Highland cattle

The Highland (Scottish Gaelic: Bò Ghàidhealach; Scots: Hielan coo) is a Scottish breed of rustic cattle. It originated in the Scottish Highlands and the Outer Hebrides islands of Scotland and has long horns and a long shaggy coat. It is a hardy breed, bred to withstand the intemperate conditions in the region. The first herd-book dates from 1885; two types – a smaller island type, usually black, and a larger mainland type, usually dun – were registered as a single breed. It is reared primarily for beef, and has been exported to several other countries.[1]

Highland Cattle
A Highland cow on Dartmoor in England
Conservation statusDomesticated
Other names
  • Long-haired Highland Cattle
  • Long-haired Scottish Cattle
  • North Highland Cattle
  • Scottish Cattle
  • Scottish Highland Cattle
  • West Highland Cattle
Country of originScotland
DistributionWorldwide (most common in Scotland and the US)
  • Male:
    800 kilograms
  • Female:
    500 kilograms
  • Male:
    106–120 centimetres (3.5–4 ft)
  • Female:
    90–106 centimetres (3–3.5 ft)
  • Cattle
  • Bos (primigenius) taurus
Two-month-old Highland cow
Highland cows with a black coat
The hair on Highland cattle gives protection during the cold winter.
A Highland cow and calf in the snow in southeastern Saskatchewan.
Highland calves in pasture

Bulls can weigh up to 800 kg (1,800 lb) and cows up to 500 kg (1,100 lb).


Highland cattle, ca. 1890–1900.

Highland cattle descend from the Hamitic Longhorn, which were brought to Britain by Neolithic farmers in the second millennium BC, as the cattle migrated northwards through Africa and Europe.[2] Highland cattle were historically of great importance to the economy, with the cattle being raised for meat primarily and sold in England.[3]

The 1885 herd book describes two distinct types of Highland cattle. One was the West Highland, or Kyloe, originating and living mostly in the Outer Hebrides, which had harsher conditions. These cattle tended to be smaller, to have black coats and, due to their more rugged environment, to have long hair.[4][5] These cattle were named due to the practice of relocating them. The kyles are narrow straits of water, and the cattle were driven across them to get to market.[3]

The other type was the mainland; these tended to be larger because their pastures provided richer nutrients. They came in a range of colours, most frequently dun or red.[6] These types have now been crossbred so that there is no distinct difference.

Since the early 20th century, breeding stock has been exported to many parts of the world, especially Australia and North America.

Headshot of Highland cattle

It is estimated that there are now around 15,000 Highland cattle in the United Kingdom.[5]


Originally, small farmers kept Highlands as house cows to produce milk and for meat.[7] The Highland cattle registry ("herd book") was established in 1885. Although a group of cattle is generally called a herd, a group of Highland cattle is known as a "fold". This is because in winter, the cattle were kept in open shelters made of stone called folds to protect them from the weather at night.[8] They were also known as kyloes in Scots.[9]

In 1954, Queen Elizabeth ordered Highland cattle to be kept at Balmoral Castle where they are still kept today.[10][11]


Highland cattle were first imported into Australia by the mid-19th century by Scottish migrants such as Chieftain Aeneas Ronaldson MacDonell of Glengarry, Scotland. Arriving in Port Albert, Victoria, in 1841 with his clan, they apparently drove their Highland cattle to a farm at Greenmount, on the Tarra River, preceded by a piper. Samuel Amess, also from Scotland, who made a fortune in the Victorian goldfields and became Mayor of Melbourne in 1869, kept a small fold of black Highland cattle on Churchill Island. They were seen and survived in Port Victoria during the late 1800s, but other folds were believed to have died out in areas such as New South Wales. In 1988 the Australian Highland Cattle Society was formed. Since then, numbers have been growing and semen is being exported to New Zealand to establish the breed there.


