Where to See Highland Cows
Highland cows are icons of Scotland. Often called hairy coos, they do have a heritage stretching back to the days of the clans. Highland cattle are fairly widespread and here are a few suggestions about where you can see them, as well as some background information you'll enjoy.
Where to See Highland Cows
There are many icons of Scotland. Thistle, bagpipes, tartan, shortbread and so on. And the Highland cow. Yes, nothing says Scotland like this hirsute bovine. (Thought I’d get the synonym out of the way early on.)
Actually, those horns and the long fringe are a visual cliche. For instance, no Scottish commercial art gallery or gift shop is complete without a mandatory portrait of a hairy coo staring out of its frame. Tourists love ‘em.
‘The beasts’ are Hielan Coos
OK, let’s sort out the words before we start. Coo is Scots for cow. Hielan (rhyming with sea-man) is the way we pronounce Highland (sometimes - it depends on how Scottish we feel). And ‘hairy’ is exactly how we pronounce ‘hairy’ - and hence hairy coos...Oh, and sometimes I’ll refer to them as ‘the beasts’. I’m not sure if that’s a Scotticism or not, but just indulge me, will ya?
I’m pretty sure that most drivers of Scottish tour buses and other tour guides have their own locations where the photogenic coos are guaranteed to have their clients tumbling out of their seats and trying to get selfies with them. (Not altogether recommended. Those horns are dangerous if your hairy coo suddenly swings his/her head.)
Where to find Highland Cattle
OK, OK, I knew you’d want to get to the main question. You came here for some views of coos. (Actually, further down the page you’ll find some interesting stories about Highland cattle and how important they were in the Highlands.)
But for now, here’s where you can see ‘em. Basically: all over Scotland.
If you were to ask me the very first location that first spring to mind, then I'd say they are in the fields near the south side of Loch Achray, where the A821, the Duke’s Pass road drops down to loch level (if you are coming from the south. You can even see the beasts in this Google streetview link of the spot.)
But I only unfairly mention these as they are easy to see from a main Trossachs ‘tourist route’, especially for day visitors from Edinburgh and Glasgow. (Heck, I hope they're still there!) If you want the closest to Edinburgh, then there are Highland cattle at Swanston Farm. That’s within five miles (eight km) of the city centre, tucked below the Pentland Hills - the range you see to the south of the city.
For Glasgow, it could be the Highland cattle in Pollok Country Park. Again, easy to reach from the city centre.
Aside from three suggestions in easy to reach popular locations, there are are actually too many to list. I’ll confine myself to locations in the Highlands. That way you get a more authentic picture - though you can see the beasts in the south of Scotland too.
At the Rothiemurchus Highland Estate, for instance, close to popular Aviemore, you can go on a kind of coo safari to see them in the fields, with the impressive backdrop of the Cairngorms in shot as well.
Johanna reports them from the field actually adjacent to the large car park at the Culloden Visitor Centre near Inverness. (Though even if they’re not there remember that Culloden is a great visit anyway.)
And totally staying on the tourist trail, they are often to be seen adjacent to the Kilmahog Woollen Mill at the north end of Callander, which brings us back to the Trossachs again.
Well, let’s do a few more at random. They do buggy tours at Kirkton Farm by Melvich, west of Thurso, if you are travelling the north coast. (And you know you ought to…). I’ve photographed coos on the road to Applecross (the low-level way) from Shieldaig. The picture from that day is higher up the page.
There are apparently quite a few on the Applecross peninsula. And I’ve had to stop for them on the unfenced road on the upper part of Glen Lyon in Perthshire. (I mean I had to stop the car as they were sitting in the road.) Not too far away, there are quite a few places you can see them from the main A82, the road to the west, around, say, Crianlarich. They don’t sit on the road there though, fortunately.
Our favourite place for Hairy Coos
If you are heading for Skye (and so many of you will be, in spite of our enthusiasm for other Scottish islands) then you may want to make a wee diversion to Duirinish. (It isn’t that far from the Skye Bridge if you are driving, though it also has a nearby railway station.)
This fascinating little crofting township - very much ‘all of a piece’ and almost without a jarring note, architecturally speaking, has its common grazings right in the centre of the settlement. And it’s there you’ll see the cattle and the sheep together. I expect you to run amok with your camera/phone - but be sensible as well.
