It is not often that I (lexicomane that I am) run across an English word with which I am entirely unfamiliar, but I have just encountered “hirsel” for the first time. It is primarily a Scottish and northern word meaning ‘the entire stock of sheep on a farm or under the charge of a shepherd’; it is related to “herd” (though borrowed from Old Norse hirzla, from hirtha ‘to herd, tend’), which is a help in remembering its meaning. I found it in the following passage (from an interesting article, “The Ecology of Medieval English Monasteries” by Austin Mardon of Greenwich University):

Several of the herds that roam the Yorkshire dales today have existed continuously since the 13th century. It is worth noting that it is illegal to sell off a complete hirsel from any mountain because it takes several generations of sheep to learn their individual “sheep-walk” and some of the older, experienced sheep must be left to guide the young, who would otherwise starve.

I hope the law is still on the books; I like it a great deal.


  1. Well, my previous comment about Yorkshire linguistic stubbornness should please you too!

    As a Lancastrian, I find it hard to like Yorkshire people, but also hard not to admire them. It may yet be Yorkshire’s human hirsel that finally breaks us free of the EU’s Orwellian grip.

  2. Eric Ferguson (Netherlands) says

    I looked in vain for this word on Wikipedia and in my own Longman dictionary. May I suggest that you post this most informative text on Wikipedia?
    I understand that “The Hirsel” is also the name of the home of the late politician Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
    There are two Scottish Country Dances with this name; that is why I was searching for the meaning.

  3. GLad I could help! (I’m too lazy, but you can of course post it yourself.)

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