Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Droving Trade



Highland Cattle: Attribution: © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Can you imagine spending two months of every year walking 150 miles (242 kilometres) over challenging terrain, scrambling up steep, rocky hills, trudging miles across moors, fording rivers, lakes and even stretches of sea?
     For company, you’d have a large herd of long horned cattle: unpredictable, dangerous beasts. Most nights, you would sleep on the ground beside them.
     At journey’s end, having sold the cattle, you’d earn extra money by working at the local harvest before walking all the way home again. You would do this year after year, in hot sunshine, clouds of midges and pouring rain.


To us, with our comfortable, mostly indolent lives, this seems almost unbelievable, but it’s simply a description of the droving trade which went on for centuries. Highland regions, such as the Welsh and Scottish mountains, were best suited to pastoral farming, but to make a decent profit the beasts had to be brought to market in more prosperous regions, where higher prices were paid for meat.


No railways existed until the 1830s. There were no road vehicles capable of transporting large numbers of cattle, and no useable roads for such vehicles in any case. A huge amount of freight transport went by sea and river, but the task of transporting several hundred unhappy steers by small boats was expensive and difficult. And once landed, the cattle were still a long way from the best markets.


The simplest solution was to walk the beasts to market, step by step. Pigs, sheep and geese were also droved, with the geese fitted with sturdy boots for the journey by dipping their feet in tar.


I researched the droving trade for my book, The Drover’s Dogs. My knowledge is slanted towards the Scottish trade, especially the journey from the Hebridean island of Mull in the west, to Lowland Scotland’s great ‘Tryst’ or cattle market in Falkirk in the east. (‘Tryst’ means ‘meeting place’ and, at the cattle trysts, sellers and buyers from all over Scotland met to do business.)
The drover's road from Mull to Falkirk, from The Drover's Dogs

A ‘drover’ could mean a herdsman who walked alongside the cattle with his dog and perhaps owned a couple of the driven beasts to a wealthy man whose main business was droving. Quite often, like Lachlan in my book, they were crofters themselves who would be driving their own beasts to market and earned extra income by adding some of their neighbour’s cattle to their drove.


The drover might buy his neighbours cattle outright, or he might simply promise to sell the cattle at the best price he could, and pass on the money to the crofter, minus an agreed cut.


In about May of each year, a drover would start enquiring among his neighbours: Who wanted to send beasts to market and how many? Roughly around June, the drovers began herding the cattle together in one place. A man might gather together a large herd, and had to remember who the owners of them all were, and what agreement he'd made with them. Later, he'd have to remember how much the beasts sold for. Some drovers could read and write. Many were illiterate and probably used tally-sticks to help them keep account. They also, undoubtedly, developed accurate and sharp memories.


Highlanders didn’t have a good reputation throughout most of the period and drovers were reputed to be lazy, drunken, dirty and stupid. They were called lazy because they often slept late at their ‘stances,’ the overnight camping places chosen for the water, shelter and grazing they provided. Drovers were seen sitting over their fires, eating breakfast and chatting until mid-morning. And even once started, they dawdled along.


This wasn’t laziness. Hurried cattle lost weight and became less valuable. People who called the drovers ‘lazy’ had obviously never considered the hardness and danger of the drover’s life. To come from Mull, the cattle were first driven to Grass Point on Loch Spelve and loaded on to boats which carried them across the strait to the island of Kerrera. The cattle were unwilling.  Drovers could be gored, trampled or crushed.


After disembarking on Kerrera, the cattle were driven the length of the island and then swum across the narrow stretch of sea to the mainland at Oban. Many men stripped off and swam with the cattle: another dangerous enterprise.


Once the mainland was gained, they walked the cattle up into hills and crossed Loch Awe and the sea loch, Loch Fyne. They were still only half-way. They had to skirt Loch Lomond, journey along the shores of Loch Katrine and even then there were miles to walk before they reached Falkirk. This is a lot easier to write down and read than it was to do it in 1800 or earlier!


In earlier centuries, the cattle might have to be defended against robbers, though this was less likely in 1800, when my story is set.  The drovers’ diet for this arduous journey was mostly oats, onions and whisky. I imagine they made what later became known as 'Waterloo porridge' because the soldiers before Waterloo were forbidden a fire to make a hot meal. Dry oats were mixed into cold water. The onions were probably eaten as we would eat an apple.  For a little more protein, they might open one of the bullock’s neck veins and mix the blood into their porridge

So the accusation of laziness doesn’t stand, but drovers were certainly dirty, at least while droving, since they slept rough or in the notoriously unsavoury inns of the Highlands. There was probably also some substance to the accusation of drunkenness. If I had to live like that, I would make the most of the whisky too.


