When St Fillian first came upon the sheep
they stood with their Sumerian heads
and stared him out,
for it is a fact that though sheep are mentioned
many times in the bible,
it is always in a bad way.
Follow me said St Fillian,
I have a new path and he pointed
into the hills, to where the sun was rising
setting the gorse to blaze.
They had seen many
paths and sunrises,
you might say they were
inured to them.
They had grass here,
and every second Thursday
a book group,
due to discuss that night the third of
Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy,
in a non-Western context.
Nevertheless they saw
the fine pitch of madness
in the old man’s eyes
and, reminding themselves
they were essentially
compliant herd animals,
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2016. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2016 was Catherine Lockerbie.
Hugh McMillan is really very good on sheep – among many other subjects, of course. He is also really very funny. He is a master of sudden bathos or absurdity. This magnificently surreal vision – published in The Dark Horse, one of the consistently high-quality poetry periodicals – made me laugh out loud. The vision of a mad prophet attempting to convert a flock of long-suffering, existentialist, bookclub-devotee sheep is just an utter delight. I happened to read it in the days following Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, which gave it an entirely unexpected and unintended resonance.
I live in a depopulated area and often walk in the glens close to the River Scaur, where the only living things to be found are sheep. I’m impressed by their stoicism in the face of recent international developments and the often tragic family events that attend their lives. Their age-old contentment and calm inspire me. ‘The Conversion of Sheep’ was an attempt to give people an insight into both the public face and secret nature of sheep, as well as the persistent insidiousness of Christianity. Roncadora Press in Dumfries has just published Sheepfold, the only poetry pamphlet written by, about, and made from, sheep. The Conversion of Sheep, first published in The Dark Horse, appears in this pamphlet along with other poems on the same theme.