Cattle droving emerged in 18th century Scotland as a legitimate profession. It took great skill to captain a cattle drive down through the highlands, there was unpredictable weather, steep mountains to navigate and firths and lochs to swim your cattle across. There were cattle thieves from rival clans waiting and watching for an opportunity to poach your livelihood.
As with the fur trade a century earlier, the qualities of ruggedness, adventurousness and familiarity with the land allowed Scots to excel in this demanding profession and they were in demand as cowboys. Both the perils and practices of the New World would have been familiar to those who had come from the Old.
In the 1870’s, western cattle ranching experienced a frenzy of speculation. This resulted in large cattle companies financed mainly by overseas Scots, like the Earl of Rosslyn, and English investors who formed joint-stock companies. A young Theodore Roosevelt got caught up too, moving to a western cattle ranch at a point in life when his spirit was shattered after losing his wife and mother on the same day. Roosevelt stated “It was here the romance of my life began”. Roosevelt’s insights and western experiences were crucial to the rise of conservatism today.
Fueled by the cattle boom, at one time Cheyenne, Wyoming had the largest median per capita income of any city in America; it became one of the haunts of the19th century wealthy, like the French Riviera or the hill stations of India; with its cattlemen dressing for dinner in black tie, smoking Cuban cigars and quaffing French grand cru vintages.
The bubble burst around 1884 with declining beef prices, rising freight charges and more and more cattle competing for the grass of the open range. Then there was the killing blow, the apocalyptic, blizzard winter of 1886-87, known as the Big Die-Up. Roosevelt’s losses were representative; more than half of his herd perished. The Big Die-Up led not just to financial ruin among the cattle barons but, for the elite members of groups like the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, to desperate actions. The Johnson County War, sparked when the open-range gentry rose up to form a vigilante army against cattle thieves and encroaching settlers, inspired the movie Shane. It took the US Army’s involvement to resolve the conflict.
Second to cattle, the Scots most affected western agricultural life in the realm of sheep. Sheep ranching had long been part of Scottish history. Consequently sheep herding skills were several levels above those of American ranchers and it is not surprising Scotsmen ended up dominating this profession in the Old West. In Wyoming, this dominance continued until the arrival of the Basque sheepherders.