Whether there ever was an aboriginal breed of Cattle in this country is a question which has been much discussed, and upon which a variety of opinions are held, but it is one which is still in a great state of uncertainty. Some have maintained that there never was an aboriginal breed, while others have maintained that there was such a breed, and that is now represented by the wild cattle of Chillingham Park. If this latter view be correct, it seems as likely as not that the Highland cattle were aboriginal in that part of the country where they are now bred in the greatest purity, and that the descendants of the Chillingham cattle are limited to the southern parts of the country. Certain it is that 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.
Various classifications of the breed have been made, but it is thought that there are really only two distinct classes, namely, the West Highland and the Highlander or mainland Highlander. The former of these classes, sometimes designated by the term "Kyloe", is found in its greatest purity in the Western Isles of Scotland, to which it no doubt was at first confined. The term "Kyloe" would seem to indicate this, at least if one of the common deviations of the word be accepted, namely, that it was applied to these cattle because they used to cross the Kyloes or Ferries which separate the Western Isles from the mainland of Scotland. Others think the word is merely a corruption of the Gaelic word which signifies 'Highland', and if this be its proper derivation the term would lose any significance.
The normal colour of the Kyloe was black, and in the recollection of some who are still alive no other colour was known in the leading folds of the West. The pure Kyloe seems also to have been smaller and shaggier than the Highlander, but whether this was a distinctive feature of this class of the breed or whether it arose from the cattle being kept in a purer state and more exposed to the elements than the mainland cattle, it is not easy to say. It is only within comparatively recent years that the colours which are now so much in favour with breeders became common among the West Highland Cattle, and the first animals of colour seem to have been introduced from Perthshire.
The Highlanders are common to the mainland of the North of Scotland and also to the county of Argyll, and they seem generally to have been of larger size than the west Highlanders and not uniformly of a black colour. It is not improbable that their greater size may be attributed to the superior pasture of many of the cattle-raising districts of the mainland and to greater care in rearing.
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. In the Long Island, the Macneils of Barra and the Macdonalds of Balranald have had large folds of pure West Highlanders from time immemorial, and though the former herd was dispersed when the last Macneil sold his property, the produce of many of his cattle are still to be found in the Long Island, and notably in the folds of Lord Dunmore and Dr. Macgillivary, Eoligary. The Balranald fold is still as extensive as ever, and the present representative of the family has brought his cattle to a state of perfection to which they seem never previously to have attained.
Early in the century Mr. Donald Stewart, who came from Garth in Perthshire, took the farm of Luskentyre, in Harris from the Earl of Dunmore of Harris, the grandfather of the present Earl, and started a fold, which, from the care bestowed on it and the careful selection of bulls from leading folds in Perthshire, soon became known as one of the most famous in Scotland. This fold is now represented by that belonging to Mr. John Stewart of Ensay, whose cattle have for many years taken leading places at the Highland Society's shows, and by the fold belonging to the present Earl of Dunmore, who some years ago again formed a fold at Luskentyre, having purchased from Mr. Stewart, the then tenant of Duntulm, in Skye, many representatives of old Luskentyre families, and has bred them most successfully ever since, and who has now one of the largest folds in the West Highlands.
In the Island of Skye all the principal farmers have good folds, notably the late Mr. Mackinnon of Corry, and the excellence of the present cattle from that district is no doubt attributable to some extent to the care bestowed upon their cattle by generations of farmers who have now passed away.
On the mainland, The Duke of Sutherland in the extreme north, the Earl of Seafield in the county of Perth, have folds which have long occupied leading positions and have supplied many prize-winners at the Highland society's shows. One of the oldest and best-known breeds in Perthshire was that of Glenlyon, and from it, all the principal folds in the country got their best blood. The late Marquis of Breadalbane, who had the finest fold of his day, had much of this blood, as also the late Mr. Robert Peter, Urlar, Aberfeldy, who until his death in 1878, maintained the high character of this breed. In Argyllshire the Poltalloch fold has for long maintained its character as the leading fold, but of the older folds that at Kilchamaig seems to be the only one which is still un-dispersed.
Many other folds might be mentioned, but to do so would prolong this prefatory notice much beyond its legitimate limits.
Regrettably none of the fine folds mentioned in the extract from the Herd Book of a hundred years ago have survived to this day. But we do have several folds that have been established for well over 50 years.
Moreover, there are many folds in Britain now from the north of Scotland to the south of England and in Wales. There are Highland Cattle Societies in America, Canada, Australia, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and West Germany. (there have been several others formed since this article was written)
Over the years the Highlander has improved. The animal is bigger, longer and fleshier, still retaining its hardiness, without which it really has no place amongst the livestock of Great Britain, for it is meant to do a job no other cattle can do — to live in harsh conditions with the cows bearing and raising calves with a minimum of feeding and sometimes in temperatures lower than 0 degrees Fahrenheit. (-20°C)
Several facts have been established in recent years. Firstly, there is no finer beef than that produced by the Highlander. Secondly, the breed is meant to be a little slower in maturity because of the poorer feeding and conditions — to offset this the cows produce calves to a greater age. It is not unusual for a Highland cow to produce 16 calves without any twins. Thirdly, the killing out percentage of highland bullocks is 58% to 60 % — nearly as high as the Aberdeen Angus breed — and the meat is beautifully firm, nicely marbled and magnificently flavoured. The ideal age for slaughter for beef is 28/30 months.