The Drove Dogs

We halted at mid-day for a little food. The pony, which carried my shearer’s tools and our other supplies, browsed for grass. We sat on stones that marked the meeting place of the track from the torp we had left this morning and a broad valley running roughly north to south. We’d come up this valley, a week or so earlier.

I unwrapped the offal I’d boiled the night before and tipped it onto the ground, giving the dog permission to eat. She swallowed the meal before looking up at me for its next command. “Down,” I told her. “It’s time,” I said to Bjørn.

He nodded, and crouched to hug the dog, his arms circling its throat. He would miss her, I knew, but we couldn’t take her with us.

When he had let the dog go, I spoke. “Nell. Go home.” She stood, the breeze ruffling her black and white coat. “Home,” I said again. She turned and began to trot north, along the valley floor and the ancient droveway, the wide paths along which sheep and cattle had been moved for generations beyond count.

Bjørn watched her for a minute, his eyes dry. “Will she really find her way home?” he asked. “It’s a long way.”

“She’s done it several times,” I told him. “That’s why Harr Dugar chose her to accompany us. The torps will feed her, don’t worry.” I pulled up the pony’s head. “Do you want to ride?”

Empire’s Reckoning

Many years ago, long before I envisioned the world I write about in my Empire series – an analogue of Britain and northern Europe after the decline of Rome – I read a book called The Drove Roads of Scotland, by A.R.B. Haldane. (Landscape history, if you’re new to my blog, is an avocation of mine.)  I don’t remember a lot of it, but in a footnote, he made this observation:

‘Some years ago the late Miss Stewart Mackenzie of Brahan, Ross-shire, informed a friend that in the course of journeys by coach in the late autumn from Brahan to the South during her childhood about the year 1840 she used frequently to see collie dogs making their way north unaccompanied. On inquiring of her parents why these dogs were alone, [she] was informed that these were dogs belonging to drovers who had taken cattle to England and that when the droving was finished the drovers returned by boat to Scotland. To save the trouble and expense of their transport, the dogs were turned loose to find their own way north. It was explained that the dogs followed the route taken on the southward journey being fed at Inns or farms where the drove had ‘stanced’ and that in the following year when the drovers were again on the way south, they paid for the food given to the dogs…’

That passage stayed in my mind, in part because I immediately associated it with a classic book of my childhood, Lassie Come-Home, by Erik Knight, in which a collie, sold from necessity and taken to a remote part of Scotland, still finds her way home. Written in 1940, it predates Haldane’s book. Had Knight heard stories of the drove collies?  Perhaps; I can’t prove it: in fact, I can’t prove this story of the drove dogs sent home by themselves at all. Every source I’ve found simply links back to Haldane’s footnote.

But it’s a good story, one that fit into Empire’s Reckoning (even though it’s set a thousand or so years earlier), because my main character was travelling south with a sheepdog in the role of an itinerant sheep-shearer. But that’s not what he really is, and so the borrowed dog will need to be sent home. Does she make it?  Here’s a tiny excerpt from the work-in-progress, Empire’s Heir, set four years later.

Bjørn’s gaze swept the room, stopping at Druise. “Bjørn,” Sorley said, as the two men regarded each other, “if you for a moment doubt Druisius’s loyalty, I’ll regret having sent the dog back north, and not you.”

A bark of laughter. “I was pleased when you wrote to tell me she was safely home,” he said. “It still surprises me that a sheepdog can do that journey across all that wild land on its own.”

Empire’s Heir

And if you know of any reliable sources other than Haldane for this practice, please let me know!

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