A walk along an ancient drove road to an historic viewpoint.
Rising steeply on the northern edge of the burgh of Alyth to 300m (984ft), the Hill of Alyth provides a brisk walk on part of the Cateran Trail along old drove roads and tracks across open grassland.
Once at the top you can enjoy panoramic views to the fertile farmlands of Strathmore and the Sidlaw Hills to the South and the Cairngorm Mountains in the North.
A Triangulation or ‘Trig’ Point on the broad, grassy summit, part of a UK-wide network used in the 20th century to make accurate mapmaking possible, sits adjacent to a pillar commemorating the commonties of Alyth, areas of common land that were once extensive across Scotland dating back to pre-feudal (11th century) times. Typically, each parish would have common land that was owned by no-one yet used by all the inhabitants of the parish. It has been established that the Hill of Alyth is a surviving commonty because it has never been divided by proper judicial process.
Walking up Alyth Hill offers the opportunity to walk along one of a number of drove roads that came into Alyth bringing cattle and sheep to the wool market area near the site of the old Church.
Cattle droving was the backbone of the Scottish economy from the 17thcentury to the 19thcentury and would have contributed greatly to Alyth’s developing prosperity. It grew to a huge scale across the country in the 18th and 19th centuries following the Union between Scotland and England in 1707 when it became easier to trade across the border.
The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars up to 1815 also created an exceptionally high demand because it was the custom to give a daily ration of salt beef to every soldier and there were an enormous number of men under arms in the British army and navy at that time.
The cattle themselves were the forerunners of today’s Highland cattle. They were much smaller than most breeds today, probably not weighing much more than 254 kg, and were, and still are, the hardiest of breeds and easy to handle. Until red/brown variants were exported from Glen Lyon in the mid 19th century, they were black. The gene for the red/brown colour proved to be dominant and this is now the colour of most of the breed in various shades.
The drovers would have been regarded as important members of the Highland community and they were hardy men. A.R.B. Haldane, who made a special study of them, listed the attributes they had to have as: extensive and intimate knowledge of the country and cattle, endurance and an ability to face great hardship, enterprise and good judgment, and honesty and reliability for responsible work that was entrusted to him.
In addition to that, they were also often skilled on the bagpipes or learned in other aspects of their Gaelic culture. At the Trysts during the evenings around the fire, the drovers would tell stories linked to their journeys, folk and fairy stories, cow and horse tales, legends explaining ancient features in the landscape, and stories of place names spanning centuries. Many of these stories are now forgotten or are only remembered by a handful of local people who recall living and working on the land.
A drover’s day was a long one. At about 8.00 am they would rise and make a simple breakfast of oats, either boiled to make porridge or cold and uncooked mixed with a little water. The whole might be washed down with whisky. Oats, whisky, and perhaps some onions were their basic diet. Occasionally, they might draw blood from some cattle and mix it with oatmeal to make ’black pudding’.
The herd would move off on a broad front of several strings of cattle of four or five beasts abreast, moving perhaps 16-20 km or less a day. The cattle had to be managed skilfully to avoid wearing them down or damaging their hooves, and the drover had to know where he could obtain enough grazing along the way.
At the day’s end, the cattle might stop near a rough inn where some shelter could be obtained, or perhaps the drovers slept out on the open hill, which they did in all weathers with only their tartan, woven cloth, called their plaid, to protect them. At night someone always had to guard the herd to prevent cattle straying or reivers stealing them. It was a hard and, at times, dangerous life, but the Highlanders, with their warlike, ‘reiving’ (cattle thieving) past, and hardy upbringing were well suited to it.
Cattle thieving was a serious problem, including in the Cateran Ecomuseum area. Throughout the Middle Ages, and until shortly before the Jacobite risings of the 18th century, the records of the Scottish government bristle with complaints about the activities of these thieves who were called ‘caterans’, a word that derives from the Gaelic word ‘ceatharn’ meaning ‘warrior’, but usually one that is lightly armed. In the 14th century, the problem became so acute that a council decided that caterans should be arrested or killed on sight.
But what gave rise to the caterans and why did they attack places like Glenshee, Glen Isla and Strathardle? Given that the cateran raids began after the mid-14th century, one Scottish historian has highlighted several reasons including the aftermath of the wars with England and outbreaks of plague (from 1349), and environmental factors such as climate change; it became wetter and colder from about 1315. These factors resulted in a fall in population and greater difficulty in raising crops in the Highlands, which was always marginal land. Thus, two alternative ways of making a living—herding cattle and raiding cattle—became more prevalent.
