once I met a shepherd

Yan, tan, tethera, methera, pimp,
once I met a shepherd walking with a limp.

‘Pray tell me, good shepherd, does counting your sheep
make you feel drowsy, or send you to sleep?’

Sethera, lethera, hothera, dothera, dick,
he tallied them up on his crooked old stick.

‘I’ll tell thee, me lad:
it depends on the weather;
in summer, in th’heather,
when all the bees buzz,
it does.
But in Cumbrian winters,
when t’frost grips, ice splinters
and shatters the skin of the lake,
when t’wind blows from t’north o’ Cat Bells
and snow-clouds build up ower t’fells,
I manage to keep awake…’

But while he was talking, I counted his sheep,
and when he had finished, I’d fallen asleep…

Yan tan tethera…
depends on t’weathera…
summer in th’heathera…
Bees buzz.
It does.
Sethera lethera…
light as a feathera…
hothera, dothera…
sorry to bother you
hothera, dothera,

[Published in Ironstone 3 (2011)]

This poem is based on the so-called Cumbrian score, a method of counting sheep found amongst Cumberland shepherds and similar to scoring systems found in other upland areas of England and southern Scotland, as well as in children’s counting. Based on 5 and usually going up to 20, it is remarkably similar to Welsh numerals, and some have suggested that it’s a relic of when British ‘Welsh’ was spoken all over the island (as place-names hint), while more sceptical others argue for a later importation by travelling shepherds, or even miners.


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