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Addendum to the Murdo Rivach Story.
By Elaine Smith

Paul Mclyre was a Freebooter and a man of unbounded energy and resources. From his fort on the topmost peak of Dun Creich, between Bonar Bridge and Spinningdale, he watched up the glens of Strathcarron and the River Oykel to spy on the drovers coming from Caithness. Apart from the custom cattle, which he had acquired legitimately in these northern areas, he also observed cattle being driven to southern markets by other drovers. Owning most of the land surrounding Ardgay, he allowed these drovers access to pasture for overnight and short stays for their animals. In return he was able to “ask” for some of the drovers’ cattle and so he made his fortune. He was known, (as termed in old Scots words) as a very ‘takand’ (taking) man. McTyre was not the only one to exploit his advantage in this way and this gave rise to the word ‘blackmail’ as the cattle were termed ‘black’(Footnote 2). The cattle forded the Dornoch Firth at Creich below Mclyre’s lookout, which gave added incentive to his ‘takand’ ways. There was a superstition that if the cattle made a successful fording it indicated good prices at the market and if not, if the tide was strong or the water rough, the cattle would flounder and sometimes founder, and the price be poor. In the last few years, stones have been uncovered which marked the place for crossing this ford. At the time of neap tides the Firth was practically dry at this point and the local minister used to wade across to make visits to his parishioners.

The bad state of the highways made cattle droving a precarious business especially when the animals were ‘of the smallest size and none the best of their kind’(Footnote 3). The task of driving stock to the Southern trysts and finding a market for them was mainly undertaken by South drovers. They began purchasing cattle, on credit, about the end of April and continued until the end of September when tracks were dry and there were most hours of daylight. Drovers could be away for six weeks or more according to whether they found a fair price at one market or had to move on for better deals. If the market was flat they often had a dilemma as to whether to sell at a loss or procure hay which was scarce and costly, or try to get cheap wintering for the beasts.

Meanwhile, as many of these droves comprised animals from small farms and crofts, their owners were eagerly awaiting the return of payment, as this was often their sole income for the year. When the drovers reached the markets, then held mainly in Muir-of-Ord (occasionally as far away as Stirling and even into England) the number of beasts was sadly depleted.

Many were in poor condition and fell by the wayside; some having gone lame; some were drowned crossing fords and rivers and many had fallen into possession of Paul McTyre.

The crofters and cottars from whom the cows had been uplifted, were suspicious of their small return and therefore decided to ask for an IOU in the form of a piece of paper on which was written ‘I promise to pay’ followed by the number of cattle being collected. This small step towards putting their transactions on to a more accountable basis ultimately led to the setting up of Banks with the words embossed on Bank Notes - ‘Promise to Pay’.

By the middle of the 18th century cattle rearing in Caithness was still mostly a mere sideline in comparison with the cultivation of crops which enabled a profitable and more certain trade in grain. However the rough ground, moor and hilly parts of land in the County, would only sustain animals. In the Parish of Reay, in particular, being to a great extent this kind of rough ground, rearing was the main industry. From that district in one good year the number of beasts sent South as ‘black’ cattle was recorded as 3441, as compared with 2,200 head from the rest of Caithness, 2500 from Kildonan and 1500-2000 from Farr. (Footnote 4)

Paul McTyre was a grandson of Olaf the Red of Norway. One of McTyre’s sons, a brother of the Gillespie mentioned by George Watson, went north to Caithness to fight the Sinclairs on an occasion. Paul, having himself married into the Ross Clan, had an eye to ‘promotion’ for his family and married his only daughter, Catherine, to Walter, the third Ross Chief, in 1398. Ross was poor and McTyre was rich; this made Catherine acceptable. As the Ross clan was infeft at that period McTyre gave land at Strathoykel, Strathcarron and Freewater as a dowry with Catherine but he retained the land at Creich and around Ardgay.

Reverting to drovers, as the head of the Dornoch Firth was one of their main meeting and resting points, often in disastrous weather, Catherine, when Lady Ross, had an Inn known as the Balnagown Inn built to act as a shelter and it was also used as a Coaching Inn for the mail coaches en route to Caithness.

The Balnagown Inn disappeared later but it prompted the present day restaurant at Ardgay to be named ‘The Lady Ross’.

2. See Shorter Oxford Dictionary; “Mail” rent or tribute. The so-named ‘Black’ cattle were often of yellow and red colouring, particularly from Sutherland and Ross-shire, being of Highland breed, but as they came from country which was seldom covered with snow or ice, it was termed ‘black’ ground which led to the cattle being known as the ‘black’. This term was similarly applied in the naming of the ‘Black Isle’ where the weather is favourable and the ground is similarly ‘black’.

Caithness cattle were in themselves mostly black in colour, narrower in the back, shorter haired and longer in the leg. They had to be fattened up prior to departure to withstand the droving journeys.

3. Aneas Bayne ‘Short Survey of the County of Caithness’ 1785.

4. Statistical Account (1793), parishes of Kildonan, Farr

First published in Caithness field Club Bulletin April 1998

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