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Highland Cattle in 1919

by James Cameron
Information Source : Highland Breeders' Journal (1988), The Highland Cattle Society, Scotland

By general consent the Highland or West Highland breed takes foremost position for picturesqueness among the bovine races. Rich and varied in colours, beautifully symmetrical in conformation, generally alert yet dignified in bearing, a well-bred group on an rough hillside at the fall of the year add an adornment all their own to the landscape; and the cattle are never seen to their finer advantage then when they wheel around half-startled and set off in circling spurts, exhibiting the very poetry of motion.

In a bull the horns should be far apart at the base, a narrow crown being a fault, they should take a wide level sweep and turn slightly forward to maturity. Up set horns are "cowy" while the down-curving are "bullocky". The brow should be wide, the eye full and bright, and the muzzle short and strong, with good under jaw. Viewed sideways, the animals should appear level above and below free as possible from "loose leather" underneath the neck, quite moderate in crest long, straight and deep in quarters and flanks. The drop from tail-head to the points of the hocks and thence to the ground should be as much on the plummet standard as possible. Forearms and hocks should be strong, the bone below knees and hocks ample yet flat, and the feet should be of good size, yet shapely and fit for wear. Great attention has been paid to hair. Coat and "vest" are essential. The outer coat should be long, straight, and fairly strong, but free from harshness. From the end of October through winter it should cover the brow like a sporran, and hang abundantly from the ridge of the neck and the lower edges of the ears, good deal from the back, top ribs, and quarters and be plentiful down the thighs. The under coat or "vests" should be soft, and so closely set that a bucket of water thrown over the "roof" on an animal would still leave the skin dry. In a full-grown specimen of the breed under good treatment the tail should sweep to the ground.

Examining an animal at close quarters mellow-ness in horn counts for much. A waxy or yellowish tinge in a brindle or red is reckoned to be a sign of kindly feeding. Still, some very good animals are unduly white of "hard" horn. A common fault is flatness of ribs, due to a certain extent, no doubt, to long generations of scanty feeding. All the old Highland families have records and traditions of losses in cattle stocks against which no systematic provision was made. In modern judging it is well to take due account of such important matters as good crops, broad backs, long, level, properly filled quarters, with flesh down to the hocks and kindly-feeding touch. The skin should be thick yet pliable, and easily gripped. The walk of the well-bred Highlander, especially in heifers, is quire characteristic. There is more back slope of shoulders than in other breeds and the movement is beautifully straight, the top line being held as direct as an arrow.

The points referred to in the case of a typical bull may be transferred with slight modification and refinement to a female animal. In the latter the head and forequarters are in keeping with the sex and breadth across the hooks is greater. The horns are not so strong, and they commonly take an out, forward, and upward direction — the out, slightly forward and back swirling style being the other variant. At one time the larger strains of cows — such as those at Poltalloch, Taymouth and Atholl — were generally very wide across the hooks or hips, but, as in the Shorthorn sphere, the modern tendency is more set on good cover over the hook bones and less on extra width across, the latter feature being usually associated with bare loins.

It is to be regretted that practically nothing is known regarding the origin of the breed. The writer has failed to glean anything of a definite nature regarding its history beyond 1700. Gaelic hints and passing references to the crodh dubh (black cattle) and crodh donn (brown cattle) of the Highland glens in snatches of store and song, and such a derivative as donnag, or an animal brown itself or from brown ancestors, are of no value in fixing time limits. The like may be said regarding the chaish-fhionn (white marked) stock, and the dubh chiar (blacks with white underlines), both of which were highly esteemed in the eighteenth century and later. In Glenlyon and neighbourhood the breed was of unknown foundation about the "Forty-Five". The Stewart family, afterwards powerfully represented at Ensay, Duntulm, and Bochcastle, were reputed to have bred the cattle in the long Perthshire glen and surrounding districts for hundreds of years, but no written records are available. The breed owed a great deal in many respects to the brothers Donald and Archibald Stewart, who shifted with the best of their stock to the Hebrides in the early part of last century — Donald taking a Lewis farm in 1802, and Luskentyre, in Harris seven years later. In the Skye of that period, according to Donald Stewart, no one could tell how long the breed had been established. The late Mr. Ranald Macdonald, of Balranald, was wont to say that at least twelve generations of his ancestors had according to tradition, kept the old native breed in Uist. Mr. Colin Campbell of Jura, in a communication to the writer a few years ago, gave particulars of a large sale of Highland cattle held by his ancestor, Archibald Campbell in 1764. At the time of the disposal the Jura fold of Highlanders was of unknown age, but the tradition was that it had been founded with stock procured from the mainland. The very word fold takes one back to the "lifting" times, when it was advisable to guard the cattle at night within stone enclosures. On the mainland itself the breed had a very wide range down to the middle of the last century. It is not so well known that some Strathmore feeders placed main reliance on it a hundred years earlier.

