Scotland's larder: Jack Cuthbert, Ardoch Hebridean sheep farmer from Fossoway

We talk to Jack and Morna Cuthbert who are dedicated breeders of Hebridean sheep, renowned for their slow maturing, tasty hogget and mutton.

Published 29th Mar 2021
Updated 19 th Apr 2021

Jack and his wife Morna Cuthbert are obsessed with Ardoch Hebridean sheep - they started out owning six but now they keep a flock of around 700.

A farmer's son, Jack first came across this breed in the early 1980's aged nine, when his family moved North from Fife.

Jack’s father took over as tenant of 100 000 acres of Highland glen, at Scatwell and Strathconon and they kept mainly black-faced ewes and suckler cattle, "so it was more ranching rather than farming," he recalled.

One condition of the tenancy was that they continued to keep the existing herd of Highland cattle and a flock of Hebridean sheep.

Jack's appreciation of these odd looking sheep started there.

Ardoch Hebridean sheep flock
Ardoch Hebridean sheep

A rare breed

The breed had been in serious decline, in 1974 there were only 274 sheep left, which made them rarer than giant pandas, so The Rare Breeds Survival Trust stepped in to save them.

The breed originated in the Western isles and the Uists where they were used as a hardy, multi-purpose, slow maturing sheep that could handle poor grazing.

Back in the days of Highland drove roads, animals were annually walked to centres of population in Scotland and England to be sold.

Jack said, "It is known that black sheep were used to pay for the keep of the other beasts going to the southern markets and these are believed to be Hebrideans."

They had a good flavour of meat but they were not as commercially valuable as some of the other breeds.

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In 1980's most of the remaining flocks were associated with big houses and estates. Jack's childhood farm had a flock as did Hopetoun House.

Ardoch Excalibur

They are a curious oddity, with a devilish look due to their horns, so they often ended up in the parkland next to the drive of these big houses.

Jack said, "their unique look was probably the reason that it didn't disappear. That still applies today; they are a statement sheep, something different to look at."

After the estate changed hands Jack's father bought a small farm in Bunchrew near Inverness, and he still has a small flock.

Morna explains she met her husband a bit later in life in a Dunfermline bar and they have been happily married for 12 years.

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Jack laughed: "a chance encounter on a night out and the rest is history."

Town or Country

Morna admits to being a complete townie, although her grandfather had worked on farms and grew his own fruit and veg.

She said, "he was quite old when I was born, so I suppose there was a bit of farming blood in there. My father was also quite impressed with some of our achievements with animals and he was a keen gardener."

Her husband sold her the idea of having a few sheep by saying, "we'll get some Hebrideans. They are easy to look after, you just have to make sure that there is enough for them to eat and they pretty much take care of themselves."

Morna laughed, recalling: "we were going to have a small hobby flock."

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Ardoch Holy Grail
Ardoch Holy Grail

Wild at heart

Jack explained that he and his wife both work and farm part time. Therefore this less labour intensive breed suited their lifestyle.

He said, "The beauty of the breed is they can be left more to nature, you still have to look after them but they lamb outside and they have very few issues and they require very little help."

Although different from goats, Hebridean sheep love to graze on trees and weeds.

Jack said, "put them into the best field with grass and clover, the first thing they eat is a dock,  because it has a great big tap root that goes into the ground and draws up minerals from the earth.

"When the first frosts come they love nettles and literally snap them with their horns to eat them.

"They clearly have a way of balancing their diet with nature."

Jack is a trustee of the Hebridean Sheep society, a charitable organisation and he is proud of playing his part in turning the breed's fortunes around.

The society now registers around 2000 sheep every year.

Next generation

The couple have two children, Struan (10) who has his own flock, and is "quite keen on farming," and a daughter Orin (8), "who is not so keen on the mucky side of the farming, but quite keen on the showing side and likes the food from the restaurants as well."

Jack and Morna are both competitive by nature, so they have both done a fair bit showing sheep over the years and Jack is also a livestock judge.

Struan, Morna nd Orin Cuthb ert tend the flock. Picture Lisa Ferguson
Struan, Morna and Orin Cuthbert tend their flock. Picture Lisa Ferguson

Morna said, "we have both been successful in different years, Jack was champion in 2015 at The Royal Highland Show and since then I have had two reserves, so we are level pegging.

"We have taken the best Four Horned sheep award a number of times."

There is usually a debate about which sheep they will show. Morna said, "we have our own favourites." (Their flock are all named with the prefix of Ardoch).

