In the lee of the big rock, I extracted my oatcakes and cheese from the plastic bag in my rucksack. It was more than probable that two hundred, three hundred, and more, years ago others sheltered from the wind right there, taking oatcakes and cheese from a leather bag beneath their plaid. Most days they just had oatmeal, mixed with cold water, or had it made into porridge if they stopped near a house. Many who tramped past this spot had been at the Kincardine Fair. They bought beasts brought from further north, from Strath Naver, Edderachillis, and Assynt, and they would sell them again at the big trysts of Muir of Ord, Crieff or Falkirk. At Kincardine, by present day Ardgay, they bargained hard, and perhaps rewarded themselves with the entertainment of the fair, or bought food at the stalls, or drank with friends. After a night wrapped in their thick woven plaids, they started the slow business of herding their own animals away from the growing crops of the low country by the Dornoch Firth, and over Church Hill. Half the day would be gone before they caught sight of Clach Goil, the big rock on the horizon.
I’d had my eye on this route for a while. In December 2015 I explored the well-made track from the bottom of the Struie, up by the semi-ruined house at Garvary, past some fine examples of glacial deposits cut through by the Wester Fearn Burn, before an indecisive path through heather ended at an isolated nineteenth-century shepherd’s house. At the confluence of burns gathering water from four hills, the cottage is positioned in a flat oasis. The OS 1:25 000 map names it Garbhairidh – the rough shieling. Before the hills were emptied and a lone shepherd placed here, this is where folks must have stayed when they took their cattle up to the summer pasture. However, General Roy’s map, made in the late 1740s, indicated more than that: a little township of three buildings and some arable named something like ‘Adirturn’. The families living here must have had a steady stream of visitors all summer and autumn, marching past with their shaggy property.
Today’s ruin was like so many in the far north. Symmetry dictated a room at either side and another opposite the front door. Like ones I have found in the harder-to-access parts of Sutherland, this still had sections of panelling, doors with the latch, gable-end fireplaces, sheep skeletons, and the graffiti of hiking visitors. The route seems to be a particular favourite for Gold Duke of Edinburgh expeditions! Surveying the setting, I noticed a boulder on the horizon. Doubtless an erratic dropped by a retreating glacier, to the attentive eye it made an obvious landmark. My suspicion was confirmed when the OS 1:50 000 map, not famed for placename detail, labelled it Clach Goil. In the stingy light of December, trekking a further mile into the hills was unwise, so I noted it for a summer exploration.
By July I realised I was on the trail of a drove road. This was one of two parallel routes. One rises steeply over today’s Struie Road, past the Aultnamain Inn, once famed as a drovers’ inn and more recently as the venue of all-night parties for locals.
I cycled up the Struie and, just before Stittenham, searched for the drovers’ stance marked on the map. You wouldn’t notice anything if you weren’t looking, but there is still a long patch of rough grass, clear of the conifer plantation. Cattle could only walk about ten miles each day without losing condition. Each night they needed to rest and feed. Across the Highlands these grazing stances could be freely used. The manure dropped paid for the grass consumed. The drovers slept with the animals, sometimes leaving a watcher to ensure they did not wander. After a few days on the road, the homing instinct lost its power.
While these cattle would carry on towards the Cromarty Firth, I turned west at Ardross. In 1793 the inhabitants of this Strath Rusdale masterminded the Bliadhna na Caorach: the Year of the Sheep. Locals understood that the arrival of the sheep meant their eviction was a mere matter of time and they succeeded in driving the ‘woolly maggots’ out of large swathes of Ross-shire and south Sutherland before they were stopped by the army. But before these ructions, out of this strath came the stream of cattle which had come from Kincardine via Garvary.
At Braentra, at the head of the strath, I abandoned my bicycle. Some careless mapreading involved a soggy and rugged overland deviation. Although I have endured many soggy and rugged deviations in my time, this quest reminded me of how these uplands have changed. The grazing habits of cattle and the fertility of their dung cultivated a far more diverse hill ecology than one created by raising sheep, deer and grouse. Instead of a variety of flowers and grasses, we now have the ‘wet desert’ described by Frank Fraser Darling. Close attention to my map and compass got me back on the right route, if not quite on the path, but I knew I had navigated accurately when I caught sight of that large boulder, hunched just beneath the horizon. Clach Goil.
Clach Goil was less of a landmark from the south, but it was undeniably the same. Beyond was the shepherd’s cottage in its scoop of hills. Knowing I was at the precise point where drovers had passed through, perhaps for hundreds of years, I had a look around. I did not expect any physical signs so was astonished to see a broad track, a foot deep in the heather and, in some parts, worn down to the bedrock. It was about fifteen feet wide, and clearly distinguishable for several hundred yards. Here, impressed on the very land, was evidence of the feet of thousands of cattle beasts and their drovers. Right here trod hooves bred in the rocky northwest and which would plod on through Strathglass or Badenoch, over Drumochter, and through the Sma’ Glen to Crieff. Sold again, the hooves which indented this Easter Ross moorland continued on to Carlisle then far into England. There the small wiry cattle fattened on rich pastures. That broad dent in the peat is a marker of an economy and culture based on the rearing and selling of these beasts.
Before the sheep and the emptiness, there were cattle and people.
A.R.B. Haldane, The Drove Roads of Scotland (London: Nelson, 1952)
Scottish Rights of Way Society, Scottish Hill Tracks (Scottish Mountaineering Trust Publications, 1995)
For more on the events of 1793 see James Hunter, The Last of the Free (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1999)
General Roy’s Military Survey, http://maps.nls.uk/
Heritage Paths: Dalnavie Drove Road http://www.heritagepaths.co.uk/pathdetails.php?path=322 (accessed 8th December 2016)