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Walking John Buchan’s Drove Road

January 2, 2014


Walkers and Writing – Part Three

Walking John Buchan’s Drove RoadThe Broughton to Skirling Drove Road

On a lonely hillside in Tweeddale I found the track of an ancient drove road, described over a century ago by the novelist John Buchan in an essay in his book Scholar Gipsies. A stretch of a much longer route that Buchan would certainly have known, running from behind the old ruined kirk at Broughton to the village of Skirling.

   On a fine Scottish morning the border hills stood out with exceptional clarity, the sky full of birdsong; skylarks soared and dived. From the marshlands came the plaintive cries of peewit and curlew. A good morning for a walk.

   The drovers’ route from Broughton is a stretch of unenclosed grass between meadows and wilder ground. That it exists at all, and has not been grabbed into the surrounding fields, is a tribute to the memory and power of such an ancient way. As Buchan wrote:

This is the Drove Road, the way once used more than all the others when market-roads were rough and ill-kept and barred with toll-gates.

   It is a miracle that such routes have survived, saying a lot for how the Borders have remained unspoiled. Any wayfarer could devote a whole walking career to followingthe many tracks that remain. The movement of stock along these old ways was once the major industry for borderers, both Scots and English. Buchan was fortunate to have lived at a time in the nineteenth century when some of the drove roads were still in use. He writes of a boyhood longing to be off with the drovers who passed his grandparents’ home in Broughton’s main street.

   The distance between Broughton and Skirling is but a few miles, so I enjoyed the laziness of a short walk. These occasional strolls are one of the delights of vagabonding; being able to lie back in the heather for hours at a time, just gazing at the sky, or watching the sheep graze and the kestrel hover. Very different from the drovers of old who had to combine the talents of driving the beasts swiftly to market, without losing their bodyweight or wearing the animals down and making them unsalable. They were a colourful crew as Buchan tells us:

These were a daring, godless race, deep drinkers all, fond of brawls and quick as fire to take offence. They were hardy too, sleeping out-of-doors and enduring the sternest rigours of our uncertain northern weather.   

   Buchan had a great admiration for such individuals, for though he was a son of the manse he had a daring and lawless side to his outwardly Presbyterian nature. His early stories and sketches are mostly about the working men of Tweeddale, the poachers, shepherds and gamekeepers; so different in tone to the clubland characters of his later novels. He drew them well in these first sketches, for he saw such people all around him in these Border hills. Now they are lost, just ghostly echoes to be imagined as you doze, as I did, against the banks and stone walls that line the drove road.

   The route climbed uphill and contoured a hill slope before reaching a stand of firs. For a moment I lost the line of the path. As I wandered down a sheep pasture in search of it, the beasts moved away from me with protesting bleats. I leapt the Kirklawhill Burn, imagining the herds watering their stock along its banks, passed through a gate, and then climbed a wooded hillside.

  Looking back now across to the sheep pasture I could see a raised strip of harder ground that was obviously the route of the old drove road, though I suspect in dry seasons the herds would have spread out across the hillside, grazing as they were drivenforth. The pines around me must have been planted since the heyday of the route, though the planter had shown a reverence for the route, lining the track and leaving a good clear way in between.

   Soon the road became very clearly defined as it passed a long house called Whinnybrae and headed down to the village of Skirling. And an odd place it is, something like a southern English village transported into the Scottish scene, complete with a tree-shaded village green lined with cottages; at one side an “Arts and Crafts” house built in 1908 for Lord Carmichael.

   I sat on a bench for a long while, admiring this very rural scene, for this quiet corner of Scotland abounded with blossom and bluebells, and dozens of tits flew in and out of the trees above. In the days of the drove road it was probably much busier, for the green would have been an ideal place to quarter the beasts for the night. I tried to see it through Buchan’s eyes, imagining the drovers drinking, gambling and fighting in the surrounding cottages.

    I returned the way I had come, thinking myself a drover heading towards the border with England. I was soon distracted by the sight of a drainage ditch absolutely crammed with tadpoles. I tried the old trick of letting the shadow of my walking stick fall across the water, causing the tadpoles to freeze, no doubt in case the shadow is that of a predator. It works every time and must be an instinct instilled in every tadpole that ever was.

    The drove road seemed much clearer, heading in this direction, often with a drystone wall on one side and the lovely yellow of the broom on the other. I felt reluctant to complete the journey and slowed and halted more than usual, looking up often to the towers of Broughton Place and the heights beyond.

   In the Kirkyard at Broughton I sought out the grave of Buchan’s sister Violet, who died in childhood. But it was not her grave that made me feel sad, but one nearby which read “W.Taylor, Highland Light Infantry, killed 10th November 1918”.  

    As I looked around at the peaceful scene I could not help reflecting on the death of this poor boy, who perhaps knew Buchan, who died on the last full day of the Great War. Perhaps he once roamed along the old drove road from Broughton to Skirling.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2014 8:08 pm

    Didn’t know there was a village of Skirling – did you hear the skirl of the pipes there? 🙂

    Looks a lovely trackway. I’d quite like to do some old routes like that myself in the future, now I’ve more or less finished ploughing up and down Munros!

  2. January 3, 2014 8:31 am

    Interesting piece – enjoyed the mix of history and landscape. The Borders is a lovely unspoilt area because it’s overlooked.

    I read somewhere that thousands of soldiers continued dying after the end of WW1 because of injuries received before the end.

  3. January 3, 2014 8:43 am

    I am particularly fond of the area between Broughton and Peebles. Circuiting the Broughton Heights above the village is a lovely morning’s walk on a fine day.

  4. January 3, 2014 8:44 am

    Yes many soldiers died in the last weeks and the years that followed. My great-uncle was killed just a fortnight before the Armistice.

  5. keithbadger permalink
    January 4, 2014 2:26 pm

    Can’t remember who it was that said walking was gathering treasure (Borrow?), but you have gathered much here. A very rich day of walking!

  6. January 12, 2014 11:59 pm

    I enjoyed that immensely. It’s an area I don’t know at all, except for driving through once or twice to get to somewhere else.
    Cheers, Alen

  7. January 13, 2014 8:00 am

    Well worth doing the John Buchan Way – Peebles to Broughton – as an intro to the area. There are downloadable route leaflets on line.

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