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Monarch of the But 'n Ben

By Andrew Saunders.
(note copyright notice at the end of this article)

They are as Scottish as kilts and whisky, as essential to our identity as bagpipes and heather. They have been here for thousands of years but there was once a time when it was feared that they would die out altogether. For centuries the source of both pleasure and conflict, they were at one time the backbone of the Highland economy. They are Highland Cattle.

How have they become one of Scotland's much-loved symbols? 

Where did they come from? 

Who brought them here? 

Why did their numbers increase to hundreds of thousands and then fall away to danger level?

To begin to answer these questions we first have to travel back in time 12,000 years, because it is believed that Highland cattle are closely related to the European Wild Ox which crossed to Britain over the land bridge from the continent before the melting glaciers of the last ice Age caused the sea to rise.  

Humans followed in the wild oxen's wake and hunted it and maybe even domesticated it. Remains of wild oxen, which have been found in peat bogs in Ayrshire and Berwickshire, show that it was very large, larger than present-day cattle, measuring about six feet at the shoulder. 

Hunting and loss of its habitat, as man cleared the land for agriculture, drove wild ox into the remote and wild north and west of the country.

Archaeological remains also show that another, more lightly built breed, existed in Scotland from about 3000BC onwards. Its bones are found at ancient sites and its red hair has been found in bog butter, which has been uncovered, as people dig for peat. 

The hairs would have fallen into the milk as the cow was milked. The butter may have been put into the bog centuries ago, possibly to improve its flavour, but never retrieved.

The second breed has been called the Celtic Shorthorn because skeletal remains clearly show a narrower skull with shorter horns than its wild cousin. It would have been brought here by immigrants from the continent. It is thought likely that these two breeds bred freely together.

There were no other breeds available in Scotland so the cross between Celtic Shorthorn and the wild ox became the norm. This cross was the forerunner of, and was probably very similar to, our highland cattle.

It wasn't until the Romans and the Vikings came to Scotland that other breeds arrived, but even then the remoteness of the Highlands would probably have greatly diluted any new introductions. In addition, Highland cattle genes are very dominant over other cattle's genes so their characteristics tend to overwhelm those of other breeds.

Even though the last wild ox in Scotland died around the ninth century, the crossbred 'Highland cow' was well established by then and probably bred true to type. It remains, until comparatively recent times, the most populous breed in Scotland.

The modern animal retains many of the traits of its ancestors: the wild ox had a dense coat, long horns, black coat, heavy front end and a ferocious nature. The Celtic Shorthorn had long red hair, light bones, a long body and a very quiet temperament stemming from hundreds of years of domestic handling.

Similarly, our Highlands have long horns and their hair is long and dense. They can be red or black, but what about the temperament? They can't be both ferocious and quiet! This apparent paradox is easily explained. From most parts Highland cows and especially bulls, are noted for their docility. 

However, a different picture is seen when rashly tampering with a mother's calf. Under these circumstances a red mist descends as the cow is hauled into a wild ox existence when it was champion of the Caledonian Forest and bellowed loudly over misty bogs and hill forts. When this occurs, by far the best remedy is to run for it!

Sandy Mathers, who keeps 30 Highland cattle at his Lethenty Fold at Millview, Lethenty, Inverurie, bears this out: "You have to know each beast individually," he said. "Most of them are very quiet and gentle. They are quite happy for me to pass closely in amongst them and they will come to me and eat out of a bucket. When I am working with them in the byre they hold their horns away from me so as not to hit me with them. Some of them can be a 'bit quick' after calving. I had one cow that was too vicious, it was too dangerous to keep and I had to get rid of it. That was exception though. For most of the part they are very mild".

The peacefulness of Sandy's fold is largely due to the handling they get from a young age while they are being prepared for work in the show ring; because Sandy's fold (and most others in Scotland) are pedigree. It would be a different story with Highlands loose on a mountainside. They run like deer as soon as they are approached.

Their natural hardiness makes them ideal for life on the hills. More than any other breed they can exist on poor quality bulky rations which means they can survive where other breed would go hungry. This is because they are prepared to work hard at seeking out large forage on the hillside where their long, thick coat gives excellent weather protection. 

And from very early times they have been a central part of the farm, providing milk, meat and hair. Their horns were used for centuries as drinking vessels and there are surviving pictures, carved on stone, of Celtic tribesmen drinking from them. Their hides had a multitude of uses including covering the oak base of targes, which were secured with brass studs. They were also used for thongs, door flaps, shoes, purses, sporrans, belts, boats, bellows and saddles.

Because of their value and portability, Highland cattle became the obvious target of cattle thieves during the inter-clan conflicts of the 17th century and earlier. Not that the 'gentlemen' involved in the purloining would care for the label of thief! As one of them complained when charged with it: "Common tief! Common tief! Steal ane coo, twa coo, dat be common tief. Lift a hunna coo, dat be shentliman drovers!"

In 1689 William Bane Macpherson, when only 12 years old, saw 12 Lochaber 'gentlemen' pass through his parish in Badenoch with 72 black (Highland) cattle that they had stolen over 100 miles away in Aberdeenshire. Not far behind followed 50 armed men on horseback in hot pursuit. On this occasion only three Lochaber men lived to tell the tale of what happened when they were overrun, but on many occasions revers got clean away with it.

