When I think of Crieff, an image of a rather well heeled Victorian Spa town springs to mind. Elegant architecture, beautiful scenery, an independent high street – the perfect place to escape the stresses and strains of city life. All of this is true of present day Crieff however, in it’s past it had a very different reputation indeed. Some of this history will be bought to life as part of the Fire & Folklore, Heroes & Villains street theatre event in March, so following on from the previous blog about the burning of Crieff here’s a little more history to whet your appetite.
For a number of centuries Crieff was a significant centre for cattle trading, largely because of its’ location, sitting as it does between the Lowlands and Highlands. The annual Michaelmas Market, also known as the Drovers Tryst, bought tens of thousands of cattle to Crieff in October every year. There are tales of the surrounding fields and hillsides turning black with the sheer number of cattle on them and of thirty thousand beasts being sold for thirty thousand guineas. Bearing in mind that in 1790 the population of Crieff was approximately 1,200 people that was a lot of cows! Cattle would be driven by their Drovers from as far away as Caithness and the Outer Hebrides with Drovers often continuing south from Crieff to as far away as London to sell their beasts.
During the Drovers Tryst the population of Crieff increased massively and the town became quite lawless, attracting horse thieves, bandits and the drovers themselves who drank and fought each other and generally ran wild. Inevitably some people died as a consequence of this and those found guilty of murder were punished on the town’s Kind Gallows, for which Crieff became known throughout Europe. According to the schoolmaster of Menzies in his account of 1793 citizens “went in fear of their lives from the Highland drovers who broke into their houses, forcibly billeting themselves and often carried off part to he household goods.”
The Market was not just about cattle, all sorts of other goods were for sale including practical items such as boots and tinware, there were also apple and pear carts and sweetie stands. As it was such a significant event it also drew many different types of people hoping to cash in on the party atmosphere and make some money for themselves. This meant that there were all kinds of entertainers including jugglers and stilt walkers and shows which exhibited ‘freaks of nature’ such as giants and dwarves.
Maybe surprisingly for such a small place, Crieff had at least three distilleries which flourished until about 1812. Today only one remains, which is The Glenturret which dates back to 1775 and is Scotland’s oldest continually working distillery. In 1714, the local exciseman caught a gang of MacDonalds drinking untaxed whisky, which he confiscated. Needless to say they were not too happy about that and so that night, they broke into his house and cut off his ear. Rob Roy MacGregor was in Crieff at the time, and not to be outdone, he led a party of his clansmen to the Burgh Cross. They broached a cask of untaxed whisky and drank the health of “those honest and brave fellows” who cut off the “gadger’s” ear.
This important era in Crieff’s history is not forgotten, last year the Crieff Cowches art trail celebrated it, there is the sculpture of the three Highland cows in Burrell Square and the annual Drovers Tryst walking festival which historically took place in October but which has now been moved to May.