Droving – the connections formed between people and animals

Pippa Goldschmidt looks at this practice of leading livestock by foot across long distances from individual farms to auctions and slaughterhouses.

By Pippa Goldschmidt

My role in this project is to write a series of short stories, two for each of the four study areas. Half of the stories are set in the future and will examine different aspects of resilience; the other half are set in the past and highlight an aspect of farming in these areas that is important and/or interesting to human culture. The stories will come out as a pamphlet in summer 2021.

One of the aspects of farming that I have chosen to write about is droving. Before I started, I knew almost nothing about this practice of leading livestock by foot (mostly cattle but also sheep, and sometimes pigs and geese) across long distances from individual farms to auctions and slaughterhouses.

Droving started in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In most parts of the UK the practice was superseded by the advent of railways and later by freight lorries. But in the islands of Skye and Na h-Eileanan Siar, where of course there are no railways and it was difficult to establish and maintain roads that can stand the weight of lorries carrying livestock, droving continued right up until the 1960s.

Cattle drovingIn my reading of books about droving such as ‘The Drove Roads of Scotland’ by A. R. B. Haldane, and the evocative account of a recreated drove in the 1980s by John Keay, ‘Highland Drove’, two things struck me. One was a small-scale aspect of droving –  the connections that must have formed between people and animals as they undertook these months-long journeys together in each other’s company.

John Keay makes the point that the drovers had to learn to slow down and walk at the cattle’s pace. Historically, this was very important because if the cattle were driven too quickly they would lose weight and form, and get tired. But there are also the emotional connections to consider, how over the length of time it took to drove the animals you would get to know them and their habits, their behaviours (both collectively and individually).

Drovers needed to learn to think like the animals in order to work out the best places to stop and rest, and graze. This is what I have explored in my story of a young lad who goes on his first drove in Skye (in the 1950s) and how this changes him afterwards.

The larger scale aspect that intrigued me was simply the sheer ubiquity of droving. For hundreds of years in our islands’ history the droves would have been part of everyday life. People would have been accustomed to seeing the men and cattle (as well as their dogs) walk through villages and towns, and along the old footways. In the summer months upwards of a hundred thousand cattle would have been travelling along established routes through the Pennines, Highlands and so on. Up to the nineteenth century, the landscape would have been criss-crossed with drovers roads.

And yet this experience seems to have utterly faded from our collective memory. We know about American cowboys, they’re part of our culture, and yet we say nothing about droving. But it’s such a rich subject, I would like to see more of it commemorated, discussed and celebrated.

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