(Oh, and we have two pages about sheep on this site - see the end of this paragraph. One page is about sheep in Scotland in general, the other, for real hard-core sheepoholics, is on the North Ronaldsay breed.) But we've plenty more coo facts on this page.
In conclusion aboot coos: there is this guy in Plockton who does seal trips. He says that if you don’t see any seals from the boat you will get your money back. I’m awfully tempted to say that if you travel in the Highlands of Scotland and don’t see any Highland cattle, then you should get your money back from somebody. But not from me, obviously, as you are learning all this stuff for nothing…!
And now, if you want to discover more about hairy coos...read on...
Highland Cattle - where they came from
Cattle have been important in the Highland economy for hundreds of years.They were an important measure of the wealth of some ancient clans. Clan feuds, raids and forays often had cattle as the main target. And cattle also represented rent payments, sometimes from the tacksmen, the middle-men who held their grounds directly from the chief but ‘sub-let’ it to other clansfolk.
The geography and environment of the Highlands is the key. The poor, peaty, acid soil and extensive high ground meant the area was little suited to any other kind of farming. Some cereal could be grown in the sheltered places by the coast or in the glens, but the terrain favoured cattle - especially hardy beasts that could survive on coarse grazings.
And on these remote pastures the local native breed thrived. The ‘original’ Highland cattle were comparatively small and black and sometimes called kyloes. Some say the name derives from the association with the straits that separated, for example, Skye from the mainland, the Gaelic name for which was caolas or kyle. And, to get to markets in the south, the cattle were driven into the water - and had to swim.
It was the original native kyloes that evolved - or were bred - into today’s Highland cattle. Though today’s animals are larger, they have the same hardiness and ability to thrive on poor ground - so they are still suited to their northern terrain.
As for colour, they aren’t always red. As mentioned above, originally the native cattle were predominantly black. Some say it was Queen Victoria who remarked that she preferred the red, way back in the 1840s. Inevitably, in the usual sycophantic please-the-monarch fashion, the reds started to be selectively bred. Vicky even had her own herd at Balmoral Castle, though I doubt she’d be seen mucking out the byre very often.
In fact, today’s Hielan Coos can be black, brindled, yellow, dun or acrylic (except that kind is usually only seen in souvenir shops) as well as red - and still be pedigreed.
Highland Cattle in the Old Days - battles with the Caterans
So, here are the Highlands, with a wettish climate without extremes - winter frost by the sea isn’t much of a problem usually - so there is grazing for the cattle. This suitability was remarked on by several very early writers, including the 14th-century Scottish chronicler John Fordoun (John of Fordun) who remarked that these northern uplands were ‘full of pasturage grass for cattle and comely with verdure in the glens along the water courses’.
Note to self: must use ‘comely with verdure’ from now on to describe the Highlands.
Anyway, imagine: according to the Exchequer Rolls for 1378 there were 45,000 hides being exported from Scotland every year. That’s a lot of coos. And, as mentioned above, for centuries afterwards, cattle were a measure of wealth, coveted by the poorer clans - and the impetus for some major skirmishing. The organised bands of raiders were known as Caterans.
For example, in 1602, the men of Glengarry, west of the Great Glen, came east over the hills to Glenshee (on today’s A93 road Perth-Braemar). They were intent on raiding the Angus grazings in Glen Shee, Glen Isla and Strathardle. Records suggests they got away with 2,700 head but were harried and eventually stopped by the locals, intent on recovering their stock.
This suggests it was all a bit of a to-do - so much so it earned the name the Battle of Glenshee and tales were told of the skill of a certain Cam Ruadh. He arrived from a neighbouring glen with his bow and arrow and apparently helped turn the tide (or, at least, the cattle). Only a few of the Caterans escaped back to the west, though many local households also lost men.
Highland Cattle Droving
When more peaceable times eventually followed on, the practice of rearing beef in the north and selling it on in the south became widespread. A network of drove roads ran like arteries through Scotland and you can read all about these on our dedicated cattle droving page (link above). Remember too that many of the Highlanders with cattle skills emigrated west and in turn both them and their descendants became the herders, ranchers and cowboys of the New World.
In turn, the arrival of the railways, then road transport, finished the practice of moving cattle from the Highlands on foot. But the hairy coos you see today are part of the heritage of the Highlands and a link with the old ways.