History of Shetland Cattle


3000 BC

The earliest settlers arrived in the Shetland Islands about 5,000 years ago during the Neolithic Age from the British mainland. The origins of the first cattle are unclear and await further scientific analysis, however in the light of recent archaeological investigations in Orkney and Shetland it now seems likely that they are descended from the aurochs, wild cattle which roamed the forests of Britain and Europe after the last Ice Age.

Neolithic people may well have been capturing young aurochs which they tamed as best they could – no mean feat as aurochs were renowned in historic times for their ferocity and size. Archaeological remains indicate they would have stood shoulder to shoulder with the modern Charolais, originally from France but now one of the most numerous of the very large beef breeds on British farms.

Aurochs remains found in both Orkney and Shetland from the Neolithic period indicate a very large animal indeed. Therefore, perhaps, the first cattle of Orkney and Shetland were aurochs calves carried over the Pentland Firth from the Scottish mainland, trussed up in the bottom of a wicker-framed skin-clad boat, possibly similar to the Irish curragh in style though considerable longer.

These Neolithic cattle bones reveal interesting features of early domestication in that some clearly suffered arthritis in their joints. Were they just used as draught animals? Were they kept in cramped conditions throughout the winter? Also the teeth show many incremental light and dark ridges denoting periods of poor health, evidence, it is believed, that they lived through regular periods of great hardship – doubtless the winters. These ridges could help explain why, as time passes, the cattle bones get smaller and smaller.

Quite simply, it is thought these early inhabitants could not feed their stock well enough through the winters and so two things happened: the bigger animals which needed more fodder died off during the lean times, and the people began to favour the smaller more manageable types which survived. By the Bronze Age there appear to be two types of cattle remains – larger and smaller animals. Clearly, if a theory proposed by Julie Bond of Bradford University is correct, size selection took a long time to complete.

0 AD

However by the Iron Age, about 2,000 years ago, only the smaller cattle were to be found on sites in both Orkney and Shetland. At a recent archaeological dig at Upper Scalloway, the bone remains reveal an animal which would have stood just over one metre high at the shoulder. Archaeologists describe this animal as being a short-legged, stocky, short-horned beast. They feel that these animals were descended from a gene pool, with little or no importation of fresh bloodstock, judging by a very common dental defect found among animals, namely a missing innermost molar.

1000 AD

Norsemen arrived during the last part of the first millennium, many of them on the run from the King of Norway. As far as we can tell they were not the most tolerant of invaders. They introduced their own language, writing and architecture to the near-total exclusion of all else. However, throughout the Viking period, the cattle appear to remain skeletally very similar. Whether the new immigrants, being primarily a farming people, used the domesticated animals they found here or imported some of their own cattle is as yet unclear. Cattle did exist in Norway at that time which were very like those of the northern isles, and to this day the rare South and Westland breed of southwestern Norway resembles Shetland cattle closely.

Without more research it is impossible to pronounce one way or the other, but it is safe to conjecture that the Norsemen would not have been able to import the large numbers of animals which they would require to establish new farms and so would have made use of the local cattle which by this time must have been well adapted to their conditions.

Throughout the Norse rule of Shetland, cattle received little detailed description in written documents, save for their importance as a means of paying taxes to the Norse landlords, who owned much of Shetland until the sixteenth century. One common form of payment of taxes was in the "ox penny", a levy per head of cattle; another was in butter.

1500 AD

References in the fifteenth-century Court Books of Shetland, which survive in archives, tell of the numbers of cattle held by various landowners. Obviously some landowners held sizeable herds, large numbers of which must have been wintered outside as there appears to be no evidence of significant housing for stock.

It is interesting to speculate whether these large herds of cattle were "hefted" like hill flocks of sheep, being born and bred on specific tracts of land to which they would adhere unless forced off by people or a paucity of food. Young boys or men unfit for work may well have watched the herds, ensuring that they did not break through onto the cultivated land and destroy the crops. When the landlord or one of his tenants wanted a cow suitable for milking or a beast for eating, the animal would have been broken and tamed.

