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Issue 19 - The wild world of the original cowboys

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 19
March 2005


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The wild world of the original cowboys

Cattle droving was a core part of Highland life and drovers lived a tough and hardy lifestyle. James Irvine Robertson reports

For centuries cattle were the only product of the Highlands that anybody wanted and the only product that generated cash.

The animals were the ancestors of today’s Highland cattle, but much smaller. A bull might weigh 250lbs – a modern beef bull can weigh 2,000lbs. The most humble tenant might own only one or two animals. The great man could own hundreds.

And because rieving or rustling was everybody’s principal recreation, the trick was to hold them long enough to sell them.

Cattle grazed on God’s grass, drank His water and breathed His air. What gave a man right of possession over them? Beasts only belonged to he who could defend them. In 1746 a report said that, for Highlanders, cattle theft was ‘the principal source of all their barbarity, cruelty, cunning and revenge; and that it ‘trains them up to the use of arms, love of plunder.’ And this attitude demanded exceptional men to drove them.

Every year the drovers would tour the islands and glens to buy, often on the strength of a promissory note, the season’s crop, and they would then drive them to the great markets at Crieff or Falkirk in October. From there, most beasts went on south again for fattening outside of London before being slaughtered to feed the metropolis or to be salted down for the army and navy.

The job was extremely demanding: “To purchase 1,000 cattle from a multitude of individuals, and march them, in one or more great battalions from the extremity of Scotland, into the centre of England, at the expense of only a few shillings on each, is an undertaking that requires genius, exertion and a provision for many contingent circumstances.”

Take, for example, a drover from Skye. He would first have to collect a herd, and that could mean entering into complex financial negotiations with scores of individual farmers for whom the price received for their cattle was critical to pay their rent.

Then he had to force them across the treacherous narrows at Kylrhea to the mainland before driving them along the wide green lanes of the drove roads over some of the wildest country in Europe. A dog for 50 beasts, a man for every hundred, they moved between traditional overnight stances each a dozen or so miles apart, careful not to rush them so that they maintained condition on their way to market.

Observers often compared the herds to a river, speeding through the rapids as their road constricted, eddying round rocks and obstructions, slowing and spreading across the shallows of open country. Like a river, the little tributaries would converge into larger and larger channels until perhaps 30,000 animals would meet at the Tryst in Crieff at the edge of the Highlands where they were inspected and bid for by buyers from the south. Then on again they would go for another month to the fattening grounds on the outskirts of London.

In the early days of droving, the border between England and Scotland was an expensive and perilous crossing and herdsmen had to know the myriad of quiet glens whose use would avoid customs dues and the rievers.

Always the authorities tried to extract duty on the export of cattle from Scotland or their import into England. Often they tried to prevent the trade entirely either because they feared starvation north of the border or disruption of the southern livestock trade through cheap imports, or simply as a weapon in the incessant political skirmishing between Edinburgh and London.

It cost money, particularly in England, to cross bridges, pass through tolls and sometimes for overnight stances. The drover was often responsible for the livelihood of the dozens of little farmers whose beasts he cared for, or for the fortune of some great magnate speculating in the beef market.

Rob Roy’s backer was the 1st Duke of Montrose. They gambled on a rising market after the Scotland/England Union of 1707, but prices fell, the Duke lost £1,000 and bankrupted Rob – who spent the rest of his days revenging himself by preying on his former sponsor’s rents and cattle.

Trust was integral to the business. The drover would have to account for each beast and each shilling spent on his return, but so dangerous was the market that one year in 10, entire districts might face hardship caused by the financial failure of the local drover.

And in Scotland they often had to pay blackmail into the bargain. For example, MacDonell of Barrisdale, across whose lands all Skye herds must go, received £500 a year to give passage. Otherwise his men would steal the beasts. To protect the herd from less organised reivers, drovers were always allowed to bear arms, even in times of rebellion when death could be the penalty for carrying a gun or a sword.

Wrapped in their plaids, the drovers slept under the stars. They lived on oatmeal and carried, perhaps, a couple of onions to mix with blood tapped from their beasts to make black pudding. And , of course, a flask of whisky.

These Highland drovers formed the only image of the clansman that most southerners would ever see, more exotic than the black servants of the plantation-owning gentry or the gypsies with their dancing bears. With their tartan plaids and bare thighs, they were the objects of erotic speculation. “Will you row me in your plaidie, O my bonnie Highland Laddie?’ ran one 18th century bawdy ballad.

Often the men would return by ship in spring after spending a comfortable winter in the south with their winter wives. The cattle dogs were dismissed on reaching their destination to return home to the Highlands under their own volition. The drover himself would pay the innkeeper next season for the food he would have given the dog as it passed through the previous autumn.

The railway finally put paid to the industry.

Cattle could not easily be transported by sea between Scotland and the south, but the same problems did not exist in rails. The skills of the drover did not disappear. They were just exported across the Atlantic to the cattle country of the West. But that’s another story.