The Hidden Ways

Today ‘The Hidden Ways: Scotland’s forgotten Drove Roads’ – a new book by Scottish historian Alistair Moffat – is published by Canongate Press, and we have an exclusive extract below.

The Hidden Ways wanders Scotland’s forgotten paths to tell an alternative history of Scotland and our place within its landscape. The Hidden Ways will spearhead Alistair Moffat’s campaign to reopen Scotland’s forgotten roads, starting in 2017 and culminating in 2020. The project will be the largestcommunity enterprise ever undertaken in Scotland, and has the support of Creative Scotland, VisitScotland, BBC Radio Scotland and DC Thomson. Born in Kelso in 1950, Alistair is an award-winning writer, historian and Director of Programmes at Scottish Television, former Director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and former Rector of the University of St Andrews. He is the founder of Borders Book Festival and Co-Chairman of The Great Tapestry of Scotland.

This is a series of snapshots. The great drove roads of Scotland that led out of the Highlands and Uplands and down to markets in the Lowlands and beyond are often very long, and I decided not to risk a walk that would have taken several days through remote and sometimes trackless terrain. One of my guiding principles was not so much endurance as enjoyment.

However, the drove roads were very important in their time and all have fallen out of use. No survey of Scotland’s hidden ways could omit them. For practical reasons, I decided to begin the road that ran from Skye and follow it into the mountains – but not far, and relying on distant memory as well as recent experience. 

That memory of the drove roads was what sparked my own interest in the Gaelic language. Later in my life I learned a little and thereby understood far more of the Highlands, its history and how to pronounce its geography. When I returned to Glenelg last year, I remembered how perfectly attuned the landscape and its language can be.

Anxious to make an early start, I brewed some strong coffee, poured it into a lidded mug and stuck it in the holder just below the dashboard of my ancient Range Rover. It was black-dark, moonless and still. When I fired the engine and switched on the headlights, the crows squabbled and lifted off the Top Wood. Bumping down the track to the tarmac road, I began a long journey back into my past and also a time that has long vanished into the darkness of the deeper past. Too early for much traffic up Gala Water and the usual congestion on the Edinburgh Bypass, I found myself on the empty M9 to Stirling by the time the sun was climbing into the eastern sky. It picked out the tops of the Ochil Hills and, beyond them, the mountains. 

By the time I parked at the Glenelg Inn, it was early afternoon and I quickly dumped my bag in a spare, chilly bedroom at the back. In the bar a welcome fire blazed and the food was good. But I wanted to make the most of what daylight was left and drove a short distance further north so that I could climb a hill. Glenelg is on the mainland shore of the Sound of Sleat, the slice of the Atlantic that makes Skye an island, and its waters narrow dramatically at Kyle Rhea. Despite the recent bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh, a ferry still crosses the straits near Glenelg. I did not have to climb very high to see what I had come to see.

To the north, the narrows of Kyle Rhea open out into Loch Alsh, a sea loch that also fills from the west through the straits at Kyleakin. Both create a funnelling effect that forces the falling and rising tides through very quickly, sometimes at seven or eight knots. But the paradox is that Loch Alsh was also very attractive to shipping, especially in the centuries of sail, because it was a safe anchorage, sheltered from the worst of the Atlantic storms. And it could also be effectively defended at the two straits. King Haakon of Norway and his sea-lords knew it well and that was why their great fleet mustered in Loch Alsh before sailing south to Largs and defeat at the hands of the forces of Alexander II in 1263. At least 120 warships bobbed at anchor, their colours flying, and it must have been an awesome sight. It clearly impressed those who watched from the shore, for the occasion created the place name of Kyleakin. In Gaelic, it means ‘the Narrows of Haakon’.

Once I had climbed high enough above the shortest crossing at Kyle Rhea, and the ferry ramp was well below me, the swirl of the sea fascinated me. The tide seemed to be flooding from the north, filling from Loch Alsh, but inshore there were eddies running in what looked like the opposite direction. A wind was getting up when I began to make my way back down to the road. It was blowing hard up the Sound of Sleat and against the flooding tide. Whitecaps flecked the surface and the sea roiled, making shallow troughs. All of which caused me to marvel at the skill and courage of the Highland cattle drovers. 

For more than 150 years, the cattle trade was a vital part of the Highland economy, in effect the sole cash crop the region produced. After the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, markets in England opened up and they expanded dramatically as Britain embarked on its great drive for Empire. From 1739 to 1815, British armies and fleets were continuously in action all over the world, and after the spectacular successes of the Seven Years’ War (1756 to 1763), when vast tracts of territory were gained in North America and dominance in India established, a huge demand for supplies was created. Soldiers and sailors on active duty needed to be fed and one of their principal staples was salt beef. The small black cattle of the Highlands were driven to market in their millions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to sustain Britain’s long imperial wars and the conflict with France and Napoleon. 

Alistair Moffat

Broadford in southern Skye was a gathering place for herds from across the Hebrides. Cattle were shipped from Lewis, Harris, the Uists and Benbecula to Uig and then driven south. In the late summer of 1723 a large drove was collected on Skye and then moved eastwards to the shore at Kyle Rhea, to the narrow straits. An account of 1813 tells what happened next: 

All the cattle reared in the Isle of Skye which are sent to the southern markets pass from that island to the mainland by the ferry of Kylerhea. Their numbers are very considerable, by some supposed to be 5,000 but by others 8,000 annually, and the method of ferrying them is not in boats . . . but they are forced to swim over Kylerhea. For this purpose the drovers purchase ropes which are cut at the length of three feet having a noose at one end. This noose is put round the under-jaw of every cow, taking care to have the tongue free. The reason given for leaving the tongue loose is that the animal may be able to keep the salt water from going down its throat in such a quantity as to fill all the cavities in the body which would prevent the action of the lungs; for every beast is found dead and said to be drowned at the landing place to which this mark of attention has not been paid. Whenever the noose is put under the jaw, all the beasts destined to be ferried together are led by the ferryman into the water until they are afloat, which puts an end to their resistance. Then every cow is tied to the tail of the cow before [in front] until a string of six or eight be joined. A man in the stern of the boat holds the rope of the foremost cow. The rowers then play their oars immediately. During the time of high water or soon before or after full tide is the most favourable passage because the current is then least violent. The ferrymen are so dextrous that very few beasts are lost.

Once the cattle had shaken off the sea water and been untied, the drovers moved them inland from Glenelg to Glen Shiel before reaching the Great Glen at Fort Augustus. From there they pushed on into the mountains and over the difficult Pass of Corrieyairack and thence to Dalwhinnie and on down the Tummel towards the Lowland markets.

Scotland is patterned by hundreds of droving routes and many preferred to strike through the hills and mountain glens and avoid the hard surfaces of roads. Raised on rough upland pasture in the summer and on the soft winter grazing down in the glens, black cattle had soft feet and it was essential to avoid the risk of lameness. A beast that slowed the herd was a liability and drovers would sometimes be forced to slaughter it and either sell the carcass wherever they could or eat the beef themselves and feed the offal to their dogs. Having managed the dangers of the Kyle Rhea crossing, some drovers took an alternative route to avoid Glen Shiel and turned up into Glen More and the mountains beyond. They left behind an indelible trace in the landscape. 

The Hidden Ways: Scotland’s forgotten Drove Roads is published by Canongate and is available to buy today in hardback in good bookshops and on Amazon.

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