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1 Nov 2018

The secret life of cows

Written by Lily Barnes, Morton Documentation and Digitisation Officer
Cows on a beach
Cows were of central importance to the crofters Margaret Fay Shaw befriended when she first arrived on the islands, and they remain so today. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that cows can be found lurking conspicuously in the corners of many Hebridean traditions, stories and songs.

It’s hard to miss the animals in Margaret’s photographs. It’s rare to go more than a few images without stumbling across a beloved cat, spotting a curious canine, or even catching a glimpse of a seabird. Ubiquitous among Margaret’s more rural images, however, are the islands’ many sheep and cattle. When Margaret arrived on South Uist in 1929, it was still customary for some livestock to sleep in the same house as their human owners. Alongside Pèigi and Màiri – the MacRae sisters – and Màiri’s son Dòhmnall, the Pittsburgh heiress now found herself sharing her space and her life with all manner of furry companions. While they were infinitely fond of their dogs, cats and sheep, one of the most important members of the four-legged family was a Highland cow named Dora.

Highland cows grazing on South Uist
Highland cows grazing on South Uist (© National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)

The reason that Dora and other cows were so valuable was, of course, because of their milk. Margaret writes that the diet of the people on South Uist mainly consisted of herring, potatoes and oats. She lists a number of ‘Recipes for Special Dishes’ in her book Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist (1955), many of which combine these three staples with dairy products such as milk, cream and butter. One in particular is a recipe for a much sought-after dulse soup. Dulse is a seaweed, today sometimes known as ‘the bacon of the sea’. The recipe calls for the dulse to be finely chopped, then combined with milk, butter and pepper. This was said by Pèigi MacRae to be ‘so good’ that ‘you eat your finger after it’. From these recipes it’s clear that dairy products were real treats, and the cows that produced them held in high regard.

Màiri MacRae milking Dora
Màiri MacRae milking Dora (© National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)

To produce these delicacies at Taigh Màiri Anndra (Màiri MacRae’s House), Màiri would milk Dora. And to avoid spilling the milk, Dora’s legs would be tied with a buarach (or fetter) so that she couldn’t kick over the pail during the process. These buaraich were often a central theme in milking songs, which would be sung during milking with the idea that they pleased the cows and encouraged them to give more milk. In one song published in Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist, the singer promises their aghan donn (brown heifer) a buarach made of silk. In another they describe their cow as ‘A bhò chridheag ‘s a bhò ghràdhag, Cridheag nam bà’ (Dear little cow, beloved little cow, dearest of cows). With flattery like that, what cow could resist producing the best milk she could?

Highland cow lying on the ground
Truly the dearest of cows (© National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)

But despite the fondness expressed in these songs, there could also be a darker side to cattle. Margaret writes that Angus John Campbell, the ferryman on South Uist, had told her stories of supernatural beasts known as sea cows. Rather than the manatees or dugongs known by this name today, these were amphibious beasts that could choose to take to the land – to both the benefit and the detriment of the people who lived there.

Cows walking to market at Gerinish, South Uist
Cows walking to market at Gerinish, South Uist (© National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)

In one story, a farmer on Mingulay is said to have found a strange cow among his herd one morning. Though he perhaps should have been suspicious, he was pleased to find that she was a good milker, better than all his others in fact. He sold the rest of his herd, keeping only the alien cow and her calves. As was customary, she and her brood stayed under the same roof as the farmer and his family. After several years, presumably having grown fat from dulse soup and well-stocked with butter and cheeses, the farmer decided that the cow was getting old. He remarked to his wife that he would kill her the next day, and off they went to bed.

The next day he let the cow loose, but having heard his plan she walked straight towards the shore. With the rest of the herd following behind her, she disappeared into the sea without a trace, just as she had come out of it many years before. ‘That night’, writes Margaret, ‘the old man was without a cow to his name’.

Cows on a beach
Could these cows be about to plunge into the surf from whence they came? (© National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)

The saying goes that you should never look a gift horse in the mouth. But a gift cow? Maybe check to see if it has gills ...

The Morton Charitable Trust has been funding fieldwork on the National Trust for Scotland’s photographic collections since 2014. In 2018–19, this work will further raise the profile of the collections through research, articles, talks and dedicated projects. The project will also involve the digitisation of the Margaret Fay Shaw photographic archive of mid-20th-century Hebridean life, leading to an updated database with high-quality images.