1800 AD

It was not until 1797 that a surviving document would record detailed descriptions of the cattle themselves. The court records of Shetland contain an account of a dispute between a large landowner and one of his tenants, who at the end of the tenancy argue over an inventory of farm goods. Contained in this inventory is a full list of the cattle on the farm, their colours, names, ages and, importantly, their heights. This reveals a herd remarkably consistent at least in size with earlier archaeological finds; these were still small beasts of a very similar shoulder height to those of the Iron Age.

One of the fullest descriptions of the breed is by John Shirreff in 1808. His theory regarding size was as follows: "smallness is due to the scantiness of their food as neither artificial grasses, nor green crops are cultivated, nor are there any inclosures [sic] capable of protecting such crops from the multitude of sheep, cattle and horses."

At this point in history the human population was growing, thereby placing greater pressure on the already marginal farming systems by forcing more people to keep more stock. Most of the records written about this time dwell on the poverty and hardship of the common people, along with their dependence on a form of agriculture which was ultimately unsustainable. To explain the predicament further, Shirreff comments "little attention has been paid to improvement of any kind." This should not be seen as a denigration of the population, but a result of the social and landholding structure under which they lived.

Small farms or crofts were subdivided again and again as the numbers of potential crofters grew and this level of demand for land led to attempts to break out new crofts on the hill ground. To compound the problem, the open scattalds were unregulated, and the numbers of animals were not restricted as they are today. To eke out a living the menfolk of Shetland spent more time away from home at sea where they could earn a meagre wage fishing, whaling or serving on merchant ships and leaving the womenfolk, children and elderly to work the land.

People and cattle alike had to adapt to changing circumstances; the production of milk and dairy products now became critical to the survival of the families, more so than the rearing of a calf for beef. The smaller crofts could not grow sufficient fodder to maintain small herds with bulls, therefore the priority was the milking cow. Less care was taken on the selection of a proven sire; the imperative was to get the cow back in milk to provide sustenance for the small children. John Shirreff thought these small cows were inferior to those of the western highlands of Scotland, though they produced a considerable amount of milk. The cows, presumably the milking animals, were put inside at night summer and winter.

He estimated there to be around 15,000 head of cattle in the islands at the time, a number he marvelled at. He found that the natives had to graze beasts on the many 'holms' or small islands around the coast in order to fatten them. Any surplus beef was salted and shipped south to Britain.

The British trend of agriculture improvement was only just appearing in Shetland by the first half of the nineteenth century as Shetland had up to then been seen as an island fishing station of little agricultural merit. Shirreff reported that "attempts made to introduce breeds of sheep from England and Scotland have been followed with the most ruinous consequences." Unfortunately these importations of stock brought a number of diseases, which once established devastated the native sheep, killing thousands.


Cattle in the Historical Past

The importance of Shetland cattle to the Shetland people cannot be overstated. Families with fathers and husbands at sea most of the time clung precariously to life with little in the way of surplus. The only consistently nutritious food a young child had after they left their mother's breast was the milk of the ubiquitous little house cow. Cattle produced the dung to give the soil fertility and oxen provided the muscle to help till the land.

A document from the estate of a Shetland laird, Gideon Gifford of Busta, illustrates that in 1771 there was a considerable trade in hiring out cows and working oxen to his tenants. At the time cows showed an average value of around £12 Scots and trained oxen as much as £27 Scots at sales at Voe and Braehoulland in Shetland. (A Scots pound was worth in the region of an English shilling.)

Samuel Hibbert's Account

Samuel Hibbert, writing in 1822, gives a more extensive account of Shetland cattle and their uses from evidence he amassed as he travelled from isle to isle. "These animals have long, small horns, and are of a brindled white, brown or black colour, rarely displaying an uniform hue."

