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Great Close Cattle Fair

Notes from a talk given to Malhamdale Local History Group by Richard Harland November 1998

Great Close, said to be one of the largest pasture fields in the North of England, is renowned in local memory on account of the immense "fairs" or markets for the sale of cattle, sheep and horses that were formerly held within its one-and-a-seventh square miles. At Malham there had long been held an annual fair for the marketing of farm stock around the 15 October. In 1745 or 1746 a much larger and longer annual market of regional significance was initiated by the Skipton-based John Birtwhistle. Being earlier in the year it would not supplant the traditional fair.

In 1786 Thomas Hurtley the Malham schoolmaster described the circumstances, which would be well and accurately known to him:


This hill [Hawk Hill or Hawk Scar] stands in, or rather forms part of a prodigious large field of enclosed land, being upwards of 732 acres in one Pasture; a great part of which is a fine rich soil, and remarkable for making Cattle both expeditiously and uncommonly fat.- This 'GREAT CLOSE', properly so called, was for many years rented by Mr Birtwhistle of Skipton, the celebrated Craven Grazier, and on which you might frequently see 5000 head of Scotch Cattle at one time. As soon as these were a little freshened, notice was dispersed among the neighbouring markets and villages, that a FAIR would be held in this Field on a particular day; and lots being separated by guess as nearly as could in such a manner be done to the wants or wishes of any Purchaser, so much was fixed immediately by the eye upon that lot, or so much per head, taking them as they were accidentally intermixed upon an average. - To a stranger this mode of bargaining will appear exceedingly difficult and precarious; but it is amazing with what readiness and exactitude persons accustomed to the business will ascertain the value even of a very large Lot, frequently of several hundreds together.
As soon as these were disposed of, a fresh Drove succeeded, and besides Sheep and Horses frequently in great numbers, Mr Birtwhistle has had Twenty Thousand head of Cattle on this field in one Summer; every Herd enticed from their native soil and ushered into this fragrant Pasture, by the Pipe of an Highland Orpheus.
If the Craven Graziers will yet esteem it a benefit to the Country, Mr Birtwhistle has the merit of being the first who traversed the Hebrides and the Isles and Counties in the North of Scotland, and that at a hazardous period, in 1745, beginning a Commerce, which by a gradual increase ever since, seems in some measure to have checked the ancient mode of breeding the LONG HORNED Craven Cattle, which were formerly held in the highest estimation. And even yet, although the prices of the Scots are become extravagantly high, the Trade continues to wanton in its highest vigour.
Besides Mr Birtwhistle who has had 10,000 head on the road from Scotland at one time, there are now several other Graziers who go to the Highlands on the same business, and vast quantities indeed are fed in every part of Craven for the markets in the populous Towns both in Yorkshire and Lancashire. To say the truth, when fattened on these rich old Pastures, there is no Beef equal to them in fineness either of Grain or Flavour.

(Thomas Hurtley: Natural Curiosities in the Environs of Malham (1786) pp.46-9)

The event was famed for Scotch cattle, besides sheep and horses frequently in great numbers. The cattle were driven direct from Scotland to Great Close; Birtwhistle has had 10,000 head on the road from Scotland at one time. Frequently as many as 5000 cattle were assembled in Great Close, and 20,000 had passed through the field in the course of a Summer; these in addition to the sheep and horses.

There is no reason to doubt Hurtley's date of 1745 as the year when Birtwhistle first made his trading contacts in western Scotland. He bought direct from the producers in their home territory and not merely in the great trysts held at Crieff and Falkirk in the Lowlands. His initiative must almost at once have found unsavoury reinforcement through the savage suppression that followed Culloden. This included wholesale plundering of cattle by Cumberland's troops. News of what was happening reached the dealers of Galloway and Yorkshire and from there graziers at once took horse to the Highlands. Cumberland welcomed them. The primary purpose of driving off the cattle was to break and destroy the economy of the Jacobite clans, but he quickly saw a secondary value. The money received from the sale of the stock to Lowland and English dealers was distributed among his soldiers. It kept their morale high and their rebel-hunting enthusiasm in good fettle.


The animals were bought from the Army at ridiculously low prices, and changed hands several times, and at mounting cost, before they reached their ultimate destination in England or the Lowlands.

Quoted from John Prebble: Culloden, 1961, chapt.4, who refers to Andrew Henderson: The History of the Rebellion, 1753, and The Life of the Duke of Cumberland,1766.

