The Iona Shepherd

“I am the good shepherd.” 

John 10:11

How many times have we read or heard these words? To nearly all of us city-dwellers, shepherds are creatures of Sunday School stories and fairy tales. Not REAL people. But shepherds are real people, even in 2021, and I have learned some important lessons from a precious friend who is a real-life shepherd.  

Nearly 87, with failing knees, failing eyesight, and failing memory, my friend Jane still raises sheep on the Isle of Iona, Scotland. With both her husband and her only son dead, she now has limited her flock to 40 yearlings – young females who are easier for her to care for than her earlier flocks of males and females, young and old. 

 Photo Gallery: Jane's Iona sheep farm, Jane in her garden, Jane & Nancy

For almost 25 years I spent the month of June with Jane, renting a small cottage and walking the rocky shores and verdant green pastures beside her. A most unlikely friendship, but a strong one. Here are some of the lessons I learned from my shepherd friend:

Let your sheep know your voice.  Talk to them. Hear them.  Then talk some more. The sheep like to hear you and can tell the shepherd’s voice from everyone else’s. They always seemed to respond to Jane’s call to “Come on Girls… ” as she led them from pasture to pasture. No matter that I talked to them every day, the sheep recognized that I was not their shepherd.

Know your flock by name.  One of my first summers on Iona, Jane had two young lambs (Belle and Snowflake) who lived in an enclosure by her front door; their mother had died, and they needed to be bottle-fed. When one of them started to bleat endlessly and I encouraged her to see what they needed, she just said “That’s Snowflake. She does that all the time to get attention.” She could tell Snowflake’s voice from Belle’s.

They will hide from you.  Occasionally sheep, like people, try to hide. It is the shepherd’s job to first recognize that a sheep is missing and then to go find it and bring it home. I remember one evening when Jane was moving her flock to the upper pasture. She did a quick head count and realized that one was missing. “That will be Cindy,” she said, “but I know where she hides.” And off Jane went, crook in hand to the nearby cliff where Cindy had tucked in between two rocks. Talking to her, prodding and pulling with her crook, Jane soon got Cindy back to the fold. And all meandered to the upper pasture.

Lead them to good pasture.  The shepherd needs to walk the pasture.  See how much grass has been consumed, how much has been flooded by recent weather. Check for rabbit holes that could break a sheep’s leg. Shoo off the huge flocks of geese that can wipe out a pasture’s fresh grass.  Jane’s small croft (farm) has two pastures, and she moves her sheep from one pasture to another as they consume one pasture’s grass and need more grass to graze. Some of my fondest memories are of opening the gate and watching the sheep follow her, in their disorderly style, across the road to the other pasture. 

My friend Jane has seen more real sadness than most of us.  Her husband died young, leaving her with a teenage son and a croft to run. Her only son was killed in a tragic boating accident when he was 22. And yet she remains a woman of great faith. Yesterday, as we were talking and laughing about the inconveniences of old age and the loneliness of the pandemic, Jane offered up one of her standard lines.  “Well, you just get on with it, don’t you?”  And so, we do. 

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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