Hibbert's description of the cattle housing reveals a system which remained largely unchanged in some poorer areas until the beginning of the twentieth century. "Upon the conclusion of the ling fishery .... the Shetlander repairs to his scathold, and cuts down a large quantity of grass and short heath, which he spreads abroad upon the hills to dry; it is afterwards stored within the enclosure of his small farm, being piled into stacks like hay ... the heath is strewed along the floor of the byre, for the purpose of being well mingled with the dung that accumulates from the cows. The wet stratum is then covered over with a layer of duff mould, or dry decomposed moss, which substance in like manner, remains until it is well moistened with dung that falls .. Successive strata of heather and mould, mixed with the ordure of the animal, are allowed to accumulate to a considerable height, until the pile attains such an elevation that its removal is necessary, in order that the cattle may find sufficient head-room beneath the roof of the byre... When the compost is removed, it is well blended together with a spade, and is then adapted to the land destined for cultivation." (A friend of mine tells about being sent to pick up a cow from the croft of an old lady who was no longer able to look after the animal. When he arrived the cow was looking at them through the thatched roof of the byre, having eaten through the straw thatch. Upon entering the byre, he realised the floor had risen so much with the buildup of dung and bedding that the cow was now standing up among the roof trusses.)


Recent scientific investigation into soil types down through the ages reveals that during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages not a lot of dung was applied to the cultivated land; the evidence is mainly of household waste. This does not mean that early farmers did not realise the benefits of cattle muck for the land, but that with only a small number of animals being retained close to the homesteads on a permanent basis there was not a large quantity of dung on hand to spread on the crops.

During the Iron Age, agriculture became organised, with at least some of the by-now more diminutive cows being housed. This would have necessitated the cleaning out of these houses periodically and the dung being stored in middens or dung heaps where its value would be enhanced by decomposition, thus becoming the principle source of fertiliser. Later as we enter the Norse period, seaweed became an important element, being gathered off the beaches after the winter storms.

Soil samples from the crofting period show more domestic waste than dung, this being a reflection of the population increase with people living in more numerous but smaller units. These findings are not entirely as one would have expected, but they give us a picture of how climate and population pressures can affect agricultural technique.


Hibbert also explains butter making, which may seem an innocuous subject, but historically it was a contentious matter. This was due to the fact that for several centuries over half the land rents paid to the Norse and subsequent landowners were paid in butter. But the quality of this butter was notorious as being "fit for little more than greasing cart wheels." This continued despite an Act of Parliament being drawn up to fine those who produced poor butter filled with hairs, curds or other dirt.

The traditional Shetland diet included some beef. Before salt became widely available as a preservative, the meat was air-dried in small stone buildings called 'skoes' through which the wind could blow freely.

Until the early twentieth century, Shetlanders generally wore a kind of leather mocassin called a 'rivlin'. This was made from the hides of the cattle with the hair left on, and uncured so as to give a degree of waterproofing. Large quantities of calfskins were exported at times, indicating the numbers of calves were being slaughtered so as not to be a drain on milk supplies.

Horn was used as a material for making spoons and cups. One unusual use for entire horns was as "ludder horns," which fishermen took to sea on their boats. In fog or poor visibility, when crews were far from land, they would blow these horns to make contact with other boats. Times change, but clearly throughout history Shetlanders learned to make use of every last piece of their cattle, both living and dead.

The Place of Oxen in Shetland's History

As draught animals, oxen were the strongest available, and good ones were highly prized. They were kept for many years before eventually being slaughtered or sold.

Hibbert speaks of Shetlanders ploughing with four oxen abreast in two double yokes, which were attached to the plough by 20 feet of chain. Up till the twentieth century ploughing was done with two men, one holding the trams of the plough, and the other leading and coaxing the oxen. Usually each house kept only one ox, others being borrowed for the day's work. Apart from ploughing, oxen were used to haul carts of heavier goods like peats for fuel.

My grand uncle, who lived in Fair Isle halfway between Orkney and Shetland, often told stories about problems with oxen. Apparently an ox didn't like walking on gravel tracks because its feet became sore, being unshod. If left unattached it would gradually creep over on to the softer grassy edge of the track with the result that the cart, usually containing peats, would overturn into the ditch. Like Shetland ponies, the oxen do not like the heat, therefore the Shetlanders started their work in the cool of the early morning.

