills the animals very quickly, by causing stagnation of blood in the most important vital organs; and as the carcass is the perquisite of the herdsman, he almost invarable eats it – taking the precaution to remove the offal, and cut away the darker portions of the flesh where the blood has stagnated. He also salts it before using it; and if questioned on the subject he will tell ye that the meat is not unwholesome.”165
Whether the herdsman sees the meat as rotten when cooking or eating it, may be debatable but he is bound to accept it as such even if, due to improper processing in the raw or cooked state, “the most serious consequencies result from it …” But this practice was described by “many medical practitioners who are acquainted with the habits of the Scotch shepherds … declare that braxy mutton is a highly dangerous meat for man.”166 Tannahill167 sees it as “a bacteriological infection to which beasts that gorge themselves when newly weaned or when given sudden access to rich pasture were particularly susceptible.”
But the scientific considerations require to be left out of such a study as this with its focus upon early Scottish gastronomy. In the smaller towns, for example, we learn from Guthrie that the “Burgh of Lanark was in former days so poor, that the single flesher, of the town, who also exercised the calling of a weaver, in order to employ his spare time, would never dream of killing a sheep until he had orders for the entire animal beforehand. Ere commencing the work of slaughter he would call on the minister, the Provost, and the town council, and prevail upon them to take shares. But if no purchaser occurred for the fourth quarter, the sheep received a respite until such could be found. The bellman, or shallyman, as he is called there, used to parade the streets of Lanark shouting aloud the following advertisement: -
                   Bell – ell – ell
                   There’s a fat sheep to kill!
                   A leg for the Provost
                   And one for the priest.
                   The Baillies and Deacons
                   They’ll take the neist;
                   And if the fourth leg we cannot sell
                   The sheep it maun leeve and gae back
                   Tae the hill.”168


Bless the fish for Peter’s sake,
He gruppit fish himsel’;
Bless the sheep for David’s sake,
He herdit sheep himsel’;
Bless the soo for Satan’s sake,
He was aince a soo himsel’.

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Is it St David?  Let someone explore.  Scots and the Welsh share a lot in history.

Place names with aber are very common in Wales. They are also common on the East coast of Scotland. They are found to a lesser extent in Cornwall and other parts of England, and in Brittany.

In Anglicised forms, aber is often contracted: Arbroath (formerly "Aberbrothick") for Aber Brothaig, Abriachan for Aber Briachan.
In the case of Applecross (first attested as Aporcrosan), it has been transformed by a folk etymology. (Its Gaelic name, A' Chomraich, has lost the "Aber-" element altogether.)


"Aber" is rendered into Scottish Gaelic as Oba(i)r, e.g. "Obar Dheadhain" (Aberdeen), "Obar Pheallaidh" (Aberfeldy), and "Obar Phuill" (Aberfoyle).

The Welsh names Fishguard (Abergwaun), Brecon (Aberhonddu), Cardigan (Aberteifi), Milford Haven (Aberdaugleddau), Mountain Ash (Aberpennar) and Swansea (Abertawe) all contain Aber- in their Welsh language equivalent.