Islay Farm Animals History and Cattle Drovers

Highland CowThe Farm Animals on Islay page has been split-up in two sections, a historical page, the one you are looking at, and a modern day page.

Farming in Islay is an ancient occupation. Archaeologists now believe that the concept of farming arrived in Britain in Neolithic times, probably with incoming settlers, in about 4000BC. Gradually farming took over from the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle which had existed in Islay from around 7500BC, after the last Ice Age ended. While sheep and goats were always useful, cattle have been the source of Celtic people's wealth and status since ancient times.

Highland Cattle
The Highland breed of cattle has a long and distinguished ancestry. One of Britain's oldest, most distinctive, and best known breeds, the cattle have long, thick, flowing coat of hair and majestic sweeping horns in both male and female. The Highland cattle's appearance has remained largely unchanged over the centuries. On Islay's areas of rough grazing and moorland which have high annual rainfall and bitter winter winds, Highland cattle thrive and breed where other cattle would suffer. Making the most of poor hill forage, calving outside and seldom housed, they make a real economic contribution to upland areas. Highland cattle are naturally reared, thriving in the hills and uplands of our country without the need for intensive farming practices, and produce an excellent beef carcass with lean, well-marbled, flesh ensuring tenderness and succulence. Highland beef is healthy and nutritious, having lower levels of fat and cholesterol and higher protein and iron content than other beef.

The unique hardiness, economy and outstanding mothering ability of the pure Highland cow make her ideal for the production of commercial hill cows in Islay today. These can be sired by many different breeds of bull. A successfully used sire is a Beef Shorthorn bull, but excellent results have recently been obtained using bulls of continental breeds. The cross Highland cow has the inherent hardiness of the pure Highland plus that vital ingredient, "hybrid vigour". The first cross Highland cow has the milk to rear the continental calf, and retains the ability to convert poor hill grazing into quality beef.

Cattle Drovers
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Islay cattle markets were held in Bowmore in the current car parking area near the pier, or at the stance which is now the car parking area at Jimmy Campbell's shop in Bridgend. Cattle were either shipped directly from Bowmore's pier or walked across Islay and ferried from Port Askaig over to Feolin, Jura. Port Askaig Hotel is the oldest licenced premises on Islay and was a drove inn. The tale is told that they sometimes used to swim the cattle to Jura. The spot where the Port Askaig Hotel's owners house is built was the area where the cattle pens were and the covered parking at the rear was originally the stables for the travellers horses. From Feolin the cattle would then be walked up the Isle of Jura and taken across to Keills, using the narrowest sea crossing to mainland Argyll, in open rowing or sailing boats. Then, continuing their journey, cattle were walked north to the nearest tryst (cattle market) at Kilmichael Glassary. Having possibly changed owners there, the beasts were driven on to Tyndrum where drove roads from west and north of Scotland met, and still further on to Falkirk Tryst in time for the Michaelmas fair in late September, then one of the main cattle markets in Scotland. At Falkirk the animals were sold on again, and the drovers would hire out for another journey or walk the cattle on south to the English markets.

Along Scotland's drove roads were inns, for the drovers' refreshment and providing areas for resting and grazing the cattle. These building still stand at Lagg in Jura, and at Keillmore, Tayvallich, Arichonan and Bellanoch in Argyll. Drovers were expert stockmen who were required to take great care with their charges, ensuring that the cattle had sufficient grazing and water en route so as to endure their journey without harm and arrive in good condition for sale at their destination. The cattle were sometimes iron-shod like horses, in order that they could walk further without becoming footsore. Sheep were not often taken on long droves, as they were unable to stand the walking as well as cattle. Farmers and drovers returning from the trysts had to beware of highwaymen, who would be on the lookout for those who had taken too much to drink and carried a full purse after selling their livestock!

Border Collie
Islay drovers, shepherds and farmers would always have their faithful Border Collie always at their side. These willing dogs, still essential members of today's agricultural workforce, have always been ready for any herding task on croft or farm. From gathering sheep on the largest areas of hill ground to bringing cattle home for milking, these 'extra hands' were and are indespensable to Islay's and Scotland's farmers. Trained from early puppyhood to respond to both voice and whistle commands, the Border Collie learns obedience to instructions and to work using its inbred instinct and interest in sheep. The bond which develops between a shepherd and his or her dogs becomes so close, so that the dogs appear to be working by 'remote control' in a way that looks almost telepathic.

Islay Border Collies
Donald Fletcher of Persabus Farm trains his dogs Mist and Roy.

Highland Ponies
Next to his cattle, the source of his wealth and status, the Islay farmer valued his Highland pony. The origins of the Highland pony is lost in far past times, but as it is of Northern type it may be at least partially an inheritance from the Vikings and Norse settlers in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. The local Islay ponies of the time may have been smaller and lighter, as the Eriskay island pony breed is today. Highland ponies were the 'poor man's Fergie tractor' before motorized farm equipment became available, being an animal willing and able to turn his strong black hoof to any transport job on croft or farm. Highland ponies were bred for soundness and the ability to work all day, to be hardy 'good doers' which thrive on hill grazing, and for their kind nature so that all the family members could work with them. The ponies (usually geldings, known as garrons from the Gaelic gearran, a castrated male) pulled carts, did light ploughing and other fieldwork, and were pack-horses for carrying seaweed, peats or other goods, as well as being ridden.