John Birtwhistle was not the only trader involved in driving cattle direct from the Highlands and side-stepping the lowland trysts. But the trade was not all profit. In 1746 Alexander Gray and William Dunbar, drovers from Ross-shire, brought cattle down to Yorkshire. Alexander had written from Newcastle of disappointing sales, and he wrote again from Skipton on 30 October 1746 to William Baillie, his principal back home, reporting sluggish trade:-


...times rather worse than better. I have sold none since...but 30 at a poor price...and come to this place with the one half and left William Dunbar in the East Riding with the other half...affraid I shall not be able to sell them all, the country is so full of their own young cattle and at such low prices as never was known. I have stood fairs where I have seen the country [i.e. local] steers sold ffrom 35 sh. to £3...the cheef reason is scarcity of hay. Some say they had better cut the throt of their cattle and sell their hay... above a shilling a stone in the spring...But catle that are fful ffat and for present use begins to sell high... what helps their sale just now is a little demand from Holland...I'm at a loss whether to lose part of what was got for the cows or winter to have your sentiments...There is plenty of moors and cheap wintering in Craven for such cattle as mine tho not for their own breed. But the dealers are all served from ffalkirk and Crief...":W.MacGill: "Old Ross-shire and Scotland as seen in the Taln and Balnagown Documents", Inverness, 1909, vol.I p.177.
John Birtwhistle appears not at that date to have achieved the success and fame for which we know him.
While travelling through Scotland in 1772 Thomas Pennant noted (p.230) at Falkirk "the great fairs for black cattle from the Highlands, it being computed that 24,000 head are annually sold here", a figure scarcely exceeding the reputed number at Great Close. Later in his journey (p.363) he noted the cattle in the area lying it seems near Loch Kinnard, north-west of Ullapool:"It is a land of mountains, a mixture of rock and heath, with a few flats between them producing bear and black oats, but never sufficient to supply the wants of the inhabitants. Cattle are the great support of the country, and are sold, to graziers who come from even so far away as from Craven in Yorkshire, at the rate of thirty shillings to three pounds a head.

Already at the date of the survey made for the owner Thomas Lister in 1760, Great Close was split, just as a wall still splits it, into two parts. These were aptly described in the Survey as the higher and the lower parts, and are named on the modern map as East and West Great Close. In 1760 both were in Birtwhistle's tenancy with an aggregate of 727 acres, which accords with Hurtley's upwards of 732 acres. Tenanted as one, they were no doubt managed as one, for Hurtley describes the whole as one pasture. Possibly the boundary was insubstantial, for the present division wall is questionably as old as 1760.


Sir Walter Scott's Two Drovers and recent studies make clear that the Scottish drovers and their herds travelled by strong preference over uncultivated hills, by green lanes and other routes. Great Close was well served by such routes.

J.W.Morkill's statement in 1933 that the great cattle fairs lapsed before the mid-18th century is an evident error for "mid eighteen hundreds". The fairs predominantly of cattle were succeeded by, or merged into, equally impressive sheep fairs held around Malham's traditional October sales. Frederic Montagu in 1838 described the event in his own period:-


Here [at Malham] there is an annual fair held on the fifteenth of October, appropriated entirely for the sale of sheep, and I am within the limits of fact when I say, that upwards of one hundred thousand have been shown at one time.

(Gleanings in Craven (1838) repeated in The Tourist's Guide to the District of Craven (n.d.)

Morkill says these continued until the completion of the railway systems, which must take them up to about 1850, after the railway reached Skipton in 1847. Clearly such numbers could not be handled and sold in the field within the village that was used this century for sheep and cattle auctions. It is not fanciful to see Great Close as a venue; nor to see sheep following the same routes over the hills as cattle.


In West Great Close at the foot of Great Close Scar are the ruins of a fairly large house which was occupied until about a hundred years ago. At the time of the Malham Moor cattle fairs this was a house of refreshment for the cattle drovers...:

(Arthur Raistrick in "Malham and Malhamdale" (1947) p.99)

It would be the scene of the nightly festivities described by Morkill in 1933. There is preserved in manuscript an account of two other social events at this old inn remembered and recorded in 1934 in a MS note by Tom Yeadon, events trivial in themselves but worthy to be preserved:


June 1934 Went to have a talk with Mr Abraham Banks...With regard to the local belief that the old ruin near Great Close Plantation has, at one time, been an inn, Mr Banks told me this was indeed correct and proceeded to relate a story about a childhood incident of Betty Chester's grandmother. Betty Chester being the mother of the late Jackie Chester, husband of the late Mrs Chester of Low Trenhouse. It appears that some member of the Ribblesdale family got married and to celebrate the occasion a dance and festive occasion was held at the actual inn. Betty Chester's grandmother who was at the time a little girl was taken to this event and being too small to dance was placed on what Mr Banks described as the "breead fleak" which apparently was the rack over the hearth on which oatbread was hung to dry. From this high vantage point the child was able to amuse herself without obstructing the dancers below.
"Mr Banks told me another incident associated with the old inn. On one occasion in winter time, two women who were either permanent residents of the inn or were staying there, set out to attend the church at Kirkby Malham. On their way back they were overtaken by a snow storm and were eventually overcome by the cold. Their bodies being discovered at the gate into Great Close, at the present plantation and near the inn.

Immediately through Great Close Gate the land is wet, often flowing in water. Both the 1850 and later l9th. Century OS maps show the track to Arncliffe Cote going direct through this area whereas modern maps record an attempt, unsuccessful perhaps, to skirt it; wetness underfoot was of little moment to horse riders or drovers.

