Drovers and reivers – moving cattle the hard way

A modern Hielan' coo  <em>Picture: Tessa Carroll</em>
A modern Hielan' coo Picture: Tessa Carroll

By Elizabeth McQuillan

In the absence of lush grazing, and before the arrival of farm machinery, Scottish cattlemen had a pretty tough time going about the business of raising, tending, protecting and then selling their cattle.

However, throughout the latter 17th century, the 18th century and early 19th century, there was a huge demand for meat due to the wars that England waged with a smörgåsbord of countries.

Salted beef was needed to supply the naval fleet during the Napoleonic wars and the cattle, no matter where they started their journey, had
to make it to London to meet demand.

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In 1794, Smithfield meat market in London processed 108,000 cattle, with an estimated 80 per cent having originated in Scotland, while in 1663, a total of 18,574 cattle were recorded passing north to south via Carlisle.

Cattle raised in the Highlands at that time were a smaller version (approximately 250kg) of the Hielan’ coo we now recognise, and were descended from the Celtic oxen. Always black in colour, they were hardy and docile.

The cattle were grazed on each clan’s common land and provided the main source of income for the people. They could be bled to provide needed sustenance, and used with oats to make black pudding. However, poor soil and drainage made it difficult to grow enough food to sustain both the human and bovine populations through the harsh winter. Surplus animals would be taken to market by the drovers in the summer.

Cattle rustling between the clans went on relentlessly, despite the high morality of the Highlanders, and this is said to have been due to the cattle being considered communal property – rather like the Native American Indians and roaming bison. Hence the successful cattle thief had greater kudos within the clan than the skilled and brave drovers.

As early as May, the drovers would approach farmers and bargain for a few of their cattle. Eventually they would end up with a sizeable herd, upwards of 100 cattle, to make the long, dangerous journey to the trysts, or cattle markets, in lowland areas in late summer and autumn.

The drovers were skilled herdsmen, hardy and able to navigate extreme terrain such as mountain passes, bog and treacherous river crossings with the herd, and they would time their arrival at the trysts so that the cattle were in optimum condition.

During this arduous journey, the drovers were at constant risk of having their cattle plundered by armed “reivers”, or rustlers. The Border area between central Scotland and northern England had a particularly high population of reivers, ranging from the poorest peasant to landed gentry, as there was a lot of money to be made stealing the cattle.

Historically, the drovers’ trysts were held at Michaelmas, in late September. In 1723, a total of 30,000 cattle were sold for 30,000 guineas at one such Scottish market.

But there were protection rackets even then. The black cattle could be protected at a price – which is where the term “blackmail” is said to be originated. The clan MacGregor, among many others, could be paid to provide an armed escort.

Cattle bought at lowland markets were moved to lush grazing in the north of England to fatten-up and rest, before being taken by drovers on their journey south to the meat markets in London. It seems likely that the Scottish drovers would have received poor recompense compared with those who delivered the cattle to the markets in the south.

Things may have moved on, but rustling and theft from Scottish farms is having something of a renaissance. Within the past week it seems there was an attempted horse theft, and sheep were taken from two farms. A quick survey of the National Farmers Union Scotland’s regions has revealed thefts of diesel, heating oil, tractor batteries and electric fencing equipment in recent weeks – as well as gates.

Farm machinery and quad bikes remain favourite targets for thieves, and last spring saw a spate of livestock being rustled from properties around the country. Hundreds of sheep were taken from farms in the Borders. Perhaps reiving has simply moved with the times and remains a part of Scottish rural life?

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