Highland cattle were first imported into Canada in the 1880s. The Hon. Donald A. Smith, Lord Strathcona of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Robert Campbell of Strathclair, Manitoba, imported one bull each. There were also Highland cattle in Nova Scotia in the 1880s.[12] However, their numbers were small until the 1920s when large-scale breeding and importing began.[13] In the 1950s cattle were imported from and exported to North America. The Canadian Highland Cattle Society was officially registered in 1964 and currently registers all purebred cattle in Canada.[14] Towards the end of the 1990s, there was a large semen and embryo trade between the UK and Canada. However that has stopped, largely due to the BSE (mad cow disease) outbreaks in the United Kingdom. Today, Highland cattle are mainly found in eastern Canada.[15] The population of Highland cattle for Canada and the United States of America combined is estimated at 11,000.[5]


The Danish Highland Cattle Society was established in 1987 to promote the best practices for the breeding and care of Highland cattle and to promote the introduction of the breed into Denmark.[16]


The Highland Cattle Club of Finland was founded in 1997. Their studbooks show importation of Highland cattle breeding stock to Finland, dating back to 1884. The Finnish club states that in 2016, there were 13,000 Highland cattle in Finland.[17]

United States

The first record of Highland cattle being imported to the United States was in the late 1890s.[18] The American Highland Cattle Association was first organised in 1948 as the American Scotch Highland Breeders Association, and now claims approximately 1100 members.[19] There are now eight regional Highland cattle associations in the U.S. as well.


They have long, wide horns and long, wavy, woolly coats that are coloured red, ginger, black, dun, yellow, white, grey, "silver" (white but with a black nose and ears), or tan, and they also may be brindled.

They have an unusual double coat of hair. On the outside is the oily outer hair—the longest of any cattle breed—covering a downy undercoat.[20] This makes them well suited to conditions in the Highlands, which have a high annual rainfall and sometimes very strong winds.[21]

Their skill in foraging for food allows them to survive in steep mountain areas where they both graze and eat plants that many other cattle avoid. They can dig through the snow with their horns to find buried plants.[22]

Mature bulls can weigh up to 800 kilograms (1,800 pounds) and heifers can weigh up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds). Cows typically have a height of 90–106 centimetres (3–3.5 ft), and bulls are typically in the range of 106–120 centimetres (3.5–4 ft).[23] Mating occurs throughout the year with a gestation period of approximately 277–290 days. Most commonly a single calf is born, but twins are not unknown. Sexual maturity is reached at about eighteen months. Highland cattle also have a longer expected lifespan than most other breeds of cattle, up to 20 years.[24]

The hair colour of Highland cattle can vary from red, black, brown, yellow, white, and grey.[25] The coat colours are caused by alleles at the MC1R gene (E locus) and the PMEL or SILV gene (D locus).[26]

They have a docile temperament and the milk has a high butterfat content, so have traditionally been used as house cows. They are generally good-natured animals but very protective of their young.[25]

Cold tolerance

All European cattle cope relatively well with low temperatures but Highland cattle have been described as "almost as cold-tolerant as the arctic-dwelling caribou and reindeer".[27] Conversely due to their thick coats they are much less tolerant of heat than zebu cattle, which originated in South Asia and are adapted for hot climates.[28] Highland cattle have been successfully established in countries where winters are substantially colder than Scotland such as Norway and Canada.[29]

Social behaviour

A fold of semi-wild Highland cattle was studied over a period of 4 years. It was found that the cattle have a clear structure and hierarchy of dominance, which reduces aggression. Social standing depends on age and sex, with older cattle being dominant to calves and younger ones, and males dominant to females. Young bulls will dominate adult cows when they reached around 2 years of age. Calves from the top ranking cow were given higher social status, despite minimal intervention from their mother. Playfighting, licking and mounting were seen as friendly contact.[30][31]

Breeding occurred in May and June, with heifers first giving birth at 2–3 years old.[30]

Breed standard

Highland cattle above Širvintos (Lithuania)
Highland cattle bull, cow and calf on mount Secëda in Val Gardena, northern Italy

The breed standard is a set of guidelines which are used to ensure that the animals produced by a breeder or breeding facility conform to the specifics of the standardised breed. All registered Highland cattle must conform to it. The breed standard was created in Inverness on 10 June 1885. There are four main parts to the standard: the head, the neck, the back and body, and the hair. Below is a concise list of the main points of the breed standard.[1]

The majority of Scottish highland cattle will stand between 42 inches and 48 inches at the hip. There can be standouts as small as 36 inches, termed a miniature . There also are highlands above 48 inches at the hip. A judge in a show will judge the cattle against a provided breed standard.[32]

