Highland Cows

Written by Chris Thornton | 10th of September 2023
Highland cows / Highland Cattle

Scotland's national animal, believe it or not... is the Unicorn! But is it really? Unofficially the highland cow must surely be Scotland's true national animal. These fine shaggy beasts have become synonymous with Scotland and are used on everything you can imagine, from mugs and placemats to keyrings and tea towels... the Highland Cow seems to be worshipped by locals and tourists alike.

Let's find a little bit more about these beautiful animals and find out why they are so beloved in Scotland.

What is a Highland Cow?

Hairy coos / Heilan Coos are difficult to miss; they are about as big or a little smaller than a normal cow but covered in long shaggy red hair and have large horns protruding from their heads.

Originally there were two classes of Highland cow, one from the west coast or western Scottish islands called the Kyloe, and the larger breed named the highlander. Today the breed is simply called Highland.

Calves moderate bone structure /black and brindled cattle

Highland cow characteristics

This cattle breed is extremely tolerant to cold conditions due to their dual layer of thick oily hair and also thrives in areas with poor grazing land, feasting on types of grass and other plants that other breeds would avoid. For example, they can eat tree leaves, honeysuckle, poison ivy and even stinging nettles - anything available that has nutritional value - whereas lesser cow breeds would likely die of starvation on the same poor pasture. In some countries, Highland cows are used to prevent vegetation from taking over.

Their unusual double coat makes them ideally equipped for living in the Scottish Highlands, with high amounts of rainfall, snow and wind. Amazingly their coats grow with the conditions around them, so a Highland cow in north Scotland will grow a thicker coat than a cow-based in the hotter areas of Australia. They are exceedingly tough animals and will thrive in most environments, including much colder countries than Scotland such as Norway and Canada.

The coats of highland cows do not need to be brushed and maintain themselves without human helpers. However, for shows, their coats are often made to look beautiful; read more below about shows.

Highland cows are actually a little smaller than other breeds (such as the Aberdeen Angus) and take an entire year longer to reach maturity. Their frames are smaller, but mature bulls can still weigh up to 650-800 kg and females 450 - 500 kg. Heights average between 105 and 125 cm.

Highland cow coat colours

Although red is the most common colour, you do also get yellow and black highland cows. Red is predominant due to Queen Victoria commenting that she preferred the red coloured cattle when visiting the Highlands... selective breeding led to red becoming the most common colour with the black colour gradually declining over the years.

Even though red is now the most common colour, there are actually 7 official colours: Red, Black, White, Yellow, Brindle, Dun, and Silver Dun.

Highland cow horns, do female highland cows grow horns?

Both sexes of highland cow grow horns, but the direction of growth is different between them. Small nubs begin to form from about 7 months old and continue to grow until maturity at 28+ months old.

  • Bull's horns: A symbol of masculinity/strength, these horns curve forward, wider and are thicker.

  • Cow's horns: Narrower horns that rise at a steeper angle from the head.

It is believed that testosterone levels affect the angle and growth of horns, giving the males and females very different profiles. Growth can continue on but at a much slower rate, some older animals can grow very long horns.

The horns are also used as a foraging tool, for example in heavy snow, the horns can brush aside drifts to get down to the vegetation hidden below.

Damaged horns

If horns are damaged at any point in the growth cycle of the animal it can lead to crooked/misshapen horns... for example, one horn pointing up and one down, or the symmetry being completely wrong. Unfortunately, damaged horns will be a feature of an affected animal forevermore and will not self-correct.

Reproduction cycle

Highland cows will mate at any time of the year, and cows will normally give birth to a single offspring 280-290 days after conception. Twins can be born, but it is uncommon. At 18 months old sexual maturity is reached, and a cow can give birth to around 15 calves in its lifetime, but 12 is a more realistic number.

Highland cattle make for excellent mothers and can birth their calves completely independently of human help - rarely needing a caesarean section. The entire group will protect calves even if not their own; quite touching really.

Calves are quite small and weigh only 50-75 pounds at birth, but they grow very quickly due to the butter-rich milk provided by the mother cow.  See the video below of the calves; they are awfully cute.

How long do Highland cows live?

