Meeting Report: In the footsteps of the Drovers: from Skye to Smithfield

Date: 
13 March 2015
Speaker(s): 
Vyv Wood-Gee (Access Consultant)

Sixty-eighty members and guests of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society were taken on an enthralling virtual horseback ride from Stornoway to Smithfield by Vyv Wood-Gee. Sometimes with a family member, sometimes with a friend, but mostly accompanied only by her redoubtable two Fell ponies, the speaker sought to retrace the steps taken by drovers driving their cattle from the Highlands down to London's Smithfield Market. She began at Dunvegan, where cattle from the Outer Hebrides were swum ashore from little boats and then it was a ride between the Red and Black Cuillins to the Glenelg ferry. In the time of the drovers, there was no ferry and it was a perilous swim across Kyle Rhea for both drovers and cattle. At the peak of droving, 4000 cattle made the crossing each year.

Once safely across, the drovers by a variety of routes would make for the tryst at Crieff, and then later for Falkirk when it supplanted Crieff in importance as a tryst. The speaker sought as far as possible to follow one such route through Kinloch Hourn, Tomdoun and on south to Spean Bridge. Drovers were limited to 10–15 miles per day: otherwise, their cattle would lose weight. Pressure of time, however, meant the speaker aiming for 25–30 miles daily, but she still faced the same problems confronting the drovers — where to cross rivers, how to get across bogs, where to find shelter for the night, and finding farriers to re-shoe her ponies. Interestingly, the drovers' cattle were also shod to protect their hooves on the long walk south. On some nights, she was able to stay in inns or B&Bs, but other nights were spent in barns, bothies or a tent. And at each place, there must be grazing for her ponies and somewhere safe to keep them, especially as one of the ponies had a tendency to wander off in the night!

Obstacles the drovers did not face were reservoirs, padlocked gates and drover tracks that stopped abruptly in the middle of nowhere, only to resume a few miles (and bogs!) further on. But our intrepid later-day drover made it safely and on schedule (just!) to the West Highland Way, where were encountered masses of walkers who all wanted to know what she was doing. One memorable meeting was with an all-girl group of singers who were astonished to finally understand the words of a song they often sang, 'The Lads o' the Fair', with its lines such as 'three lang weeks frae the Isle o' Skye' to the 'trystin fair at Falkirk.'

From Falkirk via the Carse of Stirling, the drover route went on through Livingston to the Pentlands and then southwards along the 'Thieves' Road' to West Linton, Peebles, Hawick and Newcastleton, crossing into England and the Kielder Forest at 'Bloody Bush'. Our speaker's problems changed as she moved steadily south through Bishop Auckland, York, Selby and Lincoln, with more and more man-made obstacles such as roads, canals and padlocked gates across what had once been a drover's road. Twice she travelled on drovers roads that had been prehistoric routes and then became Roman Roads — Ermine Street and Icknield Way. And all along her path south could be found evidence of the drovers — streets named 'drovers way' or 'calf lane', and buildings called 'Drovers Inn' or suchlike. But sadly, few of the locals seemed to be aware of their local history. Along the way, too, despite meticulous advance planning, she sometimes found herself unexpectedly the recipient of the kindness of strangers giving overnight shelter to herself and her ponies. Ironically, the only sour note came when her ponies were grazing on a verge outside York Racecourse and an official came out to brusquely inform her that horses were not allowed! There was a minor problem, too, in London when an anonymous voice from the Metropolitan Police informed her that horses were forbidden in London (tell that to the Household Cavalry), but a phone call a little higher up the Sensible Chain sorted out that problem and, as shown in an astonishing series of slides taken by re-uniting family members, she took her ponies gently through the London traffic to reach Smithfield Market, the final destination of her epic journey and of the cattle whose route south she had faithfully followed.