Kingdom of Rannoch

When, as children, we crossed the Moor of Rannoch, my brother and sister and I had the impression of entering a kingdom of high romance, once a wild and dangerous place, a thoroughfare of thieves. ''The Rannoch!'' we would repeat, spellbound. For us it was one of the magic places of earth.

Up there, since the days of Mary Queen of Scots, the drovers had come, bringing the black cattle over from the Isles and driving them along the drove roads. We played where they had passed, with games of clan feuds, MacDonalds against Campbells, reivers against drovers. ''Better thraw the deevil than Rob Roy!'' we shouted, the battle cry of Rob Roy the reiver. He was a superb and swashbuckling figure, but it was the gentler drovers who attracted us most.

The landlord of our holiday home, Angus, a Cameron, was a font of knowledge of the old droving days, and it was from him that we first heard of the special hero of those green years, Cameron of Corriechoillie. He was a crofter's son, so poor as a boy that his stockings had no soles to them. He was ambitious, working his way upward, buying a few stirks, then more, until he had a drove - two or three hundred head of cattle. By his death in 1865 he was the uncrowned king of the great fraternity of the drove roads, beloved for his integrity. He never cared about his appearance and was ill-dressed even in his heyday, a little man, hawk-nosed, lynx-eyed.

His name sounded like music to us. We called it out over the Rannoch Moor, up the Lost Glen and the Glen of Weeping, against the cry of curlews and peesweeps - ''Corriechoillie!'' - and back came the echo, ''. . .Ch-oi-llie!'' As we listened to the tales of Angus, our affection for Corriechoillie and his comrades grew. They loved their dogs and cared for their cattle, never forcing their pace, seeing that they had their midday grazing and a full night's rest on the track south to Smithfield Market.

In the ardor of his hero worship, my brother kept quoting the exploits of Corriechoillie. ''He could ride 140 miles a day with only bread and cheese in his pocket. We don't need any more than that.'' My sister and I, cast in a less heroic mold, agreed dubiously. The drovers lived on handfuls of oatmeal and onions and at night slept rough, with their collies snuggled close. ''It's a cauld nicht,'' was all they would say, brushing the hoarfrost from their plaidies and the dogs' fur. ''We'll sleep on the Rannoch,'' my brother would say , and the three of us would dream of lying there under the stars, with our own collie as companion.

At Corran Ferry we looked across to where the drovers came from Skye and the Isles in their cattle smacks. In the wild storms that blew up, the beasts sometimes took to the water, swimming like spaniels with the current of Lochaber. We imagined it so vividly that we saw their heads and horns rising above the waves. ''Here come the kyloes!'' we cried.

Deep in the heather of the Rannoch our collie often stopped short, ears pricked, hackles rising, growling deep in his throat. ''What does he see?'' we whispered. An eerie sensation grew on us of invisible presence all around - phantom drovers and their herds were passing close by. Half-scared, half-enraptured, we took to our heels and rushed off, only stopping at Altnafeadh, at the head of Glencoe, the gathering point of the cattle. ''Corriechoillie's coming, we're safe,'' said my brother, and we lost all fear.

During those summer months in Argyll, Angus would stuff our heads full of descriptions of the drovers in their blue bonnets, crouched over a fire in the oldest inn in Scotland, Kingshouse, sharing a bowl of porridge with their dogs. Skilled in all kinds of crafts, they learned to shoe their cattle in the smithy at Tyndrum and sometimes knitted their own stockings as they trotted along on their ponies. This detail delighted my sister and me. ''Bet you Corriechoillie knitted his own socks,'' we would taunt our brother, for once superior to him. ''Bet you couldn't!''

While the drovers rode their ponies in peace in Scotland, Napoleon made war in Europe. The railways were coming, new roads were being made, the age of steam had dawned, and steamships sailed on the River Carron. The brown sails of the cattle smacks vanished from the Isles. ''Mind the date 1906,'' Angus said mournfully. ''The last of the Skye drovers crossed that year from Khyle Rhea to the Glenelg shore - the end of a race of good men.''

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