I am on a tiny island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland with a full-grown ram between my legs — not the way I usually spend a summer Saturday. This began as a simple errand, to fetch a fleece for dyeing from John Finlay, a crofter and neighbor of my hosts. It’s shearing day, and I am wearing big, padded coveralls with an incongruously saucy leopard-print chiffon scarf around my neck, lent to me by John Finlay’s mother to keep the chilly June winds from snaking down my front.
Fifty sheep are jostling one another indifferently within the confines of the fank, a roofless dry-stone enclosure where the shearing takes place. John Finlay, shy with people but sure-handed with his animals, selects one sheep at a time, flips it neatly onto its back, and shears it with old-fashioned steel hand clippers. My job is to mark each sheep across its shoulders with a can of red spray paint once he’s done so it will be identifiable next year. Right now, though, I’ve been asked to hold on to this ram so he won’t melt off into the crowd while waiting his turn to be sheared. And this is how one hangs on to a ram: straddling him, holding his horns like a jockey.