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McIan's Highlanders At Home

DroversIN the matter introduced on the illustration of the Shepherd, in Number II, it was observed that cattle constituted the riches of the ancient Gaël, with whom the possession of many herds was synonymous with affluence. This was the case with all branches of the Celtic race, and instances are there given of the amazing numbers which belonged to some individuals. We read in those venerable records of ancient manners, the Welsh Triads, of various herds which numbered 21,000 each; those of Nudd, a noted prince, who flourished in the sixth century, amounted to 20,000; and the three shepherds of Britain, i.e., Wales, tended no fewer than 120,000! Such numbers can scarcely be paralleled in later times; but the booty of 50,000 head of cattle carried off in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, from Sorlé bui’ Mac Donald, of the Glens, a famous chief in Antrim, is no slight indication of pastoral wealth.

The inhabitants of mountainous countries depend chiefly on pasturage, and pursue it as a source of livelihood and enrichment, disposing of their surplus stock to supply the wants of a denser population, engaged in manufactures and commerce. From the Highlands have been derived, from time immemorial, abundant supplies of black cattle and sheep, which are either sold in the fairs of the country or are driven southwards to England. Graziers and butchers frequently purchase in the Highlands; but the droves are generally taken to the south and the low country, where purchasers meet them. Falkirk, near the borders of the Highlands, has long been celebrated as the great cattle market, which is held nine or ten times a year.

Farmers may convey their own ‘beasts’ to these markets, and great proprietors may occasionally send their shepherds with them but the Highland Drover is a person whose special employment it is to do so, and he may be intrusted with various lots, amounting to a numerous drove. The drovers are an important class, and are men of the greatest integrity: large sums of money coming into their custody, and peculiar qualifications are necessary for their duties, of which a good knowledge of the value of cattle is an essential.

The trade, although of considerable difficulty and hardship, suits the spirit of a Celt. He drives his native herds, of which he is for a time the owner, with something of the pride of his ancestors, when carrying off the fat oxen of the Sassenaich, and his solicitude is to carry his charge safely and in good condition to their ultimate destination. The drover moves on by easy stages, crossing the country by certain tractways, less circuitous than the public roads, soft for the feet of the cattle, and affording them a mouthful of grass as they pass along.

In the Highlands, the hardy drover rests on the heath among the wearied animals, whose heat in cold weather serves to keep him in warmth; even when he reaches the plains, he cares not to avail himself of the shelter of a lodging, although his cattle he places within inclosure. Often do these trusty fellows travel from the northern Highlands to the south of England, as far as Barnet and Smithfield, with their horned stock, not losing one from their numerous droves, during the long and wearisome journey. It is surprising that in the darkness of night no animal gets astray; but the acuteness of hearing possessed by those engaged in droving, enables them to detect, although unseen, those that may have left the herd to snatch a browse of the tempting herbage by the way—they will immediately spring in pursuit and drive the stragglers back.

The importance of this class of Highlanders, and the responsibility of their occupation, obtained for them an exemption from the operation of the Disarming Act, passed in 1725, and renewed with more stringent clauses in 1748, when the national dress itself was proscribed. They were allowed to carry their usual arms for personal protection.

The young men engaged in droving, hold themselves of some consequence, for as they must speak English, and are acquainted with so many parts of Scotland and England, and are, moreover, occasionally men of a little substance, they are held in much respect. Their manners, also, become a little more polished than those who have never passed the Garbh--criochan, or Highland boundary. The author of a "Journey through Scotland in 1726," says, "At the fair of Crief, they were mighty civil, dressed in their slashed short waistcoats, trousing," etc.

Many stories have the drovers to tell of their travels to their neighbours during the winter evenings, and many adventures do they truly meet; numerous strange and laughable anecdotes being current respecting them, their unacquaintance with southern manners leading them at times into ludicrous positions. In the "Chronicles of the Canongate," Sir Walter Scott has given an interesting tale of two drovers, in which their ‘difficult trade’ is very truly described :—

The Highlanders, in particular, are masters of this difficult trade of driving, which seems to suit them as well as the trade of war. It affords exercise for all their habits of patient endurance and active exertion. They are required to know perfectly the drove-roads, which lie over the wildest tracts of the country, and to avoid as much as possible the highways, which distress the feet of the bullocks, and the turnpikes, which annoy the spirit of the drover; whereas on the broad green or grey track which leads across the pathless moor the herd not only move at ease and without taxation, but, if they mind their business, may pick up a mouthful of food by the way. At night the drovers usually sleep along with their cattle, let the weather be what it will; and many of these hardy men do not once rest under a roof during a journey on foot from Lochaber to Lincolnshire. They are paid very highly, for the trust reposed is of the last importance, as it depends on their prudence, vigilance, and honesty whether the cattle reach the final market in good order, and afford a profit to the grazier. But as they maintain themselves at their own expense, they are especially economical in that particular. At the period we speak of; a Highland drover was victualled for his long and toilsome journey with a few handfuls of oatmeal and two or three Onions, renewed from time to time, and a ram’s horn filled with whisky, which he used regularly but sparingly every night and morning.

His dirk, or skene-dhu (i.e. black-knife), so worn as to be concealed beneath the arm, or by the folds of the plaid, was his only weapon, excepting the cudgel with which he directed the movements of the cattle. A Highlander was never so happy as on these occasions. There was a variety in the whole journey which exercised the Celt’s natural curiosity and love of motion; there were the constant change of place and scene, the petty adventures incidental to the traffic, and the intercourse with the various farmers, graziers, and traders, intermingled with occasional merry-making, not the less acceptable to Donald that they were void of expense; and there was the consciousness of superior skill, for the Highlander, a child amongst flocks, is a prince amongst herds, and his natural habits induce him to disdain the shepherd’s slothful life, so that he feels himself nowhere more at home than when following a gallant drove of his Country cattle in the character of their guardian.

The print from Landseer’s painting of Drovers setting out with their Herds, justly celebrated as a work of art, is a striking representation of the animated scene.

The print represents drovers in their progress stopping to refresh themselves with a little bruithiste, or brose, being a simple mixture of oatmeal and water, which with, perchance, a few onions and a little butter, is their wonted fare. Those of a former day, dispensed with the pot, and were content with cold water, and it is a very probable etymology for Bannockburn, that it was so called from the circumstance of the Highlanders attending the ‘tryst’ of Falkirk or Eaglais—breac, as it is known to them, stopping on the banks of the stream, from which they laved the water for their humble meal.

As they travelled at their own expense, they were the more careful to avoid any luxurious seductions; but a supply of whiskey in a ram’s horn, used sparingly night and morning, was an indispensable necessary.

Black cattle is a description more particularly applied to the breed of the north Highlands. They are small and hardy, seldom weighing above thirty stone, but fattening rapidly in rich pastures, and furnishing admirable beef. Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, and Lincolnshire, are the chief counties in which the graziers put them to pasture.

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