But stupid? Many reasons probably underlay this insult. The drovers were usually considered illiterate, uneducated farm-hands. They were also Highlanders too, and Highlanders, in 1715 and 1745 had risen in rebellion against the English state. The last Jacobite uprising had taken place a mere 55 years before my story is set: within living memory.

The Highlanders first language was Gaelic and they were mostly Catholic, so they were divided by language, culture and religion from the English and from Lowland Scots who, at best, considered Highlanders to be ‘noble savages.’ At worst, they thought them
a lower form of life: stupid, dishonest and dangerous.

But a successful drover needed a sharp intelligence. Success depended on bringing the cattle to market in good condition and perhaps even better fed on grazing along the way than they had started. To manage this, a drover needed not only expert knowledge of cattle but a weather eye and close acquaintance with every stance along the way. Would the tracks ahead be muddy and impassable: was it worth taking another way? Was it worth hurrying the cattle a little to reach the next stance before another drove who might leave nothing to graze?


He had to be able to manage men, and have a phenomenal memory for places, people and the deals he’d made. Even if illiterate, he likely had great quickness with numbers. I'm reminded of an Italian
woman I once knew who was illiterate in both English and Italian, but to assume from this that she was stupid would have been a big mistake. She understood numbers, prices and weights very well, adding up, subtracting and dividing long lists of numbers with a speed and accuracy that made me dizzy. Lord help anyone who tried to short-change her. I imagine that, from long practice, the drovers had the same facility. In short, to be sure of finding a fool at a drovers' stance, you had to take one with you.


Drovers were also honest, or as honest as any trader can be. Most business at the time was conducted on a handshake and a dishonest man would soon have had no business at all. Again, I offer a modern parallel. I have family connections with a small island where a great deal of business is still conducted on trust because nearly all families are interconnected and everyone knows, or knows of, everyone else.
     Any incoming clever-clogs who try to take advantage of this trusting ‘naivety’ soon find that no locals will do any business with them at all. No credit is to be had. If they need an electrician, decorator, plumber etc, it's impossible to find one who isn't solidly booked up. Word has gone round. I imagine that any drover who tried to cheat the crofters would soon have found himself with no trade and no friends.


Although probably as old as agriculture, the droving trade prospered with the rise of urban living. Demand for meat grew with the population and wealth of towns. Prices rose in those markets that supplied urban areas and it was more profitable to undertake the arduous droves to those markets than sell or barter your cattle more locally.
     The real hey-day came in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. Towns continued to grow and wars in Europe meant a steep rise in demand for beef from the Army and Navy.


A Welsh bank note
The increase in droving stimulated the development of banking. Returning drovers often carried large, heavy sums of cash across lonely moors and mountains. So banks set up near the Trysts. The drover could place his cash in their strongboxes and receive in return a paper ‘note’ which was lighter to carry and less temptation to robbers. On reaching the end of his journey, he took this note to another branch of the bank and ‘cashed it.’ Payment was sometimes accepted in these signed and co-signed notes, fore-runners of paper money.


Many of these banks, such as Llandovery’s Black Ox Bank, took an ox or bull as their symbol, in honour of their connection with the droving trade. The Welsh one, above, has a drawing of sheep.



The end of the droving trade was brought about mainly by two things: peace and steam.


The Drover's Dogs by Susan Price
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, meant a great fall in the demand for beef. At the same time, agricultural improvements meant that greater numbers of cattle were kept alive over winter and larger, fatter cattle were bred, in greater numbers, close to towns where demand was greatest.


And then came steam which ‘carried away the droving trade.’ By the 1840s, railways had spread throughout west Scotland (and the rest of Britain.) Tracks could extend to depots almost at the dock-sides. Cattle could be shipped in the large holds of sturdy, iron steam-ships and then loaded into cattle trucks which were dragged away by steam-train. Drovers arrived at market to find that all demand had been satisfied by cattle who’d arrived more speedily by train.
The Sterkarm Handshake


The ancient droving trade had been a hard one, but it had been one way a highland crofter could earn hard cash to pay his rent. Its end pushed many crofters into hardship and emigration.



