Friday 19 May 2017

The Old Droving Trade by Susan Price

Highland Cattle: Attribution: © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Can you imagine spending two months of every year walking 150 miles (242 kilometres) over challenging terrain, scrambling up steep, rocky hills, trudging miles across moors, fording rivers, lakes and even stretches of sea?

For company, you’d have a large herd of long horned cattle: unpredictable, dangerous beasts. Most nights, you would sleep on the ground beside them.
At journey’s end, having sold the cattle, you’d earn extra money by working at the local harvest before walking all the way home again. You would do this year after year, in hot sunshine, clouds of midges and pouring rain.

To us, with our comfortable, mostly indolent lives, this seems almost unbelievable, but it’s simply a description of the droving trade which went on for centuries. Highland regions, such as the Welsh and Scottish mountains, were best suited to pastoral farming, but to make a decent profit the beasts had to be brought to market in more prosperous regions, where higher prices were paid for meat.

No railways existed until the 1830s. There were no road vehicles capable of transporting large numbers of cattle, and no useable roads for such vehicles in any case. A huge amount of freight transport went by sea and river, but the task of transporting several hundred unhappy steers by small boats was expensive and difficult. And once landed, the cattle were still a long way from the best markets.

The simplest solution was to walk the beasts to market, step by step. Pigs, sheep and geese were also droved, with the geese fitted with sturdy boots for the journey by dipping their feet in tar.

I researched the droving trade for my book, The Drover’s Dogs. My knowledge is slanted towards the Scottish trade, especially the journey from the Hebridean island of Mull in the west, to Lowland Scotland’s great ‘Tryst’ or cattle market in Falkirk in the east. (‘Tryst’ means ‘meeting place’ and, at the cattle trysts, sellers and buyers from all over Scotland met to do business.)
The drover's road from Mull to Falkirk, from The Drover's Dogs

A ‘drover’ could mean a herdsman who walked alongside the cattle with his dog and perhaps owned a couple of the driven beasts, to a wealthy man whose main business was droving. Quite often, like Lachlan in my book, they were crofters themselves who drove their own beasts to market and earned extra income by taking some of their neighbours' cattle too.

The drover might buy his neighbours' cattle outright, or he might simply promise to sell the cattle at the best price he could, and pass on the money to the crofter, minus an agreed cut.

In about May of each year, a drover would start enquiring among his neighbours: Who wanted to send beasts to market and how many? Roughly around June, the drovers began herding the cattle together in one place. A man might gather together a large herd, and had to remember who the owners of them all were, and what agreement he'd made with them. Later, he'd have to remember how much the beasts sold for. Some drovers could read and write. Many were illiterate and probably used tally-sticks to help them keep account. They also, undoubtedly, developed accurate and sharp memories.

Highlanders didn’t have a good reputation throughout most of the period and drovers were reputed to be lazy, drunken, dirty and stupid. They were called lazy because they often slept late at their ‘stances,’ the overnight camping places chosen for the water, shelter and grazing they provided. Drovers were seen sitting over their fires, eating breakfast and chatting until mid-morning. And even once started, they dawdled along.

This wasn’t laziness. Hurried cattle lost weight and became less valuable. People who called the drovers ‘lazy’ had obviously never experienced or considered the hardness and danger of the drover’s life. To come from Mull, the cattle were first driven to Grass Point on Loch Spelve and loaded on to boats which carried them across the strait to the island of Kerrera. The cattle were unwilling. Drovers could be gored, trampled or crushed.

After disembarking on Kerrera, the cattle were driven the length of the island and then swum across the narrow stretch of sea to the mainland at Oban. Many men stripped off and swam with the cattle: another dangerous enterprise.

Once the mainland was gained, they walked the cattle up into hills and crossed Loch Awe and the sea loch, Loch Fyne. They were still only half-way. They had to skirt Loch Lomond, journey along the shores of Loch Katrine and even then there were miles to walk before they reached Falkirk. This is a lot easier to write down and read than it was to do it in 1800 or earlier!

In earlier centuries, the cattle might have to be defended against robbers, though this was less likely in 1800, when my story is set. 

The drovers’ diet for this arduous journey was mostly oats, onions and whisky. Dry oats were mixed into cold water. The onions were probably eaten as we would eat an apple.  For a little more protein, they might open one of the bullock’s neck veins and mix the blood into their porridge.

So the accusation of laziness doesn’t stand, but drovers were certainly dirty, at least while droving, since they slept rough or in the notoriously unsavoury inns of the Highlands. There was probably also some substance to the accusation of drunkenness. If I had to live like that, I would make the most of the whisky too.

But stupid? Many reasons probably underlay this insult. The drovers were usually considered illiterate, uneducated farm-hands. They were also Highlanders too and in 1715 and 1745 Highlanders had risen in rebellion against the British state. The last Jacobite uprising had taken place a mere 55 years before my story is set: within living memory.