Accounts suggest that oxen and cattle in general were bigger and in better condition in Shetland than Orkney before the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Rev. Low concluded that this was due to the importation of "better" or bigger stock from across the North Sea, which more readily came to Shetland as the closest landfall and most important link for seafaring traders. However, to a visitor today it would be hard to envisage Shetland having bigger and fatter stock than Orkney's green and fertile land. The old wooden bow yokes to which the oxen were harnessed were gradually replaced during the nineteenth century by all-leather collars. These were still in use in the early twentieth century.

Beasts of Burden

Since even primitive fences and dykes were expensive to erect in both time and resources, and boundaries around crofts were numerous, Shetlanders had to teach their cattle to behave on a halter and tether.

They developed a kind of rope halter called a "branks" which has never really been improved upon. It was made of two wooden cheek pieces through which homemade rope was threaded loosely. The branks was adjusted to suit whatever size of beast by varying the width between the cheek pieces. The tethering end was always left to run loose through the cheek pieces so as to control the animal. When it pulled on the tether the strain drew the hard wooden sides quickly together, nipping the animal's nose and thereby teaching it a lesson. (Sometimes unruly animals also had a half hitch around one ear; thankfully this practice is no longer continued.)

The tether itself had a "swill" or swivel partway along its length to hinder the rope from becoming "snooded," hopelessly twisted. At the end of the tether was a wooden or metal stake, which was driven into the ground. Tethered animals were moved quite frequently throughout the day to get to water or fresh grazing. A grand aunt of mine was said to "flit" her cows so often for their comfort that it was a wonder they had a chance to eat.

Times of Dearth

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there were a number of periods of starvation when it was documented that many cattle, sheep and ponies died. Apart from the increased pressure of population growth there was a change in the climate which led to many crop failures, and consequent shortages of winter keep.

Weakened cows led to families sometimes having to lift the cow daily to its feet in the byre in springtime. Finally, they might have had to carry her out onto the green, when the fresh growth of grass came.

Every kind of edible material was given to the cows at these times. Hibbert tells of a feed of mash made up of boiled and crushed fish bones. A kind of seaweed, called 'hinniewaar' was given sparingly either fresh or parboiled. In the byre, cows were fed little and often with small sheaves of oats followed by some root crop such as kale, small potatoes or turnips. Meadow hay was also provided, along with the chaff that remained from threshing.

In early history, while the human population was smaller, large numbers of cattle would have been outwintered partly because there were simply not enough buildings to house them, and partly because with fewer animals and a kinder climate there was more vegetation on the hills in wintertime. It is quite possible that during these earlier times the Shetland cattle were of a slightly beefier type, more suited to being outwintered, since the needs of the farmers were different then. During times of dearth the cattle were sometimes bled to provide a nutritious family meal made with oatmeal and milk.

The House Cow

Butter and Other Dairy Produce

In more recent times, house cows were milked three times a day; at morning, at "twall" time (midday), and at night, to gain the maximum quantity of milk which could be in excess of three gallons. There appears to be no history of cheese making in Shetland within the last couple of hundred years as no recipes exist. This compares badly with Orkney where a great tradition of cheese making still goes on. An explanation of this may lie in the fact that there was just enough surplus milk in Shetland, and so Shetlanders became more used to the by products of butter.

A description of butter making deserves mention:

Traditionally butter was made in a "kirn," a narrow wooden barrel, which stood about waist high, being slightly wider at the top. The milk was allowed to accumulate in the kirn for a couple of days till the wife had time to kirn using a "kirnstaff." This was a kind of plunger which was worked up and down with a twisting motion, whilst avoiding splashing the contents over the user. Red-hot "kirnin stones" were dropped into the kirn to help the butter form, or in winter the kirn was worked near the fire to the same effect. After the butter was lifted out and washed with water, it was sliced with a knife to remove any hairs. Then salt or sugar was added before it was shaped with pats.

