I was spending 10 days in western Scotland, where it seemed to me that the sheep vastly outnumbered the residents. Each day I walked and walked, overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape. I was told I could go anywhere, since the law gives walkers access to anyone's land as long as you don't go where you can see into the owner's home. So I kept jumping gates and stone walls, going from field to field. The sheep were always gracious about my intrusions. When I learned that sheepdog trials were going to be held where I was staying, I knew I had a date.
As the sun rose over the mountains of western Scotland and the short night's mist sat on the grassy field, a red flag was raised, four sheep were released, and with just the subtle command of its master, a sheepdog was launched up the field with a mission. By the end of the day, 77 shepherds, their dogs, and their fans had shared a tradition hundreds of years old.
The South Knapdale Sheepdog Trials represent a very small step toward qualifying for the Scottish National Championships. The top six positions collect qualifying points. The same process takes place all over the United Kingdom, where the best dogs are chosen from each country for the "Super Bowl" of sheepherding: The Supreme. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Supreme Championship. Originally, only shepherds from Scotland and northern England competed. This year the top 15 dogs from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will showcase their herding skills, and one shepherd/dog team will be crowned Supreme Champion.
In the world of British sheepherding, border collies are king. They "rely on the 'power of the eye' to command the sheep," says Jane McDonald, a former junior Scottish national champion who is competing with her 5-year-old dog, Nan. "They stare the sheep down."
Shepherd and dog have to perform six tasks in 10 minutes.
At one end of a large rectangular field stands a shepherd and his border collie; at the other end, four uncooperative sheep. When the shepherd releases his dog, it takes off like a rocket along the edge of the field in order to sneak up on the unsuspecting sheep. The dog then gets the sheep moving as a tight pack and brings them down the length of the field, where the shepherd stands armed with crook and whistle.
Next, the sheep must be driven across the width of the field through one of two small gates on either side. This is what separates the expert sheepdog from the wannabe.
If the judge has not honked his car's horn, indicating that 10 minutes have expired, the shepherd/dog team has to pen all four sheep, and then get them out and move them toward the exit gate.
At the end of the day, trophies are awarded, and shepherds spend time catching up with old friends, comparing crooks, and enjoying the food and drink brought by the local folk.
For me, the event was a reminder that shepherding remains a way of life in many parts of Scotland, and the bond between man and dog is as strong as ever.