Highland Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

Highland cattle are suitable for rough terrain and harsh climates and are primarily a beef breed.

  • Highland bull
    The undercoat of a Highland bull can grow up to 13 inches in length and provides warmth. The outer coat sheds water.
    Photo: American Highland Cattle Association
  • Highland cow
    Highland cattle are primarily raised for their naturally lean beef, which has made them the cattle of choice with Britain's royal family.
    American Highland Cattle Association

  • Highland bull
  • Highland cow

A heritage livestock breed names for its ability to thrive on rocky terrain, Highland cattle are known by their shaggy mane and for their ability to produce lean, healthy meat off of rough pastures. The Scottish Highlands are famed as a mystical and romantic place of rugged mountains, moors, glens, ocean fjords, islands, barren rocks, and steep valleys falling into icy streams or lochs. The weather can be harsh, the landscape battered by cold, driving rain and snow. The small folds, or herds, of Highland cattle have been part of this landscape for thousands of years. These shaggy cattle are descended from the Hamitic Longhorns brought to Britain in the second millennium by Neolithic farming peoples. Through the centuries, Highland cattle were raised mainly as a beef and working breed but were occasionally milked.

Cattle raising was very important to the Scottish economy. Many observers also noted the continuous and numerous cattle raids, known as “reiving,” that occurred back and forth across the borders. The trade in cattle began in the Middle Ages and continued for centuries, interrupted only by war.

The first herd book of the breed society, written in 1884, stated: “No cattle in this country have retained in greater uniformity the same characteristics as a distinct breed than the Highlanders have done, and this seems to point to the conclusion that there has been little change in the character of this class of cattle, except that produced by a more careful system of breeding, so far back as any information on the subject can be obtained. . . . The breeding of cattle has been so general over the whole Highlands and Islands that no single breeder can be credited with the distinction of having started the breed.”

The 1884 herd book describes the two distinct classes, or types, of Highland cattle to be found at that time. The type known as the West Highland, or Kyloe, was found mainly in the Western Isles of Scotland. The usual color of the Kyloe was black, and the cattle were smaller and shaggier than the mainland Highland cattle. It is not known whether this size was due to the harsher conditions of the islands or to a distinctive trait of the Kyloe. The herd book noted that colors besides black had been noticed only in “recent years” and came with introductions of cattle from Perthshire.

The Kyloe cattle may have received their name from the kyles, or straits, across which they swam when they were driven 50 miles or more to market on the mainland at Crieff and Falkirk. Because the breed is slow-growing, these market cattle were generally four to five years of age. Many English drovers purchased the cattle at market and drove them over the Pennines into England. In 1723 alone, about 30,000 cattle were sold at Crieff to English drovers. After their journey, they were fattened to a slaughter weight of about 550 pounds.

The mainland Highland cattle were very common in the north of Scotland. Besides exhibiting a greater variety of color, this Highlander type was fed on better pasture and was larger in size. By the nineteenth century, many breeders were known for their excellent folds developed exclusively from mainland and island cattle without outside breed influence. In the first herd book, the founder animals were drawn from the two intermingled types of Highland cattle. They were mainly black or dun in color. Bulls stood about 44 inches tall, and cows were slightly shorter. At present, Highland cattle are most commonly colored red, tan, or yellow, although they can be black, brindle, white, or silver-white. Brindle is defined as a tawny or gray color with streaks or spots of a darker color. Many breeders enjoy keeping a multicolored herd. They believe that not selecting for a specific color keeps the genetic pool large and maintains vigor. The hair coat of the Highland is distinctive. The long forelock can flow down over the eyes or even the nose, giving the animal a bemused expression. The body hair is profuse, long, and slightly waved. A downy undercoat beneath the long outer hair can reach 13 inches in length. The undercoat provides warmth, and the slightly oily outer coat sheds wetness. When Highland cattle are raised in a hotter, drier climate, they shed much of their hair coat in summer.

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