Walking the Shadows of Cattle
Updated: Nov 19, 2019
The English language has the idiom: Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. It is a pretty clear reminder to practice empathy. But what happens if you walk a mile in the shadow of cattle?
English learners, by joining The Drover’s Tryst Walking Festival, you have the chance to learn about the long-vanished Scottish trade of cattle droving.
The Drover’s Tryst is an annual walking festival commemorating Crieff’s fascinating market history.
“The history of Scotland goes beyond bloody battles and castles. Away from the famous conflicts associated with Wallace, Bruce and Bonnie Prince Charlie, ordinary folk just got on with their lives. Crieff & Strathearn Drovers Tryst annually celebrates the life, work and play of the people who made Crieff in Perthshire the crossroads of Scotland in the 1700s.”*
During the Drover’s Tryst, walkers of different abilities can gather for events over a week in early Autumn*** and walk land that, at the same time of year, tens of thousands of cattle were once driven along networks of tracks, converging from different locations across the North and North West of Scotland to reach the huge cattle market (a ‘tryst’) held in Crieff centuries before.
In Scots, the word 'tryst' means an agreed meeting place. It would have been a truly remarkable sight. Due to the scale of its cattle trading, by the mid 18th century, Crieff was booming as one of the main financial centres of Scotland.
The Drover’s Tryst walking festival brings the possibility of imagining the sights and mayhem of thousands of cattle arriving into Crieff as you walk the routes where short, black highland cattle poured into the Sma’ Glen from the North - or from the North East (as far as Aberdeenshire) down Strath Tay. Large numbers of beasts even travelled from Argyll and the islands, making their way by Rannoch Moor, Glen Dochart and Lochs Tay and Earn before arriving to be sold in Crieff.
Such an influx of cattle and commerce brought its own problems in less law-abiding times. Cattle theft was rife, and Crieff grew famous for hanging lawless Highlanders. There wasn’t much cash at this time, so dealing was based on bills of exchange: there was even a bank crash in 1772 which brought down several embryonic financial houses who had interests in the cattle trade.
“According to the schoolmaster for Monzie in the Statistical Account of 1793 the good citizens of that Parish “went in fear of their lives from the Highland drovers who broke into their houses, forcibly billeting themselves and often carried off part of the house hold goods and removed the potatoes from their fields”. *
Scotland’s favourite rebel, Rob Roy McGregor, is known to have visited Crieff on many occasions, including to sell cattle.
“In the second week of October 1714 the Highlanders gathered in Crieff for the annual market. Civil war was expected at any time. By day Crieff was also full of soldiers and government spies! Just after midnight, Rob Roy and his men marched to Crieff Town Square and rang the Town bell. In front of the gathering crowd sang Jacobite songs and drank a good many loyal toasts to their uncrowned King James VIII”**.
They were feisty times, and 1716 Jacobites burnt Crieff on their way back from the battle of Sheriffmuir.
In 1723 as many as 30,000 cattle were sold at Crieff’s Tryst (with many a poor creature subsequently driven a further 800km South to Smithfield in London).
Although cattle trading in Crieff continued until the 1950s, in 1770, Crieff’s huge tryst was transferred to Falkirk. By then the Jacobite threat had faded and English dealers felt more confident about travelling north of the Border. The tryst moved to Falkirk as it was less far for buyers to travel.
Despite the lawlessness which accompanied it, it seems the Tryst was missed locally.
“The old people here sometimes speak with deep regret of the glorious scene displayed to view when 30,000 black cattle in different droves overspread the whole adjacent country for several miles around the town.”*
Changing economic conditions impacted the Highlands hard, and those very drovers who had learnt both their land and cattle by heart, were themselves forced from the land during the Highland Clearances, emigrating to the New World to survive (some of their descendants became cattle driving cowboys of the ‘Wild West’).
In a tourism initiative, Crieff’s cattle market history was celebrated this summer by the appearance of 11 ‘Cowches’ in a fun art trail around the town. Each Cowch (a cow shaped like a couch) was decorated by selected artists and featured designs about a local businesses or local inspiration. At the end of this summer, Crieff once again briefly hosted a cattle market as the Cowches were auctioned off at a luxury event at the Hydro Hotel (raising money for Scotland's Charity Air Ambulance as they went).
For a poignant celebration of the social history of Crieff and an introduction to understanding Crieff’s place within the landscape, environment, history, economy and agriculture, we recommend that you strap your boots on and join the Drover’s Tryst Walking Festival to learn the stories of the people and land.
This year’s programme included easy-level walks with an archeologist, a forager/herbalist, a bee keeper, a tour of a small holding and a landscape photography lesson. More difficult hikes followed the shadows of old drove roads through hills and mountains, and also included, ‘The historic ‘Coffin Route’ from Inverarnan to Inverlochlarig which follows a route used to take coffins from Glen Falloch to the old church at Balquidder for burial’ (this is where Rob Roy is buried).
“Guided walks are the core of the festival, ranging from themed easy walks to high level walks in the hills up to an hour away from Crieff. The area and the walking programme include a wide variety of terrain, from wooded walks along the River Earn to routes that climb Munros.
Walks are enriched by wildlife, plants, trees, history and the company of like-minded people.
Complementing the walking programme is a series of evening social events, including music, informative talks, cinema and a ceilidh.”
If you are planning an English Language learning holiday in Scotland next year, why not chose from a week of activities with the Drover’s Tryst Walking Festival before joining our week-long English courses at Blue Noun English Language School? Or travelling with your partner? One person can study and one can walk (or alternate?).
Let us know what you’d like to do, and we’ll help you plan your trip.
Live language learning!
Find more information about the Drover’s Tryst - including detailed maps of all the walks - here.
All still photographs on this page are by Ian Buchan Chair of the Drover's Tryst, and used with his permission. Please respect copyright.
Drover's Tryst 2020 dates just announced!
***The dates for next year's Tryst will be May 22nd to 25th inclusive.
* From The Drover's Tryst website
** From the Visit Scotland website