Walking in the footsteps of cattle drovers

The start of the walk along the old drove road in Strath Rory is not the most inspiring track, being a standard gravel-surfaced forestry track – and a wide track at that! But don’t let that put you off exploring this short drove road in Easter Ross. The strath and track are relatively unknown, even locally, and relatively unused.

Strath Rory Drove Road

I started at the northern end of the Strath on the Struie and walked east towards Scotsburn (near Tain) following in the footsteps of cattle drovers.

Droving, the overland movement of livestock on foot, developed in Scotland during the 17th century as demand grew in the lowlands for Scottish cattle and mutton.

The main drove way from Sutherland and Caithness crossed the Dornoch Firth and continued south over the Struie towards the first of the large trysts (markets) at Muir of Ord and further south to Crieff and Falkirk, As droving developed, smaller local markets were established and the Strathrory – Scotsburn drove road gave a link from the Struie to Easter Ross and to the trysts at Milton and Kildary. It may also have been used by drovers avoiding the high tolls on the Struie road.

The first couple of miles are now within the confines of the vast Forestry Commission Morangie Foest, hence the wide, rather boring track. At this stage I was beginning to wish I’d brought my bike instead of opting to walk this route, but as I was to find out, the ‘track’ deteriorates very quickly and soon become a muddy, gloopy path.

Even here in the FC forest it is in not all mono-culture ranks of spruce and fir; there are gaps where moss and ground layer plants are flourishing and remains of former habitation is visible.

Strath Rory Drove Road

Strath Rory Drove Road

Once I left the confines of the forest the views opened up and the track was replaced by an increasingly wet path.

Strath Rory Drove Road

Strath Rory Drove Road

I soon came across the cause of the churned up path in this herd of cattle who were free to roam about on either side of the burn at will.

Strath Rory Drove Road

These docile cattle more or less ignored me, but the Highland cattle being taken to market along this route would have required a lot of work by the drovers. Drovers often covered 10-12 miles each day and to get their livestock to market in good condition they needed to know where to find good grazing and resting stances.

The drovers themselves survived the journey on oatmeal, bannock and whiskey. They often slept outside in the heather wrapped in their Feileadh Mor (the great kilt). This garment is essentially just a length of double-width tartan – about 6 or 7 yards long and which they used as a groundsheet and sleeping bag at night. If they were lucky they may occasionally be invited into a remote croft house or animal shelter.

The old croft at Coag, near Scotsburn may have been one welcoming shelter. It is now available as an open bothy, but I don’t know if it is used much as the windows have no glass.

Strath Rory Drove Road

As I approached Scotsburn I imagined the relief the drovers must have felt to see the change in landscape. Here is gentle, rich arable land in place of the harsh, heather-clad hills. They would be thinking of the haggling they would do at the tryst to get the best deal for their beasts, planning what goods they would buy to take home and looking forward to the quicker return walk home without the responsibility of looking after a herd of beasts.

Strath Rory Drove Road

I, however, did not return the way I’d come. Having completed the drove road, I followed more forest tracks to Aldie, near Tain, where I met Neil who had been attending a classic car rally in the town.

Strath Rory Drove Road

More photos on Flickr

4 comments on “Walking in the footsteps of cattle drovers

  1. Interesting reading about the Scottish drovers. Reminded me of the American cowboys, many differences yet many similarities, too. (Of course most of what I know comes from old cowboy-and-Indian shows in my childhood!)

    • The arrival of the railways in the Highlands of Scotland in 1860-90 provided a quicker means of transporting animals to market and an end to the droving tradition. It is said many of the drovers emigrated to America and Australia and became cowboys there.

  2. Hi Sheila. That was fascinating. It’s hard to imagine, nowadays, droving taking place on the scale it did. A complete way of life has totally disappeared – and almost without trace. It must have been a hard life, though. Oatmeal, bannocks and whisky, and nothing to protect you from the weather but a piece of cloth. Thanks for that.
    Alen McF

  3. The drove roads of Scotland are a great heritage, and I have often thought about exploring them for long distance walking potential, something to look forward too when I retire! Another interesting fact about the drovers’ is that they were an early influence resopnsible for the establishment of banking. As they were sought after targets by the bad boys of the glens I belive the first bills of exchange were introduced to deprive thieves of instant eccess to the drover’s ready spondooliks, realised from their sales. Today it would appear that most to the thieves have gone to work for the banks! I like the Cumbrian poet Jacob Polley’s :-

    DROVER (Part).

    Father of my father’s father,
    greasy breaches, bow legs – keeper
    of that habitual early hour
    when the cattle hardly move for fear
    of trotting off the precipice
    hidden by the morning mist.

    By Jacob Polley.

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