Today, Highland ponies are still popular, and most are used as versatile and enthusiastic riding and driving ponies. Garrons were used until the 1970s on Islay Estate and at Ardlussa in Jura for carrying shot stags down off the hills. There are currently three Highland Pony breeders in Islay; Jane Dawson's Ellister stud at Easter Ellister, Angela MacLeod's RhinnsPoint stud in Portnahaven and Gibson Campbell's Lochindaal stud at Lyrabus.

Ïslay Highland Ponies
Left, stallion Whitefield King Duncan. Middle, mares and foals at Ellister; Jane Dawson, Ellister Highland Pony Stud. Right, S Campbell

Sheep Breeds

Hebridean Sheep
A thousand years ago, Viking settlers brought sheep from their Nordic homes to their new farms in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. We can only imagine what their sheep looked like, but it seems certain that they would be small; most would have horns (sometimes more than two horns), short tails, and be hardy sheep able to live in upland conditions with minimal management. The sheep would have been a variety of colours, the least common being white. We can be confident about these features as the Hebridean Sheep is related to other existing Northern European breeds; the Shetland, North Ronaldsay, Manx Loghtan and Icelandic, all of which show similar characteristics.

Celtic peoples of the West have always preferred black domestic animals. Black skin is stronger and more weatherproof, and black horned feet are harder, growing more slowly and are more resistant to rot. Black hooves are thus particularly suitable for the peaty ground conditions to be found over large parts of the west of Britain. Until the 18th and 19th centuries, these small, thrifty sheep were the main breed kept in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. But the agricultural revolution of the period, development or importing of new breeds and the clearance of many families from the land began to take its toll. With government and landowners' support, these Viking-type sheep were replaced by the "improved" breeds, Blackfaces and Cheviots, which were then more profitable. By early in the twentieth century, the Hebridean sheep, having inhabited the Highlands and Islands for a thousand years, had nearly disappeared.

In 1973, the UK's Rare Breeds Survival Trust identified Hebridean sheep as a breed in danger of extinction. There were no sheep found in their homelands of the west of Scotland, and few parkland flocks remained on southern Scottish and English estates. Had it not been for these parkland flocks, the breed would have ceased to exist. Fortunately, these few flocks had become virtually feral, having little if any management, so the characteristics of the sheep were retained. Hebridean ewes have been selected by nature for hardiness in all weathers, ease of lambing, milkiness and good mothering instincts. Today, when extensification provides the only viable option for many of our island and upland crofts and farms, the Hebridean ewe is once again finding a role. Because Hebrideans have not been modified by artificial selection, they remain a small and economically efficient breeding ewe with an ability to produce quality cross-bred lambs.Hebridean ewes and their cross-bred lambs are able to thrive on grazing that would be considered poor quality for other breeds. Their grazing preferences make them ideal conservation tools in delicate ecosystems,and so they provide both conservation management and a useful crop of lambs.

Blackface Sheep
The breed's origin is lost in the mists of time, but undoubtedly emerged from the 'horned' Nordic-type sheep from which also sprung the Swaledale, Rough Fell and other localised types such as the Lewis and Mayo Blackface. Monastery records of the 12th century tell of the Dun or Blackface breed of sheep. The monks used the wool for their clothes and exported large amounts to Europe. In the 16th century, King James IV of Scotland established an improved Blackface flock in Ettrick Forest. During the 17th and 18th centuries, it was known as the Linton Sheep, as West Linton in Peeblesshire held the main sale for the type.

In the early 19th century, the breed was introduced into the north of Scotland, but due to the high price then paid for Cheviot wool the Blackfaces were cleared off the hills in favour of the Cheviot. In the 1860s, when the wool prices of the two breeds reached the same level, farmers realised that the Blackface, with its ability to survive and reproduce in adverse weather conditions was the hardier breed and best suited to utilise hill and exposed island grazing. All Blackfaces, male and female, are horned, and have black or black and white face and legs and feet. The fleece can vary from short, fine wool used for carpets and tweeds to strong coarse wool, which is sold mainly for the Italian mattress trade.

The distinct types of Blackface sheep within the breed are; the Perth, the Lanark and the Newton Stewart types. These have evolved over the years, influenced by local climate, environment and grazing quality giving the breed the advantage of producing species to suit every grazing condition. The principal function of the Blackface breed is to utilise the hill and mountain grazing of the British Isles to best advantage. Off better hill grazing, many lambs are sold prime directly off their mothers. Blackface lamb is naturally reared on the goodness of the land, and has a reputation for the unrivalled flavour and tenderness of its meat. Available from September onwards, Islay lamb is without doubt 'naturally good'.

Continue Reading Present Day Islay Farm Animals

Further relevant readings:

  • Islay History - An overview of Islay's Human History.
  • Islay Farming - Problems and Challenges the Islay farmers face
  • Islay Farms - The Islay Farms and Land Use




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