Oatmeal, Erratics, and Cattle Beasts: The Garvary Drove Road

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.

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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.


The name of the inn is still visible on the roof. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

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.


The stance was at the side of what is now the B9176. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

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.

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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)


Bessy and John, Part 2: The MacKays at Inveran

Today if you go to Inveran, it is a quiet place with few houses and some rough pasture.  The hills are covered with conifer plantations and there is a small power station where the River Shin joins the Dornoch Firth.  In 1813, however, it was bustling with people.  General Roy’s map of 1746 indicates the township with a red enclosed area, suggesting a garden or kailyard.  The arable land is arranged in strips of runrig.  Half a mile east, across the River Shin, is the slightly larger township of Invershin.  Unpicking details casually recorded in the MacKay precognition allows us to piece together how such townships operated in the early nineteenth century.Image

Screenshot of General Roy’s Map: http://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/

John had been brought up several days’ journey away, in the township of Tullichgriban in Strathspey (if anyone knows precisely where this is, I would be most interested).  Late in 1812 John’s father, George, sent him north to Inveran to work for George’s brother, Donald.   Apart from briefly returning south the following summer, John had settled in to his Uncle Donald’s household at Inveran.  The MacKay residence was a traditional longhouse.  At one end there was a slightly lower section for livestock which Donald sometimes used as a workshop.  In the middle of the house there was a living area with a fire and wooden chests. They probably also had a dresser or shelves for their crockery and some chairs.  The beds were in a room just beyond the main living room, set apart by a partial wooden door.

The workshop, the name, and the Inveran connection make it likely that this Donald MacKay was the wright who, in 1782, helped to build a new house in Inveran for one Alexander Bethune.  It is likely that Bethune rented this building out for a few years as he did not move his shop from nearby Linsidemore until 1797.  Alexander Bethune and Donald MacKay were also related by marriage: Alexander’s brother John married Donald’s sister Bessy.  Perhaps Alexander rented the new house to his brother and sister in law.  By about 1813, Alexander had died and his son, a less successful merchant, was bankrupt.

Whatever other businesses they had, the men of the township farmed.  Donald was a joint tenant with his brother in law John Bethune, Alexander Bethune the merchant, and Andrew MacKay who may also have been a relation.  Each would have had some cattle which grazed on the hills during the summer, probably tended by the young folks.  To run a small mixed farm it was necessary to have several people of working age, preferably of both sexes.  There is no evidence for Bessy having a mother or siblings.  Either she was the youngest or a motherless only child.  If he were a skilled wright in the early 1780s, then by 1813 Donald would at least be in his fifties and needing his nephew to help with the male work.  Young John perhaps came as a hired servant or as ‘heir apparent’ to the joint tenancy.  John was not the only servant in the house.  Mary Matheson, a twelve year old from nearby Invercharron, also lived with the MacKays.  When John arrived Mary and Bessy moved into the same bed, allowing John the third one.  The four of them lived and worked together every day.  The girls would bake, cook and endlessly spin as well as take charge of the dairying.  John would have worked with Donald in the fields.  They would all have looked after the animals, a few cows, sheep, chickens and maybe goats and a horse, and they probably dug peats together to prepare for the winter.

On the 13th of April 1813, six months or so after John arrived in Sutherland, the Inveran tenants sowed their oats.  From the phrasing, it is likely that this was done communally, which would make sense if Inveran was jointly tenanted.  This community, connected by work, location and marriage, may have ended the day by eating together and perhaps gathering in someone’s house for singing, music, story-telling, the endless spinning and making of heather ropes, and perhaps drinking.  Whatever happened that evening, the smouldering attraction between John and Bessy developed into something more.  Later on Bessy claimed that the only time she and John had slept together was at the Kincardine Fair, but when John was asked he said it began when the tenants sowed the oats in April.  When he realized that Bessy had said something different he claimed to agree with everything she said.  But it seems likely that their first sexual encounter was in April.  They said that was the only time, except for the time at the Fair.  That may have been true.  Knowing that pre-marital intercourse was not socially acceptable, they may have decided to set their attraction aside.  Perhaps they were afraid of being caught, perhaps they didn’t feel it was right and they had made a mistake in April.  Or perhaps they continued to see each other in secret, finding a private place to make love.  This seems more likely as Bessy later said that she didn’t know whether the baby was full-term or not as ‘she kept no accurate account of the transactions between MacKay and herself’.

To be continued…

National Archives of Scotland, AD14/14/13, Child Murder, Creich, 1814

General Roy’s Map: http://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/

Rootsweb Geneology: Bethunes http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/ROSSGEN/2007-06/1181031302