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.

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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.

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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.

Sources:

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)

Teenagers’ Travels: Bootless from Lairg to Cromarty Part 2

Hugh and Walter had walked from Gruids, near Lairg, to the parish of Edderton on their way home from their summer holidays. By the afternoon Hugh’s injured foot was causing him a lot of pain. Then they remembered their cousins had told them about a shortcut through the hills. Hugh wanted home as quickly as possible and Walter “deemed himself equal to anything which his elder cousins could perform”. This may have been the drove road going up from Ardgay to near Kildermorie, or the one which passes by the Aultnamain Inn, now tarmacked over and known as the Struie.

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The drove road from Ardgay to near Kildermorie (looking north towards Gruids) where cattle from the Kincardine Market were taken to the big cattle markets in Crieff and Falkirk, then Carlisle and to London. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The boys “struck up the hill-side” and “soon found ourselves in a dreary waste, without trace of human habitation.” Hugh was struggling, light-headed and his vision was going. Walter led him up to a “heathy ridge” just as night was falling. Below them was the “northern sea-board of the Cromarty Firth, and … the cultivated country and the sands of Nigg lying only a few miles below.” They intended to aim for the sands. They knew they were dangerous at certain tides and accidents frequently happened in the fords. Walter could not swim but they decided Hugh would lead the way. But first, they had to get down. “The night fell rather thick than dark, for there was a moon overhead … the downward way was exceedingly rough and broken, and we had wandered from the path.” Hugh was in no condition for stumbling and groping through the “scraggy moor” and “dark patches of planting”. They had just reached a cleared spot on the “edge of the cultivated country” when Hugh “dropped down as suddenly as if struck by a bullet, and, after an ineffectual attempt to rise, fell fast asleep.

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The route from Gruids to the point where Hugh collapsed. The black indicates where they actually went, cutting up through the ‘dreary waste’. The blue indicates their intended route through the low lying ground past Tain. The arrows mark where they would have crossed the river by the ferryboat at Invershin, where Hugh’s foot began to really trouble him, and where he finally passed out. Route superimposed on General Roy’s Military Survey from 1747-55. Reproduced with the permission of the British Library, http://maps.nls.uk/index.html

Walter was much frightened; but he succeeded in carrying me to a little rick of dried grass which stood up in the middle of the clearing.” He covered his friend up with the hay and lay down beside him. Walter couldn’t sleep for anxiety and his heart raced when he heard psalm singing in the old Gaelic style coming from a neighbouring clump of wood. “Walter believed in the fairies; and, though psalmody was not one of the reputed accomplishments of the ‘good people’ in the low country … in the Highlands the case might be different”. He sat tight until after the singing stopped. After some time he heard a slow, heavy step. A voice exclaimed in Gaelic and a rough, hard hand grasped the boy’s bare heel. A grey-headed man accused the boys of being gypsies, angry “at the liberty we had taken with his hayrick”. Walter explained. The old man was instantly mollified, and insisted the boys should spend the night in his home. It does not seem likely his hospitality would have extended to them if they had been gypsies after all.

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The welcome view of the Cromarty Ferry pier at Nigg. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Hugh was assisted to the cottage, hidden in the clump of trees. An “aged woman” welcomed them. The elderly couple quizzed them as to who they were and the couple realised they knew Hugh and Walter’s maternal grandfather and grandmother and various other relations. Family updates were given and commiserations on misfortunes expressed. Hugh was too ill to take much note of conversation and could only swallow a few spoonfuls of milk. The elderly lady washed his feet, crying over him. Hugh was made of sturdy stuff and after a night’s rest in their best bed he was fit enough to sit in the old man’s cart and driven to the parish of Nigg. They stayed for another day’s rest at a relation’s house there before being taken in another cart to the Cromarty Ferry.

The bootless boys had finally made it home.

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Their proposed (blue) route taking them across the dangerous tidal sands. Their actual (black) route from their overnight stay with the elderly couple to a relative’s house in Nigg parish and to the ferry. Reproduced with the permission of the British Library, http://maps.nls.uk/index.html

Sources:

Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters (Edinburgh: Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1889), 120-122

National Map Library, Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, http://maps.nls/roy/