A film about a cattle drive? No, it’s not "Red River" or "Lonesome Dove"; it’s “The Drove,” with Eric Robson and a handful of farmers in the late 1980s re-creating a 330-mile cattle drive from Baldoon, in southwest Scotland, to London’s Smithfield Market. As a profession, droving has been all but extinct for close to a century now, a casualty of the age of steam power and railroads. But it retains a certain romance and historical resonance, and it’s both fun and instructive to see the vanished world of droving temporarily return to life in (almost) contemporary England.
For this 1989 video, Robson has gathered Tom Purdham, a Cumbrian fell farmer, Ian Husband, the Scottish director of a meat processing plant, and two other younger farmers to accompany a herd of cattle—galloways and highlanders—on their drive. As the liner notes tell us, “Thousands of miles of drove roads still survive, together with pubs used by the drovers and the sites of droving fairs where cattle would be sold or bartered.”
The route, following one traveled in mid-1759, takes the drovers and their herd on a three-month "on the hoof" journey (10-12 miles a day) from Wigtownshire in southwest Scotland, through Cumberland, Yorkshire, Norfolk (site of the greatest of England’s cattle fairs), and finally, London. Like the old drovers, their contemporary counterparts avoid enclosed land, toll roads, and cities, get their cattle shod, stop at auctions, sit around campfires while cooking their dinners and singing songs or playing “Swanee River” on the harmonica, stop to chat with local farmers, and observe a handkerchief dance at a local fair. It’s not all fun and games: the journey begins in driving rain and mud. Like the drovers of old, the men and their sheepdogs work hard to keep the herd together. At one point, facing a two-mile stretch of water in Solway Firth between Scotland and England, they anxiously debate whether the channel is shallow enough to allow the herd safe passage. (Yes, it turns out, to the great relief of boss Purdham who kneels down and kisses the ground when he reaches the far shore.) Robson blends in easily as just another member of the drove crew, though his off-camera narration provides helpful context. Providing historical flavor are readings from periodicals and other documents from 1759 that establish the connection (or draw contrasts) between events of the 18th and 20th centuries.
After the drovers arrive in Smithfield Market and London and sell their herd (following which we see butchers sawing through the meat), and a “Well done, lads!” the farmers set out on their return northward. From a 1759 journal, this observation: “If a drover, 300 miles or more from home and family, were ever to pray—an unlikely event, I grant you—he would pray to God that he will damn the enclosures and toll collectors, pray to the hills from whence comes his strong beasts, to His Majesty’s Navy that it will ever be at war with ships that must be victualed, and to the good people of the metropolis that they will forever eat his beef.” Robson adds, in closing, that during the same year of 1759 that the early drovers made their journey, they might be able to discern the glow of the ironworks that opened that year—an early portent of the steam power and the railways that would mark the beginning of the end of droving as a way of life. The program ends with a valedictory announcement from 1961 of the death at age 100 of the last English drover. A congratulatory telegram was received from the Queen.
Larry B | Ventura, California | October 2018