Wovember Words: "Yows"

You may already have heard farmers in the North of England speaking about yows or in Shetland, speaking about yowes. I have found it spelled with an e and without, but in both those contexts it is a regional dialect word meaning ewe. When in Shetland recently for Wool Week, the Shetland Library in Lerwick opened its doors for a wondrous event called Stitches from the Stacks during which I found this rather flowery and romantic account of a yow giving birth to a lamb in Shetland. It was written in the 1930s by Joan Grigsby and is held in the local history section of the Shetland Library; I must confess I found the use of the quotation marks around “yow” quite funny because yow seems to me to be a very everyday word but, to Joan Grigsby – a traveling author – it was clearly exotic enough to warrant them.

Shetland Library covered in knitted bunting for Shetland Wool Week, photo © Jeni Reid
Shetland Library covered in knitted bunting for Shetland Wool Week, photo © Jeni Reid

Very early morning. Below me the mist was rising from the grey green waters of the sleeping voe. The silence was the daybreak waiting for some great orchestra to put it to music, but orchestra there was none, only the low, persistent leit motif of the burn, humming its way over rocks and stones to claim unison with the great chorus of the open sea. But the burn was only the silence made audible, and as I lay face downwards in the heather, it seemed as if I were listening to the very heart throbs of the Spring morning.

A particularly spiky piece of heather under my nose made me roll over on my back, and as I did so I noticed a young “yow” standing on the skyline not far from where I lay. Idly I watcherd, her, calling for her to come, for I saw by the cut in her ear that she was one of Gideon’s “yows”; but she took no notice of my overtures, and stood staring before her with an air of placid content on her rather foolish face; and then I saw the reason, for below her four sturdy legs there were four more, tiny, spindly and white, all wriggling with agitation. Peggy Ann, Kirstie’s favourite “yow”, was giving suck to her tiny new born lamb.

In a moment I had sprung to my feet and was dashing down the hillside towards the croft. For three mornings now I had been out at daybreak looking for lambs. The first morning there were two white ones whose mothers refused to have anything of them, but had left them bleating piteously on the hillside; but they had not belonged to Gideon but to a neighbour, and the discovery had led to a four mile tramp over the hills before breakfast to take the news to their owner. My next friend had been a sturdy litle black lamb belonging to Magnie, but up till this morning none of Gideon’s “yows” had lambed. Peggy Ann was the first.

‘An Island Rooing’ by Joan Grigsby, published by Hearth Cranton Ltd., London, 1933