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Northern Rural Life in the Eighteenth Century

THE great cattle fair of Crieg so flourishing in 1723, like other institutions, had its time, and then ceased to be what it had once been. When stricter notions began to prevail rcgarding improved lands and rights of property therein, the Highianders could not, as hitherto, get their cattle driven thither on the principle of free grazing all the way from their native glcns—(or at any rate from the point at which they came outside the Highland border)—and market "custom," too, had begun to be exacted on the cattle offered for sale. So they found it more advantageous to make their rendezvous at Falkirk ; and Crieff came to be a horse market chiefly. In the latter half of the eighteenth centnry, the Falkirk Trysts, where the southern dealers in cattle met the dealers from the northward, had grown to a position of great importance, owing, no doubt, to the fact that the locality was at once accessible from both the Highlands and the Lowlands, and convenient for the dealers who bought cattle to " drove" southward. Toward the close of the century, it was estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 black cattle were offered for sale at each October Tryst; and that the cattle brought up to the three Trysts that occurred during the year would number abont 60,000.

It was only after the eighteenth century was fully half gone that any considerable trade in cattle existed north of the Tay. Berwieksbire, the Lothians, and Fifeshire on the east coast, with IPerthshire and the adjoining counties to the westward, had been chiefly concerned in that business at an earlier date. Farmers in the north-eastern counties—Angus, Kineardine, Aberdeen, and Banif—got oxen for the plough from the Lethians, and later from the county of Fife; the cattle they reared of their own native breed being too " sober" for the yoke. They bought them of the dealers when young; that is, when three years old, er thereby; kept them as draught cattle for the next eight or nine years, and then re-sold them to the same class of traders at the best price obtainable ; though it would frequently happen, we are told, that these venerable oxen had to be parted with "at a great discount." But now that the Lethian farmers had begun to find it more to their advantage to grow wheat and other grain rather than breed live stock, the rearing of cattle became of mere account with the northern Scottish farmer. In the first place, he must have oxen to enable him to plough his land; and he would by and by come to take his due part in rearing cattle for the dealer to drove southward. Some of the proprietors made spirited efforts to ins-prove the cattle and rear stronger animals by obtaining bulls from Falkland in Fife, where a superior breed, originally from south the Tweed, existed. Other varieties were imported directly from England, but with no great success it would seem. The complaint was that there was no feed to support these large-sized and somewhat delicate animals. And, indeed, until cultivation of the turnip became general (which it did in the latter part ef the eighteenth century, especially during the last decade), it is rather difficult to realise the miserable style in which even the small black cattle were maintained, especially during the " wintering," when the staple of their sustenance, at ii s best, was oat straw, with what they could pick up by reaming over the fields. By early spring the poor animals had got into sadly reduced condition, and if severe weather continued far into the season, it was not always that the farmer could bring his whole stock to the grass in life, through lack of nutritive provender. And even when spring had fully come, the pasture on the cultivated land, furnished by the growth of indigenous grasses, was wretchedly poor. In the Cromar and some other districts of Aberdeenshire, the practice was to send the larger cattle away about the end of May to graze in the Highland glens at many miles distance, and they were brought home again about the end of August. The cost of grazing was 2s. or 3s. a-head for the summer. In the pastoral region of Cabrach, in Banffshire and Aberdeenshire, where the tenants traded in cattle as they could, they bought in sheep in early spring, and cattle a little later, to graze; and sold them off again about August. The cost of grazing black cattle about 1790 was 2s. a-head on hill pasture, and Ss. a-head on "infield" grass for the, summer; not high rates; but then at three years of age and upward these same catt]e ranged only from £3 to £7 a-head in value.

About 1750, when ten or twelve oxen were universally used in each plough in Aberdeenshire, " the greater part of the draught oxen came from the Lothians." Twenty years later they came from Fife-shire, but not in so great proportion; and the number reared by farmers themselves gradually increased till the disastrous year 1782, which, if it ruined many farmers, had also the effect of stimulating those who escaped ruin in the direction of improved modes. After that date, turnip cultivation, as already indicated, became mo~e general; the plough teams were curtailed, and the ox~n that composed them were almost exclusively reared at home. It is curious, however, to note the enormous proportion which the work oxen bore to other stock, so late as the date of the Old Statistical Report even. Thus, one minister of an Aberdeenshire parish, who had been at the trouble to take the bovine statistics of his diocese, as indeed a good many others did, informs us that there were in it 953 cattle; and of these no less tlhan 346 were oxen for the plough, the number of ploughs in the parish being 65.

