The sun was just setting and Hestan Island was catching the last of its rays. It glowed almost red in the fading light.
We were finishing our evening meal and were remarking that this must be the lowest tide we had seen. The Rack – the natural causeway of mussel beds and sand seemed to form an almost unbroken line from the left of the island to the far shore. There was still a darker smudge of water where a deeper channel of water separated it from the land.
That was when we noticed that something was moving along the Rack – too far away for us to see, so we were soon out of our chairs and scrambling for our binoculars. What we saw looked like a herd of sheep. Surely that was wrong!
So, next it was upstairs in the cottage to use the telescope, which we had set up in the bedroom to watch the birds. And the telescope confirmed that it was indeed a herd of sheep with three people riding horses - and four dogs.
Slowly the little procession moved along the spit of almost dry land with the dogs doing what all sheepdogs do, ranging from front to back of the herd, chivvying on any laggards and generally keeping the herd as a closely knit whole.
The sheep had obviously spent the summer on Hestan – a good safe place for them to graze – but how long had the shepherds been on the island gathering in the sheep before setting off? Or had they done that at the previous low tide leaving the herd safely penned and rested before the trek across? We had no way of knowing the answer.
But another question bothered us a little. What would happen when they reached the last deep channel?
Well, of course the sheep stopped dead in their tracks and we watched as one of the riders dismounted and took hold of one sheep - he had one of the dogs with him. To our surprise, he turned, not to cross the channel, but to wade across some shallower pools that led to the sandbanks on our side of the bay.
Once one sheep was across with the dog watching closely to see that it did not run off, the other riders quite quickly urged the rest of the sheep to follow. Then the man remounted and the slow progress resumed. The light was fading fast now and they still had about two miles to walk over the hard packed sand to the head of Auchencairn Bay.
The flock was safely in before the onset of winter and not a moment too soon for the next day the tide was not nearly so low and a real storm was blowing. Walking along the Rack was not an option that day!
So often we talk of Christians as the little flock and of Christ as the Good Shepherd and of Christians "Going Home". In some parts of the world shepherding is a little different from that in the Middle East, where the flock follow the shepherd, but the sheep are still brought home safely at last.
Copyright (c) Elizabeth M. Tolson 2nd November 2002
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs."
A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep."
He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep."
For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
1 Peter 2:25
I have included two photograph of Hestan Island at low water – you can see the causeway running from the left of the island to the far shore. The island was the model for Rathan Island in the book "The Raiders" by the Scots author S. R. Crockett. A good adventure story much admired be R. L Stevenson with plenty of action and attractive descriptive passages – but it is written in Scots!
The Solway Firth, where Hestan stands, is a place of sandbanks and deep channels and tides that sweep in with remarkable speed. They must be respected at all times and unwary folk have been trapped far from land when the water swirls in behind them. Only once have we seen the Solway Bore – the wall of water which rushes up the River Nith as the tide rises.
The events I wrote about took place in 2000 – last year there were no sheep on Hestan because of the outbreak of Foot & Mouth Disease and this year the sheep must have been moved early for there was no sign of them when we arrived for our stay at the cottage. The very low tides had been the week before.
The background music is "Crimond" - a favourite tune for singing Psalm 23.
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