Super Sheep In the Spotlight

Trio of Blue-Faced Leicester Sheep Contemplating The World
Trio of Blue-Faced Leicester Sheep Contemplating The World

Bleating Out The Competition

Yessiree, things are surely revving up for sheep right now!

To begin with, a 2015 animated comedy film produced by Aardman Animations called ‘Shaun the Sheep’ has just hit the movie theatres here in the United Kingdom.

Ah, yes, and it’s featuring the wooly wonder Shaun from the fabulous creators of Wallace and Gromit, of course. It’s also getting rave reviews.

You need to know just how beloved its star Shaun is: This past summer, he was voted the United Kingdom’s best-loved BBC children’s TV character in a competition held by Radio Times. (Radio Times is a popular weekly TV and radio program listings magazine that has been in publication in the UK since 1923.)

As Paul Jones reported on the Radio Times website, Shaun “[beat] off competition from Postman Pat and Sooty and Sweep” to be named the most popular BBC children’s character of the last seven decades.

No mean feat, quite impressive, Shaun: I say hats off and thank you very much, Nick Park, for creating this adorable critter!

Now To The Lunar Connection

Sheep come into the spotlight all the more on February 19th this year when the 2015 Chinese New Year will be officially celebrated as the year of the “horned animal” – cited by some as a sheep and by others as a goat.

The Chinese New Year traditionally celebrates the lunar calendar, and every year a different animal gets to take center stage.

According to a BBC World Service report that I heard on the radio this morning, hundreds of millions of Chinese people were pouring into the train stations today heading for their family celebrations around China. The Chinese New Year is an extremely important holiday that everyone strives to celebrate.

Red will be seen in spades since it symbolizes prosperity in China: Processions, dragon dances, street performances and more festivities with red decorations will last for 15 days until the day of the Lantern Festival which falls on March 5th this year.

Equally impressive, sheep rule again (and much as I think goats are wonderful, I’m going to focus here on sheep)!

Where Rams Reign

I’m sticking with sheep because hearing about the Chinese New Year recently reminded me of the huge Cydectin Kelso Ram Sales show that my husband David and I went to back in September.

We’re estimating that there were several thousand people who attended the ram show last September 12th.

Not to be outdone, mind you, there were a staggering 4,964 rams from all over the UK and Ireland who were up for sale then.

So it was a day when those rams’ fates could change. For if they were sold in auction, they would be moving on to pastures new.

However, we saw it as a day with tons of potential ram buddies about to meet — and with nary a female in sight.

Chinese Whispers?

Hey, you never know: Maybe some of those rams back in September were telling one another about the great lunar New Year coming up now this week — evidenced here by these Hampshire rams who are, for all we know, whispering excitedly in one another’s ears about their Asian cousins’ place in this year’s calendar:


All About Mating

For the farmers who were there, it was all about mating: Which of the rams would be best to breed with their ewes back at home?

They had first come the day before the official sales to see what the rams on offer were made of: This meant going from one hay-lined stall to another to check out the rams in which they were most interested.

Then the day of the sale, they were prepared to place their bids on which of the rams would hopefully be the right stuff for their females back home.

So it was a time for work, looking again all the more intently at what was on offer under the 18 big rings that spread over the large site.

Here’s what was happening under one of those rings, as the auctioneer on the raised platform in the middle conducted bidding by the farmers for the rams:



At Their Bidding

To purchase the rams they wanted, farmers had to use their bidding skills since all of the animals were sold through auctions like that one shown above.

There were eight auctioneers participating that day. To successfully whip up business, they had to keep up the stream of information that they yelled out under the big rings to all who might be up for buying one of their rams.

I marveled at how they kept up the patter. When I questioned a farmer near me about this, he said auctioneers start young and they are able to keep up their auctioneering babble for hours.

Kelso and Cydectin

The biggest and most famous one-day sale of rams in the world, this annual ram sales event has been going on for 176 years.

Held in the small town of Kelso on the Scottish Borders, the show runs under the auspices of the Border Union Agricultural Society (BUAS) and various committees and sponsored by the company Cydectin.

Cydectin makes products first launched in New Zealand. Its website explains that “production animals on NZ farms are constantly under pressure from parasitism, resulting in production losses.” It claims that its products have been created to combat parasitism in sheep, cattle, and deer.

I don’t know anything about these products, but my hope is that they make life much better for animals and farmers alike.


Tups On Parade

As outsiders of this agricultural world, my husband David and I attended the ram sales event for one reason only: We adore animals, and what a grand sight it was to see so many beautiful rams under one big sky!

We are also eager to learn new things, including about the business of livestock.

For example, I learned that the rams are called “tups” in the farming community.