In connection with what has been said about the introduction of improved breeds of cattle, it has to be noted that the business of sheep farming was no whit more advanced than that of stock raising. Considerable numbers of one or two native breeds of very small size (there was a whitefaced and a blackfaced variety) were reared in the Lowlands. They were fed on the rougher and less fertile pieces of land, and were valued chiefly for their wool, which was fine, though the fleece would weigh only from 20 to 28 ozs. It was not till the patriotic Sir John Sinclair formed the British Wool Society in 1791, that the larger Cheviot variety or "long hill sheep of the East Border" was generally introduced and naturalised in the northern parts of Scotland.

In or about the year 1764 "a few dealers from Galloway and the west of Scotland" seem to have begun a sort of regular business of "droving" cattle to England. A more or less intermittent "trade" of the kind had apparently gone on for many years previous to that time. And some of these Scotch cattle, after sale in English fairs, and fattening on English pastures, would find their way to the London market; though the wants of the Navy in the matter of salt beef appear to have been at this time, and for long after, regarded as the main source of demand. In 1763 "salted beef was purchased at the average of one penny per pound." It rose in price next year; but the year after, viz., 1765, the price ~of black cattle fell so suddenly and badly that "the dealers in Aberdeenshire universally stopped payments." In 1766, " cattle dealers came from England, in the end of June and July, to purchase live stock for the English market" (previously they had been content to wait till they were "droved" over the Border to them). The fact indicated a rising demand; which was but temporary, however, for " a second and sudden fall

of the price of black cattle towards the end of 1 767, again damped the spirits of the farmers and ruined all the cattle dealers." Prices declined till 1770, when they had reached the low level that prevailed before the influence of the southern market had been felt. From tbat date, with occasional fluctuations—and aided by the demands of the Navy, pretty generally on a war footing in those days—prices kept higher till the short-lived peace of October, 1801, brought "atemporary fall of 25 per cent, in the price of cattle;" and thus, "for the third time" in the reign of His Majesty King George III., most of the nnhappy cattle-dealers were "ruined." * By. that time the price of a well-grown ox of three to four years old had risen to as high as £20, which was much more than double the price when droving southward began; though it must not he forgot that the cattle had much improved in quality and size. In the report to the Board of Agriculture for the county of Kincardine, we read that, "about the year 1740, the largest ox in the county at that time, weighing from 25 to 30 stones, could have been bought for twenty shillings, or at most a guinea ;" which is less than a shilling a stone—the stone of that period being equal to about 17’4 of the present imperial lbs. They rose gradually in price till about the year 1764, when cattle of that size, and as full-fed as the country could make them, brought from £3 to £4, or from 2s. to 2s. 8d. the stone. From this period, cattle, being somewhat better fed, not only increased in size, but were improved in condition. [In his interesting book on "Cattle and Cattle Breeders," in which the process of dealing, as practised in the earlier part of the present century, is graphically described, Mr. M’Combie, M. P., tells a story of George Williamson, the senior member of a well-known family of local cattle dealers, known as the "Stately" Wiiliamsons, and tbe peace of 1815 :—" He was passing through Perth with a large drove of cattle. The Bells were ringing a merry peal for the peace. St. John’s Wells said it was a sorrowful peal to him, for it cost him £4000."] And from the increased demand for butcher meat, combined with the gradual decline in the value of money, the price of meat in the market, by the year 1792, enabled the graziers to give at the rate of 6s. 8d. the stone." After the use of turnips had become general, " every succeeding generation" of cattle increased in size, and the statement of Messrs. Wilhiamson was that in their time (say 1810) by the introduction of the turnip husbandry, the native breed, from better keeping, had come to weigh at least double its former weight. Up to this date, and indeed for a long while after, the ordinary farmer did not regard the fattening of cattle as a thing much in his way. He aimed rather at rearing what stock he could, to be sold in "fresh keeping condition" to the butcher or other person ~yho chose to " feed" for the shambles, a state of matters now very completely changed.

According to the estimate of Sir John Sinclair, about 100,000 head of cattle were sent to England yearly froni Scotland toward the close of the eighteenth century, and of these a considerable number were from far north districts. About 3000 were taken to the southern markets by drovers "who droved them by land" all the way from the county of Caithness, and probably 8000 to 9000 were " droved" yearly from Aberdeenshire.

