The Sheepstealer


Jon recalls his Oxford days again saying, “A strange song in that it glorifies theft. It was sung a lot at the half moon, I think by Ian Giles but it may have been Graham Metcalfe.” We can also add that fellow Bellowheadee, Paul Sartin can trace this song back through family history. He recorded it as I Am A Brisk Lad on the self titled Faustus CD, the sleeve notes of which refer to the song being “Sung by Paul’s ancestor Edith Sartin in Corscombe, Dorset, to the Hammond Brothers in July 1907.” Her words weren’t recorded although another version was also collected in Dorset a couple of years earlier from a George Dowden. Sheep stealing was of course a very serious matter and a capital offence, although many people were transported, with poverty and genuine hunger at the roots of the crime. This song seems to be utterly defiant. I wonder whether the reference to “building a house out on the moor” is as some sort of remote hideaway. Read more at Mainly Norfolk and here’s a Mudcat link to explore still further, which gives an alternate song on a similar theme by Carthy & Swarbrick.

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17 Responses to “The Sheepstealer”

  1. Roberto says:

    I also would recall the excellent recording by Mike Waterson.

  2. Dave Eyre says:

    Two other versions – a folk rock version by Duncan McFarlane, and an 8 minute version by Chris Sherburn and Denny Bartley on the CD “Lucy Wan”.

  3. OxfordClareB says:

    Thanks Jon! Remember the lovely recording by Ian, Claire and Graham, and a friend recalls Ian Woods singing it in the 1970s… Really like Jon’s interpretation. What a haunting tune – another one that’s been on my ‘must learn sometime’ list for far too long 😉

  4. Matthew Gerring says:

    I heard Paul Sartin sing this at Oxford folk club once I think – very nice song. Although my family were shepherds *and* most wonderfully poor most of the time(!)

  5. Iain Robertson says:

    Hello Jon
    Hello Jon

    A very late response here but I have an idea about your “building a house out on the moor”. I’m a university lecturer and I intend using this song in one of my lectures as I think it’s a wonderful social document. It is my guess that the ‘house’ would be just that – not a hideaway but a response to population pressure. In the pre-enclosure period it was a fairly common practice for those without land to carve out a small piece of the common land for themselves – they were effectively squatters. And I’m sure that ‘the moor’ would have been, at the time the song is set, common land.

  6. Jane Ramsden says:

    Can’t believe I didn’t comment last year on a sheep song! Just beautiful, despite the crime to the poor old ewe and its owner.

    Reinhard’s Mainly Norfolk alludes to Dorset origins for this song. In Swaledale and Wensleydale, a shepherd would use this tally for counting sheep as follows:

    1. Yan
    2. Tyan (Tan)
    3. Tethera
    4. Methera
    5. Pimp
    6. Sethera
    7. Lethera
    8. Hovera
    9. Dovera
    10. Dick (Dik)
    11. Yan-a-Dick (Yan Dik)
    12. Tyan-A-Dick (Tan Dik)
    13. Tethera-A-Dick (Tethera Dik)
    14. Methera-A-Dick (Methera Dik)
    15. Bumfit (Bumfitt)
    16. Yan-A-Bumfit (Yan Bumfitt)
    17. Tyan-A-Bumfit (Tan Bumfitt)
    18. Tether-A-Bumfit (Tethera etc)
    19. Mether-A-Bumfit (Methera etc)
    20. Giggot (Jigget)

    When the shepherd reached 20, he’d raise a finger and start again. Once he’d reached 100 (5 fingers), he’d place a stone in his pocket and begin again. There’s a Wensleydale variation where the shepherd would transfer a stone from one pocket to another on reaching 20 and start counting again.

    If they’d done all this in Dorset, ‘appen the sheep’d nivver be left along enough to steal!

  7. muzza(S.E.England) says:

    @Jane…………I can’t speak for what goes on in Yorkshire…
    but to us yokels living “Down South”, Jane’s list could be a list of criminal offences!!!!!
    …and I suppose if the shepherd took off his clothes he could count to 21.

  8. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Muzza: We are pure in Yorkshire. Also not daft enough to tek our shoes and socks off in farming country. If the frost don’t bite, something else might… or who knows what you might tread in?

    You will be at a disadvantage there, Little Musgrave, what with the one missing sock an’all… hahahahahahahaha!

  9. Jane Ramsden says:

    FOOTnote: You were talking about socks and shoes weren’t you, Muzzy? I mean, trousers would be out of the question in the cold, being a bumfit an’all… tho’ surely the hypothetical count could go up to 23? Rather assuming all farmers are men, of course! I’m sure there must be some she-pherds these days. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

  10. muzza(S.E.England) says:

    @Jane……like all have such a memory and use it to come back at us naive fellas…fancy you remembering the sock episode to bring it back to bite me on the bumfit!
    Incidently No12 on your list could be a medical term for reversing a vasectomy.
    I must say sorry to Jon and Admin Simon for wandering off the subject but I made all my “song” comments in 2010…..good to listen again to Jon and old Pete though.

  11. Diana says:

    Who says crime doesn’t pay when it comes to sheepstealing?

  12. Old Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Ref Jane’s alphabet above:-
    Small wonder that Shepherd’s children had a problem with nursery rhymes!
    Yan, Tan -buckle my shoe
    Tethera, Methera-open the door
    Pimp, Sethera-pick up sticks sticks
    Lethera, Hovera-Lay them straight:
    Dovera, Dik-A big, fat hen;
    YanDik, Tan Dik-Dig and delve;
    TetheraDik, MetheraDik-Maids a-courting;
    Bumfitt,YanBumfit-Maids in the kitchen;
    Tan Bumfitt, Tethera Bumfitt-Maids a-waiting
    Methera Bumfitt, Giggott-My plate’s empty.

  13. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:

    Methera Bumfitt…………….surely she was in a Dicken’s novel…….just can’t think which one.

  14. Old Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Just like Jane…..Good old Jake Thackray….knew all about sheep counting and he could sing it as well.

  15. Luke says:

    These are really old numbers. Probably old Welsh that’s mutated down the years: “yan” – un; “methera” – pedwar; “pimp” – pum; “dik” – deg.

    Others might spot other Indo-European numbers there.

  16. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Unbelievable Yorkshire/Welsh counting phrases above…..
    I suggest the number for 21 could be ‘Dik-van-Dyke’

  17. OldMuzza(NW Surrey UK) says:

    What larks we had in the day!…good to chuckle at the banter again.

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