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IV. - THE CATTLE TRADE, THEN
The lean-cattle trade is a most dangerous one, and I would not advise any young friend of mine to engage in it. I believe for one who has succeeded twenty have gone down. This is true, at least, as far as droving from the north to the south of Scotland and England is concerned. Home jobbers have been more fortunate, though I am not acquainted with many who have done much good. There are numerous temptations connected with it, and it requires a strong mind to resist them. I have only given the bright side of the picture; but let us look for a moment at the other. I have told that great chances are got by some at times; these, however, are exceptional to the general rule. Lean cattle are sold by value as well as fat, and if well bought will be easily sold. I found it the safe plan to buy a small drove well. It was only a little trade that I carried on: I never had fewer than from seven to ten score, and my largest droves never exceeded eighteen score ; as a consequence, my losses were not heavy nor my profits very great. When I was in the trade the price of cattle was very low, which lessened my risk; but I have known £2 a-head lost over a large drove. During the French war the price of cattle became very high; and £4 a-head, and even much more, would sometimes be lost or gained on droving cattle.
My father when a young man went to the far north
-to Caithness, Sutherland, Skye, and the islands and bought large droves of Highland cattle and brought them home. They were disposed of often by public roup in this county, or driven to the southern markets. At that time there were few regular markets in these counties; but the dealers when they went to the country cried a market, announcing that they would meet the sellers on a certain day and at a convenient place, and in this way the trade was carried out. Large profits were obtained ; but the dealers were liable to heavy losses, especially in spring, the cattle being then but skin and bone, and many dying in the transit. My father lost in one night, after swimming the Spey, seventeen old Caithness runts. There were no bridges in those days. It came on a severe frost after the cattle had swum the river. The value of bone-manure was unknown, and their bones bleached in the sun on the braes of Auchindown for more than thirty years, and remains of them were visible within the last few years. My father not only carried on a very large trade to the Falkirk markets, but also a very extensive business to England, and had a salesman who attended all the great English fairs, particularly in Leicestershire, who sold drove after drove that were bought by my father here. Referring to documents in my possession, I find he bad in one year 1500 head of cattle at the October Tryst of Falkirk, 800 of which were Highlanders, and the remainder Aberdeen cattle. The Highlanders were grazed in Braemar, on the Geldie, Boynach, and Corryvrone, the property of the Earl of Fife. His books show a clear profit at that fair of £2000, and the year following of £1500. Prices of cattle were very high during the war. I observe the prices of three heavy lots of horned Aberdeen cattle sold by my father at Michaelmas Falkirk market to go to Cumberland
-viz., £22, £23, 10s., and £25 a-head. A Carlisle carrier, I have often heard my father say, bought them for eating up his horse-litter.
Steam navigation and the use of bone-dust being both introduced about the same time, shortly produced a complete revolution in the cattle trade; feeding soon became general, from the larger breadth and heavier crops of turnips grown; droving annually diminished, till now it has all but ceased, almost all the herds in Aberdeenshire being fattened, besides many brought in from north and south.
The late Mr Hay, Shethin ; Mr Lumsden, Aquhorthies ; and his brother, Mr Lumsden, Eggie; Mr Milne, Fornet; Mr Mitchell, Fiddesbeg; Mr Stoddart, Cultercullen ; Deacon Milne, and Deacon Spark,- took the lead; and to these gentlemen the credit is due for being the first to introduce a proper and profitable system of feeding cattle in Aberdeenshire. More attention was also paid to the breeding department. The late James Anderson, Pitcarry, was the first man who shipped a beast from Aberdeen to London ; his venture was two Angus polled oxen. The late Mr Hay, Shethin, was the first who sent cattle by rail from Aberdeen ; his venture was a truck of Highlanders.
