The Droving Tradition of the Upper Eden Valley

During the 13th and 14th centuries fairs proliferated throughout England as more Bishops, Barons and Lords were granted the right to hold weekly markets and annual fairs, many associated with specific Saints and usually linked with the rural calendar.  Kirkby Stephen’s St Luke’s Fair, was granted by Edward III in 1353 in return for an undertaking by Robert de Clifford, Baron of Westmorland, who owned the manor of Kirkby Stephen and others in the parish, to provide the King with men at arms and archers for his wars with the Scots.

The fairs brought money into the de Clifford purse by way of tolls, stallage, pickage and fines so everybody was happy not least the more local inhabitants who found increased opportunity to sell their produce, buy some necessities of life and participate in a spectacle of colourful proportions compared with their rather mean and modest lives. Local horizons were greatly expanded by the tales carried by the pack leaders and drovers and the exchange of gossip was almost as important to the rural dwellers as the exchange of goods.

For centuries animals and goods had been moved from one area to another as an economic necessity but it was in the early medieval period, when clothmakers from Europe spied the potential and quality of English wool, that the wool market exploded and England’s wealth settled firmly on the backs of the ‘wandering ewe’.  The monasteries, ever mindful of a profitable opportunity, seized the chance to expand their already considerable estates and the traffic in animals to the fairs and to winter grazing increased.  Ancient ways through the Eden Valley saw greater use as the farming Abbots of Bolton and Fountains Abbeys moved their animals to winter grazing in the Borrowdale valley, returning their flocks in the spring to their home pastures.

Over time these relatively ‘local’ routes became extended to incorporate the longer distance ‘roads’ along which thousands of, mainly black, cattle (or nolts), many eventually of Irish origin, were driven from Scotland for fattening in the softer valleys of the Dales and more southerly areas of England. All though trade in the middle of the 14th century was somewhat sporadic, depending upon the state of relations between the Scots and English at the time, by 1663 the number of beasts passing through Carlisle was documented at 18,574 with toll dues of 8d a head. It was the custom for beasts to be sold and replacements bought at fairs and markets on the way (Brough, Kirkby Stephen, Hawes, Malham), the rest continuing onward to the southern fairs and markets.   In the middle of the 14th century oxen were selling at 12s 3d per head, cows at 9s 6d per head and wethers at 1s 3d per head, profit margins were tight and might disappear altogether with the fluctuations in trade.

As well as animals, wool, hides, coal, iron, lead, charcoal and salt were transported along the old ‘roads’ which linked the Pennine dales area.  Coal was mined from the 13th century at pits south east of Tan Hill and distributed to the nearby dales using pack ponies.  Salt, an important commodity for preserving meat for the winter period when fresh meat was unavailable, was transported into the area from the Cheshire plains and the north east counties using old drove ways. (When Edward III bought 100 oxen for his army in 1338 his order was accompanied by one for ten quarters of salt, with which to preserve the meat).

Thus, the dales area became overlaid by a network of tracks known as ‘drove ways’, ‘drove roads’, ‘ox roads’ and ‘drift ways’.  These roads often led across the higher ground of the open fellside where free grazing was readily available for the herds and where the longer views helped the leaders or ‘Topsmen’ to navigate and avoid ambush. Quarter Sessions records at Northallerton, 2nd August 1692, record a robbery committed by 2 persons on a Drover of Kaber in Westmorland where “he had taken from him by them £144.7s at or near Ellerbecke in the hundred of Gilling West, the court recommends the inhabitants of the said hundred to repay him the said sum without any further trouble”.

Early drovers, may well have been robbers or raiders themselves but by the time of Elizabeth I they had to be licensed by 3 Justices of the Peace.  Licences were only issued to married householders of at least 30 years of age and lasted for 1 year.  When a licence was granted to James Barrow of Meathrop in the County of Westmorland in 1731, the profession of a drover, was described in records of Kendale (Kendal), as “the art and mystery of a Drover”.  The word ‘mystery’ derived from the French ‘metier’, meaning trade.  The custom was little understood by those whose modest lives were lived out within the confines of their small settlements, however, respect for the vocation was growing.

Topsmen had to be men of outstanding skill and character since on them rested the huge responsibility of conducting 300 – 1000 beasts over hundreds of miles in the most challenging circumstances.  Some might be on the road for 6 months or more, sleeping rough alongside the animals with no certainty as to the financial outcome.  At times they might be carrying great sums of money after the sales or be entrusted to collect taxes and even commissioned to find jobs for sons and daughters.  They also carried news and letters and there are many instances when the Parish priest read the Drovers’ news to the public after the Sunday service.

The handling of the livestock was of critical importance as the stock needed to be in prime condition on arrival at the Fair.  A drover “exercising any cruelty to cattle by use of any pointed stick” could be imprisoned and fined before discharge.   Scottish drovers imported other customs as well as beef on the hoof, many journeys proceeding to the tune of the pipe which probably helped to while away the hours and provide a calming influence on the stock,  “a good steady man goes with 2 or 3 in front to step the pace if they are going sweetly.”

It was not unusual to see drovers knitting as they went.  This pastime-cum-industry is well documented from the 17th century onwards in the Kirkby Stephen and dales area being an occupation for all members of a family, male and female, young and old.  It is perhaps not surprising to find the trade being pursued by those accompanying the stock for it provided another source of income– it conjures up a splendid scene.

