Highland cattle are extremely popular with tourists, especially this year, the Year of the Ox! Read more to find out what inspired us to include highland cow decorations in the offer for the new Wardlaw Museum shop! Patsy Ng is a volunteer with us here at the University Museums, a fan of highland cows Patsy has researched the fascination with them and has written this blog for us while based at home in Hong Kong due to Covid restrictions!
But despite their recent popularity, highland cattle are not just a fad. They are the world’s oldest recognized cattle breed, with a herd book (a register of all the cattle of that breed) established by 1885.1, 2 It originally distinguished between two different strains of highland cattle – the small black island cattle, and the larger mainland cattle of myriad colours – but they have since been interbred so much that they are indistinguishable, from the highland cattle we know and love today.3
However, a herd does not a herd book make. Evolution is a gradual process, and all our modern cattle are descended from aurochs – gigantic horned bovines that roamed Afroeurasia until they were hunted to extinction 400 years ago.4 They were domesticated in two separate events: one in India, producing indicine cattle, who have humps over their shoulders; and one in the Fertile Crescent, producing taurine cattle, who do not have humps, such as highland cattle.5
About 6000 years later, the domesticated aurochs had evolved enough to be recognisably modern cattle. Some taurine cattle had been brought to Britain by Neolithic farmers, and were being herded across the Scottish highlands by Bronze Age communities.6 As valuable sources of milk, meat, and textile material, cattle formed an important part of life in herding communities. People would live near their herds as they travelled to different pastures, and sometimes remained close to them in death.
When someone died, they would occasionally be buried with grave goods such as a cattle hide. The burials were not always the same, with some hides being used as rugs or wrappings, while others were used as pillows or blankets. Therefore, the significance of the cattle hides is not clear – they could be a way of showing respect to pillars of the community; a way of repelling evil spirits; a symbol of rebirth, the community, or animal power; a remnant of a feast or sacrifice; or they could simply be a funerary custom, like how people are often buried in coffins today.7 Nonetheless, communities must have had a reason for placing cattle hides so deliberately into the final resting places of their deceased, and their inclusion with the remains of loved ones speaks volumes about what cattle meant to the community and the individual.
The importance of cattle was not unique to the Bronze Age. Here in St Andrews, the Byre Theatre gets its name from its origins as a cow byre,8 and even though it has gone through two reconstructions since its first opening in 1933, the bones of those who once lived there rest under the floorboards.
In 1970, during the Byre Theatre’s first reconstruction, animal bones dating back to the medieval period were unearthed by an archaeological excavation, removed for examination, and subsequently lost. Reports were left unfinished, but some of the findings were discussed in Medieval St Andrews: Church, Cult, City, a book edited by Michael Brown and Katie Stevenson that will be available in our museum shop when we feature an exhibition on medieval St Andrews next year.9
The bones primarily came from cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. They indicated that cattle were regularly raised to old adulthood instead of being slaughtered at a young age, suggesting that high quality hides that came from older cattle were desired more than the maximization of meat production. These hides could be processed and turned into materials like leather and parchment, which could then be used to make items like this catechism book from 1552.
Though cattle no longer roam the streets of St Andrews, there are still traces of them in our daily lives. From the milk in our cereal to the shoes on our feet, we are surrounded by reminders of how cattle are still just as important to us as they were to our ancestors 10,000 years ago. If these reminders are not enough, you could buy a mini highland cow from our shop, check out VisitScotland’s Coosday tag, or even go outside and find a real fold to watch – keeping a safe distance, of course.
- “Breeds of Livestock – Highland Cattle.” Oklahoma State University, accessed April 8, 2021. afs.okstate.edu/breeds/cattle/highland.
- “The Highland Cattle Breed.” Highland Cattle Society, accessed April 8, 2021. www.highlandcattlesociety.com/the-highland-cattle-breed.
- Same as Source 1.
- “Aurochs.” Harvard University, accessed May 1, 2021. histecon.fas.harvard.edu/climate-loss/extinction/aurochs.html.
- Pitt, Daniel, Natalia Sevane, Ezequiel L Nicolazzi, Davide E MacHugh, Stephen D E Park, Licia Colli, Rodrigo Martinez, Machael W Bruford, Pablo Orozco-terWengel. “Domestication of cattle: Two or three events?.” Evolutionary Applications 12, no. 1 (July 23, 2018), pp. 123-136. doi: 10.1111/eva.12674.
- Lelong, Olivia, Iraia Arabaolaza, Thomas Booth, Jane Evans, Richard Evershed, Susanna Harris, Hege Hollund, Hege Hollund, B J Keely, Angela Lamb, M D Pickering, A P Pinder, Susan Ramsay, Penelope Rogers, Lucija Šoberl, Clare Wilson, and Lyn Wilson. 2015. “Wrappings of Power: A Woman’s Burial in Cattle Hide at Langwell Farm, Strath Oykel”. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 144 (November), 65-132. journals.socantscot.org/index.php/psas/article/view/9811.
- Same as above.
- “History.” University of St Andrews, accessed April 30, 2021. byretheatre.com/contact-us/history/.
- Hall, Derek W, Catherine Smith, ed. Michael Brown and Katie Stevenson. “The Archaeology of Medieval St Andrews.” Medieval St Andrews: Church, Cult, City, (Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2017), pp. 173-179. Google Books, books.google.com/books?id=L7Q4DwAAQBAJ.
- Hamilton, John. Hamilton’s Catechisme, (St Andrews: John Scot, August 29, 1552). Special Collections, library.st-andrews.ac.uk/record=b1339219~S1.