It took far longer sorting out my route from Skye to Smithfield than it did to actually ride it: first researching which way the drovers went, and then checking out which sections are passable on horseback. In some places the old drove roads are still clearly visible on the ground or marked on maps, in others they have disappeared under tarmac, reservoirs or bogs. The drovers used to vary their routes depending on the weather and whichever seemed easiest on the day, providing it avoided tolls and thieves. Tracking down the various alternative drove routes used over the years has been part of the challenge, and finding my own way through to avoid what has now become the A1, for example, is not so very different to what the drovers did before me.
Micky, Magic and I set off from Dunvegan, at the north-west end of Skye, which is where for hundreds of years the cattle were offloaded from the Outer Hebrides at the start of their long journey south. From there we followed old drove routes between the red and black Cuillin Hills across Skye to Kylerhea.
The stout, hardy black cattle which walked this way before have much in common with the two sturdy black Fell ponies with whom I am travelling, renowned for coping with the toughest of conditions. But I draw the line at asking my beloved ponies to swim across the Sound of Sleat from Skye, as the cattle used to. Not all of them made it to the mainland. So we caught the ferry to Glenelg (for which I gave Micky three times the recommended dose of sedative, which unfortunately didn't kick in until we got the other side, where he stood in a doped out stupour while we picnicked with a friend).
The next day we set off again, literally following drovers' footsteps across high mountain passes to Kinlochourn, and then continuing south across the Scottish Highlands via Tomdoun, Spean Bridge, Glencoe, Crianlarich and Callander to the former tryst at Falkirk. From there we climbed over the old drove road which took us over the Pentland Hills via the Cauldstane Slap to West Linton and on to Peebles, climbing up again on the old Gypsy Glen Drove Road to St. Mary's Loch, and then on through the Scottish Borders, to Kielder and then Stagshaw Bank near Hexham, at one time the most important market in the north of England. After four weeks and 480 miles, we reached Yarm near Middlesborough, which is where the drovers and their cattle crossed the River Tees, althogh unlike Scotland where so many people know all about droving, no-one around Yarm seemed to have any idea about it's historical significance in droving terms.
Heading on south from Yarm via Crathorne and Swainby, we climbed up Scarth Nick onto the Hambledon Drove Road, which took us over the North York Moors to the top of Sutton Bank, from where we dropped down to the Vale of York near Easingwold. We rode right through the middle of York and then down to Selby and Thorne, before heading south-east to Gainsborough. RAF bases, rivers, railways and civilisation scuppered our attempts to follow exactly in the footsteps of the drovers for some sections, but after skiring south of Lincoln, M&M and I rejoined their exact route down Ermine Street to Ancaster. From there we turned east, as did the drovers and the majority of the Scottish cattle before us, via Spalding, and Wisbech to Setchey, south of Kings Lynn. My research shows the drovers having continued east via Dereham, but it's not clear exactly which route they took, and the A47 isn't designed for horses these days, so we went due east from Setchey, via Castle Acre and Swanton Morley to visit Horsham St. Faith's, near Norwich, the other most significant market for the Scottish droving trade.
Most of the Scottish cattle were fattened over winter on the marshes between Horwich, Beccles and Yarmouth, and were then driven down to Smithfield in the spring, or when they were ready for market, some of them being sold at smaller markets along the route at Bungay, Harleston, Woolpit or Sudbury. However there is little left which is ridable of the main droving route(s) between the Norfolk marshes and Smithfield - riding down dual carriageways or through Braintree, Chemlmsford and Brentwood isn't my idea of fun. So instead we have gone south-west to pick up the Icknield Way at East Harling, east of Thetford, one of the longest used drove routes in England. The Icknield Way took us south around the eastern edge of Newmarket. The Icknield Way heads off south-west once it gets south of Cambridge, but we followed a mixture of bridleways, byways and minor roads down to Saffron Walden and Bishops Stortford keeping east of the M11 until Epping, from where we rode down through Epping Forest to Wanstead and then into London, just as the drovers did.
(And just in case you're wondering, unlike the cattle who went to slaughter, Micky and Magic headed back home at the end of their trip for a well earned rest.)