Walking the Drove Roads – A Journey to the Heart of Place

1 July 2010 · 7 comments

in Community Involvement, Social Subjects Outdoors

Very shortly, I will be a participant in a unique adventure. Below is a description, kindly provided by Ruaridh Ormiston of Newtonmore Riding Stables, of what I am going to be doing along with approximately 25 other people who are passionate about learning in, through, with and about the land in which we live…

Drove of cattle on the Achiltibuie road

Drove Roads

I was approached early this year by Joyce Gilbert of the SpeyGrian Educational Trust and asked if I could provide up to twelve Highland Ponies from Newtonmore Riding Centre for a trip they were planning. Of course, I immediately said that would not be a problem. The plan was for a one week trip travelling at a “drover’s speed” of 10-12 miles per day, camping outside, carrying all our own kit and food and grazing the ponies en route.

The drove road to Braemar
The SpeyGrian Educational Trust was formed 10 years ago and undertook a journey in canoes to the North Sea down the River Spey from Kingussie. For their 10th Anniversary they wanted to do a similar trip but on dry land this time. SpeyGrian (meaning “sunshine on the Spey”) is a group of artists, writers, scientists, educators and storytellers who:

“are united in their love of outdoor learning and who set out to create journeys of exploration, both actual and metaphorical, to explore, through shared experience, abilities and possibilities, attitudes and aspirations, physical and spiritual skills, knowledge and understanding.”


Droving cattle in the Uists
What better way to achieve this than to “slow down” from our hectic 21st century lifestyle and travel like drovers, but together in a group, absorbing all the atmosphere of the cultural and natural heritage that these great people had whilst travelling on and through the places, accompanied and assisted by the same ponies the drovers would have used. We had hoped to have cattle as well, but the logistics and red tape have made it almost impossible this time. However, for the initial part of the journey we hope to have some of our Highland Cattle too.

Ormiston Highland cattle on a drove
The route will take us from Kingussie in Badenoch to Blair Atholl by a combination of the Minigaig Pass and Comyn’s Road, then from there to Kindrogan by Enocdhu near Kirkmichael by way of the Shinagag, an old coffin road.

We are trying to encourage people to come and talk to us en route, especially those who work on the land we are passing through. Before we set off we are going to have an “Induction” day at Ruthven for “the drovers” to meet and learn how to handle all the livestock. That evening of Saturday 3rd July  many people with droving connections will come and join us at our campsite below the site of the old stronghold of the Comyn’s, the old Chief’s of Badenoch and Blair Atholl. Overnight camps are planned for near: Ruthven Barracks, Gaick Lodge, Bruar Lodge, Glen Banvie, Loch Moraig, Shinagag and Glen Brerachan. Dates are from 3rd to 11th July.

Portree market stance, late 19th Century
The Highland Ponies we are using have a very strong droving connection because they can be traced right back to two mares that were bought for the Deer Forest of Gaick from one of the oldest known Highland Pony Studs of the early 1800’s which belonged to John Cameron of Corriechollie in Lochaber, the most famous drover of them all. These ponies have remained in our family for over 150 years and it is an honour for me to be able to use them supporting such a historical journey and covering ground like old “Corrie” himself.

Horse fair in Dingwall in the 1930’s
John Cameron of Corriechoille, from Kilmonivaig in Lochaber, acquired considerable fortunes. Cameron lived from 1780 to 1856 and ended up owning several farms with 20,000 sheep and several thousand cattle. Joseph Mitchell, the engineer, described him as:

“a badly dressed little man, about 5ft 6ins in height, of thin make, with a sharp, hooked nose and lynx eyes. A man of great energy, he frequently rode night and day on a wiry pony, from Falkirk to Muir of Ord, 120 miles, carrying for himself some bread and cheese in his pocket and giving his pony now and again a bottle of porter.”

Taking calves to the sale at Dunvegan, Isle of Skye
My great grandfather Edward Ormiston was head stalker in Gaick and used to walk to Blair Atholl to do his courting and to swop Highland Ponies with Atholl estates for breeding stock which means that we will be re-tracing routes used by family generations before me. A direct connection with the past highlighting the importance of these wild hill tracks.

On the road to Portree in the 1930’s
We will be using a mixture of deer saddles and army pack saddles for carrying all the gear and our ponies are quite happy to carry 80 kg each, in addition to the weight of the saddles. In recent years we have assisted the British Army (1st Irish Regiment) with Pack Horse training before going to Afghanistan and often lend ponies to people doing long expeditions on horse back. In my father and my grandfather’s day, the Ormiston Highland’s used to go, sometimes 30 at a time, on the train at Newtonmore to support Territorial Army and Lovat Scout camps in places like Otterburn and Devon. In the 1950’s they were used for carrying 4.2 Mortars and many of the men in Newtonmore still remember going on these training camps.

Selling lambs at Rogart, Sutherland
We are all really looking forward to the trip and we will make sure we get plenty of photographs and will record our experiences. This journey is going ahead thanks to financial support from the Gannochy Trust.’

May your summer be filled with the adventures of life as well. As for this blog, silence is golden…

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Teacher Tom July 1, 2010 at 12:27

This will be an amazing adventure, Juliet! I can’t wait to see the photos.


gilsplace July 1, 2010 at 15:47

Looks like a great trip Juliet. I’m looking forward to reading about it, take loads of photos. Gil


Juliet Robertson July 3, 2010 at 09:37

Well I’m going to have to wait another year to find out. 2 days ago, the trip was postponed as Ruaridh’s dad has just had a heart attack and he’s the key person.

So we’re all hoping his dad makes a good recovery and I’ve still got a holiday!


Teacher Tom July 5, 2010 at 20:27

Aw! =(


Bruar Lodge January 19, 2011 at 12:06

What a wonderful adventure !
I live in Glen Bruar and would like to offer sustainance and a pit stop on your passage through if your trip goes ahead in 2011.


Juliet Robertson January 19, 2011 at 18:33

Hi Bruar Lodge

Can you contact me? If you go to my official website http://www.creativestarlearning.co.uk there’s a contact form and/or my email address is posted at the foot of every page.



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