Highland Cattle – Drove Roads – and Rob Roy!

It is an interesting thought that as far as Scotland is concerned, the stunning scenery and a long history of rearing cattle are two facts that are strongly related.  By this I mean that, if you consider the rural history of the country, if land could be ploughed, it was ploughed.  If the land was too hilly to be ploughed, it was used for the rearing of cattle.  Hence, in the roundest of figures, hills equal cattle!

It is no surprise, therefore, that Scotland is home to some notable breeds of cattle that these days are known around the world.  Breeds such as Belted Galloway and Aberdeen Angus come to mind.  But perhaps the most iconic breed of cattle, and the most highly evolved, is the Highland.

This ancient breed has been part of the landscape of the Highlands for over a thousand years; it has partly evolved naturally, and it has partly been carefully bred by over fifty generations of farmers, to arrive at the highly specialised animal that we see today.  There is no other breed in the world that can rival the Highland breed in doing what it does best, which is to survive harsh winters and wet conditions, and to convert poor quality natural feed into a sustainable existence.  It is a very slow maturing breed, meaning that compared with every other breed it takes a very long time from birth to optimum slaughter age.  Readers of the Slow Travel website will recognise that we are talking about Slow Beef!

Highland Cows on a snowy hillside

Highland Cows on a snowy hillside

In the highly evolved livestock farming system of Scotland, however, female Highland cattle are almost never reared for slaughter.  Rather, they are used as the mothers of cross-bred calves, to produce calves that combine the resilience of the Highland mother with the faster maturity of the father.  The female calves of this admirable cross are most frequently used as the mothers of a second generation of commercial crosses to become part of the beef producing herds of farms that lie outwith (Scots for ‘outside’) the Highland geographical area.

Highland calves - sometimes called 'fluffs'!

Highland calves – sometimes called ‘fluffs’!

The Highlands of Scotland have for long been used for the production of cattle that have in turn been part of the livestock rearing systems of the uplands and the lowlands.  In recognising this fact we can start to understand some of the most important elements of the history of humans in these areas.  Prior to the mid-1800’s, road and rail transport did not exist, and huge numbers of cattle were moved ‘on the hoof’ from the producing areas to the markets, most notably to Stirling and Inverness.  They were moved along drove roads.

The drove roads were the highways of yesteryear.  Although some drove roads have now been adopted as public roads, with what we now think of as ‘normal’ road traffic, others are now virtually lost, re-absorbed into the countryside.  It is interesting to ponder on the lives of the drovers, who were the people who were contracted to deliver cattle from producer to market.  It was an essential part of the task that the pace was slow, since the cattle had to be given time to eat as they went along – their condition and their bodyweight had to be maintained in order to achieve sensible prices at their point of sale.  Nowadays, many of the routes that were taken by drove roads are devoid of human habitation, and there could now be forty miles without a house or a hamlet.  In the days when the drove roads were in regular use, the Highlands were much more widely inhabited.  The drovers would have the choice between sleeping rough in the heather, or of gaining permission to sleep in a shed or in winter perhaps even in a simple house beside a peat fire.  The world renowned Highland Hospitality owes its origins to this process.

A 'fold' of Highland cattle

A ‘fold’ of Highland cattle

For the most part, the drovers were honest and honourable.  Their livelihoods depended on them being able to obtain ‘repeat business’, and they could ill afford to create enemies along their drove routes.  However, we are talking about exceptionally tough times.  It was a fact of life that cattle represented wealth and were subject to being stolen, and many of the inter-clan disputes were marked by significant cattle raiding forays.

It is certain that many very powerful and influential characters were part of the industry of the moving of cattle, but none more so than Rob Roy.  Rob Roy was to become the greatest Scottish outlaw and folk-hero, an essential part of every child’s education today.

He was born on the shores of Loch Katrine in 1671, and named Raibeart MacGriogair (Robert MacGregor)  He soon acquired the nick-name of Ruadh (in Gaelic meaning ‘the red’ on account of the colour of his hair) and the name Raibeart Ruadh was later simplified and anglicised to Rob Roy.  Raibeart came from a well-to-do yeoman Highland farmer family, and he was well educated and well connected.  He and his father were among the first to embrace the Jacobite cause, and they both played strong parts in the uprising of 1715.  This marked the start of the period in which Rob Roy gained his multi-coloured reputation.  To start with, on account of his strong involvement in the 1715 uprising, he and his his entire clan was specifically excluded in the Indemnity Act of 1717 which in general served to absolve those who had been persuaded to fight for the Jacobite cause.  Rob Roy took to the hills, and used his very considerable connections to engage in the semi-legitimate handling of cattle.  Unfortunately for him, one of his trusted drovers went off with all the cash and all the cattle that had been entrusted to him, and from that moment on Rob was an outlaw with debts and enemies wherever he looked.   Rob Roy died in 1734 and is buried beside his wife and two of his children in the village of Balquiddhar, in the northern Trossachs.  His future as a folk hero was indelibly established in 1817, when Sir Walter Scott published his book entitled ‘Rob Roy’.

The grave of Rob Roy, in Balquiddhar

The grave of Rob Roy, in Balquiddhar



Alasdair & Barbara Alasdair and Barbara are originally from the west coast of Scotland and have wide-ranging hospitality experience. They recently returned to Scotland after living full-time in France for 10 years and hosting tours on a converted barge in the Garonne Valley. They are now sharing their love and knowledge of the Scottish Highlands through Highland Host, offering personalized tours in this beautiful region.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France, the UK, and other European countries.


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