They can live as long as 20 years, around 5 years longer than other cow breeds. Highland cows living as long as 24 years is not unheard of.

A brief history of the Highland Cow

Highland cattle are Scotland's oldest native breed of cow and originated in the Scottish Highlands and Outer Hebrides (a Scottish island to the northwest). This hardy breed is a descendant of "Hamitic Longhorns" and was brought to the UK from Africa and Europe by neolithic people 4000 years ago.

Originally farmers kept Highland cows as a source of milk and meat. Groups of cows were not called herds but "folds" due to the stone shelters that housed them.

Highland cattle have been found in archaeological digs going back as for as 1200BC and were found to actually live aside humans in the same abode as their great body heat could help heat homes as well as give additional protection from cattle thieving.

In the 1670s, Scottish folk hero Rob Roy Macgregor operated both a cattle rustling and cattle droving enterprise. Part of this was protection money from cattle owners who hired Rob Roy and his men to protect their herds. This was called "black meal" or "black rent" and is the origin of the word blackmail.

Common practice to breed highland cows to produce beef - exceptionally hardy animals

Why are Scottish Highland Cattle Bred?

Although these awesome animals are synonymous with Scotland and loved by tourists, why are they actually bred? Sorry animal lovers, but the main purpose for breeding highland cattle is for their meat and to a lesser extent, milk.

Highland Cow Meat

Highland beef is an exceptional product. Although it's slow to mature, the beef is very low in fat and contains high quantities of protein and iron. The low-fat percentage is due to less fat being needed on the animal as it is insulated with hair rather than fat reserves. The fat marbling is perfect for flavour and is highly sought after by chefs in Scotland and around the world.

Perhaps the best aspect of Highland cow beef is knowing where it comes from. Standard beef from countries such as the USA and Australia can contain high amounts of growth hormone, which can be harmful to human health. Other farming practices such as keeping animals restricted in sheds and fed grain to produce a higher yield of meat per animal produces lower quality beef, as well as a lower quality of life for the animal.

Premium beef from highland cows is very much an artisanal product procured from healthy grass-fed animals reared in the highlands of Scotland. The cows roam free over large pastures and have a great quality of life. It is very natural and one of the healthiest beef products available as well as the tastiest.

Highland cattle meat of this quality demands a higher price but is definitely worth the cost if you want to sample some of the very best beef Scotland has to offer.

Some of the best things about highland beef:

  • Low in fat/cholesterol.

  • High in protein, vitamins A, B3, B6, B12 and E.

  • Contains omega-3 fats.

  • Excellent source of iron, zinc and phosphorus.

  • The healthiest beef for heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.

  • A rich, tender beef with fantastic flavour.

Highland Cow calves

Crossbred beef suckler cows

With highland cattle beef being a very high-end and expensive product, efforts to find a cheaper form of beef included cross-breeding Highland cows with other cow breeds. Crossbreeding with Shorthorn or Limousin modern beef bull creates a crossbred beef calf that has many of the fantastic traits of Highland beef but at a lower price, perfect for other markets in the food industry.

How much do Highland cows cost?

It depends on a variety of factors such as age and pedigree but costs would range from a few hundred pounds to a few thousand to potentially tens of thousands.

The best place to see what is currently available is the Highland Cattle Society website. At the time of writing, there were four cows available, only one was priced at £2000.

Highland Cow Milk

Highland cows do not produce as much milk as dairy cows but will produce around 9 litres per day. It is harder to extract the milk due to smaller teats! Highland milk has a very high butterfat content of up to 10%, which can be an acquired taste for humans, but is ideal for a young highland calf to gain weight naturally as nature intended.

Highland cow locations: South west Scotland / Island cattle / West Highlands / Cairngorms National Park

Can you make cheese from Highland cow milk?

Yes, the milk from highland cattle is amazing for cheese making, given the higher butterfat level. Caboc, one of Scotland's oldest cheeses, is made from highland cow milk. This is a double cream cheese and made without rennet, and it is very rich thick and creamy. It is rolled into 4cm logs and covered in toasted oatmeal. First produced in the 15th century, it was only affordable by the very rich.

Can Highland cows see?

