Yan Tan Tethera: Counting Sheep in Poetry Mittens

September 16, 2013 in Outlander Inspired Knitting Patterns, Uncategorized by M C

Yan Tan Tethera is a rhyming counting system used by shepherds in the north and highlands and immortalized in the folk song the The Lincolnshire Shepherd (which is available on iTunes, much to my surprise) or  you can hear it on youtube. I like to think Mac would have heard this rhyming count as he exercised the horses, and it would have sounded familiarly of home. It would not have been perfect, there are regional variations to the system, but the rolling rhyming sound would have reminded him of shepherds in the Highlands.

According to Wikipedia the language is Brythonic Celtic, which means the language originated in Britain, and is not Germanic in origin. The counting system fell out of use around a century ago but you can still hear the sounds of the language in the pronunciation of certain words, “home” for example as “hame,” which derives from the Old English hám.

YanTanTethera1“Yon owd yowe’s far-welted” appears in the refrain, “far-welted” : Overturned, describing a sheep that can’t get up. This is a serious condition in a sheep, they can die of it. And pregnant sheep are particularly prone to rolling, especially on a hillside, off their feet. A sheep down, with all four feet off the ground, never fails to send me into the fold with my heart pounding. It’s a simple enough thing to right them, but if they are down for too long they’ll either panic, and drive themselves into shock, or they’ll start to suffocate.

That one’s got a limp.. another serious condition in a sheep. If it’s not a simple fix it usually means the animal will be culled once she’s weaned her lambs. So the refrain is one that reflects the constant worry of a shepherd out guarding a flock with relatively few aids to hand to keep them safe.

The shepherd counts up to figgits, or twenty, then slides their thumb up a notch on their stick to keep track of the count.  A “tup” is a ram, a “gimmer” is a young ewe..

The Lincolnshire Shepherd

[ Roud 1469 ; words Jesse Baggaley; music Maurice Ogg]

Roy Palmer noted in his Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs (London : Dent, 1979):

The words of this song were written in the 1930s by Jesse Baggaley (1906-1976) of Lincoln, and the tune was added by another Lincolnshire man, Maurice Ogg, in 1977.

Chorus (after each verse):

Yan, tan, tethera, tethera, pethera, pimp.
Yon owd ewe’s far-welted, and this ewe’s got a limp
Sethera, methera, hovera, and covera up to dik,
Aye, we can deal wi’ ’em all, and wheer’s me crook and stick?

I count ’em up to figgits, and figgits have a notch,
There’s more to being a shepherd than being on watch;
There’s swedes to chop and lambing time and snow upon the rick,
Sethera, methera, hovera, and covera up to dik.

From Caistor down to Spilsby from Sleaford up to Brigg,
There’s Lincoln sheep all on the chalk, all hung wi’ wool and big.
And I, here in Langton wi’ this same old flock,
Just as me grandad did afore they meddled with the clock.

We’ve bred our tups and gimmers for the wool and length and girth,
And sheep have lambed, have gone away all o’er all the earth.
They’re bred in foreign flocks to give the wool its length and crimp,
Yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp.

They’re like a lot of bairns, they are, like children of me own,
They fondle round about owd Shep afore they’re strong and grown;
But they gets independent-like, before you know, they’ve gone,
But yet again, next lambing time we’ll ‘a’ more to carry on.

Yan, tan, tethera, tethera, pethera, pimp,
Fifteen notches up to now and one ewe with a limp.
You reckons I should go away, you know I’ll never go,
For lambing time’s on top of us and it’ll surely snow.

Well, one day I’ll leave me ewes, I’ll leave me ewes for good,
And then you’ll know what breeding is in flocks and human blood;
For our Tom’s come out o’ t’ army, his face as red as brick,
Sethera, methera, hovera, and covera up to dik.

Now lambing time come reg’lar-like, just as it’s always been,
And shepherds have to winter ’em and tent ’em till they’re weaned
My fambly had it ‘fore I came, they’ll have it when I sleep,
So we can count our lambing times as I am countin’ sheep.

I am modestly proud of this piece of work. The folk song refrain counts:

Yan Tan Tethera, Tethera Pethera Pim : or 1 2 3, 3 4 5.. added together, that’s 18 sheep. And there are 18 sheep on the left mitten (chart).

Sethera, Lethera Hovera and Covera up to Dik : 6 7 8 9 10 .. added together that’s 40 sheep. And there are 22 sheep on the right mitten.. 18+22=40 (chart)

Click on the images to enlarge them.


The Farm at Morrison Corner will be at the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival  in September and Rhinebeck’s NY Sheep and Wool Festival, in October helping out Elaine Clark at the Frelsi Farm Icelandic Sheep booth.  Stop by and say hi!

The sample mittens are available for sale, or you can make your own (we have a new store!)
Ready Made Mittens for Sale on Square Market

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