In the days of droving – from the 16th to the mid 19th century – this track was the main drove between the trysts (fairs) at Falkirk and Crieff, and the main meat market in London.
Once clan warfare was settled, the Highlands and Islands became famed for the small hardy black Kyloe cattle which they bred. As autumn approached, without hay for winter feed, the cattle had to be sold, but the Scottish market was limited. By 1816 there were still no butchers shops in Edinburgh. Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee all had populations of under 12,000, whereas over 1 million people – a fifth of the entire population of England – lived in London, providing an ever-increasing demand for meat. […] Drovers from Wales and Devon had already claimed grazing nearest to London on which to fatten the cattle before the final drive to Smithfield market. Having started much later, the drivers from Scotland had to settle for grazing further afield. The black Scottish cattle were therefore fattened on the lush banks of the Norfolk Broads.
At the peak of the droving trade some 100,000 cattle were walked south from Scotland each year. At least equal numbers of sheep were also driven along this route to meet demand for wool and mutton. But by 1900, the droving trade had all but disappeared. Tolls levied on turnpike roads, enclosure of land, the agricultural revolution, development of railways and movement of cattle by steamship all played their part in its demise. Interpretation panel, Old Drove Road
Today, as promised, the walking gods gave us wall-to-wall sunshine. And we think there might be another morning like it tomorrow, Friday, before it clouds over in the afternoon and the rain comes in again at the weekend. The route took us almost all day on the Old Drove Road which we had followed up over Minch Moor yesterday on the Southern Upland Way.
What an extraordinary practice: walking all the way to London (and back), with professional drovers managing anything up to 2,000 head of cattle. The human effect on the landscape we are walking must have been so very different then, not least because of the population density (87 people per square km in 1850 compared to 259 now).
In any case, the countryside our route took us over today from Innerleithen was still sparsely populated, except for the old urban centre of Peebles, even if much of the drove road itself was old hardcore track. The A72 which follows the Tweed river speeds traffic from Innerleithen to Peebles and beyond, but we took the much quieter and more scenic B-road up the Tweed valley, past the echoes of old farming and industrial practices visible in the Kailzie stables donkeys
and the beautiful Milller’s House at Scotsmill, testament to an affluent life.
Peebles turned out to be a beautiful borders town, very green, with much space given over to public parks and well-maintained avenues of trees.
It partly reminded us of a cathedral close, partly of a village green, and partly of those old county towns established centuries ago on major rivers, like Brecon. For Stephen it was memories of many childhood summer holidays spent up in the borders.
We crossed the wide Tweed over a pretty wrought iron pedestrian bridge, looking upriver to the much older stone bridge, warm and bright in the sun.
We paused to collect ourselves in a café and then bought some rain covers for our rucksacks, which we hoped would be a charm against the showers that were forecast for around midday.
We climbed up out of Peebles onto the Old Drove Road again, wondering where and how the drovers would have corralled 2,000 Kyloe cows as they themselves slept. We had our heads down as we tackled the initial steep track, but as it levelled out to go round the hill with a bank of gorse on the left hand side, the views, that we hadn’t been able to appreciate yesterday for one reason or another, opened up to the right. The Tweed ran slowly through the bottom of the valley with bright sheep pastures rising above it on hillsides sculpted over millennia by river and weather, and topping all, the forested highest hills.
Away to the north were our first sight of the Pentland Hills where we will finish tomorrow. To the right of the track, a stand of Scots pines reminded us of the traces of the Caledonian forest we will see north of Fort William, as we had thought too when we last saw a number of them planted together in one place, way back in Cannock Chase. The shower briefly threatened by the dark clouds was warded off by our rucksack covers.
We heard curlews from the tent last night, although none today; it was the lapwings who were with us this morning, standing on the skyline of the stony field next to us with their extraordinary crests and smart plumage. They have two calls: the familiar ‘pee-wit’, and one which incongruously sounds very much like a squeaky dog’s toy. The verge between us and the lapwings shone with germander speedwell,
a deeper and more purplish blue than the oddly flat, cerulean sky.
The Drove Road traverses the forested Cloich Hills where the atmosphere could not have contrasted more starkly with yesterday’s Minch Moor. This track was enchantingly flooded with sunshine, allowing bright green forest grass to grow, and beds of mosses and ferns. We climbed up the track in spellbound silence, enjoying the cool air and the birdsong high above us. The needle tips of the branches ahead created a filmy, smokey haze quite unlike the ghostly, disturbing wisps of cloud of yesterday.
The trees were not so closely planted that light could not filter down, and a fair amount of grass grew between them, creating what I imagine would be perfect conditions for deer (although we only saw the one, crashing away from us), and the permanent cool and damp allowed several different kinds of moss to grow into a micro-forest of its own.
The forest gave way to a more open structure at its northern end, with native scrub of rowan and birch through which the track wound, narrower here.
Beyond lay the hill complex of Green Knowe and White Knowe, and Drum Maw and Hag Law, carved out by the Fingland and Flemington burns. Someone had put a bench here right here in the middle of nowhere, allowing us to take the pack weight off our knees and hips and let our attention be swept away by the breath-taking slopes.
The sun felt spectacular, and we revelled in it. Warm on our skin, colouring all the greens savagely brightly, and the air after so much rain sparklingly clear. Everything was made better by sun: the smell of warm resinous pine trees, thyme on the sweeping hillsides, the small copper butterflies dancing on the paths. It filled us up.
Crossing the col between Drum Maw and Hag Law dropped us gently down into a sandstone valley, past a line of ancient hawthorns with twisted trunks and so much blossom they looked like the heads of elderflowers.
This was the last of the hilly isolation in which we had spent most of the day: the paths in the populous flat valley were paved, or laid with hardcore, and we had to endure an hour’s walk on tarmac roads to the conservation village of West Linton. Perhaps the price one must pay for spending so much time in the peaceful hills is that the contrast when one descends is so much the greater.