The following is an essay written by Dr. Benjamin Hudson, PhD a Professor of History and Medieval Studies at Penn State. This paper was presented at a dinner more than twenty years ago following a regional Highland cattle show in Pennsylvania. The paper was never published but Dr. Hudson was kind enough to search his files and locate a copy which he very generously shared with us.
Like many breeds of livestock, the introduction of Highland Cattle into North America generally, and the United States in particular, is not so clear as one would like, but for America it was late in the nineteenth century when they are unambiguously present. The American livestock historian Lewis Allen claimed in 1879 that he did not know of any Highland Cattle in the United States, although there were some in Canada. Within a quarter century, however, Highland Cattle were featured on the cover of the influential livestock journal Breeders’ Gazette and hailed as the remedy for the problems associated with cattle on the western plains. Lewis’ statement should not be interpreted as meaning that Highland cattle were unknown. They were well-known to many Scottish immigrants and had been admired by American travelers to Scotland. Notice of the Highland exhibit at the Royal Highland Show is found in the Country Gentleman magazine (published in Albany, New York) for September 3, 1857 while an inventory of the exhibits in the museum of the Agricultural Society of New York in 1860 includes three portraits of West Highland cattle. After the passage of the Homestead Act of 1863 there were suggestions that Highland cattle be imported into the United States to be used as foundation stock for the homesteaders. The basic thought was that the cattle were so hardy they could survive any incompetence on the part of their new owners.
Their late introduction into America is ironic for one of the oldest distinct breeds in the British Isles. Without entering into the controversy concerning the antiquity of individual folds, the international popularity of West Highland cattle began in 1763 when a Yorkshire cattle merchant named Moorhouse went to the Isle of Skye to purchase Highland cattle, known locally as “Kyloes.” Moorhouse visited the fold of a Mr. Macdonald of Kingsburgh whose wife Flora had sheltered “Bonny” Prince Charlie seventeen years earlier during his flight from the battle of Culloden; Moorhouse was given the honor of sleeping in the bed that had been occupied by the prince. From Macdonald were purchased a thousand head of Kyloes at a price of two guineas a head, while others were bought on the Isle of Jura. The cattle were walked to Yorkshire where they were sold at the North Allerton Fair, which would become the southern emporium for Highland cattle.
Moorhouse had several varieties of Highland Cattle to choose from, in addition to the West Highland or Kyloe which was primarily in the Hebrides. North Highland cattle were found in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, Caithness, and Inverness. The survivor is the Shetland cow which, like the Shetland pony is bred for its small size. These North Highland cattle were noted for their slow maturity and it was not unusual for a first-calf heifer to be six years old. While the West Highland cow was a dual-purpose animal in its native land—the milk was considered to be as rich as that of a Jersey—its export value was in beef. Highland cattle were famous for their ability to gain between one third and one half of their initial body weight after six months on feed. The smallest and most prized came from the Isle of Skye while the largest were found on Islay.
Much of our information about the type of Kyloes eventually imported into North America is to be found in contemporary livestock handbooks. The earliest information comes from William Youatt’s Cattle and their diseases, published in 1834 by the Library of Useful Knowledge. Youatt was a London veterinary surgeon whose specialty was horses; his information about Highland Cattle was supplied by informants (such as William MacNeill of Islay) who took the opportunity to publicize the beasts that they had for sale, which explains why Youatt’s description of Highland Cattle claims that they had horns of medium length and a short, dark hair coat. His correspondents also revealed the harsh conditions endured by the cattle, where losses of 20% due to exposure were considered acceptable. The cows generally calved between the first of February and the middle of April. They were sold at local “trysts” or cattle fairs at the age of three to be fattened. The cattle were sailed from the islands by ferry and walked to the “tryst;” Kyle Rhea Ferry from the Isle of Skye to the mainland was an important crossing point. The cattle were tied by a rope from the tail of one animal to the jaw of another with the ferryman holding the lead rope. A string of six to eight animals traveled in a group. These fairs were held in April or early May; the main ones were at Inverness, Aberdeen, Perth, and Falkirk. The number of animals at a “tryst” was large; Inverness alone accounted for sales (so it is claimed) of about 42,000 head.
