‘Cattle; Their Breeds, Management and Diseases; With An Index’ by William Youatt was published in 1834 by Baldwin & Cradock (London) for The Society For The Diffusion Of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) as the latest addition to their ‘Library of Useful Knowledge’.
(1776-1847) was an outstanding Veterinary Surgeon born in Exeter in the county of Devon. He devotes several pages (p64-73) to ‘The Hebridean Breed’ and I have extracted some of his more interesting observations (in italics
), rearranging them under ten different headings and with some comments of my own:
THE WEST HIGHLAND CATTLE/THE HEBRIDEAN BREED
There is little or no variety of breeds of cattle in the Hebrides. They are pure West Highlanders.
Apparently the most ancient breed of cattle in the country.
We have been favoured with the following excellent description of the true Kyloe, or West Highland bull, by Malcolm M’Neill, Esq., of the Isle of Islay, the southernmost of the inner range of the Hebrides:
‘The Highland bull should be black, the head not large, the ears thin, the muzzle fine, and rather turned up. He should be broad in the face, the eyes prominent, and the countenance calm and placid. The horns should taper finely to a point; and, neither drooping too much, nor rising too high, should be of a waxy colour, and widely set on at the root. The neck should be fine, particularly where it joins the head, and rising with a gentle curve from the shoulder. The breast wide, and projecting well before the legs. The shoulders broad at the top, and the chine so full as to leave but little hollow behind them. The girth behind the shoulder deep; the back straight, wide, and flat; the ribs broad; the space between them and the hips small; the belly not sinking low in the middle; yet, in the whole, not forming the round and barrel-like carcase which some have described. The thigh tapering to the hock-joint; the bones larger in proportion to the size than in the breeds of the southern districts. The tail set on a level with the back. The legs short and straight. The whole carcase covered with a thick long coat of hair, and plenty of hair also about the face and horns, and that hair not curly.’
Mr. Macgillivray, in his ‘Prize Essay on the present State of the Outer Hebrides,’ says,
‘The black cattle are small, but well proportioned; and on the tacksmen’s farms (a tacksman is one who has a large tract of land, which he holds by lease) they are generally of good breed, and, although not heavy, very handsome. They are covered with a thick and long pile during winter and spring; and a good pile is considered one of the essential qualifications of a cow.
The most common colours are black, red, brown, or brandered, (that is, a mixture of red and brown in stripes—brindled.’) A whitish dun colour is also pretty frequently seen, not unlike that of the original wild cattle of Scotland…and it is remarked, that in all their traditions or fables of what are called fairy-cattle, this is the colour ascribed to these animals’
The value of the West Highland cattle consists in their being hardy, and easily fed; in that they will live, and sometimes thrive, on the coarsest pastures; that they will frequently gain from a fourth to a third of their original weight in six months’ good feeding; that the proportion of offal is not greater than in the most improved larger breeds; that they will lay their flesh and fat equably on the best parts; and that, when fat, the beef is closed fine in the grain, highly flavoured, and so well mixed or marbled, that it commands a superior price in every market.
Mr. Moorhouse, from Craven, in Yorkshire, in 1763, was the first Englishman who came into the Hebrides to buy cattle. In the absence of her husband, Mr. M’Donald, of Kingsburgh, he was kindly entertained by Flora M’Donald, who made up for him the same bed that, seventeen years before, had received the unfortunate Prince Charles.
…no other breed of cattle will thrive on these islands…the Kyloes could not possibly be improved by being crossed with any others…attempts at crossing have only destroyed the symmetry of the Kyloes, and rendered them more delicate, and less suitable to the climate and the pasture.
The origin of the term Kyloe is obscure. Some writers, and among whom is Sir John Sinclair, have curiously traced it to their crossing the many Kyloes, or ferries which abound in the West of Scotland; others, and with more propriety, and one of whom is Mr. Macdonald, the author of the Agriculture of the Highlands, tells us, that it is a corruption of the Gaelic word which signifies Highland, and is commonly pronounced as if spelled Kael.
18th CENTURY NEGLECT?
Forty years ago the treatment of cattle was, with very few exceptions, absurd and ruinous, to a strange degree, through the whole of the Hebrides. With the exception of the milch cows, but not even of the calves, they were all wintered in the field: if they were scantily fed with hay, it was coarse, and withered, and half-rotten; or if they got a little straw, they were thought to be well taken care of. The majority got little more than seaweed, heather, and rushes. One-fifth of the cattle, on an average, used to perish every winter from starvation. It proved the excellency of the breed, that in the course of two or three months so many of them got again into good store-condition, and might almost be said to be half-fat, and could scarcely be restrained by any fence: in fact, there are numerous instances of these cattle, which had been reduced to the most dreadful state of impoverishment, becoming fattened for the butcher in a few months, after being placed on some of the rich summer pastures of Islay, Lewis, or Skye.
