Wild cattle were a part of the native fauna of the forests, grasslands and marshes of post-glacial Scotland. Domestic cattle arrived with the first human colonists about 5000 years ago and from these was developed the Kyloe of the Highlands and western Islands - the breed stock of Highland cattle. A transhumant cattle economy developed which reached its heyday in the nineteenth century when 150,000 cattle per annum were taken across the drove roads from the west to the markets in the east. The ecological effect of this pastoral economy must have been dramatic.
The history of cattle in Scotland
Wild cattle, the aurochs, Bos primigenius, colonised Scotland between the Ice Ages and when the ice retreated it became a resident species; its remains have been found northwards to Caithness (see Dennis, 1998). When Neolithic and Bronze Age people colonised Scotland (5000 years BP) they introduced domesticated Celtic shorthorns or long-fronted ox (Bos longifrons) and the wild and domesticated cattle may have existed together in places until the 9th or 10th century when the aurochs became extinct in Scotland (it became extinct in Europe in 1627 in Poland). The original domesticated Celtic shorthorn became the Kyloe, the cow of the Highlands and Western Islands - small, hardy black cattle, they were described by Bishop Leslie in 1578 as "not tame….like wild harts (deer)…which through certain wildness of nature, flee the company or sight of men".
The following description of the cattle of Argyll is taken from John Smith in 1798 "the most profitable breed of cattle, and that which is found to be best suited for Argyllshire is the true West Highland breed. It was for some time considered as an improvement upon this breed to cross it with cattle brought from Sky. But from superior breeding, and greater attention in rearing, the native breed of Argyllshire is now of much greater size than that of Skye. The form most wished for is, to get them short in the legs, round in the body, straight in the back, and long in the snout. They are of various colours, black, dun, branded and brown; but the black is the most common, and the most run upon. When in good condition, and from three to four years old, when they are commonly sold off, the carcass may weigh from 360 to 400 lb avoirdupois. But such as are brought to better pasture as in England, may be brought to weigh 560 lb or more. The price is generally according to the size and shape, but occasionally varies according to the demand. They are not wrought, nor supposed to be well calculated for working, as they are too light for that purpose…"
The total number of cattle in Scotland in early times is not known but the Exchequer Rolls for 1378 show the number of hides exported as being nearly 45,000. In the early sixteenth century Major reported that many men possessed as many as 10,000 sheep and 1000 cattle (Haldane, 1997). During the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th centuries cattle were the main form of transportable wealth. By the end of the 16th century the beginnings of a well organised trade in cattle began which involved the movement of large numbers annually from the distant pastures to the main markets in central Scotland and from there to England. This trade in cattle persisted into the 19th century. In 1777, 90,000 head were sold in Falkirk and by 1850 this had risen to 150,000 per annum (Dennis, 1998).
Cattle rearing from the earliest times was based on local transhumance with cattle moving to summer pastures in areas wherever land was underused and population density was low. It still prevailed on low-lying land in the 12th and 13th centuries and probably continued to operate on moors, marshes and seasonally flooded land until late medieval times; in the Hebrides low-lying shielings existed until recent times, but generally by the 17th century the substantial areas of grazing needed for transhumance were on the hills and mountains (Bil, 1989). The earliest surviving written documents referring to transhumance date from the 12th century (Barrow, 1981) and this pastoral-based agrarian economy persisted through the 17th and 18th centuries gradually being replaced by more sedentary livestock rearing and cultivation and permanently inhabited farmland. Historical records show that much of the agricultural land which is today regarded as being of high biodiversity, has its origin in a pastoral agricultural practice dating back for over 700 years. In many areas these practices only began to decline less than a century ago and in some places they still survive in a modified form to the present day.