A Flock of Sheep Islands – Connecting Hibernia with Combs


Sheep Island is an island off the north coast of Ireland in County Antrim. But it is not the only Sheep Island around. …

On the beautiful coastal road, on the northern end of Ireland, one can see Sheep Island off the coast of Antrim. It has an area of 3.5 hectares, is located 0.5 km off the coast and is known for its steep cliffs (some of which are near-vertical and more than 20m in height) and rocky shores. The top of the island is domed and covered with soil. Sheep Island is designated as a Special Protection Area and an Area of Special Scientific Interest.

There is another Sheep Island not too far away situated off the southern tip of the Kintyre peninsula in Scotland. There is also Saoy and the Faroe Islands. Saoy is located on the very isolate St Kildas archipelago and it turns out that both it and the Faroe Island’s means Sheep Islands which were introduced there in the 9th century.

Once you start digging for information, you learn lots of things about sheep: https://blog.oup.com/2017/10/etymology-sheep-word-origins/  Even though I know that Hibernia is an old Latin name for Ireland, I did not know that this comes from hibernus which means wintry in Latin.  And how could sheep have anything possibly connected to the Roman name for Ireland. Well there is an Old Icelandic word gymbr  which is “a one-year old ewe,” which used to exist in English dialects as gimmer this contains the root related to hibernus  (as in Engl. hibernate). People used to count their ages as to how many winters they survived, and a one year old is basically a one-winter old sheep. The same root can be seen in Old Icelandic gemla “a one-year old sheep.” Most farmers such as my father refer to his cattle as one year olds, or two year olds – often rolled together  as wanyerols or twoyerols – so its easy to see how such a distinction might emerge in close-knit communities where cattle are not just “cattle” and more specific labels make sense.

Saoy comes from another Old Norse word for sheep – from boiling, as in the boiling of meat. So one form comes from describing the wool aspect of sheep and the other from the meat. The island of Saoy still has its own breed of feral sheep: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soay_sheep

I wonder did the travels and work of the Vikings link the Irish and Scottish Islands with the Faroes?

The writer of the same blog shows that the fær  of Faroes is related to the wooly elements of a sheep – and its even possible to connect it with the Latin word for combing. As a human, if you want to live in Sheep Island, you will most certainly need a wooly jumper.

Sheep Island in Antrim has several species of cormorant, which is known as Phalacrocorax carbo carbo. This population on this tiny island amounts to more than 5% of the population in the whole of Ireland. The island also contains shag, fulmar, kittiwake, greater black-backed gull, razorbill, black guillemot and guillemot.  And there are no sheep, and quite often none of us either, as Human access to the island is restricted during the breeding season – though swimming there and climbing a sheer cliff is not for me.







Book: The Viking Diaspora By Judith Jesch



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