Jack said, "we have an older four horn tup, called Ardoch Excalibur who has done very well for us in the show arena. I usually show him as he has an attitude in the first round, and he will give you a wee nudge.

"He is not that fussed about being there initially, invariably he does quite well and gets into the next round.  Then in the next round, he comes out and is all 'like look at me' and struts his stuff and prances around like anything."

Another top show sheep, is the 2015 Champion, who they bought her as a young sheep called Bearslair Lily,  she is an older ewe now who has produced two of their reserve champions.

Morna said, "she has done quite well for us."

The first time they ever showed at The Royal Highland show was with Ardoch Bessie, who won the four horn champion award, and Morna admitted, "she is probably our favourite although she is getting on a wee bit now."

Looking to future show ring stars, Jack said, "We have one called Ardoch Holy Grail, he is one to watch and my daughter's sheep named Heartbreaker is quite nice as well."

Orin Cuthbert and Struan Cuthbert with the newest memeber of the Ardoch floack. Picture:Lisa Ferguson
Orin and Struan Cuthbert with the newest member of the Ardoch flock. Picture:Lisa Ferguson

Feeling sheepish

He tells us what you should be looking for in a good Hebridean sheep.

The general animal welfare is key, they have to be fit, and its teeth should be in the right place.

Fleece length is a matter of opinion, but a nice black fleece usually does quite well at the show.

If it is an older animal a bit of greying in the fleece is fine.

The breed has two types: a two horn variety and what they describe as a polycerate or multi horned animal, any number of horns from zero to eight.

Jack said, "we quite like the four horned one, they are slightly more difficult to breed."

Field to plate

Morna said another key reason they wanted to keep sheep was that, "we wanted to put homegrown meat on the plate."

Their hobby flock grew and they were producing more meat than they could eat themselves. They sold the excess and ended up supplying Fred Berkmiller, a chef renowned for championing good artisan producers from L'Escargot Bleu and Blanc.

Ardoch lamb
Ardoch Hebridean

The breed is slow to mature, and generally culled at around 18 months, to produce meat called Hogget.

The Cuthberts keep some sheep a bit longer until they are over 2 years old, and that meat is called Mutton.

They are also useful regenerative grazing animals.

Jack explained that they graze some of their sheep on 25 acres of a Lowland raised bog in conjunction with Forestry Commission Scotland, to prevent birch tree regeneration and help to restore bogland.

The Hebridean sheep nibble the saplings that emerge from the ground

Jack said, "we are in year five and there has been a fair change in the environment. The thinking behind the project is to reduce the scrub land, so the bog retains more moisture and locks more carbon in."

"The flock we keep there are kept longer until their meat reaches the mutton stage.

Jack Cuthbert of Ardoch Hebridean sheep
Jack Cuthbert checks over his Ardoch Hebridean sheep. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Jack describes Hogget meat "as slightly gamey. If you cook it properly, with a nice caramelised coating there is also a sweetness to it.

"You can use it in ways similar to how you use lamb. It responds to slow cooking because there is sufficient intramuscular fat which has taken time to build up."

The Mutton needs slower cooking but it is equally as good, with slightly more depth of flavour, he said it has, "a slightly bolder taste.

"Both meats, as Fred Berkmiller would say, have a length of taste, which means if you put a forkful in your mouth, the taste lingers on the palate."

Looking ahead

Ardoch mutton

They have gained new domestic customers during lockdown.

Jack said, "people have had more time and have stretched out to find artisan producers to support, so the adventurous foodie has come more to the fore."

They have also benefited from an increase in restaurant home delivery services, as Hebridean meat lends itself to home cooking as well as being cooked in high end restaurants. Another chef fan is Craig Wood from the Wee Restaurant.

Jack said, "These gents have kept going and have used our products which have been really good for us and them. They are looking to put something different into people's dining rooms."

Morna said, "we like working with restaurant people, because we both admire them quite a lot, they have had to reinvent their businesses three or four times in the space of a year.

"Unless you are actually involved with these people you probably don't realise the hours that these guys are working and all the effort involved in putting amazing food on your plate."

They are not getting the same rewards and are just having to make sure there is still a business for them when things return to whatever normal is going to be.

Jack is optimistic, "we have had the same amount of trade as in the previous year, and that was without restaurants being open. We are really quite fortunate, people like our products."


Ardoch Hebridean Sheep

Ardoch House

• READ MORE: Scotland’s larder: Jan Jacob and Anja Baak from Great Glen Charcuterie

Catriona is a freelance writer based in the Scottish Borders, and a nominee for Food and Drink writer at this year's Scottish Press Awards.
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