It may well have been that, circa 1794, the dominance of the Kelp Industry and the imbalance it imposed between the needs of agricultural subsistence and the demands of commerce might help explain this otherwise ‘strange degree’ of apparent neglect?
The calves are separated from their dams two or three weeks before the cast-cows are sent to the cattle-tryst at the end of October, for it is believed that if the cows had milk in their udders they might be injured in the long journeys they are then to take; the greater part of them being driven as far as the Lowland districts, whence they gradually find their way to the central and southern counties of England.
It is true that grazing has never been the principal object of the Hebridean farmer, or has scarcely been deemed worthy of his attention: there are very few cattle fattened upon any of the islands…
Can we be certain that, in much older times, when the nucleated settlement known as a ‘baile’ or township was farming using the run-rig system, that the ‘Hebridean’ farmers did NOT fatten their cattle on the land?
The different islands of the Hebrides contain about one hundred and fifty thousand of these cattle, of which it is calculated that one-fifth are sent annually to the main land, principally through Jura, or across from the ferry of the Isle of Skye. If these average about 5L. per head, the amount will be 150,000L., or more than the rental of the whole of the islands, which Mr. Macdonald calculated at 106,720L, but which now produces a greater sum. Cattle, therefore, constitute the staple commodity of the Hebrides. Three thousand five hundred are annually exported from the island of Islay alone.
This is astounding: the year is 1834 and the Clearances (that so cruelly replaced human feet with the hooves of sheep) are still occurring yet the estimated income from island cattle is nearly 150% of that from island rents. Were island estates ever really as unprofitable as their proprietors claimed?
We have stated that more than 20,000 of the Hebridean cattle are conveyed to the mainland, some of whom find their way even to the southernmost counties of England ; but like the other Highland cattle their journey is usually slow and interrupted. Many of these small cattle are permanently arrested in their journey, and kept on low farms to consume the coarse grass, which other breeds refuse to eat; these are finished off on turnips, which are given them in the field about the end of Autumn, and they are sold about Christmas.
The pace of these journeys may have appeared leisurely but I imagine that, for the drovers at least, they were arduous, risky, dangerous and uncertain undertakings.
Their first resting-place is not a great way from the coast, for they are frequently wintered on the coarse pastures of Dumbartonshire ; and in the next summer, after grazing awhile on the lower grounds, they are driven farther south, where they are fed during the second winter on turnips and hay. In April they are in good condition, and prepared for the early grass, on which they are finished.
There is more on the subject of cattle sales and droves in these pieces:
Little is known of the history of the Hebudans, except that they descended from the same stock with the Irish and the Highlanders; but were oftener exposed to the incursions of roving tribes from every quarter, and who successively mingled with, and were lost among, but never superseded the original inhabitants.
I believe that accords reasonably well with our current understanding.
‘…for more than three centuries, the Hebrides were the resort of refugees, smugglers, and freebooters; and, at no very remote period, the inhabitants were singularly uncultivated, ignorant, idle, and miserable.’
I have no idea whether the islands ever enjoyed three hundred consecutive years of visitations from ‘refugees, smugglers, and freebooters’ but I suspect that comment tells us more about William Youatt than it does about anything regarding the history of the Hebrides.
His description of the island Gael ‘at no very remote period’ as ‘uncultivated, ignorant, idle and miserable’ is, quite simply, uncultivated, ignorant, idle, and miserable…
After, however, the union between the English and Scottish kingdoms, and when civilization had commenced on the mainland, the Hebrideans began to be reclaimed, and that was chiefly manifested in, and promoted by, a change of occupation. Although they did not abandon their seafaring life, they became honest, and were industrious fishermen, and they began to learn to be agriculturists.
Odd when one stops to consider of all those Old Norse names on the islands that mean ‘Farmstead’ and that fishing had only relatively recently replaced farming, due to the displacement of people…
The cows were housed during the winter; but among the small farmers this was conducted in a singular way—for one rude dwelling contained and sheltered both the family and the cattle.
The habitations of these people are usually divided into three apartments. The first, which occupies half of the hut, is the general entrance, and contains the agricultural implements, poultry, and cattle. The second, comprising a fourth of the hut, is that in which the family reside; and the inner one, of the same size, is the sleeping room and granary.
