Hill farming

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Since blogging about it, I’ve had a few conversations about the notion of hefting as a useful way of thinking about place. Extending this discussion offers a nice way for me to flag up one of the Museum’s existing partners – Historypin – and an opprtunity to encourage others to add photographic content to the Historypin site. It is particularly worth trying out some of the site’s augmented reality tools, which allow the user to overlay historic images (using Google Street View) and thus enable viewers to effectively fade between past and present. In an earlier post I also mentioned the farm in Stadhampton where my mother grew up – Brookhampton – and how this is a place that I feel a strange sense of connection to despite my only having visited since the farmhouse and steading were demolished. Historypin has enabled me to re-heft historic photos of Brookhampton, although I may need to consult family members in order to get the location exactly right!

Brookhampton Farm in the 1960s

Brookhampton Farm in the 1960s

Given my predilection for the metaphor of hefting I thought it appropriate to ‘pin’ an image of me as a youngster to the map. If you follow this link you will begin to see some of the challenges of pinning rural images and artefacts to Historypin. Rural views and objects are not necessarily connected to places that are visible from Google Street View, or indeed to easily ‘siteable’ places at all. I got my image about as close as I can manage, near to the old ‘stell’ (or dry stone sheep pen) that it depicts. If you look at the satellite view of the map you will see that there are several of these old features very close by. Although I’m fairly sure I know which one of these I am seen climbing on, I still can’t locate it precisely enough.

We hope to work closely with Historypin to begin to address some of the challenges that our project and the content it is generating might raise. We are also keen to begin pinning the museum’s artefactual collections to the places that they link to. Much like people though, objects have complex multi-sited biographies. The shepherd’s crook in the foreground of this picture is a perfect example of an artefact that is not only portable but is intended to be moved from place to place, offering a gentle reminder that outside of museum stores and displays, the things of everday life are not conveniently static!

Ollie Douglas as a youngster

At Heatherhope in the early 1980s

For those interested in the area surrounding where the image of me has been pinned, you will also see in satellite view that there is a reservoir not far to the west. This is the the old Kelso water supply. The sheep folds just to the east of where my portrait is pinned is known as Belsen. A shepherd who worked there shortly after the Second World War and who had been at the relief of Bergen-Belsen once came across the carcass of a sheep that had been left in the pen and forgotten about. He was heard to remark that the sight of this was ‘fair ******* Belsen’ and the folds has retained that name ever since. This story reminds me that there is more to place than just what we might see or the material links that we might have. The etymology and origins of placenames have a potent and valuable part to play in this discussion as well, not to mention the potential for places to gather negative as well as positive associations.

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In order for us to facilitate connectivity between collections and particular audiences it is vital that we first take steps to find out not only what we have but where it comes from, where it was used, where it was acquired, and any other places it may be in some way associated with. Of course, this may take us far beyond the bounds of England and it will begin to reveal the rich tapestry of local, national, and international relations from which the MERL collections emerged. Nevertheless, much like Roy Brigden’s connection with a new environment, or my own familial links with farming communities of the Scottish Borders, each of us understands place from their own subjective vantage point, wherever and whatever these diverse locales might be. As such, we must be mindful of not only the diversity of our collections but also of the multiplicity of reasons why our audiences may themselves feel hefted to particular places.

A Herdwick sheep

A Herdwick on a Lakeland farm

So, if nothing else these thoughts will hopefully encourage the wider curatorial community to embed place-related data in their catalogues wherever possible, and to capitalise on the potential for new avenues of engagement that might emerge from focussing purposefully on a ‘sense of place’. Through greater acknowledgement of the origins, use-history, and acquisition sources of museum holdings, such collections can be rendered applicable and relevant to particular locations, and re-located (or ‘hefted’) in relation to the modern-day communities within those places and spaces. Equally, for those audiences searching within museum stores or displays for a conceptual hook to render those resources relevant to them as an individual, what better way to maximise their chances of finding such a link than by making explicit the multitude of diverse places associated with the artefacts themselves.

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Despite the obvious relevance to the subject matter of this museum and links to my own personal heritage, what particularly intrigues me about the practice of hefting is the degree to which it’s proponents and practitioners (by which I mean the shepherds and rural people who maintain it rather than the sheep!) have as powerful and marked a sense of place as their ovine charges. This simple observation runs parallel to Roy Brigden’s reflections on hefting. He used the term to characterise the degree to which he had come to find himself indelibly linked to his adoptive countryside home. As individuals, we are hefted to many places for many different reasons. Many of us retain a strong sense of connection to the place(s) we grew up and most of us develop a new sense of belonging in other places as our lives progress. In addition, there are complex generational links to place, such as the sense of connection I feel to Stadhampton, Oxfordshire, where my mother grew up on a dairy farm. The project team have already enhanced data associated with at least one artefact from this village and, although it is a simple mouldboard from a plough, the fact that it comes from Stadhampton gives it a certain significance for me.

Catalogue card for a mouldboard

The original index card for a mouldboard from Stadhampton, Oxfordshire

I think that the simple metaphor of the ‘heft’ has much to offer social history museums (perhaps especially those of rural history) in terms of characterising the place-related ways in which audiences connect with collections. Thinking of things in these more lyrical and emotive ways may help us to create a more nuanced sense of place in relation to the collections we look after. Potential stakeholders in the MERL collections are numerous and include specialist interest groups and local audiences, both of which have often been fore-grounded in past engagement activities and projects. However, in recent years, ethnographic ideas and have brought the notion of source communities increasingly to the fore. Museum collections offer potential for tangible engagement with the pasts associated with places to which people are indelibly hefted through both familial ties and other connections. They also offer a means for people to begin to connect themselves to new locales, perhaps using material culture held in museums as a means of familiarising themselves with a new place of residence, and thereby cultivating a deeper sense of place.

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Since the project team started the data-enhancement, I think we have all begun to think more deeply about ideas concerned with place. We have begun to ask ourselves what it means to feel rooted in, connected to, or familiar with particular locales. When Roy Brigden (the former Keeper of this Museum) retired in 2010 he referred in his farewell speech to the practice of ‘hefting’. Perhaps unfamiliar to many readers, this is the process of intensively herding flocks of upland sheep until they become accustomed to a particular grazing area. Once hefted in this way, such groups retain a kind of homing instinct that lasts across generations. Such livestock often has a greater financial value. Perhaps more importantly for our purposes, it represents the durability of a hill farming practice that is centuries old.

A flock of Cheviot sheep

Gathering a hill flock at Lairg, Sutherland, in 1959

During the foot and mouth crisis of 2001 concern over the slaughter of hefted flocks was marked. In areas where the practice is most common (the north of England, the Scottish Borders, and parts of Wales) the impact of such decimation was seen in terms of not just the ruination of livelihoods but of unbroken traditions of herding being irreversibly interrupted, not to mention the difficulties associated with reinstating this system by training new flocks to recognise the old ground. As the son of a hill sheep farmer myself, I know a good deal about this practice and find it offers a useful way to begin conceptualising and characterising how I feel about the notion of ‘sense of place’ that gives name to this project.

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