Playing host to greatest cattle fairs in Europe

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What do the Braes village of Shieldhill, the Roman fort at Roughcastle and the golf course in Stenhousemuir have in common apart from the fact that they are all in Falkirk district?

The answer is that they were successively the locations of the celebrated Falkirk Trysts, the greatest cattle fairs in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries and the source of much of the district’s wealth in the days before the foundries.

Tens of thousands of black Highland cattle and sheep were driven on the hoof from every corner of Scotland across hundreds of miles of moor and mountain over networks of drove roads to these great gatherings where the wealthy buyers from England armed with their credit notes came to acquire the ‘‘walking meat’’ that would feed the great cities of the south as well as Great Britain’s soldiers and sailors.

Until around 1750 the town of Crieff was where all this happened but for a variety of reasons the sales there went into decline and the drovers transferred their business to the little fair on Redding muir which the Duke of Hamilton had operated from around 1710.

Shieldhill was the centre of the action on the second Tuesdays of August, September and October and the numbers of black Highland ‘‘kyloes’’ offered for sale rapidly increased so that by the 1760s well over 100,000 beasts passed through the village.

However, in 1772 the Duke was forced by the courts to allow his feuars to enclose the tryst ground for arable farming and a new site had to be found.

The place chosen was Roughcastle right on top of the Roman fort on the Antonine Wall. It was not a great success and after 13 years the buyers and sellers were on the move again.

The main problem seems to have been the development of the Forth and Clyde Canal which presented a barrier for drovers and cattle with only a few small pends and not many wooden lifting bridges which tended to ‘‘spook’’ the cattle.

The final move, to Stenhousemuir, came in 1785 and the Trysts remained there for the rest of their existence, some 115 years. The 200 acre site, flat and well drained, is now home to the Tryst Golf Club, Stenhousemuir Cricket Club and the ‘‘Warriors’’ football club.

Here the sales reached their height in the middle years of the 19th century. Take one example: In 1842 at the October tryst 75,000 cattle and 120,000 sheep were sold as well as 4000 horses.

There was also a huge ‘‘tented village’’ offering all manner of services to the hungry and thirsty drovers. One observer wrote: “Many kindle fires over which cooking is briskly carried on.

The tents are constantly filled and surrounded with a mixed multitude of cattle dealers, fishers, drovers, pedlars, jugglers, gamblers, itinerant fruit merchants, ballad singers and beggars”.

Little wonder that a famous English agriculturalist in 1849 thought that visitors “will witness a scene to which Great Britain, perhaps even the whole world, does not afford a parallel”.

Of course it could not last. The railways changed everything and by 1900 the days of droving were over. The sideshows, food stalls and fun and games remained and the Tryst fair is still part of the local scene each year.

Sadly there are few other signs of this history on our doorstep.

When Stenhousemuir village centre was renewed, two life-sized Highland cows were cast in iron and now stand among the modern shops.

They are a welcome if solitary reminder of a quite amazing phenomenon: droving and the Falkirk Trysts.