Drovers normally carried their own food – handfuls of oatmeal and one or two onions plus a ram’s horn filled with whisky!  The oatmeal mixed with water formed a porridge known as ‘crowdie’ – the name still remembered by local people as a feed for hens; the oatmeal mixed with onion and blood from the cattle made a form of blackpudding.  At a time when bloodletting was regarded as a popular pick-me-up or cure for animal ailments it is not a farfetched notion.

In order to maintain the condition of the stock and allow for grazing on the way, the animals covered some 10 or 12 miles a day and rested in enclosed ground at night.  This explains the great number of wayside ‘rest houses’ often under an appropriate name such as “The Black Bull” – three inns in the area still retain this name.  There are 17th century records of many such buildings being used for this purpose along The Highway in Mallerstang, some have disappeared from the landscape and some are merely a pile of stones with no clue as to their vivid past except perhaps in an unusually positioned and enclosed field such as ‘The Horse Pasture’ between High Dike and Hell Gill, close to Lammerside at Bullgill or beyond the packhorse bridge at Ravenseat.

Place names may provide further clues about the customs and traditions of the droving past.  There is a theory that places with the Hollin name, being so frequently located alongside stock tracks, might have signified the provision of stances for animals and hospitality for the drovers – the holly branch was reputedly the old signpost for hospitality.  Hollin names are evident at Brough Sowerby close to what was probably an ancient ‘road’ from Brough to Kirkby Stephen and above the Rawthey Valley alongside an old route from Sedbergh to Kirkby Stephen.

Apparently it was the practice for a horseman to ride ahead of the herd when approaching a settlement.  He would sound a horn to alert the locals so that their herds could be safely gathered before becoming enmeshed with the approaching tide of sheep and cattle.  However, it is doubtful that local inhabitants would have been totally unprepared since the fairs occurred at set times in the year and there would have been some expectation of the influx.  Equally, the noise created by the throng of people, bellowing animals and barking dogs would have been heard over quite a distance.

There were several periods when Fairs were banned by Royal Proclamation because of outbreaks of disease. Foot and mouth, TB, sheep pox, sheep scab, parasitic diseases, or more generally “the murrain” are all recorded and drovers were required by law to report any sick animal in transit to the Church Warden of the parish.

As well as cattle and sheep, geese, turkeys, pigs and donkeys were also driven to and from the fairs. Donkeys were bought by Irish drovers returning home from the London cattle markets, they were much in demand for carting peat, carrying creels, milk and other goods and a string of 20-40 was not uncommon along the drove roads of the dales.

A whole network of drove ways can be traced throughout the Upper Eden Valley, many existing as broad green tracks across the upper fellsides, as can be found north of Ravenseat, along Cotter Clints, above Birkett Common and east of Wandale Hill. Others are in evidence in the valley bottoms approaching the lower settlements or crossing the rivers via a twinned ford and bridge as seen below Fawcett Bank Rigg and Cautley Spout.  Over centuries the passage of animals and travellers, particularly on sloping sections, has scoured the surface of some of the routes to produce a sunken way as at Boggle Green above The Thrang and across Bluecaster Side. In later times the “roads” skirted known outposts to avoid the payment of toll charges for the drover was ever watchful of his profits.

This evidence in the landscape is reinforced by the names found on old maps or even existing today as in Drover Hole Sike and Drover Hole west of Tan Hill. As well, there is Halfpenny House just outside Kirkby Stephen – the halfpenny reputedly being the charge per animal per night for grazing on the stances provided, but not until the 18th century, prior to that, according to Haldane, no charges were levied.

Court proceedings of later centuries have provided some evidence of the risky nature of the drover’s life but nothing has yet been uncovered about droving- associated crimes of the medieval period within the locality.  In Kirkby Stephen’s case, it is likely that much of the evidence from the 14th century was destroyed in the Scottish raids.  What is more, it is unlikely that details relating to the droving scene in general were recorded, since it concerned the lives of people considered of no great consequence and who themselves possessed few, if any, writing skills.

Court rolls, family papers, titles, maps and the actual landscape have provided some proof of our own fair and droving tradition.  In some instances a little colour and vitality have been added from the wider field and with the help of reputable authors.  In all cases, the search engaged the imagination of those who pursued the topic and we have been richly rewarded by the many insights we gained into customs which have shaped our area and which were of immense importance in the lives of our predecessors.

This leaflet, produced in 2001 by local residents, is our first attempt to tell something of the droving tradition and its relationship to our surrounding countryside.  It prepares the way for those who want to walk the routes, and we suggest that you do.  Two route cards have been prepared to augment this leaflet, they are available at the Kirkby Stephen TIC.

Main sources:

© Haldane, A. R. B., The Drove Roads of Scotland, Birlinn Limited, Edinburgh, 1997 Miller, E. (ed),  Agrarian History of England, vol iii,
© Cambridge University Press, 1991
© Cameron, D.K., The English Fair, Sutton Books,1998
© Bonser, K. J., The Drovers,  MacMillian, 1938
© Farrer, W., Records Relating to the Barony of Kendale, Trans. Cumb & West Antiq & Archaeol Soc. Vol. v. ed. J.F. Curwen, 1924
© Raistrick, A. Green Tracks on the Mid- Pennines, Moorland, 1978

A full archive of the sources is lodged in the Kirkby Stephen Library.