Scotland Magazine Issue 38
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A day in the life of a drover
Scotland's cattle drovers were a hardy bunch of men. David Fleetwood discovers what life was like for them
The long sloping shoulder of moorland looks forbidding through the steamed-up glass of a small droving inn outside Creiff. The fire and the slowly settling pint are much more attractive than a long trudge through the clinging heather and soggy moorland bog. A Highland cattle drover in the 18th century would not however have had any choice in the matter; a long trudge through those bogs was his livelihood.
The drover was vital to the survival of Highland communities from the 14th century onwards. The harsh climate and poor soils of the north of Scotland make the land unsuited to crop growing, and much more suitable for the rearing of cattle. Cattle were vital to the Highlanders who lived under their clan chiefs in these areas. Each tenant was entitled to graze his cattle on common land in the hills. The structure of the clan system encouraged the chief to have as many tenants as possible, all of whom kept cattle. This led to a surplus of cattle in the Highlands, for which the land was too poor to provide fodder over the winter. There was no local market for these cattle, but they could easily be sold in the populous central belt and even further south than this.
It is with this particular social and geographical situation that the drover began to ply his trade. Cattle were driven (or herded) from the Highlands down to the market in the Lowlands, and the money from their sale was used to sustain Highland families.
Although the last drover in Argyll died aged 91 on the shores of Loch Fyne in April 1957, he was part of a long tradition stretching all the way back to 1359. It is at this date that the first record of a drover can be found. Two Scottish drovers were given letters of safe passage through England with cattle and other goods. Although the trade between Highland and Lowland Scotland provided a good market for Highland cattle, it was further south in England where the biggest opportunities lay.
Despite the early record of 1359, trade to the south of the border was limited by the wars and skirmishes between England and Scotland until after the union of 1603 and the free trade agreement of 1607. After this, trade began to flourish, and by the middle of the 1700s Scotland was depicted as the grazing field for England. The drover was in high demand to take cattle to markets, driving them from the Highlands and islands down to England. Drove roads developed at this time, many of which became major routes we still use today.
The drover’s day was a long one, beginning early in the morning and lasting until late in the evening. Breakfast consisted of oats, sometimes boiled to make porridge, but frequently eaten uncooked and mixed with a little water. More often than not this rudimentary breakfast would be washed down with whisky. Occasionally they would draw blood from the cattle and mix it with the oats to make a black pudding.
Supplemented with a few onions, this combination of oats and whisky was their basic diet.
After breakfasting the herd would be moved off in lines of four or five beasts abreast. The idea of cattle being driven along a road in the modern use of the word is misleading. The drover had to take great care not to wear down the animals’ hooves and so their route had to be soft underfoot. Good knowledge of the route was also essential so that the day could be planned around patches of good grazing. The herd would only move a little distance each day, often no more than 10 miles, making it a painstaking journey southwards from far-flung corners of the Highlands to Edinburgh. The geography of the Highlands created unique challenges for Scottish drovers. As well as passing over high passes and bleak moorland pastures, the drovers had to cross raging torrents and even the sea. There are many places in the Hebrides where cattle had to swim between islands. One of the most dramatic is the swirling tidal run between Islay and Jura where they swam until the advent of a ferry in the 19th century. Yet the hardship was still not over for drovers on this route, as the quickest way across Jura to the ferry at Lagg was straight over the steep ridge separating the Paps. This journey was so arduous that the cattle could not be driven until June as before this they were not strong enough to make the journey. The route was recognised as being so strenuous that the farmers of Jura gave free fodder to the passing drovers. This kind of route through the highlands was not unusual for the hardy drovers.
As the light began to fade the procession would stop. If the drover was lucky this might be near one of the many drovers’ inns that still exist in some of the wildest and most lonely parts of the country. Here a lighted hearth and some rough local ale may have provided respite from the cold earth. Most nights however the drover would have slept out in the open, wrapped in a close woven plaid to keep out the cold. Not everyone could sleep at night however; someone always had to keep watch over the cattle. Not only could the herd stray of its own accord, but cattle rustling was a common practice in the highlands, and so the drover always had to be on his guard against reivers.
Their outdoor life and the threats they faced made drovers tough and hardy men.
Many lowlanders found them frightening; one observer described them as shaggy, uncultured and wild. However, they were certainly not simple oafs. A.R.B Haldane who wrote a seminal study of the Scottish drovers noted that they needed extensive and intimate knowledge of the country and very high levels of endurance to survive the great hardships they faced.
One of the most famous cattle markets was the Drovers Tryst at Crieff, a festival still celebrated today. The market was held in the second week of October, and it was sometimes a wild affair, and the 1793 statistical account remarks that the people of Crieiff “went in fear of their lives from the Highland drovers who broke into their houses, forcibly billeting themselves and often carried off part of the household goods and removed the potatoes from their fields.” Trade was so substantial that Crieff was the financial centre of Scotland during this period. Often the buyers who bought cattle then took them further south, driving them down to markets in London. The highland drovers often continued southwards offering their services to the dealers for one shilling a day, returning at their own expense.
The drovers were a key part of Highland life for more than 200 years, and, despite the erosion of their trade by the railways, there were still cattle drovers in the Highlands late into the 1940s. They have left their mark on the landscape of Scotland in the form of roads and paths through some of its wildest terrain. The roadside drovers’ inns, which provided shelter from the cold wind of the moors, are still a perfect haven for the weary footsore traveller.
Tracing the routes taken by the drovers involves perilous mountain crossings for which a high level of physical fitness and selfreliance in wild terrain is necessary. It is hard to imagine the skill that the drover needed to move cattle over this landscape.
To follow in the footsteps of the Highland drovers yourself further information can be found through Celtic Trails at www.celtrail.com/highland and Easy Ways at www.easyways.com Further information on the Drovers Tryst at Creiff
and the modern day festival that commemorates the event can be found at www.droverstryst.co.uk