Uphill from Great Close Gate, at SD 9105 6650, an area of ruins extends over some 40 yards by 18 yards, with traces of two or three buildings and associated enclosures. I am not aware that the recent history and archaeology of Great Close has yet been written up, so I make my own surmise that these ruins like those in West Great Close can be linked with the fairs.

The drovers used the green lanes and the unenclosed higher land to move their stock and in order to maintain the condition of the animals and allow for grazing on the way, would cover 10-12 miles a day, preferably resting in enclosed ground at night, but not i villages where stock could easily get mixed up.  This required the great number of wayside ‘rest houses’ or inns. Many of those sited well away from roads or villages have disappeared from the landscape, or are just a pile of stones with little or no clue to their past. Another inn in the Malhamdale area is reputed to have been at Boss Moor, complete with a "beer cellar" built underground for coolness.

The Birtwhistles
John Birtwhistle came of Skipton parents, Thomas and Anne Birtwhistle. In 1714-16 Thomas described himself as a grazier and thereafter as a farmer. John was their eldest son, born on 23 March 1714. Two brothers, Richard and William, and three daughters, Mary, Martha and Grace, followed.
John's marriage is not recorded in the Skipton register, so we do not know the surname of his wife who is called variously Jennet, Janet and Jane in the register but most often Jennet. Tom Lord has grounds for suspecting that John had a base at New Galloway in Kirkudbright. Jennet was a Scottish name. It was natural to call a daughter after her, but alongside the very English names of most of their other nine children their fourth
son was baptised Alexander; and after his death as an infant they named another son the same. It can be conjectured that they married in about 1741, for their family started in 1742, and births then came at two-yearly intervals: Thomas, William, John, Alexander I, Alexander II, Agnes, Richard, Charles and in 1758 Robert, and finally James probably in 1761 for he died in July and Jennet a few days later in August of that year.
John the parent is described variously in the register- in 1742, '44 and '46 as farmer, in '48 as yeoman, in '50 as farmer, in '52 as drover, in '54 and '56 as farmer, in '58 as freeholder, in '61 as farmer and in 1787 as grazier. He died on 1 December 1787 of Natural Decay.

The whereabouts of John and Jennet's farm and freehold are not known. But in 1762 their son John, who was apparently in the business, purchased a big house and premises (now 75-9 High Street, Skipton) fronting onto what became Caroline Square. Birtwhistle's Yard of small cottages was built on this property behind the frontage. John junior, though unmarried, at once made the big house his home and upon his death in 1792 he left the property to his elder brother William. Both died bachelors, so upon William's death in 1819 the property passed to a nephew John Birtwhistle. The Leeds Mercury of 15 May 1819 reported :-

Died on Wednesday last, William Birtwhistle Esq. of Skipton, brother of the late Robert and Alexander Birtwhistle. By their deaths the ancient Birtwhistles (the greatest cattle dealers and graziers in the Kingdom) are all extinct.

The above information comes from the manuscript notes of Dr Geoffrey Rowley in Skipton Library. So it seems that the four sons John, William, Robert and Alexander were in business with their father and succeeded him in it; yet it is to be noted that Hurtley's comments, published a year before the father's death, speak of his tenancy of Great Close in the past tense: his were the great days of the family's involvement.

Although coming from Skipton, their cattle trading ventures led them to establish an estate in Galloway and they acquired land by the River Dee at Balmore and established themselves in the area. Alexander Birtwhisle became Provost of Kirkudbright and was described by Burns as "roaring Birtwhistle". The Industrial revolution was in progress and in a search of new business opportunities the family looked to cotton. Having been refused permission to build a mill on their Kirkudbright estate by the laird, Earl of Selkirk, in 1785 John, Thomas and William Birtwhistle struck a deal with James Murray to build a cotton mill on the western bank of the River Fleet at Gatehouse-of-Fleet. Murray formed a joint stock company with the Birtwhistles to finance the 4 storey 12 bay (120 x 30 feet) water powered mill. The Sun Fire Insurance Company valued the mill and contents at £3,600 in 1788 (buildings £1200, stock & machinery £2,400)and this provided the capital for the construction of a second, smaller mill. This mill is now a visitor centre.

Their memorial plaque in Holy Trinity Church, Skipton reads:

To the memory of
John Birtwhistle Esq.
obit Dec 1st 1786
aetat 75
and of Janet his wife
obit Aug 28th 1761
aetat 38
and of their sons
Thomas, William, John, Alexander,
Richard, Charles and Robert
also to Elizabeth Swan Guy
wife of Thomas
and to Mary Purdies
wife of Alexander
Erected by John son of Alexander

Richard Harland 1998

For more information on the Birtwhistles and their business dealings read The Birtwhistles of Craven & Galloway
"the greatest graziers and dealers in the kingdom"? An article by Tony Stephens from the North Craven Heritage Trust Journal 2008. External Website logo
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