By 1723 a sale (or tryst) of 20,000 head at Crieff had been established at the central destination for cattle from all over the north. From here English drovers took the cattle south to become 'the Roast Beef of England'. Because of the danger of having cattle stolen on route to Crieff, men from Skye offered their services as armed escorts and they performed this useful service from 1650 to 1850. Some drovers moved cattle without assistance and received an exemption from the disarming Acts of 1716 and 1748 enabling them to carry weapons.

After the sales were moved from Crieff to Falkirk the droving phenomenon reached its zenith of 150,000 cattle in 1850. However shortly after this date, steamships and the railway gradually eroded that way of life until it completely disappeared. The only traces remain in the names of pubs along the old drover's routes, such as the Black Bull and Drover's Arms.

Nowadays, the Highland cattle sales are held in Oban in October and February and the numbers amount to about 150 at each sale. Sandy Mathers bought his bull there. "When you buy bulls in the show ring they look tremendous, all brushed up, sleek and glossy looking. My bull weighed 900 kilos on the day I bought him. He may have looked good but he was too fat to work. Breeders feed them lots of cereals in preparation for the sales. Once he had been on the farm for a while and he had got used to a more sensible diet he slimmed down to a workman like 750 kilos".

The shape of a Highland's horns is very important when showing. Sandy explained, "cows horns should come straight from their head and then turn forward and up. Bulls horns should not turn up but should grow straight out from their head and then turn forward. Any Highland with horns that turn down will do badly in the show ring".

Prices have plummeted over the last few years. Sandy paid 4500 pounds for a very good cow in 1993, but a similar beast today would fetch under 1000 pounds. "A lot of animals were going abroad and that kept the prices up, but the BSE scare stopped a good trade and the price fell sharply", said Sandy.

Starting in the 18th century landowners began crossing Highland cattle with other breeds in an attempt to improve them. They were hoping to get bigger cattle with more milk and a better constitution. They may have managed to produce an increase in size, but in most other ways the breed has remained unaltered. The threat to the breed did not come from cross breeding but more from a fall in its popularity.

The clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as removing crofters, removed a lot of Highland cattle too. Moreover, in the late 19th century the crofters who remained began to give up the breed because it had become uneconomical to keep and had been superseded by 'better' breeds.

Their shaggy picturesque appearance may not have been commercial, but at least it saved them from extinction. Queen Victoria ordered some for Windsor and so doing, started a royal interest that has continued to this day. At Windsor they were successfully crossed with a Shorthorn bull. Nevertheless, they were finally removed from the estate because word got out that they were 'wild Scotch cattle', so that when ladies were walking in the park they weren't disturbed by the beasts 'looking at them with their black eyes'.

In 1884 the drastic fall in numbers prompted the forming of the Highland Cattle Society which existed to promote the breed, keep it pure and record its pedigrees. It is still functioning today and Sandy Mather's cattle are recorded there, along with 32,000 others.

With such healthy numbers in the herd book, and uncounted others which are not registered, there is no fear of the breed dying out. This comes as a relief because in the 1970's their numbers reached a worrying low point when Aberdeen Angus and Beef Shorthorn cattle overtook them, only to be overtaken themselves by continental breeds such as Charolais, Simmental and Limousin.

There is an established crossbreed of Highland Cow and Beef Shorthorn bull and the resulting progeny are called Luing cattle. Luing cows are put in calf by a continental beef breed such as Charolais to produce the sort of carcase that supermarkets are looking for. 

Beef from pure Highlands frequently fails to reach this high standard of confirmation. However connoisseurs of beef will tell you that a Highland carcase may not be the ideal shape but its meat has fat marbled through it and this gives it a much superior flavour.

Furthermore, the extensive systems in which most Highlands are kept (as opposed to intensive indoor systems) means that the animals take longer to reach slaughter weight and longer life means better flavour.

Highlands can be kept on lush lowland pastures where they fatten quicker, but they best show their advantages over commercial breeds when kept in their natural habitat - rough hill land. Landowners have found that Highlands will even improve poor grazing ground because they eat old woody stemmy plants encouraging fresh green growth which is then utilised by sheep.

Despite their apparent poor commercial value (except for top pedigree animals), they have been exported to many parts of the world, including Russia, Canada, USA, Argentina and Peru. In Britain they are kept as far south as Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.

As the commercial value is not good, why is it that farmers bother to keep them?

There is of course the amenity value, especially for tourists. And the money that can be made at the top end of pedigree breeding maybe a lure for some. 

But for many farmers, Highlands are kept simply because there is something about them that rouses loyalty and kindles enthusiasm beyond the call of mere cash. Sandy was hard pressed to say why he had first gone into Highlands in 1990. He laughed, "it certainly wasn't for the money that drew me to them, I just liked the look of them I suppose".

The above article is copyright © 1999 Andrew Saunders, and may not be reproduced in any form without his prior written permission. All rights reserved.