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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Historical Notes 1750 - 1900
D Omand - Moravian Field Club

Farm Stock
In the 18th century the kyloe or native black cattle trade was one of the staples of northern Scotland; cattle were the transportable wealth of the crofters, until the trade declined after the mid 19th century.  The drove roads converged on Spittal and Reay and linked up at Helmsdale. The drovers and their charges then set off for the fairs at Muir of Ord, Crieff, Falkirk or Carlisle (Haldane). Small local trysts wore also held at Dunbeath and Georgemas. A drover might average 10 - 12 miles per day taking 28 days to go from Caithness to Carlisle. Some of the drovers then worked their way home by engaging in the harvest work which was progressively later as they came northwards.

The business of droving started in the early summer when the tacksmen gathered in their beasts and bought stock from the lesser tenants. The animals were then sold to the drovers who, early in the 19th century, could expect 4 per head for each animal, which, because of it's slow rate of maturing was not sold until it was three or four years old.

While beef cattle predominated in lowland Caithness, dairy cattle were more numerous in the upland areas of parishes such as Reay, Halkirk or Latheron. In summer women and children would take the dairy cattle up to the airies (shielings such as at Dorrery and remain with the animals for some weeks converting milk into butter and cheese.

The quality of cattle was greatly improved after Sir John Sinclair introduced Galloways into Caithness towards the end of the 18th:century. But, until the introduction of fodder crops such as turnips, an overwhelming problem was finding sufficient feeding for cattle during the winter months. Before the turnip was introduced coarse natural pasture with a little hay or straw was all the fodder that was available. It has been estimated that during the winter season, as many as one fifth of the animals died and many were so weak in spring that they had to be carried from the byre out to the pasture lands.

Sheep, like cattle were brought indoors in winter. These native horned sheep of the 18th century were small and of poor quality, valuable neither for wool nor flesh. At an early age lambs were separated from their mothers so that families might obtain milk from the ewes. The introduction of the Cheviot sheep by Sir John Sinclair brought in to the county an animal that gave more milk, was heavier than the native horned breed and produced one-third more wool. Their subsequent large scale introduction heralded a massive economic and social change. Land which had formerly been lightly grazed by black cattle was now heavily grazed by ever-increasing flocks of rapacious sheep. Such grazing, perhaps overgrazing helped to destroy the scrub habitat of valleys, accelerated soil erosion and is believed to have encouraged the growth of bracken. At this point in time nature and man seemed to be getting out of phase; before long soils would lose heart the people their homes.

According to the Old Statistical Account there ware large numbers of swine which were kept tethered in the fields. Many colts were reared in the county, exported to Orkney where they were brought to maturity before being re-.sold to Caithness crofters. The typical beast of burden of the small crofts was the garron (a small horse), usually dun or grey coloured. The ponderous Clydesdale was restricted to the larger farm units.