Highland Drovers: the Romance and the Reality

There is something very romantic about Drovers, their tracks winding their way through the Highlands where there are no roads, and with their cargo of beasts crossing burns and lochs on their way south. I touch on the subject briefly in my book, The Immeasurable Wilds, but a brief look at my notes shows that there was more on the subject than that which made it into the text.

John Mackay, travelling through Scotland in 1723, described the contrast in appearance between the 'Highland gentlemen' and 'their attendance' [the drovers]:

      "The Highland gentlemen were mighty civil, dress'd in their slash'd short waistcoats, a trousing (which is breeches and stockings of one piece of Strip'd stuff) with a plaid for a cloak, and a blue bonnet. They have a poniard knife and fork in one sheath hanging at one side of their belt, their pistol at the other, and their snuff-mill before; with a great broad-sword by their side. Their attendance were very numerous, all in belted plaids, girt like women's peticoats down to the knee, their thighs and half of the leg all bare. They had also each their broad-sword and poniard, and spake all Irish, an unintelligible language to the English. However, these poor creatures hir'd themselves out for a shilling a day, to drive the cattle to England, and to return home at their own charge. There was no having anything loose here, but it would have been stolen."

James Mitchell (Reminiscences of my Life in the Highlands, 1883) described one drover he knew:

      "When quite a lad he was employed by the principal drovers to drive their sheep and cattle to market. He was so poor that his first journeys south were made without shoes, he wearing only a pair of footless stockings. .... [Later], he frequently rode night and day on a wiry pony from Falkirk to the Muir of Ord, 120 miles, carrying for himself some bread and cheese in his pocket and giving his pony now and then a bottle of porter."

"Scotch Cattle Dealers." An engraving from a French magazine, 'Le Charivari', 1833.

According to Mitchell, the cattle fared little better: "....Cattle reared in Caithness and the Orkneys  were driven across the mountains by land, and when they reached the more favoured pastures of the south, some 300 or 400 miles away, they were little more than skin and bone. The drovers called them the 'Caithness Runts': very ungainly-looking animals."

Haldane [The Drove Roads of Scotland, 1973] knew someone who "recalls having seen drovers passing through Liddersdale, the drovers knitting stockings as they went". They slept outside, "wrapped in their plaids on which the frost showed white, or the dew shone just as it does on a spider's web, their sticks near their hands..." (Cunninghame Graham, A Hatchment). Sir Walter Scott described one whose "neck and shoulders, which had been uncovered, were white with hoar frost, but the Highlander suffered little inconvenience, merely shaking himself on awakening and rubbing the hoar frost off with his plaid while he muttered that it had been a 'cauld nicht'." (Rob Roy, Introduction).

A dramatic sepia drawing by an unknown artist.

A dramatic sepia drawing by an unknown artist.

The route south from Sutherland went east to Helmsdale Bay where it joined the main route south, crossing the Kyle of Sutherland at Meikle, or at Criech. Those from Assynt stuck to the west coast, going south via the Muir of Ord, by Glen Cannich, Afric, or Strath Garve.

The drove tracks were not necessarily fixed, especially in the northern Highlands. Haldane describes how "the topman goes ahead to choose the route, planning and adapting according to the conditions." They preferred to avoid gravel tracks, and even shoed cattle for the Lowland roads. They managed 10 - 12 miles each day, and were welcomed by the locals for their beast's rich droppings. Even today their routes are greener than the surrounding contryside.

"Loch Leven at Ballachulish Ferry", an engraving after Joseph Adam.

One of the major challenges of the journey south was getting the beasts over the countless rivers that were encountered. There were ferries, but if the boat was filled with cattle, passengers had to wait, which caused much aggravation. Haldane reports that at Higginsneuk, a system had to be employed whereby passengers alternated with animals, the two never mixing on one crossing.

Passengers vie with sheep at Stracus (Creggans, Argyll).

Passengers vie with sheep at Stracus (Creggans, Argyll).

But many drovers preferred to 'swim' the animals across. Two European travellers in Scotland in 1786 (Scarfe To The Highlands in 1786, 2001) reported that "when they drive these cattle through the hills. which are as one must see divided by a great many lochs, they never let even the more valuable cattle go by boat, but make them swim across all the waters they come to on their drove roads; and they have told me they very seldom lose one. These cows are almost always black, and often well-formed and good-looking."

A description of such a crossing in 1730  is found in Northern Rural Life in the 18th Century, (1877):

     "The cows were about 50 in number, and took the water like spaniels; and when they were in their drivers made a hideous cry to urge them forwards; this they did they told me to keep the foremost of them from turning about, for in that case the rest would do the like, and they could be in danger, especially the weakest of them, to be driven away and drowned by the torrent. I thought it a very odd sight  to see so many noses and eyes just above the water, and nothing of them more to be seen, for they had no horns and upon the land they appeared like so many Lincolnshire calves."

John Knox, travelling in the 1780s, saw at Skye horses "pushed off a rock into the sea and conducted over 4 at a time by a little boat and two men, having a pair of horses on each side, held with halters. The black cattle are swam over in droves from 6 to 10 at a time, tied with ropes fastened from the horn of one to its tail, so to the next; the first being fastened to the pilot boat."

"Highland cargo, Kyle of Lochalsh." A photo by Valentine, showing that by 1925, a boat was preferred to swimming the cattle from Skye to the mainland.

"Shipping Shetland Ponies." An early 20th century postcard.

Cattle loaded onto the ferry at Kyleakin, 1953.

Cattle loaded onto the ferry at Kyleakin, 1953.

The drovers would supplement their income by selling goods, such as knitted items or coarse cloth, which they carried north with them. Thomas Telford  told of meeting people from Worcester, who brought up crockery "which they got over the mountains how they could, and which having sold it, they bought black cattle which they drove south."

Cattle could be bought at fairs like that at Shielhouse (Glen Shiel), where, according to the 1845 Statistical Account, sales were held three times a year. "The cattle are purchased by drovers from the south of Scotland....although a good deal of whisky is drunk on these occasions there is not much drunkenness  and a fight rarely occurs." However the author adds disapprovingly "The practice of exposing pedlar's wares at these meetings, which has lately been introduced threatens, by attracting young females to them, to do injury to their morals."

"The Scotch Fair " after J Phillip, a painting created in 1848.

"Lochmaddy market", a postcard by Valentine taken in 1911.

At Tain, the minister was less impressed: he reported that the Midsummer, Lammas, and Michaelmas sales were "and to some extent still are, scenes of abominable drunkenness and riot."

Further south, the main place for cattle sales was Crieff, though post-1745, when more sales were made to English dealers, Falkirk became the preferred centre. Sales took place three times a year, and the deals were struck directly between the drover and the dealer. The cattle were then taken further south to be fattened up. Some, however, were of such poor quality that they were never driven south. Those from Caithness were often slaughtered in situ, and then shipped down to Leith by boat, or sold directly to Dutch traders who were there for the herring fishing.

The picture emerges of a tough life for the drover, but one that was critical to counties like Sutherland, where cattle were "the main, if not the only industry of the county" (Haldane). However, you could be sure that Victorian artists like Sir Edwin Landseer could conjure up a more romantic image of the Highland Drover, an image welcomed as Queen Victoria opened up the region to her subjects in the south.

"Highland Drover's Departure for the South." An engraving by Herbert Davis after Landseer, published in 1859 by Messrs. Drooster Allan, London.