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Sheilings

The Drovers
In the main Drovers moved stock on behalf of farmers and landowners.  It was a precarious occupation. Business margins were very low and many drovers experienced some kind of insolvency during their life times.  Some, through could thrive, buying additional stock en route for their own exploitation. These were very skilled men, indeed their prowess was compared to that of soldiers planning a military campaign.  Drovers used dogs to help control the stock, and these would sometimes be sent home alone after a drove, retracing their outward route and stopping at the same places; the Drover would pay for their food in advance on the outward journey.

 

Highland Cattle
Their hair provides protection during the cold winters and their skill in browsing for food enables them to survive in steep mountain areas. They both graze and browse and eat plants which many other cattle avoid. The meat tends to be leaner than most beef because Highlands get most of their insulation from their thick shaggy hair rather than subcutaneous fat. The coat makes them a good breed for cold northern climates and they are able to thrive in outdoor conditions that would defeat most other breeds of domestic beef cattle. As such, Highland Cattle are able to produce beef from inhospitable land that would otherwise normally be incapable of rendering a profit agriculturally. Whilst the UK domestic and worldwide popularity of Highland cattle has made trade in pedigree beasts occasionally the most lucrative - mainly on account of their handsome appearance - they are at their best agriculturally when used to produce beef in a cold climate from poor pasture and forage.

A Shieling from Pennant's Tour of 1769 - the background to the movement of cattle up to the summer pastures on high ground where the women and children would live in shielings for several weeks. This practice, intended to fatten cattle and keep them away from growing crops lasted up to the late 1700's. The remains of the shielings survive through place names and fieldwork.  In earlier centuries, much of the livestock trade had been in the hands of Monks, but once cattle became symbols of wealth among warring clans, there was constant threat of pillage, often leading to skirmishes in which men were killed – in 1603, 80 men died in Glenfruin when the Macgregors were attacked while trying to lead away a large herd.  To this end, authorities brought in a range of strict controls and branding methods, and strictures on markets and butchering and these measures helped stave off a minor civil war based around livestock.

"Ascend a steep hill, and find ourselves on an Arrie, or tract of mountain which the families of 1 or 2 hamlets retire to with their flocks for pasture in summer. Here we refreshed ourselves with some goats' whey, at a Sheelin or Bothay, a cottage made of turf, the dairy-house, where the Highland Shepherds, or Graziers, live with their herds and flocks, and during the fine season make butter and cheese. Their whole furniture consists of a few horn spoons, their milking utensils, a couch formed of sods to lie on, and a rug to cover them. Their food oat-cakes, butter or cheese, and often the coagulated blood of their cattle spread on their bannocks. Their drink milk, whey, and sometimes, by way of indulgence, whisky...." from Pennant's Tour of 1769

Thomas Pennant - In 1767 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. At the end of the same year he published A Tour in Scotland in 1769, which proved remarkably popular and was followed in 1774 by an account of another journey in Scotland, in two volumes. These works have proved invaluable as preserving the record of important antiquarian relics which have now perished.

Drove Roads served more than the trade in livestock. Scotland had relatively few roads of any quality and these routes were crucial for the supply of timber, crops, fish, textiles and leather. The Burgh system, under the crown, jealously guarded the right to arrange fairs, and the Tryst (a meeting 'on trust') was a way for Traders and Drovers to meet and sell their goods. Large markets included Dumbarton, Alyth, Dumfries and Brechin, but the 2 major annual Trysts in the 17th and 18th centuries were at Crieff and Falkirk. The latter became dominant, with a full market held 3 times a year, and lasted throughout most of the 19th century, declining in the last 3rd due to the rise of modern transportation.

Drovers were rough sorts – the people of Crieff were said to dread the Tryst, when drovers would appear at their door demanding board and often leave with pockets full of their possessions. A colourful description of the Highland Drover from Stirling newspaper ran thus: "his Highland blood is up and he screams himself hoarse in shouting to his dogs, ordering his neighbours or assistants and threatening with the infliction of his cudgel those who show a disposition to encroach upon his stance...    This account of a lost trade which shaped the country over many centuries and will fascinate those who have an interest in Scotland's social history or the topography of the country's uplands.

Martin Martin's Journal
Martin Martin stood out from other travel writers to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, such as Dr Samuel Johnson and Thomas Pennant because he was a fellow Gael who knew the Gaelic psyche. A graduate of Edinburgh University, and a native of Skye, he was a different kind of Journalist who was indigenous to the Western Isles and who made his journey and his observations before the great changes that were made in the Highlands after Culloden. He was a son of the Gaidhealtachd and born before the influence of Hanoverian politics. His Journal was the final story of a people who had lived as their Ancestors had done Centuries before.


