Scottish Highland Drovers

As well as having a business sense, Scottish Highland drovers had to know the terrain and weather to judge how fast to move the animals. Too slow and they would miss the market. Too fast and the cattle would loose weight and fetch a poor price. In addition, cattle were regularly stolen from their owners by any number of clans. When it came to theft, the Highland code of morality excluded cattle, regarding them as communal property in much the same way as Native Americans regarded buffalo.

At least 30,000 head of cattle passed over the border each year. Part of the economy was also based on the sale of the cattle in the Lowlands.

A typical drovers route

This meant that huge numbers of cattle had to be moved each Autumn to places like Crieff and Falkirk, which held ‘trysts' or markets’ in August, September and October. Theses were native Highlander drovers who knew the country and the language, descended from cattle reivers and employed in what was considered as very similar work. The routes or drove trails they used across the bogs and through high mountain passes were those used by their cattle thieving ancestors. The difference between the two vocations was in terms of honour and reputation. The successful cattle thief was a respected member of the community unlike the drover who was not.

The Highlands Drovers are among those people in history who did not individually rise to fame but collectively played an important part in their day. The Highlands, like other northern mountain areas, have hard long winters. The soils are not very fertile and often poorly drained. They are suited to rearing livestock like cattle and largely unsuited to crop growing. Historically, cattle were vital to the survival of the highlanders who lived under their clan chiefs as communities and latterly as tenants, growing oats, kale, and with grazing rights on commonly held land in the hills. It was in the interest of the chiefs to have as many tenants as possible, as each was a potential fighter who contributed to the strength of the clan, and each tenant could graze his cattle on the common land. This system encouraged over production of cattle, and in addition the long winters and infertile soils meant a shortage of stored feed to sustain cattle over the winter. The people were hardy but poor and their cattle all they could sell for money. What should be done with the surplus cattle? As in other parts of the world with this situation, the solution was to drive them long distances, on foot, south and east to where the denser human populations lay who would buy and consume the cattle. This was the source of the droving trade in cattle in Scotland and the men who drove the cattle were called "the Highland drovers."

As early as 1359 there is a record of two Scottish highland drovers being given letters of safe passage through England with cattle, horses and other merchandise and yet for centuries the trade did not flourish. The main reason was war. The wars of independence and later struggles between Scotland and England lasted centuries. Trade with England was seen as giving aid to the enemy and actively prevented. However, in 1603, James the Sixth, ascended the throne of England as James the First of England, uniting Scotland and England. By 1607, free trade had been agreed between the two countries, though customs duties were retained on hides and cattle. The union had another important effect that helped the droving trade. It aided the active discouragement of 'rieving' , that is cattle rustling, which had been widely pursued over much of Scotland including the Highlands, almost as if it was a normal branch of agriculture and would be a threat to any cattle on the move.

The cattle themselves were the ancestors of today’s Highland cattle. They were much smaller than most breeds today, probably not weighing much more than 5 cwt. (254 Kg). Descendants of the old Celtic oxen, they were and still are the hardiest of breeds and easy to handle. Until red/brown variants were exported from Glen Lyon in the mid 19th century, they were black. The gene for the red/brown colour proved to be dominant and this is now the colour of most of the breed in various shades.

Attitudes to trade between Scotland and England changed slowly but by the middle of the 17th century, the trade had grown to a huge operation. Scotland was, by then, sometimes pictured as a grazing field for England. In 1663, for example, in one town on the border between Scotland and England, Carlisle, 18,574 cattle were recorded as passing through. Some of these cattle would have passed along the route where the military bridges now lie. How was this huge trade carried out?

The drovers were local men. In May, they would start to visit farms, bargaining for cattle often only one or two at a time, since many of the highland farming tenants were very poor. Gradually, they would have a herd they could gather as summer advanced and drive south. The herds would be at least 100 strong, often larger and up to 2,000 strong. Ahead of them lay a long and dangerous journey. Rivers in flood might have to be crossed; journeys must be made over trackless mountains, sometimes in thick mist where a drover might easily loose his way; or well armed 'rievers' might try to steal cattle.

Black Cattle


Cattle played an important part in the Highland economy as a major export from Scotland eventually ending in the markets of East England.  A chieftain’s wealth was measured by the number of his cattle. Rent to a feudal superior was paid in cattle. They were also an important food source. As well as their meat on the hoof or salted in barrels, the hides where a source of material for the tanners. Also the cattle could be bled without killing them, and the blood mixed with oatmeal to make an early version of black pudding.