The fringe of hair over the eyes of the cow is known as a "dossan", and yes it does seem to obstruct their vision... but when your a cow and all you eat is grass, maybe learning down to feed gives them enough vision to see. Maybe highland cows have heightened senses, or just don't care, but it's amazing how they can function with such poor visibility.

Mother Highland Cow near Balvenie Castle.

Are Highland cows friendly to humans?

Incredibly friendly. I drove directly past Highland cows grazing while I was on a quad bike last year, and even with very young calves next to them, they were totally unphased and kept chewing the cud.

It's not unknown to be charged by Highland cows, though, so it's always best to keep a respectful distance and not enter a field where they are grazing. Even if a Highland cow approaches you at a field perimeter, be aware of its horns which could unintentionally (or intentionally) hurt you.

Believe it or not, cows are responsible for the most human deaths per year in the United Kingdom from stampedes, kicks or just crowding humans and crushing them out of simple curiosity. I'm not sure if Highland cows are any more aggressive than normal cows but best to play it safe!

Where to see Highland Cows in Scotland?

Good question, it's hard to know exactly all of the locations but I have personally seen them:

  • Rothiemurchus Estate while quad biking, Aviemore, Highlands.
  • In the field directly next to Castle Roy, Nethy Bridge.
  • Next to Balvenie Castle in Dufftown, Moray.
  • Sometimes at Ruthven Barracks, Highlands.
  • Culloden Battlefield, Inverness.
  • Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore/Aviemore.
  • Various locations around Cairngorms National Park.
  • Pollok Country Park, Glasgow.
  • Dochgarroch Lock, Loch Ness, Inverness. See them before you cruise Loch Ness.
  • Swanston Farm, Pentland Hills, Edinburgh.
  • Blair Castle, Blair Atholl, Pitlochry.
  • Applecross Peninsula, north west Highlands.
  • Spean Bridge, Lochaber, Highlands.
  • Memsie, near Fraserburgh.
  • River Lochy, Fort William.
  • Loch Clair, Achnasheen, west Highalands.
  • Kingussie, Highlands.
  • Beauly, Highlands.
  • Lochgilphead.
  • Halkirk, Caithness.
  • Lochearnhead, Perthshire.
  • Loch Lomond.
  • Hillhead Farm, Aberdeen.
  • Castle Roy, Nethy Bridge.
  • Fields below Stirling Castle.
  • Bowawe, near Oban.
  • Dulnain Bridge, Grantown-on-Spey.
  • Crask Inn, Sutherland.
  • Isle of Iona.
  • Duirinish, Kyle.

Hairy cows downy undercoat

Farm shows & Highland games

Farm shows and highland games can often be a great time to see highland cows. The cows are often groomed to ensure the best look for judges. Their coats are treated with conditioners to fluff them up and make them more like large calves. These are often called "fluffy cows" and they look very cute in their pampered form and are major attractions at shows and highland games.

A Highland cow being judged at a show. Highland.cows / Highland coe

Highland cows in pop culture

As mentioned before, highland cows feature greatly in marketing Scotland to the world and may be one of the first icons of Scotland that springs to mind, other than tartan or bagpipes.

Artist Steve Brown took it to the next level and created colourful art based on Highland cows. You can see the piece below from my brother's house. Check out Steve Brown's Highland Cow prints.

Highland cow artwork by Steve Brown. Hyland cow / Hiland cow / Hoghland cow

Highland Cattle Society

Founded in 1884, the Highland Cattle Society represents highland cattle breeders in the UK and abroad and seeks to preserve highland cow breed standards and ensure the welfare of the animals. The society also promotes the breed worldwide both for conservation and for the farming of high-quality meat.

Highland cows are the oldest registered breed of cattle in the world and therefore requires a great deal of administration to maintain a pure bloodline and track any genetic variation.

Queen Elizabeth is the current patron of the society and even keeps her own fold at Balmoral Castle which has won many awards. Highland cattle beef is said to be the only beef her royal highness will consume.

Please read about the Highland Cattle Society on their official website.


So there we have it, an in-depth article on highland cows today. I hope it was of some interest to you and you intend to seek out some highland coos upon your visit to Scotland. They are amazing creatures and the true national animal of Scotland.

Further reading: Are there bears in Scotland?Newts in Scotland, Pine martens in Scotland.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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