Catrina Davies drives cattle along an ancient drovers' route in Scotland's Southern Uplands as part of a project exploring the relationship between rural and urban culture
I have always liked cows. Happy cows seem to me the happiest animals on earth. In recent years I have taken myself on silent retreats, just to learn what cows already know: how to take my time, chew the cud, slow down.
It's November. I'm in a pub in Hackney listening to my friend, Katch, talk about cows. She's had an idea. She wants to drive a herd of cattle along an old drover's route from Scotland to London. She wants to drive the cows into the centre of the capital. She wants people to stop what they are doing and stare. She wants them to step in a steaming cowpat. She wants them to look at the cows and think about the burger they ate for lunch. She wants people to remember that they need the land and the fields. That cows matter. That rural culture literally feeds the cities. She wants to question the myth of progress handed down to the countryside by urban politics. She wants to hand something back.
Droving has a long history. Before the railways, cattle were herded on foot from the highlands to London, a journey that lasted months, employed hundreds and ensured cows arrived fat and happy to market. Walking with cows was part of our collective culture, embedded into our island psyche like cowboy culture is embedded into the psyche of North America.
Fast forward to August. I'm in the Southern Scottish Uplands, trudging through torrential rain with a fiddle player, a sound recordist, a filmmaker, a photographer, a botanist, two drovers, a vet, three cows and Katch. It's a test run, tracing a seven-mile route from Katch's family farm at Knockengorroch, in Dumfries and Galloway, to a village called Bellsbank which sits on the outskirts of an economically depressed ex-mining town in neighbouring Ayrshire.
Our 'herd' consists of two shaggy highlands (big horns, bigger hair) and a massive shorthorn cross, know as White Boy. They were all born at Knockengorroch, where Katch's father has an old-fashioned relationship with his animals. 'He wants to die up on the hillside with the cows,' says Katch.
Raised up over the sodden moorland, the ancient drover's road is comparatively dry. There are small ditches each side and bridges over the worst of the bog. I'm told the green stuff under my feet isn't grass but dozens of species of moss collectively known as sphagnum. Yesterday it was burnt yellow. Today it's bright green. Heather, buttercups, willowherb and bog cotton are drinking like pissheads in a late-night bar. The hills and forests of Galloway are blurred, as if I'm looking at them through a broken windscreen. Or that might be the rain in my eyes. We could use an ark.
It's unclear whether the road we are following was built by drovers or Romans, but it is certain that drovers used it. It's one of many such roads that criss-cross our nation. The cows move slowly, swinging their heads and looking at us, at each other, at the landscape. They munch and moo and flick their tails and shake their horns.
It's a good thing the cows are moving slowly, since I am walking backwards holding an umbrella over Stevie's camera, which he is pointing at their feet. 'People used to walk at the same pace as their animals,' he says, wiping his lens.
It's the sound-recordist's turn. The rest of us hang back while he aims his microphone. Behind the sudden silence I can hear raindrops hitting the ground, the sound of water in the streams, the sound of cattle chewing. A snipe, easily mistaken for a didgeridoo. A lone beech tree bravely clinging to the side of a steep gulley.
We make our sodden way to Bellsbank, driving the cows along a track that passes a few feet from a large council estate. This is where the ex-miners live. I pick wild raspberries and watch the cattle move slowly past grey houses. There is a TV in a field. Or maybe it's a bathtub. Empty lochs and hills stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see. A strange kind of disjunction. The people seem excluded from the land, herded into artificial enclosures, turned into spectators. There is plenty of parking.
But the old drovers' routes remain. Old paths still link our old settlements and our old thoughts, connecting people and animals with their land and their past in a way that speed and 'progress' can never erase.
Photography by Alice Myers. An exhibition of Alice's images documenting the drove will open on 9 October 2014 at the Doon Valley Museum in Dalmellington.
Catrina Davies is the author of The Ribbons are for Fearlessness and its accompanying Ribbons EP
Add a comment