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The shepherd’s belongings and furniture were basic and rudimentary, in keeping with the txabola or the hut and as described in the chapter on shepherding establishments. The shepherd who remained on the mountain for the summer usually lived alone, far from his family who stayed in the valley.

Once the cheesemaking was finished, he spent his time making craft items. In the past, that manual work used to involve produce wooden utensils, spinning wool and weaving some garments. The decorative engraving of cups made out of ox’s horn and of other wooden utensils also belonged to the field of traditional shepherd’s crafts.

Pastoral utensils

Wooden receptacles

Scholars have noted the long period of time that shepherds continued to use milk receptacles and other utensils all of which were made out of wood.

The absence of ceramic recipients can be explained as they were fragile and would not withstand the continuous toing and froing of the shepherd’s life. Given their lightness, wooden receptacles were more popular than those made out of copper, tin or iron, which were all much heavier. The containers made out of lighter metals, such as aluminium or galvanised sheet, did not come into general use until well into the 20th century.

In the early 20th century, the household utensils and those used to make cheese were still made out of wood; they were sometimes produced by the shepherds themselves and sometimes by local craftsmen[1].

Shepherd’s cups

In the olden days, shepherds used horn cups made by themselves to drink milk and to collect water from sources or streams[2]. Barandiaran explained that those cups did not have the drawbacks of ones made out of clay, which were always more fragile, or the metals ones, which could easily be dented.

The cups were made out of an ox’s horn as it is thicker than a cow’s. They sawed off the tip and then plugged the narrowest part with a close-fitting wooden stopper. Those covers or stoppers could be made out of yew (Lezaun, Sierra de Codés-N; Santa Cruz de Campezo-A), of a piece of horn or ivy wood (Bernedo, Obécuri, Bajauri, Urturi-A), boxwood or beech wood. A strip of leather was added to the cups, as a handle, as was reported in Bajauri, Obécuri, Urturi y Moreda (A), Sierra de Codés and Lezaun (N). The handle could be made out of wire in the last of those locations.

Manual work

Tasks that have since fallen into disuse were part of the shepherd’s craft skills until a few decades ago. Spinning sheep’s wool and weaving different garments such as booties, stockings, scapulars, etc. stood out in the Basque Country on the Atlantic side of the watershed. They would use needles and crochet hooks that they made, in some cases, out of heather branches. They also worked with black wool or with horsehair to make the laces for the sandals as they were particularly strong.

Making the crooks that was part of their light luggage and the walking sticks decorated with different figures was always part of the shepherds’ work.

The cowbells were usually bought at market, but it was the job of the livestock farmer to check their sound and fit them with new clappers or mend them, along with preparing the wooden collars from which they would be hung. People still remember that in the more distant past shepherds would made musical instruments such as the alboka, whistles and flutes or the sumpriñu, and were mentioned by some of the people surveyed.

The wool craft

Part of the wool from the shearing has always been kept for the household’s use by ewe shepherding families. In past, that wool, once washed, was used to make quilts or bedspreads and mattresses. But their main use was to obtain yarn, ilaia, haria, firua, which was then handwoven into warm garments and mainly stocking and socks.

This craft process first involves washing the wool, then it is teased and spun before being woven into garments. The members of the family would be involved, but the shepherd himself would also play a part and had a key role in the past.

Heyday and decline

There was general agreement about this past weaving activity of the shepherd in the surveys. In fact, in nearly all the villages and sheepfolds located on the Atlantic side of the watershed, it was reported that shepherds spent their free time spinning ewe’s wool and making socks on the mountain in the early 20th century. This craft task started to decline during the century and had practically disappeared in the middle of the century.

Collars for cowbells, uztaiak

The livestock that currently graze on the uplands have their cowbells or sounding bells hung from collars out of leather or of other materials. However, just a few decades ago those collars were wooden and were generally made by the shepherds themselves.

In some areas, the name of the farmstead or the village to which the animal belonged was branded with a hot iron on the cows’ collars.

Some people reported that they missed the wood collars because they were more difficult to steal or loose (Apodaca-A). In Larraun (N), they said that wood lasted longer than the leather, but the collars made out of the latter were softer and caused fewer injuries. On the other hand, the people surveyed in Elgoibar (G) argued that the collars made out of hazel strips, urritza, absorbed a great deal of dampness and broke easily, which meant the cowbells got lost; that is why they choose other materials to make the collars.

  1. Augusto PANYELLA noted that, even though using wooden receptacles was not exclusively Basque, “we have tended to believe that it is something that has survived for ages, since time memorial.”: See Los kaikuak (kaiku) del Museo Etnológico de Barcelona” in Munibe, XIV (1962) p. 259. The text by Strabo (1st century BC) is often quoted in that regard: The mountain inhabitants “used cups hewed out of wood, like the Celts”. Geograf. III, 3, 7.
  2. José AGUIRRE. “Catálogo de Etnografía”, in RIEV, XVIII (1927) p. 342.