The buttermilk which remains was called "bleddik." The curds, when strained, became "kirn milk" or "hard milk." This is rather like modern cottage cheese. A similar substance is "hung milk," although this is made from whole milk. After the curds are removed, the serum which is left was known as "bland." This was a highly prized drink, which fishermen took to sea as a refreshment on long fishing trips. This was not the view of the Rev. Hibbert, who thought it "dangerous, causing colics, and all kinds of gripes" - despite the opinion of generations of Shetlanders. Probably the most nutritious dish was made from the first milk, colostrums, or "beest" from a newly calved cow. This was baked, becoming soft and cheesy, then sprinkled with sugar.

A Breed Nearly Lost

The increasing trend for improvement during the mid-nineteenth century and into the twentieth century saw the importation of larger mainland breeds to "improve" the native stock. The native cattle appear to have been more resilient than the sheep to new diseases from these new breeds. However, the problems of the cattle were more insidious. As demand grew in mainland Britain for beef, and bigger animals meant more income, the new "improved" breeds like the Shorthorn and the Aberdeen Angus became the sires of choice. Also the credibility given to these new breeds by the government's Board of Agriculture led many people to see the old breed as just that, a relic of the past best forgotten. Farmers and crofters with drive and ambition saw that to be associated with the old breed was not to be seen to embrace the dawning of a new age of agriculture.

When the new larger sires were used on their small cows the effects were dramatic. These new cross calves grew very quickly to dwarf their mothers and, ironically, to seal their fate. Crossbreeding became the trend throughout most of Shetland by the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Crofters also discovered that by retaining the first cross calves for further breeding they could produce bigger beasts. This process seemed inexorable, but to some not entirely desirable. A group of farmers and crofters worried about the demise of their native cattle, decided in 1911 to take action. Otherwise, they realised, something precious was about to be lost.

Securing the Breed for the Future

They set up the Shetland Cattle Herd Book Society to register purebred animals and to publish a herd book annually. They also laid down a scale of points which has remained in use to this day. The preface of the first herd book ends, "These curious and handsome little creatures are so peculiarly fitted to the circumstances of their bleak and stony habitat that the utmost pains ought to be taken to preserve the breed in its purity and to improve it by judicious treatment." Some 380 cows and 39 bulls were registered in the first book by breeders from nearly all districts of Shetland.

The Shetland cow has been bred over the centuries as a "dual purpose breed," although "multi purpose" may be more appropriate. Shetlanders required from their cattle the ability to first of all survive the rigours of the local climate with winters of scant fodder. To counter these circumstances of winter dearth the cow relies on a natural attribute inherited from her wild ancestors, that being, when the going gets tough, they "hibernate" through the worst of the winter, an instinct probably triggered by the very short hours of daylight. They appear to live at a maintenance only level, refusing to grow or fatten, whatever rations are offered. This instinct for survival has clearly saved the cattle, with any weaker strains dying off.

Just as our cattle have had to learn to make the most of whatever they faced, so we, who farm and croft in Shetland, must identify whatever unrealised potential their exists on our islands. We hope the Shetland cow will have an important part to play in the agriculture of the twenty-first century. Certainly few other breeds of cattle have the credentials to equal them.

Modern Times

The Role of the Shetland Cow in Modern Times


The attributes of the Shetland cow fit it for a place in modern agricultural society outside as well as within Shetland.

It is the ideal for the smallholder with its ability to flourish on poor or limited grazing, hence requiring less space to keep.

Its small size and light frame makes it less likely to churn up that limited pasture in wet weather.

The Shetland cow is extremely efficient in converting grass to milk, hence to beef via her calf, and requires a lot less supplementary feeding than other breeds.

Cows are extremely good mothers to cross bred calves. However, in the past this nearly led to the extinction of the pure breed.

Its longevity, compared with other breeds, means that it will produce more calves during its reproductive lifetime, which may extend well into its twenties, especially if pure bred calves are produced.

Nowadays, with BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and other bovine diseases, the tracability through the dam must be considered an asset.

The SCHBS believes that the above makes a sound economic case for the preservation of the breed for farmers, rather than as just a passing fashion for something unusual or rare, or for a hobby.