Wovember Words: branks, yokes, pokes or bjoags?

Last week TEAM WOVEMBER featured sheep bells in Wovember Words. This prompted Louise to look into something touched on in Stella Sutherland’s poem (also last week) with the Shetland Ewe wearing her “hard triangle of sticks”. 

As a small child I was often surrounded by sheep on our croft on Bressay and was quite familiar with their comings and goings, dipping and clipping, what they looked like in the park and on the plate, and so on. At around age 10, I was astonished to see a sheep wearing a wooden collar. Thinking she was surely in some predicament I asked my granny to help it only to be told the collar kept her in the park, rather than going through fences.
Over the years I have seen quite a few sheep wearing these collars, but I never really wondered what they were called until I posted Stella’s poem….what was that triangle called?

Googling throws up more questions than answers; yoke, checks, branks, sticks, poke or poker. While these have all been used to describe the collar, they all seem to have their origin in other agricultural equipment or from different etymology, some with sinister uses!

Yoke wooden crosspiece fastened over the neck of an animal and attached to a plough or cart.

Branks – An instrument of punishment for a scolding woman, consisting of an iron framework for the head and a sharp metal gag for restraining the tongue. Also known as the Scold’s Bridle.

© Galleries of Justice
© Galleries of Justice

Checks – Usage possibly meaning to stop, control or monitor.

Poke or poker – I haven’t found a suitable definition of this word, but it definitely had its usage outside the UK as this example of a ‘poke’ from Canada shows. This one is square in shape and you can see how it would be fitted. Perhaps, poker refers to the rods which allow fitting?

(c) Farmtown Park, Ontario
(c) Farmtown Park, Ontario

When I went looking for the term in the Shetland usage I found some dialect names.

Bjoags or byoag – Old Norse for ring

Hems – Old Scots for horse collar; also two curved pieces of wood or metal placed behind the outer rim of the collar of a draught horse. 

The best outright description of this device is outlined here by the Shetland Museum on their photograph archive.

Sheep that broke through the fences that surrounded the ‘toun’ and into the fields were always a problem in the summer months. Constant offenders were punished by having a ‘byoag’ fitted around their neck.

‘Byoags’ were three pieces of wood nailed together in the shape of a triangle. One joint is left free to allow it to be put over the sheep’s head. It was then whipped shut to stop the sheep shaking it off. The ‘byoags’ design made it more difficult for sheep to clamber through fences.

Despite having these fitted the most determined of sheep always seemed to find a way through the fence. These pesky individuals highly increased their chances of being made into ‘reestit mutton’.

(c)Shetland Museum
(c)Shetland Museum
(c)Shetland Museum


Reestit mutton is a very particular dish to Shetland, which involves, brining, curing and drying the meat. More on this is the week.

Interesting too is the term ‘Hamesticks’, once used in Shetland. This may be a variation of Hem, as in the horses collar, and sticks to mark the difference in design, but I like to think of it being used to name a construction meant to keep the animal ‘hame-about’, and prevent crawling off into other fields, like my granny’s sheep 20 odd years ago.

What is clear is that fencing must be vastly improved in the 21st century, as I can find no mention of modern use of the sheep stick collar.

WOVEMBER has looked at a type of sheep yoke before, one which was used to restrain large Cotswold sheep in order to tend to their feet;  a restraint rather than a preventative measure.

It is really interesting that the sticks seem to have been given the names of other things that it likens, such as the plough yoke, or the scold’s bridle. It has set me wondering what this is termed in other areas. Do you know of such? Perhaps you have seen this in use as a restraint, rather than to stop fence jumping, it would be fascinating to know and so please leave a comment if you are familiar with it.

Yokes belonging to Richard Martin at Filkin’s Mill in the Cotswolds
Yokes belonging to Richard Martin at Filkin’s Mill in the Cotswolds