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Scottish Drovers

Scottish Drovers

The 16th and 17th century custom of reiving, was well known in the Borders and Highlands, central Scotland and the Angus glens alike. This plundering of cattle was on a small or large scale. Rob Roy MacGregor, originally an honest cattle dealer with the support of the Duke of Montrose, later fell on bad times and took the reiving road, eventually to be romanticised and immortalised by Sir Walter Scott. This black economy was for profit, and as one writer said, "a good cow was a good cow, had she been twenty times reaved."

But the real economic orientation of the Scottish droving trade came to be with England. This trade between nations had gone on from medieval times, sometimes illegally, as when in the 15th century the Scots parliament closed the Border to south bound cattle at a time of famine. There were further prohibitions in the next century; but it is certain that Scottish cattle remained of much importance to the English economy. Indeed, between the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and the Union of the Kingdoms in 1707, our country was described as "little else than a mere grazing field to England." Evidence on the ground took the form of enclosures for stock, especially in south west Scotland: lairds such as Sir David Dunbar of Baldoon in Galloway had set up such parks or folds before 1684. They were disliked locally for the very good reason that tenants were evicted to make way for cattle.

The Clearances of Highland areas had their earlier parallel here. In 1724, bands of men who became known as the Levellers went around pulling down the enclosure dykes, but opposition soon faded. In the early 1700s there were also similar enclosures in the hinterland of Edinburgh, which itself provided a good market for meat and meat products. These parks were not only gathering and grazing places for local beasts, but also for far-travelled Highland stock. On their own four feet, the cows walked to markets remote from the shieling grounds where they had spent their calfhood days. By the second half of the 17th century, an intricate system of cattle dealing, droving and markets had developed. Scottish Drovers urged their charges on to markets that became famous for different reasons. Dunblane was good for oxen which, bought in May, could fetch twice as much in November after fattening on good grass. Edinburgh was a place to buy milk cows at about the same time. Linlithgow, Crieff and Falkirk, all on the Highland edges, were other important trysts where bawling cattle in their tens of thousands, shouting drovers, barking dogs and buzzing flies turned up for the main sales in August, in sheep as well as in cattle.

From distant Scottish Island and Highland townships, drovers brought their cows. Kuloes from the west and norlands from the north had to swim the sea at the start of their journey, often in groups of five to eight in a line, tied jaw to tail. Open ferry boats took over where the waters were too wide. And then followed the long tramp along the droving trails, many hollowed out from up to centuries of yearly use, and roads that an old shepherd friend described as the lang park.  Drovers were a vivid bunch, with their plaids and blue bonnets and ever-ready snuff mulls. Oatmeal was a staple of their diet, and it fed their dogs too. They were men of endurance, able to stand the weather. And they were men of responsibility, buying and selling on their own account, or buying on commission for those with capital who chose not to indulge in the rough life themselves.

In April or May, dealers from the south appeared in the Highlands and elsewhere. At one time, it was intimated in church where and when they would be present to buy. Prices fluctuated according to supply and demand and were a matter of much anxiety to small scale producers who needed the money for rents.

With the purchases made and gathered into droves of 100, 200, 300 or more, the real work of the long trek to the tryst began, one drover to every 50 or 60 animals. The master drover, at least, had to know the routes and where there was access to water and grazing on the way, especially during the nightly stops at their regular stances. it was no small feat of organisation, even in peaceful times, to reach a goal such as the Falkirk Tryst at Stenhousemuir with all the charges in good order. This, one of the biggest cattle markets in the kingdom, largely took over from the one at Crieff around 1770.
So important was the droving trade that much of the financing done by the early Scottish banks, such as the Royal Bank of Scotland, related to it.

Advances were made on a cash credit system, sometimes on a considerable scale, as when in 1767 the British Linen Bank sent its cashier to the Falkirk Tryst to get payment on bills due by drovers and to finance a Yorkshire drover to the tune of £2000, and two others up to £500 each.
Steamer services and railways ended the droving days.

One of the great classics of Scottish history, The Drove Roads of Scotland interweaves folklore, social comment, and economic history in a fascinating account of Scotland's droving trade and the routes by which cattle and sheep were brought from every corner of the land to markets in central Scotland. In pastoral Scotland, the breeding and movement of livestock were fundamental to the lives of the people. The story of the drove roads takes the reader on an engrossing tour of Scottish history, from the lawless cattle driving by reivers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the legitimate movement of stock which developed after the Union of the Crowns, by which time the large scale movement of stock to established markets had become an important part of Scotland's economy, and a vital aspect of commercial life in the Empire. Drove Roads of Scotland.