Here’s a crew of Suffolk ‘tups’ leaving the auction ring in orderly fashion:


Getting Down To Business

What are these guys talking about in this powwow here?

That’s for us to wonder and them to know – which makes our entrance this week into the Year of the Sheep all the more exciting, I reckon.



Radio Times
Shaun the Sheep voted the nation’s best loved BBC children’s TV character
by Paul Jones

International Business Times
Chinese New Year 2015: Events around the UK to celebrate the Year of the Goat
by Lydia Smith

Kelso Ram Sales
Border Union Agricultural Society

CYDECTIN® website


On Finding Long-Tail Keyword Phrases

closeup of puffin

If you write content for the Web, then you think about getting the best traction, the best exposure, the best sharing, and the best uplift from Google.

Or perhaps you don’t – and just write for yourself and take the view that whatever happens, happens. That’s good too.

But let’s assume that what you want is that the next time someone searches on Google for what you’ve written about, your article will be up there swinging with the best of them.

And let’s suppose that you want to give your article the best chance of being found and linked to and shared.

Of course, Google listens to social signals and to whether the content has been linked to from other sites. And Google measures what kind of sites link back – how relevant they are to the content you’ve published and what authority those sites themeselves have.

Looking just at the words on the page though, there is one thing that content writers know, and that is that Google no longer takes a simplistic view of what’s relevant in your content based on the keywords on the page.

It used to do that, until people tried to game Google by stuffing popular keywords into their content.

So what is Google looking for today when it examines a page of content?

Well Google has provided the answer itself, telling content writers that it is interested in the placement of keywords relative to the text around them. And it is looking for meaning rather than for specific keywords.

And in the same way that Google derives meaning from the context, Google also derives meaning from what people search through what they term ‘semantic search.’

Google introduced semantic search as part of its Hummingbird update in 2013 and to understand what it is, imagine that someone searches with a question – ‘Are puffins spiritual birds?’

If Google ignored what else is on the page – ignored the context – and returned results for any of the words in the question, then it would show results for all kinds of spiritual matters and all kinds of animals. The person searching would be lost in a sea of irrelevancy.

But now that Google analyses pages for their content and their context semantically, it’s better at returning relevant results even when the exact phrase that was searched for is not on the page.

How I Find Long-Tail Keyword Phrases

Now you may be wondering how I came up with the question about puffins and spirituality. Well I’ve been using a tool that searches for the long-tail phrases that have already been used to find the content on this site.

You could say that it is working on the principle that there might be mileage to be gained from putting more of that kind of content on one’s site.

Obviously, there’s little point in letting the tail wag the dog and writing about stuff just because it has been searched for in the past.

But there is every reason to capitalise on past success if that’s what your site is all about.

And that’s the strength of Hittail, an online tool that finds those long-tail keyword phrases for you so you can act on them.

And that’s how I found out that people have been searching this site for answers to whether puffins are spiritual birds.

Spiritual? Can these birds that are known as the clowns of the sea because of their Pagliacci expressions, be spiritual?


Well as they say, don’t judge a book by its cover. Personally, I think that almost all birds bring me closer to being aware of my own spiritual existence.

Which reminds me of an incident off the Yorkshire coast a few years ago. The sea was rough and all the passengers were scanning the water for puffins. Suddenly in the grey sea there was one lone puffin. And everyone (including Tamara and I) went ‘Aww’.

Now what was important was that this was not a collective, social ‘aww’ – it was a coming together of a boatful of individual ‘awws’. You could hear it in the sound. So that one little bird bobbing on the sea brought us all closer to ourselves.

Well, that is a long but hopefully clear explanation of long-tail keywords. And I have Hittail to thank for finding the phrase for me.

Bottom line – the received wisdom is that long-tail keywords work very well for attracting interested readers, and Hittail is a long-tail keyword tool at an attractive price.



Colinton is a village outside Edinburgh. It can be reached by bus (#16 from the town centre) and then it’s a short walk to the parish church.

As a child, the author and poet Robert Louis Stevenson stayed in Colinton, where his grandfather was the Minister of the parish church.

The river known as The Water of Leith runs below the church, and Stevenson wrote a poem about the games he played near the water mill as a child. He reflects on how, when he and his friends are adults and return home, the mill wheel will still be turning.

Keepsake Mill

Over the borders, a sin without pardon,
Breaking the branches and crawling below,
Out through the breach in the wall of the garden,
Down by the banks of the river, we go.

Here is the mill with the humming of thunder,
Here is the weir with the wonder of foam,
Here is the sluice with the race running under
Marvellous places, though handy to home!

Sounds of the village grow stiller and stiller,
Stiller the note of the birds on the hill,
Dusty and dim are the eyes of the miller,
Deaf are his ears with the moil of the mill.

