The Origin of Miniature Highland Cattle

People are frequently curious about where mini cattle come from.  Our feeling is that the Highland breed was much smaller for hundreds of years, prior to about 1820, than they are today.  Why they were subsequently bred larger is not a simply answered question but since others have answered it in the past, we’ll re-print what they said and then give a summary.


From “Breeding and Improvement of Farm Animals”

Robert Bakewell of Dishley (1725 – 1795), had the imagination to picture the future needs of a growing population in terms of meat and set about creating a low-set, blocky, quick-maturing type of both sheep and beef.  He also worked with the heavy Blackhorse, shortened his back, brought him closer to the ground, replacing height and weight with activity and strength.  Bakewell paid little or no attention to fancy points but bred for animals that would weigh heavily in the best joints and show efficient feed conversion and quick maturity.

His success was largely due to three factors.  (1) He had a definite aim in mind and bred for it consistently.  Joints preserved in pickle hung from his walls, and skeletons of his most famous animals adorned his halls.  (2)  Bakewell divorced himself from the common practice of crossing breeds, which tends to dissipate good qualities, and adopted in its place the practice of “breeding the best to the best” regardless of relationships.  This meant a considerable amount of inbreeding, a practice generally taboo in the England of that day.  (3) Finally, he let for fancy prices, rather than sold, his males; in other words, he got his neighbors to “prove” the transmitting abilities of his sires for him.

He was very successful in his efforts.  How great was the change can be seen in the weights of animals at the famous Smithfield Market.  In 1710, beeves had averaged 370lb.; calves, 50lb whereas in 1795 they were 800 and 148 respectively.

To Bakewell above all other men belongs the credit for loosening the shackles that held animals back.  Using the crude principal of “like begetting like,” he molded animal inheritance into a preconceived pattern through close breeding and selection.  This system, then as now, leads to purity or homozygosity.  When other breeders adopted Bakewell’s methods, the foundations of our modern purebreds were laid.

From “The Drove Roads of Scotland”

Relatively small prices were quoted in the Scots cattle trade, at least up to the end of the eighteenth century.  The size of the beasts of these days must be borne in mind.

In his Analysis of the Statistical Account written about 1825 Sir John Sinclair quotes Bakewell, the great English breeder, as having said that he wished he had laid the foundations for his breed of cattle with Kyloes or West Highland cattle as being perfect in all but size; and all the evidence goes to show that the animals driven from the Highlands to England throughout the eighteenth century were indeed small.

An early commentary on the weight of cattle is contained in an 1798  contract for the supply of meat for the Navy, in which it was stipulated that the carcasses should not weigh less that 5 cwt., and it should be noted that this referred to animals already fattened for killing.  Even as late as 1816 a contract for meat for ships in the Downs stipulated only for a weight of 4 cwt., while a provision in a contract of 1823 requiring a weight of 6-7 cwt. is noted as unusual.

Culley in 1786 says that the weight of West Highland cattle in general is from 20 to 35 stone, and an Agricultural Survey of Dunbartonshire made about 1794 refers to the cattle in the north of the country as weighing only 11 – 14 st. fat.  Sir John Sinclair in his survey of the northern Counties in 1795 refers to a Highland bull weighing 250lb. as compared with a Bakewell bull of 400lb.

The cattle of South-west Scotland appear to have reached higher weights, at least by the end of the eighteenth century.  The Statistical Account for Kirkcudbright mentions weights of only 20-30 st., but Webster in 1794 speaks of Galloway cattle at five years old weighing 40-50 st., and Arthur Young writing about 1818 puts the average weight in the same district as 40-60 st., with some up to 70 st.

Contemporary estimates of the weight of cattle must, however, at least till well into the nineteenth century be accepted with caution, for in some cases this was reckoned in Dutch stone of 22lb.  It appears also that in parts of Central Scotland the stone used contained 16lb. of 22oz. each, while at Smithfield a stone of 8 lb appears to have been one time in use.

The average weight of cattle sold at Smithfield is reported as having increased by more that 100 percent between 1710 and 1775, and the Aberdeenshire cattle breeder Williamson stated in the early years of the nineteenth century that during his time the average weight of cattle produced in Aberdeenshire had, form better feeding, more than doubled.

Youatt, writing in 1834, stated that after careful inquiry he had arrived at the conclusion that the average weight of a fat bullock sold at Smithfield at that time was approximately 6 cwt.

James Macdonald’s General View of the Agriculture of the Hebrides, 1811.

