scottish highland cow standing in a field

Beauty of the Beast: Scottish Highland Cattle

In the rugged tapestry of the Scottish Highlands, where the earth whispers ancient tales to those who dare to listen, roam creatures that are as enigmatic as they are majestic—Highland cattle. These beautiful beasts, with their formidable horns and woolly coats, are the living embodiment of Scotland’s wild heart. They are as much a part of the landscape as the rolling hills and the heather that paints the ground purple. To witness these animals where they hold court, grazing amidst Scotland’s towering
mountains, endless skies, and the deep, mysterious lochs, is to connect with something ancient and timeless, a sentient link to when the world was younger, wilder.

Highland cattle, or “Heilan coos” as they’re affectionately known in Scots, are not just livestock—they are icons of Scotland, symbolizing strength, resilience, prosperity, and the enduring charm of the Highlands. Their hardiness to Scotland’s rugged terrains and harsh weather conditions represents the unyielding spirit of the Scottish people. With their origins shrouded in the mists of time, these animals have roamed the glens and mountains of Scotland for thousands of years, becoming as integral to Scottish identity as tartan and whisky.

Standing as silent witnesses to centuries of history, from clan battles to the peaceful pastures of today, Highland cattle are storytellers, woven into the fabric of Scottish literature, music, and poetry—they are the guardians of Scotland’s folklore and mythology. Scottish poet Robert Burns described Highland cattle in his pastoral scenes, depicting the essence of Highland life and livestock. In “The Two Drovers” by Sir Walter Scott, Highland cattle are emblematic of the Scottish Highlands’ way of life, deeply intertwined with the region’s culture and heritage. In the earliest tales of mythical creatures, kelpies and each–uisge (water horses) transformed themselves into Highland cattle to deceive humans. To encounter Highland cattle is to step inside a storybook, to be invited into a narrative as old as the hills.

Years ago, on the craggy, emerald isle of Islay in Scotland, I found myself encountering Highland cattle for the first time. I was searching for great, smoky whisky, distilled from the peat-rich earth on the island, but what I discovered quenched my spirit rather than my thirst. I chased a disappearing trail over the misty mountains, a path that hugged the headlands, illuminated by the dwindling rays of the sun. Below, on the shoreline, oystercatchers scurried, playfully racing the ebb and flow of the tide. Cresting the rise of a verdant hillside, I was suddenly confronted by a colossal Highland bull, its formidable horns sweeping the grass like relics of a bygone era. There it stood, regal on the spongy patches of gorse and heather, its tousled coat buffeted by the Atlantic gales. With deliberation and grace, it moved through the heather and fog like a beast from a more primal age. The bull’s fur was a wild tapestry, woven with the fiery hues of the setting sun and the deepest browns of the fertile earth. The bull raised its head and gazed at me, a silent sentinel challenging my presence with a mere glance, battering me into stillness. Yet, there was no malice—only a tranquil authority that held me captive.

With a fool’s luck, I stepped closer, and the bull allowed. It snorted, sending hot vapour from its nostrils, veiling its visage in a breath of the Highlands. As it graciously tolerated my approach, I came near enough to see my reflection in the depths of its calm, stoic eyes. I was trapped with enchantment, standing silent vigil with a mystical beast made flesh—majestic and powerful, but at peace, generously sharing its sacred terrain. It’s a palpable moment etched in my memory, a poignant communion between man and beautiful beast in the soulful expanse of the Scottish Highlands.

This article was originally published in No. 33 of Globetrotting Magazine.

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Eric Hendrikx
Eric Hendrikx

Eric Hendrikx is a renowned author and writer whose globetrotting pursuits have taken him to far riches around the world in search of fantastic foods and great places to ride motorcycles. On his journalistic adventures, he's shared a grill with Jason Momoa, cruised on motorcycles with Keanu Reeves, and skateboarded with Tony Hawk. He currently lives in Toronto with his wife and their two black labs.

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