There are several parts of Yorkshire and indeed, of the rest of England, where you can see examples of a magnificent breed of cattle, the venerable Highland Cattle. I used to enjoy spotting them living amiably outside the sadly abandoned Saltersgate Inn – a landmark that all visitors to the North Yorkshire Moors may have had the good fortune to have experienced in the past, standing guard as it did at the foot of the infamous Devil’s Elbow that cradles the Hole of Horcum, on Levisham Moor – possibly my most favourite place on Earth.
The Saltersgate Inn was a white-painted brick building with a truly fascinating history. Legend has it that the pub, built in 1648, in a post-Civil war climate, soon became a smuggler’s haunt, largely due to its location, far enough away from the smuggling hides along the East coast – Robin Hood’s Bay is one very famous example – frequented by those who wished to turn their ill-gotten gains into cash with no questions asked.
By the eighteenth century, it was constantly being raided by customs officers who were rarely able to catch the miscreants in the act of selling their wares. One night, after yet another fruitless search, one brave, but ultimately rather hapless customs officer decided to lay in wait, hiding in the nearby barn for cover. He hid amongst the hay, waiting for the illicit smuggling folly to resume, which of course it surely did after an hour or so. The unnamed officer pounced upon the unsuspecting criminals and proceeded to arrest them, as he was authorised to do. Unfortunately, he was greatly outnumbered and was quickly clouted on the head with a heavy bar stool; the poor man was instantly killed. Wading through the pool of his blood, the rascally smugglers decided to bury his remains under the fireplace and the legend was born when the landlord vowed that the fire should never be allowed to go out, so that the body would never be found. Locals lived in fear that the dead man’s ghost would be able to begin haunting the pub. Many sightings of this ghost have been reported through the years, none of which have been substantiated.
I remember vividly that the Saltersgate was the point that escaped boarders Nicky Lavery and Carole Binns reached before being caught after their daring adventure one dark, rainy evening back in about 1976. They were contemporaries of mine at St Hilda’s school in Whitby, some twelve miles or so across the formidable, stark moorland landscape, which was also home at the time to the equally infamous ‘Golf Balls’ at RAF Fylingdales – the first line of defence during the Cold War as the early warning station for the Northern Hemisphere (so we were always told in such dramatic fashion!). For two young teenagers to travel unnoticed and without any sort of protection for such a distance over such inhospitable terrain was quite an achievement and they were held in high regard by many fellow boarders at school, much like the heroes of ‘The Great Escape’ although perhaps not so rugged looking as Steve McQueen, who was one of my film idols at the time.
For many years after I left school when we drove over the moors to visit Whitby, I looked forward to seeing the Saltersgate Inn as the landmark that denoted the edge of the Moors. The hugeness of the sky, the purpleness of the rampant heather and the sheer loneliness of the place has always inspired me, replenishing me with air to breathe like no other place on this earth that I have been to. It is a magical and wonderful place.
In the fields just by the inn there were also, for many years, a herd of Highland Cattle. Most notable for their large, formidable looking horns and great shaggy russet-brown coats, these hardy animals have been bred in rugged farmland for hundreds of years, possibly as far back as the 6th Century. It always seemed fitting to me that these impressive beasts guarded my most holy and revered place; their majestic presence lent credence to the stories of old that ran amok in my imagination even then.
They are the nearest thing we have in this country to those truly sublime creatures, the North American Bison who once wandered the Great Plains in times gone by, unfettered by man, lords of the land they roamed without impunity. Ah, but I wish I could have seen them!
On a recent journey to Scarborough, we came across another small herd of Highlands and I simply had to stop to look at them, say hello and feel a connection to them. They were happily chomping on silage, taking only a brief moment to look up from under their shaggy gaze to notice my arrival. I had to take a picture of course! I think I might frame this one and put it up on my wall one day.
Thanks for reading!