Another historian offers evidence that in the 1740s and 1750s, scattered bands of Jacobite Highlanders refused to give up their battle with the British Army and relied on cattle raiding to survive, continuing inter-tribal activity that he believes had been part of clan life for many centuries and that may have had its origins as far back as the Iron Age.
All drove roads led to the Trysts. Generally, cattle from the north east of Scotland, Morayshire, Aberdeenshire, and Angus, passed through Alyth and Blairgowrie, whereas those from further north and west converged on Kirkmichael on their way south towards Dunkeld and the great cattle fairs at Crieff and Falkirk where the big sales took place on the first Tuesday of August, September and October.
Two hundred acres of land were needed to hold the 150,000 cattle, sheep and horses that streamed each market-day into Falkirk from all corners of Scotland. As many as 2,000 drovers, with their dogs and ponies, would sleep in the open and meet with hundreds of buyers from all over Britain. One observer remarked: “Certainly Great Britain, perhaps even the whole world, does not afford a parallel”.
The peace, after the battle of Waterloo in 1815 ended the Napoleonic wars, meant the shrinking army and navy needed less beef but other changes were even more important. The first half of the nineteenthcentury saw a revolution in agriculture. Enclosed fields replaced open common grazings and large, fatter cattle were bred and raised ready for market. More importantly, by the 1830s, faster steamships were being built and farmers in the lowlands and elsewhere started to ship cattle directly to the southern markets instead of by the long arduous overland droves. By the 1880s railways were well established and provided an even swifter and more reliable means of transporting cattle and other agricultural products to market. By this date, moreover, the cattle had been carefully and selectively bred and were not hardy enough to take the long road journeys anyway. By 1900 the great trysts were all but dead.
On the way up to the top of Alyth Hill you will pass a road to the right that leads to a very small cottage called ‘Blindwell Eyes’.
Alyth and its immediate surroundings has a number of pre-Christian holy wells and this is thought to be one of them. There is a long tradition of healing wells in Scotland with around 600 water sources once deemed to have special curative powers. With some dating to the times of druids, the wells were later attached to various saints and particular ailments. People would visit different wells for different illnesses, from insanity to eye disease and infertility, with offerings made to the healing spirit to insure good health. The first Sundays of November, February, May and August were believed to be when the powers of the wells were at their most potent.
With the Reformation came greater intolerance of the superstition associated with the wells, with the church taking punitive action against ’offenders’ who visited them.
Commonties are areas of common land that were once extensive across Scotland.
Originally, each parish would have genuine common land that was owned by no-one yet used by all the inhabitants of the parish. As feudalism spread across Scotland, these commons began to be regarded in law as the undivided common property of the feudal landowners in the parish. Parliamentary Acts of the 17th century allowed commonties to be divided. The 1695 Act was the most commonly used and most of Scotland’s commonties were divided according to its terms, and from the later 18thcentury these included the Forest of Alyth and most of the South Commonty. However, many were not divided and enclosed and survive to this day: the North Commonty of Alyth, which includes Alyth Hill, is one of them. Some say that it is the largest and most important commonty still in existence in Scotland.
For many years and into the 20thcentury, the three commonties of Alyth – the Forest of Alyth, the North Commonty and the South Commonty - have been the subject of great divisions in the community, most recently in 2010 in relation to the North Commonty, when some local people became very upset by the Forestry Commission (who currently manage the land on behalf of the Scottish Government)who took down the plaque on the supporting column next to the Trig point that reads: 'The Commonty of Alyth Hill, owned for at least 600 years and for all time by the people of Alyth'. Another famous story from recent history is that of the storming of the hill by local people in 1948. On this occasion, a local farmer fenced the hill and more than 1,000 folk - nearly the whole of Alyth - went up the hill and tore the fence down.
Andy Wightman, in his well-known book ‘The Poor Had No Lawyers’, argues “that the Hill of Alyth remains a commonty, that property rights in the commonty are enjoyed by a large number of people, that the title currently held by Scottish Ministers is derived from defective deeds, that this title itself is defective and that the people of Alyth should have their ancient rights restored”.