History of Drove Roads
I first read about drove roads when I walked a stretch of the Road to the Isles path and looked it up afterwards. I discovered that it was one of many routes taken by drovers when they moved cattle from the Highlands and Islands down to markets like Crieff and Falkirk in the south. From there the cattle would be sold on to farmers in the Lowlands, who fattened them up on their richer pastures and eventually sold most of them at markets in England. Much of the economy of Scotland for several centuries leading up to the end of the 19th century was based on cattle and linked to the growth in the market for beef, which in turn was fuelled by the growing population and demand in the south. They only really fell into disuse with the Highland clearances and the switch to raising sheep.
There is a whole network of drove roads in Scotland, starting from gathering points for the herds like Broadford in Skye, or Inverness, and winding over different passes to Crieff or Falkirk. Drovers could therefore vary the route depending on the weather or the state of the roads or the amount of traffic. They had no maps of course, but over the years they found the best routes through some of the highest and steepest mountains in the country where there were also good stopping points – called stances – where the cattle could rest and graze. Drovers could not afford to push the beasts too hard of course or it would affect their sale price, and it seems that around 12 miles was the kind of distance they could cover in a day.
Drovers were undoubtedly tough characters who could survive on oatmeal and the odd dram on the way, and sleep wrapped in their plaids. But they were also astute businessmen, who took considerable financial risks each time they put together a drove. They would have to predict the market price and from there work out how much they could offer to the farmers. They would then make the transactions with the farmers who had bred and raised the cattle, offering them basically an IOU or bill of exchange which would be redeemed when the cattle were sold at market. Sometimes drovers would be independent and earn the difference between the sale price and what they owed to the farmer and sometimes they would work for a larger concern and take a commission.
And of course there was a lot of rustling going on that they had to contend with. For centuries this had been part of Highland life with one clan stealing the cattle from another clan. So the drovers had to keep a watchful eye and it is likely that they got precious little rest on the way.
There are some fascinating books on the history of drove roads if you are interested. The most comprehensive account is Haldane’s “History of the Drove Roads of Scotland” . In the 1980’s John Keay re-created a drove with a small group of helpers and wrote a book about the experience called “ Highland Drove” which brings the experience of moving cattle to life. For more information about the roads themselves I can heartily recommend the Heritage Path website . This has a brief description and history of most of the roads I used .