The Pass of the Cattle (Bealach na Bà)

by Hugh Gosling

Image provided by Airborne Lens

A single motorhome crashes through its gears, engine revving like a growling animal. A peloton of cyclists buzz around it, sweating, straining, yet determined to achieve their goal.

They are on the steepest road climb in Britain, a mountain pass made of hairpin-bends and 20% gradients. At the top, a breath-taking vista of craggy mountains and vast ocean beyond.

For centuries, Highland people have made the climb. Irish monk, St Maelrubha, and his Applecross monks crossed this way. It was also a drove road, filled with thick lines of black cattle herded by men and dogs over the Bealach na Bà , or the Pass of the Cattle.

Black cattle were fundamental to Highland life for centuries. Smaller than today's cattle, in the springtime they were driven to the lush mountain pastures, the shielings, where families would spend the warm summer months standing on the roof of the world.

Each year, families would entrust one, maybe two, of their precious cows into the care of drovers headed for the markets of Muir of Ord or further afield.

Drove roads like 'the Bealach' formed a vast network stretching throughout the Highlands. Starting as a trickle of cattle, their numbers would swell on the road until vast herds moved as one, the sound of their hooves and baying echoing down the straths.

We hear their spirit in the Song of the Drovers, Òran nan Dròbhairean:

It was glorious in Glen Smeòil
When summer came to us there
The sun setting in a golden haze
And music in the farrow cows fold
Both young and old were amply entertained
How cheerfully they danced!
Fish and flesh made the tables creak
There was barley bree and brandy

Excellent, vigorous, lively lads they were
And full of ancient stories
And when they came to seek the cattle
They would not arrive empty handed
Oh we liked the generous man
With his kilt and short hose
Who was typical of the nest of his kind
He made it an expensive Whitsuntide for them.

Want to learn more? To listen to the Song of the Drovers, Òran nan Dròbhairean, please click here

We Want to Hear From You!

Share your stories about the history of the Highlands and Islands

Stories are at the heart of what we do as a project and we are always looking to learn more about what the Highlands and Islands means to people who live, work, and visit here.

The history of the Highlands and Islands comes alive in archived music such as in the Song of the Drovers, Òran nan Dròbhairean. Such music, derived from oral tradition and cultural heritage, shines a spotlight on the communities which often frequented droveways like the Bealach na Bà. We would love to know, are there any pieces of music that you feel encapsulate moments in the history of the Highlands and Islands? Tell us below, we can't wait to hear from you!

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