Of the Highlander’s way of turning out his cattle we have the following description (dated about 1730) :—"About the latter end of August or the beginning of September the cattle are brought into good order by their summer feed, and the beef is extremely sweet and succulent, which, I suppose, is owing in good part to their being reduced to such poverty in the spring, and made up again with new flesh. Now the drovers collect their herds and drive them to fairs and markets on the borders of the Lowlands, and sometimes to the north of England ; and in their passage they pay a certain tribute proportionable to the number of cattle, to the owner of the territory they pass through, which is in lieu of all reckonii~gs for grazing."

The writer goes on to say that he had often from a distance seen great numbers of cattle driven along the sides of the mountains, but only once had been near at hand, when in a time of rain a drove of cattle were being taken over a wide river across which the drovers were ferried by a boat. "The cows were about fifty in number and took the water like spaniels; and when they were in their drivers made a hideous cry to urge them forwards; this they told me they did to keep the foremost of them from turning about, for in that case the rest would do the like, and then they would be in danger, especially the weakest of them, to be driven away and drowned by the torrent. I thought it a very odd sight to see so many noses and eyes just above water, and nothing of them more to be seen, for they had no horns, and upon the land they appeared like 80 many large Lincoinshire calves."

In the Lowlands the local business in cattle in each district was transacted at a few annual fairs—Lawrence Fair in the Ganioch and Aikey Fair in Buchan were early established "trysts" in Aberdeenshire. And as the fairs were wide apart, in point of locality, and came but once in the season, the gathering of cattle at them was always large. If less wild and romantic than the cattle traffic in the Highlands, it was still a picturesque style of things as they gathered out here and there from upland glens; the master, plaided and bonneted, riding his hairy pony, and one or two assistants equally hairy and hardy, tramping on afoot for many miles, and keeping the small drove of shaggy Highianders jogging leisurely along, and picking up a livelihood by the way; while the dwellers in the Lowlands came "their gate," from the haughs and braesides, with groups of black "hummlies," diversified by an occasional "bran’it" or "rigget" stink; or it might be a few horned beasts not indisposed to butt, and be otherwise domineering amongst their fellows. The roads were not very exactly defined, and fences were little known;

so that the cattle had moderately free access to pasture by the wayside, and occasionally to such cultivated crops as might happen to be within reach. Bridges were few and far between. Where burns and rivers had to be crossed, the cattle forded them, how deep or broad soever, and so did their drivers; and when "spates" were on a "mishanter" would sometimes happen of a more or less serious kind. When the market was over, and the "drove" of eight, ten, or fifteen score made up for the journey, after the same fashion, to the dealer’s pasturage; or better still for their long and leisurely travel of days and weeks to Falkirk er Hallow Fair, it was a sight to see. The "drove," as it moved along, would stretch to nearly a mile in length, with here and there a rough "cowte" of a drover stalking away among the beasts stick in hand, and his wallet slung over his shoulder. And truly the "tops-man," who had the responsibility of looking after and guiding the whole to their destination needed no mean powers of generalship to do his work safely and well.

Up to the date of the Rebellion of 1745 cattle sent to the southern markets from the counties of Aberdeen and Banif were driven across the Eastern Grampians by tracks marked out from time immemorial by the continuous tread of man and. beast. The chief of these primitive highways were the most easily accessible and least steep of the natural ravines among the hills; and generally these—from Tomintoul, by Corgarif, Crathie, and Braemar, to the Spital of Glenshee, Blairgowrie, and Pe~rth; from Ballater, by the Spital of Muick, to Clova, and Kirriemuir; from Aboyne, by the Tanar, and Mount Keen, to Lochlee, and down by the Esk to Brechin; from Kincardine O’Neil or Banchory-Ternan, across the Cairn o’ Mount, to Fettercaim, and Brechin; from Darns, by the Crine Corse to Drumlithie, and the Howe o’ the Mearns; from Aberdeen, by the Tollohifi, and Causey Port, to Stonehaven. These primitive highways rose to elevations of from four hundred feet

to two thousand feet above sea leve]. In the post-Rebellion period, road-making was more systematically pursued; and where formally constructed highways were laid out, the drover naturally followed the line of these, though the metalled surface was trying to the hoofs of his travel-worn charge. "Droving" cattle southward from the north and north-eastern counties continued to prevail for fully the first quarter of the present century; and was gradually superseded by winter fattening of cattle for transmission, first by steamboat and latterly by railway direct to the London market.

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