Blackmail

Since cattle were at risk from cattle thiefs, then protection could be provided, at a price. The word ‘blackmail’ originated in these times. These cattle were black and smaller than today’s brown highland cattle. This whole livestock business had official sanction from the government of the day. The MacGregors, along with other clans, formed properly organised ‘escort guards’. No Highlander would have seen a problem in stealing cattle when they were able, whilst protecting the property of others.

A highland Drover's Day

A drover's day was a long one. At about 8.00 am they would rise and make a simple breakfast of oats, either boiled to make porridge or cold and uncooked mixed with a little water. The whole might be washed down with whisky. Oats, whisky, and perhaps some onions were their basic diet. Occasionally, they might draw blood from some cattle and mix it with oatmeal to make "black pudding.

The herd would move off on a broad front of several strings of cattle, moving perhaps 16-20 km or less a day. It is misleading in fact to speak of a drove "road." The cattle had to be managed skillfully to avoid wearing them down or damaging their hooves, and the highland drover had to know where he could obtain enough grazing along the way. At days end, the cattle might stop near a rough inn where some shelter could be obtained, or perhaps the highland drovers had to sleep out on the open hill in all weathers with only their tartan, woven cloth, called their plaid, to protect them. At night someone always had to guard the herd to prevent cattle straying or rievers stealing them. It was a hard and, at times, dangerous life, but the Highlanders, with their warlike, rieving past, and hardy upbringing were well suited to it. The 'rievers' of one century in fact transformed into the legitimate highland drovers of another. The practice common in many mountain areas of moving livestock and people to higher areas during the summer to take advantage of high pastures, a form of what is called transhumance, was widespread in the Highlands. This practice too, developed some of the skills needed in successful droving.

The highland drovers might strike the people of the lowlands, they entered, as strange and perhaps threatening. "Great stalwart hirsute men, shaggy and uncultured and wild, who look like bears as they lounge heavily along." as one person described them at the time. But they were greatly skilled. Listing the necessary attributes of a highland drover, A.R.B. Haldane, who made a special study of the drove, lists the attributes they had to have as extensive and intimate knowledge of the country endurance and an ability to face great hardship

  • knowledge of cattle

  • resource, enterprise and good judgment

  • honesty and reliability for responsible work that was entrusted to him

  • from A. R. B. Haldane- The Drove Roads of Scotland, David & Charles 1952

In addition to that, they were also often skilled on the bagpipes or master in other aspects of their Gaelic culture. As people they should never be underestimated.

The highland drovers would arrive finally with their cattle in specific Scottish towns like Falkirk or Crieff where they would sell on their cattle to others who moved them to places like the grazing areas of Northumberland or the Yorkshire Dales, both in northern England. There they would be grazed and fattened after their long journey before being driven further south to the London markets. Historically, the highland Drovers' ‘trysts' was held at Michaelmas and was one of the major cattle markets of Scotland in the 18th century. In 1723, 30,000 cattle were sold for 30,000 guineas.

For nearly two hundred years, through the second half of the seventeenth century, throughout the eighteenth century, and into the early nineteenth century, highland drovers flourished aided by a growing human population and hence demand and other factors. Between 1727 and 1815, for example, there was a long series of wars with Spain, Austria, America, France and, finally, the Napoleonic wars. This meant a large navy had to be maintained. Salted beef was a major foodstuff for the navy, which was thus a major market. In 1794 for example, the London meat market of Smithfield recorded 108,000 cattle arriving for slaughter and at least 80% of these came from Scotland. But times were changing and the need for Highland drovers would go into decline.

The Passing of the Highland Drovers

The peace, after the battle of Waterloo in 1815 finished the Napoleonic wars, meant the shrinking navy needed less beef but other changes were even more important. The first half of the nineteenth century saw a revolution in agriculture. Enclosed systems of fields replaced open common grazing and large, fatter cattle were bred and raised ready for market. More importantly, by the 1830s, faster steamships were being built and farmers in the lowlands and elsewhere started to ship cattle directly to the southern markets instead of by the long arduous overland droves. Then, once railways were established by the 1880, this provided an even swifter and more reliable means of transporting cattle and other agricultural products to market. The trade of the Highland drovers died steadily. Droving days were over and a watcher at the bridge would have seen a different kind of passer by.


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