Outstanding breeders last century were John Stewart, latterly of Ensay, son of Donald Stewart already referred to and the "Old Marquis" of Breadalbane, whose famous fold of cattle was dispersed in 1863, the best of stock then passing to Duke George of Atholl, some fine animals also going to the Duke of Hamilton and John Malcolm of Poltalloch. John Stewart, following his father's example, blended the best of the island and mainland strains of cattle, and having large numbers to deal with on extensive feeding ranges he was able to practice line breeding most effectively. The Taymouth fold, which had drawn principally on the best of Glenlyon and district stock from its foundation about 1830, secured effective out-crosses from the west, as the Marquis had another fold in the Island of Luing. At the Taymouth dispersion one-year-old heifers fetched up to £46, two-year-olds to £71, and three-year-olds to £125 . . . a two-year-old bull, Donull Ruadh, passing to Atholl at £136. Those prices held the field until 1905, when most of the late Earl of Southesk's stock had a home disposal. A yearling heifer then drew £105, a two-year-old £210, while three-year-old sold at £141 to £199 and four cows at £105 to £210 . . . 78 head averaging £48.12s

In these latter days the cattle have comparatively few breeding homes outside the Scottish Highlands. Year by year, also, the tendency is to push the breed more and more towards the Atlantic sea-board of the Celtic mainland, and force it in very fact to be a West highland and Island race. In the west, however, medium sized cattle are preferred by the majority of those who cannot or will not provide extra feeding for their young stock in winter. This question of size is always discussed. Generally speaking, the island breeders who have the poorest grazing avoid the large sized mainland bulls that have been under generous treatment.

Taking the west Highlands in general, the breed has suffered considerably since the middle of last century from incursions of sheep. Feeding grounds have been soiled and that has told very specially on the young stock. Through the efforts of the Congested Districts Board in placing well-bred simply-reared bulls at suitable centers all over the poorer districts of the west Highlands and Islands a fairly good standard has been maintained in blood, and this important matter is gradually receiving some backing from improved wintering. The work of the Congested Districts Board has, of course, been taken over by the Board of Agriculture for Scotland.

Breeding and rearing are simple. Representative breeders still hold mainly by the rule laid down in the times of their grandfathers — that a heifer should not be put to the bull until she is three years old. Where summer keep and wintering conditions are fairly kindly, this breeding standard is too " slow". As most strains of the breed have still a large endowment of the feral instincts, it is generally advisable to calve the heifers and cows in byres, boxes or small paddocks near farm buildings. In this way the more excitable of the calvers settle down and lose a share of their jealousy, and the calves never become really wild afterwards although sent to hillside with their mothers. The majority of breeders have done much in favour of easy handling by putting most of the highly-strung females into the feeding ranks. In bygone times, hand-milking of Highland cows and rearing of calves by the pail were common all over the Highlands, but in leading folds suckling has been the rule for a long time. The cows are fair milkers for quantity, and their milk is rich in butterfat.

Where byres are used for calving, the better practice is to keep the calves in a roomy airy box, from which they can be easily shifted thrice a day for suckling. When at grass, there is a considerable advantage during the earlier stages in having cows and calves near at hand. The mothers become used to all the movements about the home surroundings, and the selecting of the best male calves for stock purposes can be done with more certainty. At the fall of the year, when calves are weaned it is advisable to have a perfectly clean run of clovery grass for them. In any case, their grazing outrun at the critical stage ought to be fresh. Well-conducted folds have separate winter outruns at grass for the female animals coming to the one, two, and three year old stages. Open-fronted sheds with hakes in them are useful for providing hay or straw when snow covers the ground. Some breeders give the animals a few turnips on the grass in winter, and this is certainly in favour of bodily development.