The shipping of cattle gradually and rapidly increased, and soon became a great trade from our ports, many sailing-vessels, as well as steamers, being brought into requisition. Lean cattle were sent by sea instead of road. We had at that time no railway, and the expense was heavy. On a fat bullock it was from £2, 108. a-head to £3 by steamer ; by the sailing-vessels, however, it was only about £1, 10s. a-head. Sometimes they made quick passages, but this was uncertain; and I have known them a month at sea. I have seen the same cargo of cattle driven back to Aberdeen two or three times. I have been in the hold of the vessel when they were driven back, and shall never forget the scene when the buckets and water were brought forward; you would have thought the ship would have been rent asunder by the struggles of the cattle to get at the water. I have sent cargoes of lean cattle by sailing-vessels to Barnett, Woolpit, &c. I have had them driven back after being
days at sea. It was while inspecting one of these cargoes that I witnessed the scene of watering I have described. I lost money by that branch of my business, and I gave it up. Although the loss by deterioration of condition must have been great, it was astonishing how few deaths occurred in the sailing-vessels; the proportion was greater in the steamers. A year seldom passed without the shippers having heavy losses. I was owner of part of the cattle when every beast on board the Duke of Wellington, except three (one belonging to me, and he had to be carted from the boat, and two belonging to Mr Farquharson of Asloun), was either thrown overboard or smothered in the hold. The sailors told that a blackhorned Bogieside ox, belonging to Mr Hay, swam for several miles after the ship. I have made inquiry of the cattleman as to the scene in the hold of a steamer in a storm amongst the cattle. He said, “I went once down to the hold amongst them, but I was glad to get back with my life ; and although you had given me the ship and all upon her, I would not have gone back.” He declared that, though you had set a hundred men with heavy flails in operation at one time beating upon the side of the ship, it would not have been worse than the legs of the cattle beating upon each other and all within their reach.
The owners of the Aberdeen steamers have always been anxious to accommodate their customers; and about twelve years ago they raised an insurance fund for the protection of the shippers. They laid past one shilling for every beast they shipped to meet deaths and accidents, and they have most honourably paid the losses incurred by the shippers of cattle. It is a good arrangement for both parties; it gives confidence to the shippers, and no doubt has a tendency to make the owners more careful in not sending their ships to sea if danger is apprehended. The cattle go well by sea when the weather is moderate, but in rough weather they are safer by rail. The above description will give some idea of the hardships the poor beasts endure in the hold when overtaken by a storm. I have seen my own cattle, after they were taken from the hold of the steamboat at London, so changed in appearance that I could not identify them, and could not tell whether they were black or grey. I should most seriously advise the Railway Company to adopt some method of insurance, to avoid the unseemly squabbles that are daily occurring with the senders of live cattle and dead meat. It is not my province to make any remarks on the late rise of the freight on cattle by the Steamboat Company and the Railway. The matter is in their own hands; but I think conciliation, owing to the present state of feeling, might have been their wisest policy; however, we will allow them to be the best judges. It will now be our study, for our own protection, to exert our influence in the proper quarter to have our grievances removed. The method of transit is an important subject to the owners of the cattle, to the landowners, and to the consumers. I have no doubt whatsoever that a legislative enactment will make all right by-and-by. I cannot leave this subject without noticing Scott, the cattle-traffic manager of the Caledonian Company at Aberdeen, and John Henry, the cattle-traffic manager of the Aberdeen and London Steam Navigation Company
-men who deserve to wear a better coat, and who have done everything in their power for the interest of the senders of cattle. Since the above was written, Scott, poor fellow, was killed by a railway accident, and was deeply regretted by all connected with the Aberdeen cattle-trade. I believe there is difficulty in avoiding causes of complaint at all times where there are so many servants, and the senders of cattle are sometimes themselves to blame. I have never myself lost a beast by rail. I prepare my cattle for their journey before they start for home. My heavy cattle are turned out three different times at least before they are sent to rail. I walk them in a lea field: the first day they are put out for four hours; I then give them a day to rest; turn them out again on the second day