The Highland Drovers

The drovers of the Scottish Highlands 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, kail, 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 Drovers."

As early as 1359 there is a record of 2 Scottish 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 VI, ascended the throne of England as James I of England, uniting Scotland and England. By 1607, free trade had been agreed between the 2 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 "reiving", 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 Reivers

Painting of unkempt men on horseback, one wearing helmet and armourThe Border Reivers were gangs of horsemen who raided those parts of England and Scotland within a day's ride of the border between the 2 countries from around 1300 to 1600. Reivers stole cattle, sheep and horses, and were even known to hire themselves out as mercenaries. Bands of Reivers were organised according to families and clans - rivalry and feuding between border families gave rise to raiding. Various rules and rights were observed by the clans and allowed by the ruling classes, including the 'Hot Trod' custom which basically said taking revenge was permitted as long as you were quick (within 6 days) and loud and obvious about it. Leaving it longer meant seeking official sanction for any action.

The cattle themselves were the precursors of today’s Highland Cattle. They were much smaller than most breeds today, probably not weighing much more than 5 cwt. (254 Kg). Descendents 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.

 The Highland cattle have a close ancestry in common with the Welsh Black, the Dexter, the Kerry, the Galloway, the Camargue cattle of France and Spanish Fighting Cattle. The breed also has a near relationship to the British White Park cattle, such as those at Chillingham, which were feral or free ranging herds that were enclosed for hunting in large walled parks in the 12th and 13th Centuries.  Many authorities have presumed that these breeds have a closer genetic relationship to wild ancestors than other domestic cattle. As the Auroch or Urus the wild Eurasian Ox is extinct this is hard to verify (the last cow is said to have died in Poland in 1627). What is indisputable is that the extensive systems of husbandry, applied to these breeds for centuries if not millennia will have had an effect. Most have been or are still kept in systems with range grazing. At times there has been little selection in breeding. Or there has been selection for non food industry qualities, such as aggression. All this will have given them an important genetic diversity in comparison to breeds intensively bred for the meat or dairy industry, in particular they have the characteristics of a biological soundness that in other breeds have been sacrificed to the requirements of agribusiness.  This is their value to the future and it is to be hoped it is not to be now thrown away to meet the fashions of the show ring.

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. The Drovers were local men. In May, they would start to visit farms, bargaining for cattle often only 1 or 2 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 "Reivers" might try to steal cattle.

A 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 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 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 Reivers stealing them. It was a hard and, at times, dangerous life, but the Highlanders, with their warlike, reiving past, and hardy upbringing were well suited to it. The Reivers of 1 century in fact transformed into the legitimate 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 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 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

 - The Drove Roads of Scotland, David & Charles 1952

In addition to that, they were also often skilled on the bagpipes or learned in other aspects of their Gaelic culture. As people they should never be underestimated. The 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.  For nearly 200 years, through the second half of the 17th century, throughout the 18th century, and into the early 19th century, droving 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 droving would go into decline.

The Passing of the 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 1st half of the 19th 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 died steadily. Droving days were over and a watcher at the bridge would have seen a different kind of passer by.   In 1775 following the Highland Clearances the Scottish Drovers decamped to America en masse and mixed with the fellow Spanish Drovers and evolved into the American Cowboys.

The Horse Trade between New England and the Caribbean was so important that sailing ships were designed with built-in deck pens to hold 150 to 200 horses. These small ships took the Scottish nickname “Jockeys.”

By 1750 cattle drives of more than 2000 horses and cattle, guarded by whip cracking Cowboys, were a common sight along the cart roads connecting Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Boston. These drives created the first through roads linking the northern and southern colonies.  Finally, by the time of the Revolutionary War in 1776, the term “Cowboy” was commonly used from Maine to Georgia to describe illiterate roughnecks herding cattle in the back country. It grew to have such a derogatory reputation that cattle herdsmen in the East adopted the English term Drover instead. The word Cowboy would not be popular for a 100 more years, out in some obscure little place called Texas.

To keep these cattle going the right direction, it was important that the lead cattle head in the direction the Cattlemen wanted them to go. It isn't quite like herding cats, but in a wide open land, it is not an easy task. One tactic was to fire a shot across the snout of the lead cattle to make it turn. If that didn't work, the Cowboy had to run in front of the cattle and force it to turn - a very dangerous and life threatening act if the steer didn't behave.  But this was the sort of things that a Cowboy did did during his drive." 


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Last modified: 01/09/2013