Young bulls intended for the Spring shows and sales at Oban are gradually kept going without a check. A bit of cake is added to their fare at the fall of the year, and in winter they have agreeable changes from the cut turnips and hay in mashes of bruised oats and bran. But they must have plenty of air, space and exercise, the ideal being an open-fronted shed with long yard. It is better to have bulls set singly. When in couples they rub the hair off their brows in friendly bouts and so spoil their appearance. If the young bulls are meant for the summer shows, the winter course is taken more easily. Every attempt is made to encourage the growth of the new coat, and the old is kept on as long as possible. When the animals are being washed on the day preceding the like of the Highland society's show in July, the tangled masses of winter hair, sometimes hanging by a few strands, are disturbed as little as possible, so that the judge may see what the coat was at its best. The bulls are easily trained to lead, and in a show ring the biggest of them can be controlled by means of a common halter and a very slight touch on the nose appliance so familiar to most under the name of "humbugs".

Female animals training for the big events must be fed with judgement. Old native herdsmen were not fond of using linseed cake for their cattle. They maintained that they got a better appearance from bruised oats and bran along with the yellow turnips and hay. In late spring an occasional tablespoon of pure sulphur in the feed of mash is helpful as a stimulus for the hair. The breed has gained something like a year in maturing properties since the fifties or sixties of last century. Under ordinary conditions, however, it is seldom advisable to finish bullocks and heifers for the butcher until they have passed their third year. Well-bred and well-grazed animals bought in October when 30 to 33 months old, then wintered out on hay and turnips in addition to what they can pick, and given an allowance of cake through the grazing season, will make fine butchers' kinds by November or December. Some feeders prefer to start with a three-year-old, but the butchers are showing a preference for the properly finished younger animals. The skins are always valuable, and the best heads are constantly in demand for setting up as ornaments.

Highlanders have been freely and most successfully crossed with the Shorthorn and the Aberdeen Angus. The cross with the Hereford and Galloway has also been tried. A fleshy Shorthorn bull put to Highland heifers or cows produces a very useful, hardy, thriving feeding animal. If the breeding of the bull and that of the females he is put to is the best, the calves are singularly handsome as a rule and make profitable butchers' beasts. The calves from an Aberdeen Angus sire are smaller at the outset but very compact in build, and they grow well and finish superb blocks of beef. Odd specimens among male calves have "scurs" or abortive horns, but as a rule the heifer calves are purely polled. Noting generally, the cows put to the Aberdeen Angus bull last longer than those that are bred to a Shorthorn. On exceptionally good land in a genial climate heifers of the Shorthorn/Highland cross tend at times to carry an undue amount of outside fat. Of Hereford/Highland cross the writer has had no direct experience. The cross with the Galloway bears a considerable resemblance to the Galloway itself in many respects, but the hair is shaggier than in the polled race. In the matter of early maturity little is gained by the cross. Heifers of the Shorthorn/Highland cross make excellent cows to mate again with a Shorthorn sire. Thomas Bates experimented freely with such crosses, and the late James Bruce, Inverquhomery, Aberdeenshire, won many prizes at the great fat stock shows with second and third crosses of the Shorthorn on the Highland foundation. Beautiful cattle of this order have also been bred by the Earl of Camperdown at his home farm near Dundee. Highland bulls have been tested with very fair results in Western Canada on Shorthorn and Hereford grade cows. In 1911 a lot of twelve bulls of the breed was exported to Newfoundland. The principle of taking the sire from one of the rapidly maturing breeds is no doubt generally preferable. The fact that the breeding female of the hardy race is the more easily kept is a matter of prime consequence. At one time the very great majority of ordinary tenant farmer and small-holding breeders were practically at the mercy of dealers when disposing of their cattle. Those dealers make up large droves for the trysts, which were such features at Falkirk and Doune, or for an important open market such as that at Dumbarton. Leading dealers had their regular English and Scottish Lowland customers as a rule, and the tryst of meeting place was merely a spot for recasting the scale of prices. Sales conducted on such principles were very speculative concerns. Consignors were too frequently working on credit, and almost invariably they had to make the best of a bad market especially at the final trysts. By degrees the auction marts have killed the trysts and open markets, and in Scotland the principal sales are now conducted at Oban, Perth and Stirling. The autumn sales of 1912 and even the spring disposals of 1913 could not be classed as representative, because the closure on Irish stock on account of foot-and-mouth disease, and the restricted conditions after resumption of business, appreciated prices very considerably for Highland animals. The Oban sales in October 1911, however, might be taken as indicators of recent averages for good commercial stock. At those sales three-year-old bullocks ranged in price from £12.12s.6d. to £15.10s. The higher figure just noted was not accounted a first-rate top. Two-year-old bullocks sold mainly from £10.10s. to £14 for the best, the second rate going at £7.10s. to £9. A show lot sold at £23 per head. One-year-old bullocks drew mostly from £9 to £11 for firsts, and £5.10s. to £7.10s. for seconds or later born calves. Special lots, from which Scottish National and Smithfield feeders might be picked, sold at £14.5s. to £16.5s. For three-year-old heifers of good class sold at the same time, the run of prices was from £12 to £14, the less select having a range from £10 to £11. The best lots at the sale went at £15 and £16.5s. In two-year-olds the leading figure was £12.10s. and prices otherwise ran from £9 to £10.15s. There were no second-rate groups of two-year-olds. The yearling heifers were also of the first class all through and sold at £8 to £10. For well-bred, growthy, fashionably coloured lots of bullocks and heifers supplies are rarely equal to demand. English custom is still the best for heifers of a good feeding or crossing order.