Susan Price is the Carnegie medal winning author of The Ghost Drum and The Sterkarm Handshake.
    The Drover’s Dogs is her first entirely original self-published book.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Ghosts of Christmas Past

My mother loved Christmas.


You know who he is - illustrated by T Nast (Public Domain Review)

     She was born in 1929, the youngest of six children. Every year, at Christmas, she told us about Christmas when she'd been a child.
     The Christmas, for instance when, coming down in the morning, she found a monkey in the kitchen. One of her three older brothers had somehow acquired it at the Christmas Wake (a fair.) Christmas spirit had probably been strong in the brother, if not the monkey. What happened to the monkey? As with many of my mother's stories, I don't know. I can't remember her ever telling me that. Perhaps she didn't know herself. I can't imagine the monkey remaining a member of the household for very long after my grandmother arrived home.

Every Christmas without fail, we heard about the big white enamelled bucket. It had a lid. It was a lidded big white enamel bucket.
     For most of the year the big white enamelled bucket with a lid was for fetching water from the pump in the yard and storing it in the house. But at Christmas, it was used for storing nuts instead. What was done with the water over Christmas? Were people pushed out into the freezing slippery yard with jugs and basins? Again, I was never told. But at Christmas, for sure, that big white enamelled bucket with the lid was filled to overflowing with monkey-nuts, walnuts, cobnuts and brazils, all of them still in their shells. The nutcrackers lay on the top, nestling into the nuts, ready for use. I think it was the great quantity of that luxury, nuts, that had impressed my mother.

Walnuts were, by the way, fun for all the family.  Carefully shell two walnuts so you have four perfect half-shells. Scrape them out and make them smooth. Scoop up a passing cat. (There were always a few cats about in my mother's house. There was one which my mother strongly resented because it could open the back door when she was still too short to reach the latch. On returning from school to an empty house, she used to have to wait in the yard until the cat chose to saunter home and let her in. Despite this, she was a great cat-lover in later life.)
     Anyroad, the cat and the walnut shells. Fit a half-shell onto each of its paws, then put the cat down on the bare stone flags or tiles. There were no carpets in my mother's home. The cat finds itself tap-dancing. Never having heard a sound from its own feet before, it attempts to escape the clatter, only to tap louder. The more frantically the cat tries to escape the noise, the louder the clatter of walnut shells on stone becomes.
     This was more fun for my mother's brothers, admittedly, than for the cat. But they had to make their own entertainment in those days.
     Another use for walnut shells. Mum taught us how to make little boats out of the half-shells. Fitted with matchstick masts and paper sails, they formed a flotilla in a bowl of water.
     And corks. Most bottles in her childhood had real corks, and more corks were pulled at Christmas than at any other time. These were turned into horses, to stand about on the bowl's shore, admiring the boats. The horses' legs were matchsticks, and a head and neck were cut out of card. A slit in the end of the cork allowed the cardboard head to be slotted into place. Tails and manes could be made from bits of old wool. You could blacken the end of the matchsticks to make hooves and draw in eyes and mouths. You could even make them saddles and reins.
Walnuts, wikimedia

My mother, as the youngest of six, considered herself spoiled but Christmas in the 1930s was still for most people, as it had been for centuries, a brief time of treats in a year of penny-pinching and making-do. Another of my mother's memories was of how an apple was a thing to be cherished and hoarded for days. She polished it on her sleeve, sniffed it, imagined how it would taste. She showed it off and would have all the other children in the street following her about and trying to become her bestest friend, in the hope that, when she finally ate the apple, they might be allowed to have the core.

