Why the Highland cow enjoys regal status across Scotland and beyond

A Royal Coo

One of Scotland’s most distinguished ambassadors is right at home in the Cairngorms National Park

One of Scotland’s most distinguished ambassadors is right at home in the Cairngorms National Park. Sandy Neil finds there’s more to the breed than a pretty picture

Scotland is home to many native bovine breeds: Ayrshire, Shetland, Aberdeen Angus, Luing and Belted Galloway, as well as one of the oldest and noblest, the handsome red, tufty Highland, which thrives picturesquely across the country from exposed Cairngorm mountain to windswept Hebridean machair.

The Highland Cattle Society of Scotland’s sketch of the pedigree in 1884 depicts the tough, shaggy Highlander grandly ‘moving with great dignity and style‘ in folds (not herds). In the Western Isles, this breed was small, black and known as ‘black cattle’, or ‘kyloes’ because drovers ferried or swam folds across the kyles, or narrow sea straits, between the islands and mainland to market.

Breeders indulged Queen Victoria’s fancy for the mightier red kind roaming the Highlands, and the collective name ‘Highland cattle’ stuck. The breed has kept its regal connections thanks to the current Royal family maintaining a fold on Balmoral Estate, apparently preferring Highland beef at the table.

Highlanders can be seen with red, black, brindled, yellow, silver or dun coats – all thickly built to withstand Scotland’s winters, and so warm that farmers have no need to house them, even in the harshest cold, wind and rain. Adapted to the rugged Scottish habitat in the north and west, the hardy, robust Highlander flourishes where feebler cattle can’t exist (even managing to forage 10,000 feet up in the Andes). It converts poor grazing efficiently into lean, tender, marbled beef, and makes a real economic contribution to Scotland’s uplands.

Sandy Mackenzie’s family have farmed Highland cattle around Rothiemurchus forest for generations, and today his ‘succulent, slow-matured and melt-in-the-mouth‘ Highland beef supplies the Rothiemurchus Centre’s farm shop near Aviemore. Keeping food miles low, his beasts are slaughtered one per week, eight miles away at Grantown-on-Spey abattoir, and the carcasses are hung by the estate butchers Brian Dey and Fraser Sharp for four to six weeks to develop mature and complex flavour.

Being native cattle, Highlanders are slow-growing animals, improving taste and texture. Highland beef is higher in protein and iron and lower in fat and cholesterol because the animals get their insulation from their rich, matty coat, rather than subcutaneous fat. They are also remarkable mothers, and long-lived too – many cows continue to breed to ages exceeding 18 years, having borne 15 calves.