By the late eighteenth century Highland cattle had become models to be emulated. The pioneer of livestock breeding Robert Bakewell of Dishley Park (developer of the Improved Leicester sheep and Longhorn cattle) once remarked that the considered the Kyloe to be the most perfect example of a beef animal. He seems to have practiced what he preached; the livestock historian James Sinclair claimed that Bakewell introduced Highland blood into his early breeding experiments with the Longhorn. Another enthusiast better known from his association with a different breed was Thomas Bates of Kirklevington, famous as a breeder of Shorthorn cattle. Like many of his generation, Bates was influenced by Bakewell and made a tour of the Highlands and Isles in 1803 where he purchased Kyloes for his farms. Although his attention waned as he became interested in milk production, he did retain some stock. One of the founding sires of Shorthorns—Chieftain by Daisy-bull—was out of a Kyloe cow.
This was also the time when those interested in Highland Cattle for their own sake were improving the breed into the form in which it was sold into North America. Unlike other breeds, very little line-breeding was employed. Two brothers originally from Perthshire—Donald and Archibald Stewart—were influential. Donald moved to the Isle of Lewis in 1802 where he was joined by Archibald, and the brothers started the Park Fold. Donald later moved to Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris in 1809, where he was eventually succeeded by his son John. Their plan was simple: to breed the best of the island cows to bulls from Perthshire. The result was the families of the Guanachs, Tarrgels, Shellays, and Donnachs. From their breeding came the bull Laoich, champion at the Royal Highland Show in 1896, 1897, and 1901. Throughout the later part of the nineteenth century Highland Cattle were prominent among the winners at agricultural exhibitions.
As stated earlier, by 1879 the only known herds of Highlanders were in Canada. Four years later, in 1883, an importation of Highland Cattle was made that included the heifer Maid of Castle Grant, who was part of the small show herd that was exhibited by J.S. Goodwin of Kansas (better known for his breeding of Angus cattle) around fairs in the years 1888-1889. Their introduction into America was helped by their type and appeal to butchers. While nineteenth-century scales were inaccurate in comparison with modern ones, they do give an approximate figure. In 1800 the average weight of a carcass at Smithfield market was about 700 pounds, which was about the same for a Highland carcass. The Highland could gain much more. At this time there developed a craze for gigantic beasts that led to contests among feeders to produce the fattest animal and the “Kyloe Ox” was celebrated as one of the largest. By the end of the nineteenth century Highland fatstock were producing large carcasses. At the Smithfield Christmas Show of 1888, a Highland bullock (steer) aged five years and nine months weighed 2,016 pounds and produced a carcass of 1400 pounds. Records had been kept on the animal and immediately before butchering, during the period January 1 to December 1 he had an average daily gain of three pounds and had been fed grain only for the last ninety days prior to slaughter. By 1908 the average live weight of Highland bullocks at the Smithfield Christmas Show was 1400 pounds at 32 months, with a top weight of 1700; by comparison the average for all breeds was 1250 pounds. Not only were Highland Cattle producing more meat, their beef was commanding a premium and, to take one example, at the Smithfield market in 1887 they averaged a penny a pound above the market price. Such acceptance of the breed in the marketplace led to the formation of a breed association at Edinburgh in 1884 followed by the publication of a Herd Book in 1885.
