3 March 2000

Halcyon days of the

Highland

In the first part of his brief

history of Highland cattle,

Ben Coutts takes a journey

back to the breeds golden

age between the wars and

in the early 1950s

IT was when I was a schoolboy back in the 1920s that I first heard about and fell in love with Highland cattle. What Scots laddie who loved his country and its history had not heard about the Kyloes, so called because they swim across the stretch of water between the islands and mainland called the Kyles on their journey to the Trysts (fairs) at Crieff or Falkirk?

I was lucky enough to work on a poor hill farm in Perthshire tenanted by a Skianach – a Skye man, just as a Mulock is one from Mull.

He earned his sparse living by selling milk (I would think full of TB and certainly with its fair share of dung from the teats, which were never washed) to the summer visitors in the nearby picturesque village.

He really wanted to breed Highland cattle. But sadly, as in many stages in the breeds lengthy history, they were not an economic proposition compared with other breeds of cattle.

As I was working for nothing, old Murdo Nicholson said he would take me to the Highland cattle sales in Oban. I remember the magical journey in the train from St Fillans, up Loch Earn, then from Balquidder through Glen Ogle en route to Oban. The line fell victim to Beechings axe long ago, but would have made a fortune from tourism today.

&#42 Drinking lemonade

Nor will I forget old Murdo disappearing at regular intervals into the mart bar and, knowing my father was a Church of Scotland minister, saying to me: "My Skye friends want me to have a refresh, Ben, but you will tell your father I was drinking lemonade".

Little did Murdo know that even in those days before I had tasted the ambrosia we distil in the Highlands, I knew his breath did not smell of lemonade. And Dad, on a pittance of a salary, would have loved to have been invited to have a refresh with the Skianachs.

Then came the sale and Murdo was thrilled because the fold (herd) which he had always said was the best, Duntulim from Skye, did well. Sadly Duntulim has no fold today and the owners depend on tourism for their living.

I was hooked. Little did I think then that I would be managing the Fordie fold between 1947 and 1951 when we had a champion bull one year and a reserve champion the next that was top price. From then on my involvement with the Highland cattle went from strength to strength.

Lets look at the breeds history. A recent article about the Queens Highland cattle in a broadsheet paper talked about her "herd" of Highland cattle.

But one does not have a herd – one has a fold. The reason for this is that in the old days cattle were the mainstay of the (human) Highlanders existence so they had to be milked and rear a calf. To do this in summer the cows grazed on the abundance of grass we get in late May and June because of the long hours of sunshine.

Then they were brought into the fold, which was a forerunner of sheep fanks – the stone-walled enclosures one sees scattered through the Highlands today. The girls of the crofting community had to get as much milk as possible from the family cows two teats since the calf got the other two.

There was a sort of Dairy Maid of the Year award given to the lass who got more milk than the calf. But had I been the owner of the cow I would have wanted the calf to have won!

The milk was high in butterfat content so they made their butter in those summer months. The Highland cattle also supplied heat and blood to their owners. Heat because the cattle were in the same tiny stone building thatched with heather and with a central fire as the people.

As for blood, they were regularly bled to make what we now know as black pudding. Now the blood is mixed with oatmeal but in those days it would have been mixed with bere (an inferior type of barley). As a result the cattle were so poor and weak in the spring that when the grass came many had to be literally lifted out of their winter quarters.

&#42 Famous drover

There must have been a huge number of Highland cattle in those days, as the most famous drover – Corriechoilie from Lochaber – used to take 2000 Highland cattle to the Falkirk and Crieff Trysts. The mind boggles as to how he fed the cattle and their drovers on long journeys, but he personally supervised the whole operation riding a Highland pony from one drove to another.

In recent times John Keay re-enacted a drove from Skye to Crieff. Even with many modern facilities unknown in the days of Corrie, John hit all sorts of problems. Not the least being that he did not have two old bullocks which had been trained to swim the Kyles and act as leaders for the herd. So he had to ferry his drove over from Skye.

From those early days of the Trysts, our local auction marts evolved and Dingwell and Oban became the centres for Highland cattle, which until the 60s were normally sold as 3-year-old bullocks. At the October sales in Oban hundreds of these bullocks came off the island boats and rampaged through the town before being finally corralled in the mart.

I wonder what modern Oban, full all-year-round with tourists, would think of the "trade marks" left on the streets by these cattle or of the disruption to life and traffic they caused?

But of course the autumn sales helped the shops. Many islanders made these sales their only trip away from home, the women shopping and the men going on a "spree".

At one bull sale just after the last war, when all the cattle going south went by train, a Skye crofter, in an old dirty rain coat tied round his waist with binder twine, came in the sale ring with an old bull. The bull was covered with dung and was being led by an equally dirty halter.

The crofter dropped the rope and gently swayed over to the auctioneers rostrum, having obviously the drink taken. As the catalogue showed no pedigree for the bull, the auctioneer leant over and asked "Is he off a good strain?" Back came the reply "No, he is off the Skye boat this morning."

These were halcyon days just after the war when food was scarce, farmers were looked up to and the farming fraternity took over Oban for a week in October. The breed has had its ups and downs since then, about which I will write in my next article.

Above: The last cattle drove of Highland cattle from Skye in the 1980s, with five miles to go to the old Market Park in Crieff where the Trysts were held. Below: Ben Coutts (left) being interviewed for a television programme.

An old picture of cattle crossing a Kyle with a boat in front, the trained bullocks in tow and the dogs and drovers trying to get the stragglers to follow the drove. A more recent attempt to re-enact this ended in failure.

Judging outside the old Oban Mart in 1952 with the author on the right of the picture showing his Highland bull that finished up reserve champion.