Over half a century ago, in 1952, A. R. B. Haldane published his landmark book, The Drove Roads of Scotland. Haldane was inspired by walking these evocative routes in his home area of the Ochils and determined to research them more fully and publish his findings. Haldane was very clear that his research was not intended as a definitive record of all drove roads in Scotland but it has largely been treated as such ever since and there have been few popular publications improving on Haldane’s starting point since. However, that’s not to say that there has not been any further research on the topic since but simply that new information has not penetrated very far into the mainstream.
Droving is essentially the moving of animals, most commonly cattle and sheep, from one place to another. With such a broad definition, it is not surprising that people have driven animals for a variety of different purposes. The most basic type of drover is the transhumance drover. Transhumance is the seasonal moving of animals between the lowlands and the highlands. It has been a regular feature of cattle farming in many parts of Scotland for farmers to drive their cattle from the low fields in the winter to the higher fields in the summer when the lowland fields can recover and the higher fields are at their most fertile. However the most emotive aspect of transhumance in Scotland is the practice of small scale crofters leaving their townships altogether in the summer and taking their few cows to their shielings in the high ground to allow their smallholdings to recover and grow crops. Shielings were tiny thatched buildings and their remains can be found all over Scotland. Shielings continue to be remembered in their place names in surprising places like the Glasgow suburb of Shieldhall, Galashiels in the Borders and in the Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park. This was, of course, very small scale droving with people driving very small numbers of cattle fairly short distances. The ruins of many of these clusters of shieling huts remain and are often marked on Ordnance Survey maps.
The droving of large quantities of cattle was a very important industry that gradually developed from informal and local trading of cattle from farms to bigger settlements to the systematic driving of hundreds of cattle, and later sheep, from all corners of the Scottish countryside to markets that were held all over the country. This form of droving was about getting animals from the pastures to the plate; from where they were reared in rural Scotland to where they were to be eaten by the growing urban population.
As a result, a network of markets and Trysts grew up where drovers could offload or stock up their droves depending on how far they were taking their cattle. There were a lot of cattle markets around Scotland and the bigger markets were called Trysts. They served the purpose of allowing people to buy cattle for meat locally but were also used by drovers to increase their herds and continue on south to the bigger markets.
A rule of thumb for the distance that drovers would make in a day is 10 miles in steep hill country and 20 miles in a day in the flatter lowlands. They were walking huge distances, traversing huge swathes of Britain in a time where maps were largely unavailable to the masses and their quality was often dubious. The drovers were likely to have been brought up in the trade, informally apprenticed and taken on many droves before being given, or taking, the responsibility of leading a cattle drove themselves. The romantic image of a cattle drover fearlessly leading his cattle across the countryside navigating according to the stars and memory is a strong one and probably accurate for the most part but there are many instances of cattle drovers getting lost and ending up in the wrong place.
Initially the industry started out with cattle and a breed of cows that no longer exists exactly. Relative to contemporary cattle, they were also small and fairly scrawny but they were also agile and able to walk large distances. They were called Kyloe cattle and were commonly said to be black but actually came in many different colours such as bay, red and white. The closest breed to the old cattle that you get nowadays is the highland cattle, which are thought to have been bred with bigger beasts like American longhorns and so are far bigger than the originals. There is a legend that Queen Victoria liked the red coloured Kyloes and bred them selectively sparking a fashion and demand for red cattle, which is why most highland cattle are red nowadays. This may simply be a myth.
A feature of cattle droving highlighted by Haldane that has been questioned recently was the idea that cattle were shod for droving. Haldane asserted that cattle were regularly shod for droves to protect their hooves in order that they definitely meet their destination and make the most money. However, he could only find two examples of cattle shoes and they were both in England. Moreover, cattle are very difficult to shoe as they need upturning and wrestled into place before a shoe can be hammered on. If cattle were regularly shod then there should be hundreds of examples of shoes left in museum collections and farmer’s houses but even 60 years after Haldane there are still very few examples. It has to be remembered that metal was a valuable commodity in rural Scotland where many tools and implements were wooden, even ploughs were commonly wood with metal bracing. That cattle were shod is undoubted as the existence of smithys on droving routes and servicing them is well recorded. Although there are not many, cattle shoes have been found so it seems likely that cattle were shod in small numbers and it was probably the weaker animals or those with suspect feet that were given special treatment. The value of metal may be a reason for the scarcity of cattle shoes nowadays as they were likely to be reused by drovers.
The reason that sheep were unused as a product in markets was that they were very scrawny and it was difficult to mass produce the wool as the sheep moulted rather than wait to get sheared. Therefore, the quantity of meat per animal was small and the wool was only really usable by gathering what was left in the fields and spinning for wool. Adding to this they were very difficult to herd as they tended to scatter when startled rather than cluster and move communally. It was only when the black face sheep was introduced into Scotland that they started to be driven in preference to cattle. Black face sheep were hardier than the indigenous sheep, they had much more meat and wool, which was sheared in large quantities every year and, most importantly, they were easily herded. The indigenous breed of sheep no longer exists but was probably similar to today’s Soay Sheep, which are small, unherdable and moult.
A practice that was much more common in England than Scotland was the driving of pigs to market. This was probably less common in Scotland as they would have been unable to walk large distances and would have been very slow so it tended to be a localised feature. Geese were also occasionally driven but was, again, much more common in England. Their feet needed some protection for walking long distances and so sometimes had little leather booties made for them and sometimes had their feet dipped in tar and then sand for skin-tight shoes.
One of the animals often neglected in droving was the dogs. Dogs were important helpers in driving cattle as they are nowadays to shepherds. They would accompany the drovers to the markets they were visiting and, legend says, that they would be let loose at the end of the journey to find their own way home while the drovers took a ship back north. On the way back, the dogs are said to have been fed by innkeepers who would then receive payment from the drovers on their journey south the next year. This is probably true for a very small number of drovers but the majority would likely have kept their dogs with them for fear of losing them – a valuable commodity.
Scotland’s biggest market was originally Crieff Tryst, which was later replaced with the Tryst at Falkirk but, for many drovers, these were just stopping points as they continued on to Smithfield, which was a market that served the burgeoning population of London.
Another important purpose for droving cattle was for stealing and smuggling them from neighbouring landowners to your own. In the highlands these cattle thieves were generally known as Caterans and in the lowlands they were more commonly called reivers. These thieves would repeatedly target the same families to the point that feuds started and thieves were stealing each other’s cattle back and forth. They would use the same routes as the drovers but more likely at night than during the day so that they could pass unseen. It was a significant problem for the authorities and was surprisingly bloodthirsty. It is interesting to note that the logo for the Scottish Borders Council contains an image of a reiver complete with pike and helmet. It has also been suggested that the word ‘blackmail’ derives from cattle thieving where mail refers to an old Scots word for rent or tribute and that cattle were the tribute paid by farmers who were victims of a protection racket and the black nature of the tribute is said to be from the black cattle being walked to their new home as payment.
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