TAC 30 Index
Across the Highlands from the Isle of Skye in the footsteps of the Drovers
by Irvine Butterfield, Grey Stone Books, 1996, #9.95, 128pp, ISBN 0 9515996 5 8
- Reviewed by Val Hamilton -
I suppose there is a limited market these days for a book on how to drove cattle from Skye to Crieff, although some TAC readers might be more interested if it was sheep we were talking about. Irvine Butterfield has wisely aimed his account of this route at those who don't need a herd of animals in tow to find justification for going for a walk. But cattle do feature, since the inspiration behind the book is the trip made in 1981 by thirty beasts and a few "drovers" of varying backgrounds, including Butterfield as photographer. This is not, however, an account of that journey: bovine anecdotes are occasionally included in the main flow of the text which is a description of a long distance walking route, with strong historical links and ample background information.
It took me some time to work out why this should be "The Famous" Highland Drove Walk. Even a cursory glance at ARB Haldane's The Drove Roads of Scotland indicates that numerous drove routes existed in the Highlands. A look at Haldane's map would confirm this, if you can find one: a search of Stirling libraries found numerous copies of this classic book but it took some time before one photocopied map was located in deepest Drymen. So if you possess an original, it's probably worth money. The "Famous" bit in fact harks back to the sponsors of the 1981 event: Famous Grouse whisky.
Long-distance walking doesn't appeal to me much but there is an intrinsic logic and attraction in the route given here. Butterfield points out in the introduction that although there are areas where paths have disappeared over the mountain passes, in a way the greater problem for today's walker is that many of the valley routes are now under tarmac. For this reason, he offers variants wherever possible, sometimes at low levels, sometimes including mountain ascents.
The basic route is from Glenbrittle across Skye to Glenelg, then round to Kinloch Hourn, up Loch Quoich by-passing Gairich (nowhere near Gulvain), then turning south through Gleann Cia-aig to Gairlochy. There's a road walk across to Spean Bridge but then it's into the hills again, through the Lairig Leacach, passing east of the Mamores to the Kingshouse and along the West Highland Way to Bridge of Orchy. Then we turn east via Achallader over into Glen Lyon and on to Killin, finally through Glen Lednock to Crieff.
The prose of the descriptive passages is a little purple at times for my taste but that's probably just because I have no soul. Or maybe it's due to spending my (de)formative walking years in the Dark Peak that the description with which I can associate most closely is of the oozing bogs giving off "an odour of rotting vegetation spiced with steaming cowpats". What the book definitely does provide for me is a context for the walk - a feeling for what has gone before which is much broader than simply the history of cattle droving in Scotland but includes folklore, natural history and accounts by earlier travellers such as Johnson and Boswell, the Wordsworths, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and in particular Thomas Telford. How different our access patterns to the hills might have been if Telford's alternative proposals had been accepted in the early nineteenth century and the main highways had been built from Kinloch Hourn to Glenelg or past Loch Laidon and through Glen Lyon rather than along their current routes.
The main text is fairly discursive but the book can easily be used as a guide since each chapter has a route summary and there are simple and adequate sketch maps. It seems that Butterfield has retrodden much of the ground in the intervening fifteen years but he doesn't actually tell us this, so there has to be some doubt as to the currency of his information. I know, for example, that what he describes as "a rough track" from Killin to Lochan Breaclaich is now hard tarmac, although alternative routes can be found through the "walkers welcome" forestry plantations.
There is also an appendix on planning which does seem up-to-date and includes information on distances, maps, transport, stalking (for those who wish to deviate from the traditional route) and suggested accommodation. The existence of certain "shelters" and "small refuge huts" is alluded to, but the word "bothy" never leaves his pen. The other appendix is on "Wildlife and plants": Warbeck may be appeased by the fact that the route passes his misspelt loch near the Blackwater Reservoir.
The main omission is a bibliography which the book really merits, as clearly Butterfield has used a wide range of sources. Yet despite this thorough research, he cannot solve that last great mystery: he confirms my instinctive view that no-one knows exactly how to pronounce Ben Chonzie.
TAC 30 Index