There are no chimneys; the smoke fills the whole hut, and escapes partly by a hole in the roof, partly by the door, and partly by orifices formed between the wall and the roof as substitutes for windows, and which, in stormy weather, are closed by a bundle of straw.
The fire is placed in the middle of the floor. The soot accumulates on the roof, and, in rainy weather, is continually dropping, and for the purpose of obtaining it for manure, the hut is unroofed in the beginning of May.
The family had their beds of straw or heath in the niches of the walls, while the litter was never removed from the cattle, but fresh layers of straw were occasionally laid down, and so the floor rose with the accumulation of dung and litter, until the season of spreading it upon the land, when it was at length taken away.
The evolution of house-types is a fascinating area of study:
The substantial and complex nature of ‘blackhouse’ construction may be glimpsed in these images:
The evidence given to the 1883 Napier Commission by Thomas Brydone, Factor of South Harris, is relevant:
The…milk is exceedingly rich, and the butter procured from it is excellent.
…the dairy is considered as a matter of little consequence in the Hebrides; and the farmer rarely keeps more milch cows than will furnish his family with milk and butter and cheese.
In North Uist and Tiree the dairy is more successfully followed than in the other islands, partly on account of the goodness of the herbage, but principally because the cows yield milk for a longer time after calving than in the neighbouring isles. The management of the dairy is exceedingly simple, and, from the very simplicity of it, other districts may learn a useful lesson. The cows are driven as slowly and quietly as possible to the fold; the wild character of the animals, as well as a regard to the quality of the milk, show the propriety of this. They are carefully drained to the last drop, not only on account of the superior richness of the latter portion of the milk, but because the retention of any part is apt to hasten, if it does not produce, that which is one of the principal objections to the Highland cows as milkers, the speedy drying up of their milk.
Youatt’s opinions on islanders is awful but his attitude to animal husbandry is exemplary.
The milk is carried to the house with as little disturbance as practicable, and put into vessels of not more than two or three inches in depth. The cream is supposed to rise more rapidly in these shallow vessels; and it is removed in the course of eighteen hours.
An episode of the BBC’s historical reconstruction programme ‘The Edwardian Farm’ (unfortunately not available on iPlayer iPlayer )
included this very same approach. The series, based upon practices in use some 70 years after the publication of Youatt’s book, was based in his own home county of Devon.
A cow will not, on the average, yield more than 22 lbs. of butter (of 24 oz. each) in the summer season: she will yield about 90 lbs. of cheese, which is much liked by some on account of the aromatic flavour which is given to it by the mixture of rose-leaves, cinnamon, mace, cloves, and lemon with the rennet.
I am a little confused for there was no weight system that divided a pound into 24 ounces thus it appears that each of these 22 pounds of butter weighed 24 ounces which is one-and-a-half pounds and therefore suggests a yield of 33 lbs of butter? (You may be interested in a guide to Old Scottish Weights and Measures
The milk of the cows is said to be excellent, but on account of the filthy habits of too many of the cotters, the butter and cheese are eaten by few beside the natives.
The longevity of many islanders suggests that their dairy produce wasn’t too toxic despite these ‘filthy habits’ and it is worth remembering that it would be another quarter-of-a-century before the ‘miasma’ theory of disease was overthrown, following yet another Cholera epidemic in London…
SEA-WARE & SPRING
In the spring all the cattle are in poor condition, and those of the small tenants are in most wretched plight: sea-weed (chiefly Fucus canaliculars), boiled with husks of grain and a little meal or other substances, are then employed to support them; and in many places the cattle during the winter and spring regularly betake themselves to the sea-shore at ebbtide to feed upon the fuci.
The rapidity of vegetation in the latter part of the spring is astonishing in these islands. A good pasture can scarcely be left a fortnight without growing high and rank; and even the unenclosed and marshy and heathy grounds are comparatively luxuriant.
SUMMER & SHIELINGS
In summer the cows and the milch-sheep are sent to the inland glens and moors, which are covered with hard grasses and rushes, because the portion that yields soft grass is not sufficient for their consumption during the whole year. They are attended by a woman from each family, who has a small hut or shealing for her habitation, and who makes the little butter and cheese which their scanty milk affords.
The history of the Shieling is a fascinating topic that I intend examining in detail at a later date.
In summer all the cattle are pastured; the calves are sent to their dams twice in the day, and the strippings, or last part of the milk, is taken away by the dairy-maid, for it is commonly supposed, that if the calf is allowed to draw all the milk he can, it will keep the dam in low condition, and prevent her being in calf in proper time.
This refers to the practice on farms.
ONE FINAL OBSERVATION
Oxen are never used for the plough or on the road on any of the Hebrides.