A Scottish Highland Cow: ‘On yonder hill there stood a coo’

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Chris Dorney/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Chris Dorney/Alamy

William Topaz McGonagall, the “worst poet in the history of the English language”, is responsible for some of my mother’s favourite words in the world to say. She delivers them in a decent-enough Scottish accent, and she does so whenever the opportunity presents itself: “On yonder hill there stood a coo / It’s no’ there noo / It must’a shif’ted”. When I hear this rhyme I picture a Scottish highland cow, its coat waving in the icy flaff.

McGonagall, who has a certain genius for coos, unfortunately also felt moved to capture in rhyme disasters, “calamities” and freak accidents. He chose to pay tribute to the people who died in the 1879 Tay Bridge disaster thus:

Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last sabbath day of 1879
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.”

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My mother’s house contains several cow-themed artworks. A ginger cow on a hill, against the sort of dark blue daytime sky that looks very deep, as though it is constantly zooming in, pixelating and sharpening. Once, Picasso’s 11 charcoal bulls were exhibited in Johannesburg. The lithographs grow more abstract as they progress. Afterwards, my mother welded a great dane-sized, black steel copy of the most simplified bull and put it in the garden to graze.

My father prefers Robert Burns, and I heard the words “cow’rin tim’rous beastie!” applied to many creatures before I knew the beastie was a mouse. When I think of him saying it, I think of him putting down an injured bird. He used a brick. I remember each time I read DH Lawrence’s poem about the snake – “He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do, / And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,” that he throws a log at it in the end.

In South Africa, when you think of cattle, it might be of the smell of their dusty hides in the hot sun. A Scottish highland cow – a heilan coo – with its long hair, wet from dew or rain or sea spray, must smell quite different. Among the most common Google search terms for these cattle is simply, “fluffy cows”. They have long, shaggy coats – two layers. One layer is oily, like a duck’s feathers. Their horns, which they use to scrape away at snow to get at food, are long and thin. Their legs are short and fat.

They are benevolent vegetarian gods. They watch over, through shielded eyes, the very few animals that have a fringe (bangs). They spread wild flower seeds, they are friendly to people, they are “an excellent choice for conservation grazing”. They have babies: wee heilan coos.

A highland cow grazes in a field near Pitlochry, Scotland.
A highland cow grazes in a field near Pitlochry, Scotland. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

I have never been to Scotland, but there are highland cows living in Australia. I saw a one on a hill in Byron Bay: it was all alone. Its shiny nose was like a bar of pink soap, almost translucent, so healthy did it seem. There was brown mud around it and there were lush green hills behind it, and despite the heat, it didn’t look flustered. It stood proudly, thinking of Scotland, perhaps, while its hair waved slightly in the breeze.

• “The Nature of … ” is a column by Helen Sullivan dedicated to interesting animals, insects, plants and natural phenomena. Is there an intriguing creature or particularly lively plant you think would delight our readers? Let us know on Twitter @helenrsullivan or via email: helen.sullivan@theguardian.com

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