At the Smithfield shows of the last few years there has been a general leveling up of weights in younger bullocks, and a discouraging of the practice of bringing out four and five-year-olds for the senior class. Taking one of the recent shows in London the average for a fine class of steers under three was 13½cwt (1512lb / 685kg); a fair class of steers under four averaged 15cwt 3qr 18lb (1782lb / 808kg); while a very good group of heifers under four reached fully 13½cwt (1512lb / 685kg). Sir William Ogilvy Dalgleish's magnificent dun steer, which took the breed championship at Smithfield in 1908, was practically 15¾cwt (1764lb / 800kg) at 33 months old, and his cup winner of 1913 was 14cwt 104lb (1672lb / 758kg) at 34 months old. Plenty of the smaller kinds are still to be found — animals which scale no more than 7cwt to 9cwt (784 - 1008lb / 355 - 457kg) liveweight when quite fat at three to four years old but in general, there has been much improvement since the "droving days", when some markets were half filled with the Hebridean crofters' animals, the "Yosich" of bygone Perthshire Highlanders; the "Kyloes" of the English dealers and the north of Scotland "Skiboes", as they were termed by many of the Lowland feeders. On the other hand most of the select mainland cattle are not quite so heavy as were there forebears of the 'sixties 'seventies and early 'eighties of the last century.

Well-bred, properly grazed and tended Highland cattle are not slow maturers in the generally accepted sense. That has been demonstrated by ever so many in Scotland and very emphatically by Mr. H C Stephens in Hampshire. Great good has been done by the Highland Cattle Society, which was founded in 1884. The first volume of the Herd Book, containing the pedigrees of 561 bulls, notes on the history of the breed, and a scale of points, was issued in 1885. Spring shows and sales of bulls held under the auspices of the Society were started in Oban in 1892, and continued for two years at Perth and Inverness, but since 1895 the double events have been held without a break at Oban. Taking four of those sales, 1902 - 1912 the average for 318 bulls was £25.12s.8d. Dark colours were greatly favoured in the west Highlands of olden times, the blacks, browns, and black-brindles being considered hardier than the light-coloured animals. The modern tendency, however, is strongly set on red-brindles, light reds, yellows, and occasional silver-duns. Black bulls can scarcely be sold; black-brindles are not generally popular, especially if they have dark noses; "mousey" or dark duns are to all intents unsaleable; dark reds are not regarded with favour and browns cannot be registered. A first class female animal, brown or donn in colour is occasionally retained for breeding, but she is registered as black or brindle! "Dock ear" has been a peculiarity in many strains of the breed for untold generations. Calves are born with ears which look as if they had been snipped right across the middle with ragged shears. The natural mutilation, as it may be termed, had probably its origin in a "sport", and inbreeding was no doubt accountable for its perpetuation. When the writer was a boy some old men had their own easy solution. The short ear was simply an inheritance from the days when young stock were all ear marked before being sent out to their summering on the hills!