The Highlanders first language was Gaelic and they were mostly Catholic, so they were divided by language, culture and religion from the English and from Lowland Scots who, at best, considered Highlanders to be ‘noble savages.’ At worst, they thought them
a lower form of life: dishonest, dangerous, treacherous and stupid.

But a successful drover needed a sharp intelligence. Success depended on bringing the cattle to market in good condition and perhaps even better fed on grazing along the way than they had started. To manage this, a drover needed not only expert knowledge of cattle but a weather eye and close acquaintance with every stance along the way. Would the tracks ahead be muddy and impassable: was it worth taking another way through the hills? Was it worth hurrying the cattle a little to reach the next stance before another drove who might leave nothing to graze?

He had to be able to manage men, and have a phenomenal memory for places, people and the deals he’d made. Even if illiterate, he likely had great quickness with numbers. I'm reminded of an Italian
woman I once knew who was illiterate in both English and Italian, but to assume from this that she was stupid would have been a big mistake. For one thing, she understood numbers, prices and weights very well, and added, subtracted and divided long lists of numbers with a speed and accuracy that made me dizzy. Lord help anyone who tried to short-change her. I imagine that, from long practice, the drovers had the same facility. In short, to be sure of finding a fool at a drovers' stance, you had to take one with you.

Drovers were also honest, or as honest as any trader can be. Most business at the time was conducted on a handshake and a dishonest man would soon have had no business at all. Again, I offer a modern parallel. I have family connections with a small island where a great deal of business is still conducted on trust because nearly all families are interconnected and everyone knows, or knows of, everyone else.

Any incoming clever-clogs who try to take advantage of this trusting ‘naivety’ soon find that no locals will do any business with them at all. Suddenly, no credit is to be had and credit cards aren't accepted. If they need an electrician, decorator, plumber etc, it's impossible to find one who isn't solidly booked up. Word has gone round and that word can, and has, wrecked businesses. I imagine that any drover who tried to cheat the crofters would soon have found himself with no trade and no friends.

Although probably as old as agriculture, the droving trade prospered with the rise of urban living. Demand for meat grew with the population and wealth of towns. Prices rose in those markets that supplied urban areas and it was more profitable to undertake the arduous droves to those markets than sell or barter your cattle more locally.
     The real hey-day came in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. Towns continued to grow and wars in Europe meant a steep rise in demand for beef from the Army and Navy.

A Welsh bank note
The increase in droving stimulated the development of banking. Returning drovers often carried large, heavy sums of cash across lonely moors and mountains. So banks set up near the Trysts. The drover could place his cash in their strongboxes and receive in return a paper ‘note’ which was lighter to carry and less temptation to robbers. On reaching the end of his journey, he took this note to another branch of the bank and ‘cashed it.’ Payment was sometimes accepted in these signed and co-signed notes, fore-runners of paper money. The one illustrated above seems to be a cross between paper-money and a cheque. The value of £2 seems to have been printed on the note, so I guess that banks had stocks of notes printed for them, with different values. But the note has also been signed in the bottom right-hand corner, like a cheque.

Many of these banks, such as Llandovery’s Black Ox Bank, took an ox or bull as their symbol, in honour of their connection with the droving trade. The Aberystwith and Tregaron, above, has a drawing of sheep.

The end of the droving trade was brought about mainly by two things: peace and steam.

The Drover's Dogs by Susan Price
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, meant a great fall in the demand for beef. At the same time, agricultural improvements meant that greater numbers of cattle were kept alive over winter and larger, fatter cattle were bred, in greater numbers, close to towns where demand was greatest.

And then came steam which ‘carried away the droving trade.’ By the 1840s, railways had spread throughout west Scotland (and the rest of Britain.) Tracks could extend to depots almost at the dock-sides. Cattle could be shipped in the large holds of sturdy, iron steam-ships and then loaded into cattle trucks which were dragged away by steam-train. Drovers arrived at market to find that all demand had been satisfied by cattle who’d arrived more speedily by train.
The Sterkarm Handshake

The ancient droving trade had been a hard one, but it had been one way a highland crofter could earn hard cash to pay his rent. Its end pushed many crofters into hardship and emigration.

Susan Price is the Carnegie medal winning author of The Ghost Drum and The Sterkarm Handshake.
The Drover’s Dogs is her first entirely original self-published book.

We are grateful to Susan for this Reserve post.


kesalemma said...

It's uncommon, but droving still happens in Australia. It really only became uncommon around the 60s. I remember a friend's grandfather telling us about the droving trips he made when he was younger.

Susan Price said...

That's fascinating, Kesalemma. I had no idea it still went on anywhere.

Celia Rees said...

Fascinating post, as ever, Sue. Still haven't forgotten my own droving story!