By William Mills
Griff Rhys Jones
Griff Rhys Jones provided an hour’s sterling entertainment with his recreation of Scottish Highland life as a cattle drover two hundred years ago.
Isle of Skye
Rhys Jones started out from Isle of Skye’s main town Portree buying a traditional garment used down the centuries to keep the harsher elements of the weather at bay.
A local farmer produced a small herd of hardy cows with horns and shaggy brown coats. Rhys Jones explained how in 1800 Skye had five times the population consisting mainly of crofters and cattle drovers.
The Highland cattle were 1,200lbs of prime beef with hones attached, although in 1800 they would have been 40% smaller than now.
Superb pictures were shown of the site of Kyle Rhea ferry which was last used in 1934. The cattle used to be swum across in October with the farmer swimming alongside!
In 1800 the cattle would be thrown off a ferry half a mile offshore to let them get a good wash.
Once across and onto the mainland the cattle and their drovers would walk down the road to Falkirk. Today this is the A87 from Glasgow to Skye, but originally was built by the great engineer Thomas Telford serving an economy built on beef. In 1930’s between 20 and 30 thousand cattle a year would tread this route, wearing down hooves and road alike.
The strong demand for Highland beef is generated by its taste. The cattle are fed on oats grown in the short wet summer, clear air, spring water and grazing on chemical free pasture.
Their route passes Achnacarry Castle, ancestral home to clan Cameron. Rhys Jones points out that half of Scotland is owned by fewer than 500 families and that after the 18th century Jacobite rebellions the right to bear arms was withdrawn except for drovers.
The coming of the steam train changed life for the drovers, and now cattle are transported by lorry on modern roads.
Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy
Sir Walter Scott’s swashbuckling novels changed the image of the Scottish savage into a romantic hero. Amongst his most famous was Rob Roy, a cattle drover turned cattle thief and blackmailer.
The Ford of Frew is the gateway to the lowlands of Scotland leading to Stirling, the old capital. Ten miles further on is Falkirk market or tryst, their final destination where each season 150,000 cattle, fetching up to £2,500 a head, and 200,000 sheep are sold.
Today it’s the truck drivers who take the cattle onwards. Many Scottish cattlemen passed into Hollywood legend, including John Chisum, immortalised by John Wayne in John Ford’s masterpiece. Others included the James’s brothers, Frank James and Jesse James, and Quick draw McGraw.