Years may go by, and the wheel in the river
Wheel as it wheels for us, children, to-day,
Wheel and keep roaring and foaming for ever
Long after all of the boys are away.

Home from the Indies and home from the ocean,
Heroes and soldiers we all shall come home;
Still we shall find the old mill wheel in motion,
Turning and churning that river to foam.

You with the bean that I gave when we quarrelled,
I with your marble of Saturday last,
Honoured and old and all gaily apparelled,
Here we shall meet and remember the past.

It’s a poem about growing up and returning to things and seeing them in a new way – appreciating that in its earthly wisdom, the mill has kept on turning.

Of course, in the 21st century the Earth is shifting under our feet with the prospect of environmental worries on a scale beyond that which we can rescue or redeem.

The Church

The photo at the top of this article is a view from the churchyard looking onto the narrow road and the houses that front the church.

Here below is a photo of the inside of the church, designed by the architect Sidney Mitchell, an Edinburgh architect. The church was built in 1908 and replaced an earlier church that itself replaced a yet earlier one.


The man who gave me the information about the church told me that the design is neo-Byzantine.

Having spent some time in Finland, I was struck by the Nordic feel to the design – light and airy and down to earth rather than stratified and authoritarian. Well, egalitarian with perhaps the exception of the pulpit which is raised above the congregation.


There is a path that leads from the church to Collinton Dell, where I took this photo. It is a lovely feeling to be able to take a bus away from the city and reach the countryside so easily.

I saw a nuthatch and several long-tailed tits in the trees – and it’s nice to look forward to taking a walk here when the weather is warmer in the Spring.


Sir Walter Scott – The Man Who Framed Scottish Cultural Identity

bust of sir walter scott in the national portrait gallery in edinburgh

This is a bust of Sir Walter Scott in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

I think it bears a passing resemblance to Alex Salmond, the current first minister of the ruling party in the Scottish Parliament.

So Who Was Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott was a Scottish historical novelist, playwright, and poet who popularised Scottish cultural identity in the nineteenth century.

In his own lifetime, Scott’s historical novels were read and admired throughout Europe and the USA. Many of his novels dealt with Scottish themes and even to this day they influence how Scots see their own past and on how Scotland is viewed from abroad.

Scott was born in 1771. To put that into context historically, the Second Jacobite Rebellion – a rebellion that attempted to regain the British throne for the Scottish house of Stuart – was in 1745.

Or to put it another way, Scott was born at a time when Scotland was riven down the middle over its loyalties.

With the referendum on Scotland splitting from the United Kingdom so fresh in people’s minds, Scottish people have again been asking that question.



And this is the huge, imposing, and perhaps overblown monument to Scott in the heart of Edinburgh on Princes Street.

My First Acquaintance with Scott – The Children’s Classics

When I was a boy I read at least three of Scott’s books – Rob Roy, Quentin Durward, and Ivanhoe. They were the kind of books that were bundled in what were called ‘children’s classics’.

I remember them as highly complex stories, and Ivanhoe drove me to distraction because it was so dense. But then I didn’t know the history of Scotland except in the vaguest of ways.

When I look back, what I did learn about Scotland in my school in northern England?

I learned that Scots had been among the world’s foremost inventors.

I learned that many Scots were forced to emigrate because of hard times at home, and that they had been pioneers in new developments far more than their numbers alone would have suggested.

And I learned about the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 when something happened, but it was far from clear what that something was.


Scott was born in the heart of Edinburgh, just off Chambers Street where the Scottish National Museum is.

He was one of nine children, but five of them had died before he was born and his sister died while still young.

How precious the children and how terrible it must have been for couples to lose their children.

I remember reading once that in the days when many children died in infancy, parents learned to be more stoical about the loss.

But I am not so sure I can believe that.




Scott’s parents had this house built in George Square in Edinburgh when Walter was three and he lived there for a short while before he contracted polio.

He recovered (many did not) but he walked with a limp throughout his life.

To recuperate, he was sent to the Scottish Borders to live with his grandfather. And it was from his grandfather and his aunt that he learned about Scottish history and heard Scottish folk tales.

Scott’s father was a lawyer, and on his return to Edinburgh as a young adult, Scott became clerk to the court and deputy sherif in Edinburgh.

And all the while he wrote romantic novels about Scotland and Scottish life.

He was internationally famous during his lifetime.

Then it all came crashing down when a venture in which he had invested failed.

Scott could have declared himself bankrupt, but instead he spent the last years of his life writing novel after novel to discharge the debts. The continuing sales of his books cleared the debts shortly after his death.

Scott died in 1832 in Abbotsford in the Scottish Borders where he had spent much of his childhood.

Scott’s legacy is in the way Scots see themselves. The fact that he discharged the debts that he could have avoided is often mentioned even in short biographies.