Strangers, on visiting the Western Isles, cry out against the folly of the people in keeping cattle of a small breed; when by changing it for the Irish, or the Lowland Scotch, they might greatly enlarge the carcases of their stock.  But this this is often a rash opinion.  The great question in Herbridian grazing and rearing is, what breed will best answer the land and climate, and what size can be most easily and securely raised at the smallest expense?

Heavy cattle cannot seek their food in bogs and marshes, leap over ravines, rivers, and ditches, or scramble through rocks, and in the faces of cliffs and precipices, like the present breed, which is almost as active and nimble as a Chamois goat; nor can the poor Herbridian tenant afford to breed any stock which is not proof against the inclemency of his rains and storms all the year round.

It is infinitely safer for him, therefore, in the present imperfect state of his agriculture, and perhaps even at all times, and in all circumstances of his country to rear too small, that too large a breed of cattle; and to improve his indigenous, hardy, excellent species, that to import from other districts such breeds as may be indeed profitable for their for their circumstances and climate, but, which would probably perish in the Hebrides, without more attention being paid to them that, in his situation, he can conveniently afford.

A moderate size is accordingly preferred by all skillful graziers, i.e. bollocks or stots, which fattened at the age of five, weigh 30-36 stone avoirdupois, and heifers which weigh, at the same age 24-30 stone.

A  description of the cattle of Argyll as taken from John Smiths General View of the Agriculture of the County of Argyll, 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 Sky.

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, and brown; but the black is the most common, and the most run upon.

When in good condition, and from three or four years old, when they are commonly sold off, the carcase 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.

In Summary

In this article we have tried to determine the size of Highland Cattle at around 1800.  Our best guess is that the bulls ran 300 to 500 lbs and the cows somewhat less.  Their size was seen as a necessity of their difficult environment.

They were agile and hardy and could subsist in difficult times.  There also seems to be a precedent for the short leg.  The smallest of Highland Cattle seem to have come from the Hebrides Islands and the Isle of Skye.

Miniature Highland Cattle are the return of the crofters breed of 200 years ago.  We agree with Robert Bakewell – Highland Cattle are perfect   You only need them larger if you are going to drive them to market in London.

Rick Sanders, 2005


The following are some of the sources researched:

1.  “The Drove Roads of Scotland, A. R. B. Haldane, c 1952, 1968, 1973 and 1995, House of Loachar, Isle of Colonsay,Argyll,Scotland

2.  “A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, Martin Martin, circa 1695, edited and introduced by Donald Mcleod

3.  “The Complete Grazier, Fourth Edition, c 1816, Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, Paternoster Row.

4.  “Breeding and Improvement of Farm Animals”, Victor Arthur Rice and Fredrick Newcomb Andrews, c 1951, McGraw-Hill

5.  The economics and ecology of extensively reared Highland Cattle in the Scottish LFA: an example of a self-sustaining livestock system, Bignal, E.M., McCracken, D.I. & MacKay, A., c 1999, Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland


1.  A “Stone” (abbreviated as st.) is a unit of weight inGreat Britain (14 pounds or 6.4 kilograms, in this day and age).              However, when comparing the weights, be aware of this warning:

“Contemporary estimates of the weight of cattle must, however, at least till well into the nineteenth century be accepted with caution, for in some cases this was reckoned in Dutch stone of 22lb.  It appears also that in parts of Central Scotland the stone used contained 16lb. of 22oz. each, while at Smithfield a stone of 8 lb appears to have been one time in use.” 

That means that a stone could weigh from 8 pounds to 22 pounds.  A good bet is 16 pounds per stone.

2.  Avoirdupois means 16 ounces per pound.

3.  CWT means “hundred weight” a unit of weight in the British Imperial System equal to 112 pounds (50.80 kilograms). Consequently, 4 cwt equals 448 pounds.  CWT in theUS equals 100 pounds.

4.  A “Bullock” is defined as either a castrated bull (a steer) or a young bull.

5.  A “Stot” is defined as a young bull or ox, especially one three years old.

6.  Today’s Highland Cattle are descended from Kyloes, Highland Cattle and West Highland cattle – virtually all the same.  Kyloes are primarily black.  West Highland refers to the Hebrides Islands to the west of Scotland as does the term the Western Isles.  They are a chain of islands that run south to north and conditions on those islands remained “primitive” longer than most parts of Scotland.

7.  A “Heifer” is a female that has not yet had a calf.  Females are generally bred between the ages of 18 months and 3 years.

8.  A “Carcass” is the weight after the animal is gutted and skinned out.  It does not include head or hooves, either.  Typically the carcass weight is about 65% of the live weight.  Consequently, a carcass weight of 5 cwt (560 lbs) would equal a live weight of about 860 lbs.