      At Christmas she looked forward to having a rare tangerine in the toe of her stocking - and this was one of her old socks, not a novelty gift-bag. The stocking would hold a sugar mouse too, and some nuts and raisins.
tangerine: Wikimedia
     My grandmother spread the cost of Christmas over many weeks. After all, she had six sugar mice and six tangerines to buy. She bought white mice for the boys and pink ones for the girls from their corner shop (which was a house with its front room turned into a shop.)
     My mother told me of the ingenious way that my grandmother and other women stretched their money. Twenty of them met, every week, in the local pub. The landlady of the pub, who they obviously trusted, acted as treasurer. Each woman put a shilling (5p) into a big jar. For the first week, nothing was paid out, but a time-table was drawn up for twenty weeks ahead. Each woman drew one of these weeks out of a hat.
     The next week, they again put in a shilling, so the jar held 40 shillings or two pounds. The woman who had drawn the first week was given twenty shillings, or one pound, from the jar.
     The next week, they all put in another shilling and the woman who'd drawn the second week was given a pound - and so on. This 'Inflation Calculator' reckons that £1 in 1935 would have been worth about £50 today, whereas the shilling each woman put in was worth about £2-50.
     This ingenious system allowed the women to budget ahead. This week and next week, they were hard-up - ah, but the week after that they would have a whole pound to play with. They could delay large purchases, like coal, until 'their week.' They also made arrangements between each other. If one woman desperately needed the money that week and another could wait, they swopped weeks. When  it was their week to receive a pound, they often asked to be given only 19/- (the /- meant 'shilling') and so covered their payment into the pool.

But I was telling you about sugar mice. After Christmas, my mother said, she and the brothers nearest her in age hid their stocking and sugar-mouse from the others. The utmost ingenuity and enterprise had to be used because if one of them found the stockings belonging to the others, they would eat sugar-mouse, raisins, nuts and all while hoping that the others hadn't found their special, secret, undetectable hiding-place. The two oldest sisters never bothered to hide their stockings. Since their mother worked, these two acted as mothers to the rest and it was considered bad form to gnaw their mice when they hadn't even hidden them. (The oldest brother's stocking was also safe. He worked in a steel-mill, flinging and catching bolts of white-hot iron with a pair of long tongs. Nobody was going to nick his sugar-mouse.)

My mother was usually given a 'Wonder Book' for Christmas too: a large, hard-backed book, full of stories, puzzles, things to make, and experiments to try. They were often beautifully illustrated. My mother loved and treasured hers but one day, when she was twelve, returned home from school to find that her mother had given all of them away, together with many of her toys because 'she was too old for things like that now.'
     This was one reason why my mother bought us so many books, including second-hand copies of her old wonder-books, and why she would never, never even consider throwing or giving away anything that belonged to us without our permission. I don't think she ever forgave my grandmother for giving away her things. (To speak in my grandmother's defense: She had herself started work at 10, so perhaps 12 did seem 'too old' for toys to her. Also, she never understood why anyone would waste their time reading. She spent Christmas at our house once, in her old age and stared for a long time at the floor-to-ceiling books before shaking her head and saying, "But what use am they?" We were without answer. To us, it was like asking what use the floor or walls were.)

My mother copied her mother in this much: she started buying for Christmas in August. Gifts would be stashed away in the bottom of her wardrobe or on top of it. Bottles of booze and ingredients for baking would be packed onto the back pantry shelf. The chest at the bottom of the hall would be slowly filled with nets of nuts, bags of crisps, packets of biscuits and sweets. She never allowed for the fact that she had only three children (four when my youngest brother arrived) and not six. We would be eating 'Christmas treats' until Easter.
     In the week running up to Christmas, she would organise us as hands for her mincepie factory. She would make the pastry. One of us would grease tins. Another would cut out pastry circles. A third would fill the pies. The one who'd been greasing tins would then go to the other end of the line and stick on lids. Milk and egg was brushed on. Sugar was sprinkled. Mother operated the oven, putting tray after tray in, and bringing out sweet, spicy mincepies in batches of twelve.

Nightcomers by Susan Price
We always had a Christmas tree and Mom would tell us how, when she'd been a child, they had a 'bush' not a tree. This was a construction of coat-hangers or wooden rods, fastened together to make a cross. It was covered with greenery or tinsel and hung from the ceiling. Glass ornaments, holly or mistletoe could be added, according to taste.
     Many of the ornaments we hung on our tree had a long history and stories attached. In the 'trimmings-box' we had some bits of blackened string with odd little wormy bits dangling from them. My mother told us that this had once been tinsel. When new it had been as bright and shiny as the glittering tinsel we enjoyed, but it had tarnished and turned black. We still hung it on our tree, in memory of Christmases past.
     My mother's memories of Christmas and my own inspired my story 'The Christmas Trees' which, if you're still in the mood for Christmas, you can read here.

     It's the gentlest and most nostalgic story in my collection, Nightcomers: Eight Stories of the Uncanny.