open country

I have tended not to walk up hills next to where I live. I suppose this attitude is akin to not visiting places of interest in your own town.

However, I remember meeting the man who writes the walking features for The Times. He was looking at the popular figure-of-eight that takes in Riskinhope and a section of the Southern Upland Way.

“What about the Wiss?” he asked. The Wiss is Crosscleuch’s farm’s highest point. I had not been up it at that time. I knew it would be a heathery, boggy way up, maybe not suitable for encouraging casual walkers into the heights. Later, I read an article in Scottish Walks written by Cameron McNeish; my curiosity had to be satisfied.

I set it as a guided walk for May. Jayjay came with me the morning I surveyed the route.

We moved along the loch side to March Wood, where only the sheep normally tread and graze. We wound a way up through the trees, leaving their cover to come on to Nether Hill. The steep, grassy slopes of this rise give way to a long, gentle slope to the summit of the Wiss. This section comprises a burn which has cut its own deep zig-zag ditch and boggy and heather patches.

We reached the summit. Jayjay stood and looked at me as I breathed in the view. The heavy bank of clouds skimmed the higher Tweeddale hills that had been crowned with a covering of snow. It was very cold in the wind. My private landscape came and went behind my tresses of hair that curled in front of my face – soft against the chill.

We descended quickly down along the Long Moor. We crawled under the scratchy Sitka spruce to sit in relative shelter to share a sandwich. A short walk down to the Captain’s Road and we were in home territory – Earl’s Hill, Riskinhope Hope, Pikestone Rig and, finally, the old stone steading of Riskinhope Farm.

When I researched the meaning of this hill name I was at a loss. What I found was something more recondite, with a practical link to the two hill farms I had walked through.

The majority of hits on Google for the word Wiss were about a Swedish craftsman. In 1847 Jacob Wiss arrived in America from Switzerland. He left his homeland at a time of unrest and craftsmen were concerned about the demise of their livelihood.

The following year he had started his own business, making shears (picture, top of page) which was to run until 1974.

When he started, he had a dog in a treadmill to power the grinding and polishing machines in his workshop. The fineness of his tools and cutlery meant that his customer base grew through word of mouth. In fact, the successful shear manufacturers of Wiss and his former employee Heinisch contributed to the wealth of the town of Newark where they were based.

In 1948, the year of Wiss’s centenary, the company produced a book about the history of shear-making. The reality is there is very little history.

The book concentrates mainly on the history of shear manufacture in America. There is some mention of sheep shearing in Roman myths and in Roman life. Shear comes from the Teutonic word sker, meaning to cut.

Most mesmerising of all was a drawing of bow shears found in Egypt, dated from the third century BC.

One blade has been etched with the figure of a woman and the other with the figure of a man.

“Marriage is like a pair of shears, so joined that they cannot be separated; often moving indifferent directions, yet always punishing anyone who comes between them.” (Sydney Smith, Lady Holland’s Memoir)

What was most poignant was that bow-backed shears have changed little in 5,000 years. They are simple.

The noise of the clicking when sheep are sheared is the same. The sound has been constant, unchanging for hundreds of generations.