Agricultural events in Britain were being watched in the United States, including the increasing notoriety of Highland Cattle. So it is no surprise to learn that several American buyers from Iowa and Kansas attended the dispersal of the fold owned by George Whitfield of Rougemount Canada in 1884. Further efforts to interest the American farming community in the breed were made with the presentation of Highland Cattle at the Buffalo (NY) Exhibition of 1888 by Joseph Hickson (president of the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway). The display included one bull, two bull calves, three cows and one heifer, all dun in color. Among their admirers was Lewis F. Allen, a prominent breeder of Guernseys and Shorthorns, and the founder of the American Shorthorn Herd Book. At the end of the exhibition, rather than submit the cattle to a ninety-day quarantine to re-enter Canada, Hickson sold them to Allen for $500. In a letter written that year and published in the Cultivator and Country Gentleman, Allen remarked that they were the cattle which would save the American rancher from his inability to produce quality beef on the range. In 1891 an exhibit of Highland Cattle was arranged at the American Fat Stock Show held at Chicago, Illinois, the ancestor of the International Livestock Exposition. They attracted favorable attention and led to pleas in agricultural journals from ranchers in western states requesting that Highland breeders make breeding stock available.
In 1902 an importation of Highland Cattle was made by Warner Van Norden of Rye (Westchester County), New York. Van Norden was a banker and philanthropist who controlled several merchant banks and mortgage companies in New York City. Through his influence it was arranged that there would be an exhibition of Highland Cattle at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (informally known as the St. Louis World’s Fair) of 1904. The ten head (two bulls and eight females) were all owned by Van Norden. That was a valuable showcase for the breed, not least because the fair was promoted as having the premier display of livestock in North America, boasting an exhibit of every breed of cattle raised in Canada and the United States. The exhibit of the Highland Cattle at the St. Louis helped to continue the popularity of, and interest in, the breed. Shortly after the close of the fair, the cover of the influential Breeders’ Gazette shows a pen of Highlander bullocks, which were being fattened at the Sandringham estate of King Edward VII. Other importations were made into North America in 1906 and 1908; the increasing interest in the breed resulted in a series of magazine covers featuring selected representatives. In 1912 a series of articles on Highland Cattle were commissioned by Breeders’ Gazette from James Cameron, agricultural editor of the Glasgow Herald. The series was full of practical information on the feeding, care, and selection of Highlanders and was intended as a guide for American and Canadian stockmen who, it was hoped, would travel to Scotland for seed stock. The future looked bright.
By 1940 there were so few Highland cattle in the United States that the breed was grouped with the rare breeds of livestock and was mentioned in livestock encyclopedias, if at all, as a curiosity. What had happened to the useful animal of the early twentieth century? While any effort to answer that question will be unsatisfactory, two reasons have to be included: World War I and changes in type. The declaration of hostilities between Britain and Germany ensured that food shortages would allow few animals to be exported. More importantly, the introduction of the horrors of submarine warfare meant that slow moving livestock ships were ideal targets for enemy action. There were too few Highland Cattle in North America and attention was diverted from the breed by the slight chance of importing more animals. At the end of hostilities a new problem arose, change in the type of beef animal. The trend toward smaller framed cattle that could be fattened quickly on corn in Midwestern feedlots meant that the hardy aspects of Highland Cattle were discounted. The agricultural depression that followed the cessation of hostilities discouraged any ventures into new breeds. By 1922 the entire work had to be redone and for the modern story one may profitably refer to John Anderson’s West Highland Cattle.
Historically, Highland Cattle have made two important contributions to agriculture: as an improver of cattle, especially those raised in cold and mountainous terrain, and as a profitable producer of quality beef. The improving aspect of Highland Cattle is evident even today; in 1968 a new breed of cattle was introduced to the world—the Luing, a half-Highlander cross developed specifically for rough grazing in Scotland and Ireland. In the Western Hemisphere the breed has always commanded the admiration of the critical stockman; the need for Highland stock on the range and in the feedlot has never diminished.
Acknowledgements: This essay benefited from the information and illustrations provided by the late Robert Grant, former head of the Scottish Soil Survey, and Dr. Hugh Wilson who supplied bibliographical information and extended the invitation to present an earlier version of this paper. Any errors are, of course, my own.