Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, George Moore, the-local-boy-made-good who built the ‘fountain’ in the centre of Wigton, was almost drowned attempting to drive cattle across the sands of the Solway. As a draper’s apprentice, Mr Todd, a Wigton banker, asked George to delivered money to a dealer in Dumfries to purchase cattle. The inexperienced dealer and the apprentice then attempted to drive their cattle across from Annan to Bowness. The tide turned and most of the cattle were lost.
Expanding in the seventeenth century after the union of the two crowns and the suppression of reiving, cattle droving had become big business in Cumbria. Banking and commerce thrived on the demands of the droving industry. Cattle were the principal concern of the farmers and there were many other businesses which owed their existence to the passage of beasts through Cumberland and Westmorland. Brampton, in 1795, had 30 leather workers, but only nineteen tailors and seven blacksmiths. The tanners, saddlers, girdlers, cordwainers, cobblers and carriers made up two of the twelve guilds in Kendal.
The beeves were brought from Scotland, and later Ireland, traded in markets like Crieff, Falkirk and Dumfries, and proceeded on their way, being bought and sold as they went and being fattened before moving on. The Earl of Thanet reared his animals cheaply in the upper Eden valley and then had them driven south to his lands in Kent, where, suitably pastured and restored, they would fetch good prices in the London market.
The signs of the trade in cattle on the hoof are still evident. The old droving routes followed the green tracks which can still be traced across the fells and, along many roads, the wide verges indicate routes that were followed by the cattle trade. Unusually large barns may well have been stances or cattle stops. In Penrith and Carlisle there were Drovers’ Lanes and there are still country inns which once offered refreshment to Highland Drovers. The great cattle fairs were held on The Sands in Carlisle, at Rosley and at Burgh Hill.
The Cumbrian economy grew alongside the cattle trade and a poor subsistence economy became a market economy. Farms became profitable, other trades prospered and the counties came to play their part in the commerce of a rapidly developing country.
The scale of the trade has been under-estimated. It was thought that at least 30,000 cattle were being driven across the border in the early years of the eighteenth century. Peter Roebuck suggests that the trade was far more considerable. His research shows that more than fifteen thousand cattle passed through the Edenhall stance alone and that a similar number went through the two other Musgrave stances. The probability is that the cattle trade was on a far more considerable scale and its impact on the economy correspondingly greater.
In Tullie House there is “a Steal Cappe”, badly battered and chipped, which would have been worn by a Caldbeck farmer as he rode out to repel the Scottish reivers as they sought to steal his cattle. In Millom Folk Museum is a painting of Highland Beast done in oil on leather, the product of a peaceful and prospering society.
As steamships came to sail along the coast and as railways powered their way across the country, the animals were driven into pens or carriages and the great herds of cattle making their way down the country became a thing of the past.
One of Sam Bough’s finest paintings shows the herdsmen on their horses persuading the reluctant cattle to enter the shallow waters of the Solway as the sun sets behind the clouds in the West.
It is a fitting epitaph for what was one of the great romantic trades and was also a key element in the development of modern Cumbria.
Peter Roebuck’s extensive research and lucid argument significantly reshapes our appreciation of the county’s history.