  • Head
    • Proportionate to body
    • Wide between eyes
    • Must naturally have horns,[7] but may be trimmed in commercial rearing
  • Neck
    • Clear, without dewlap
    • Straight line to body
  • Back and body
    • The back must be rounded
    • The quarters must be wider than the hips
    • The legs must be short and straight
  • Hair
    • The hair must be straight and waved

Sources: Highland Cattle Society,[1] ScottishHighlandCattle.org[32]


The meat of Highland cattle tends to be leaner than most beef because Highlands are largely insulated by their thick, shaggy hair rather than by subcutaneous fat. Highland cattle can produce beef at a reasonable profit from land that would otherwise normally be unsuitable for agriculture. The most profitable way to produce Highland beef is on poor pasture in their native land, the Highlands of Scotland.[6][33] The meat is also gaining popularity in North America as the beef is low in cholesterol.[22]

Commercial success

The beef from Highland cattle is very tender, but the market for high-quality meat has declined. To address this decline, it is common practice to breed Highland "suckler" cows with a more favourable breed such as a Shorthorn or Limousin bull. This allows the Highland cattle to produce a crossbred beef calf that has the tender beef of its mother on a carcass shape of more commercial value at slaughter.[34] These crossbred beef suckler cows inherit the hardiness, thrift and mothering capabilities of their Highland dams and the improved carcass configuration of their sires. Such crossbred sucklers can be further crossbred with a modern beef bull such as a Limousin or Charolais to produce high quality beef.[9]


For show purposes, Highland cattle are sometimes groomed with oils and conditioners to give their coats a fluffy appearance that is more apparent in calves; it leads some outside the industry to call them "fluffy cows".[35] Many also call the cows "hairy cows" due to their thick coats.[22][36]

See also

  • List of domesticated Scottish breeds
  • List of cattle breeds originating in Scotland


  1. "Highland Cattle Society breed standard". Highlandcattlesociety.com. Retrieved 13 June 2016.
  2. Baker, J.R.; Muller, R (1982). Advances in Parasitology. Academic Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-08-058067-8 via Google Books.
  3. Dohner, Janet Vorwald (2001). The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds. Yale University Press. pp. 243–5. ISBN 978-0-300-13813-9.
  4. James Wilson (1909), "ch. VIII The Colours of Highland Cattle", The Scientific Proceedings of the Royal Dublin Society, Royal Dublin Society
  5. "Highland cattle – Mother Earth News". Mother Earth News. p. 4. Retrieved 30 May 2015.
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  11. "Queen to found Highland Cattle fold". Glasgow Herald. 25 February 1954. Retrieved 11 September 2015 via Google Books.
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  14. "Canadian Highland Cattle Society". Retrieved 28 May 2015.
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  17. "SHCC ry". Suomen Highland Cattle Club ry. (in Finnish). Retrieved 4 September 2016.
  18. "American Highland Cattle Breed History". Retrieved 7 February 2018.
  19. "American Highland Cattle Association History". Retrieved 7 February 2018.
  20. "Highland Cattle in Alberta". The Alberta Beef Magazine. April 2006.
  21. "Highland cattle – Britannic Rare Breeds". Retrieved 11 September 2015.
  22. "Highland cattle and their landscape". A to Z Animals. Retrieved 13 June 2016.
  23. "Highland Cattle Characteristics – TC Permaculture". TCPermaculture. 15 June 2011. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  24. "Highland Cattle – Sea World". seaworld.org. Retrieved 22 June 2015.
  25. "Breeds – Highland". The Dairy Site. Retrieved 13 June 2016.
  26. Schmutz, S. M.; Dreger, D. L. (2013). "Interaction of MC1R and PMEL alleles on solid coat colors in Highland cattle". Anim Genet. 44 (1): 9–13. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2052.2012.02361.x. PMID 22524257.
  27. Campbell, John R; Douglas Kenealy, M.; Campbell, Karen L. (2009). Animal Sciences: The Biology, Care, and Production of Domestic Animals (4th ed.). Waveland Press. p. 299. ISBN 978-1-4786-0821-9.
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  31. Clutton-Brock, T. H.; Greenwood, P. J.; Powell, R. P. (1976). "Ranks and Relationships in Highland Ponies and Highland Cows". Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie. 41 (2): 206–216. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0310.1976.tb00477.x. PMID 961125.
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