Katharine Stewart's "Cattle on a thousand hills" is subtitled "Farming culture in the Highlands of Scotland", and sets out to tell the story of cattle in the Highlands. As a description of the contents of a book, this may not be one that reaches out and immediately grabs your attention, or instills an overwhelming sense of "must read". But this is to overlook the central importance that cattle played in the development of society and commerce across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland over a period of at least a thousand years. It is no exaggeration to say that without an understanding of the role that cattle played in the history of the Highlands, it becomes very difficult to understand the significance of the profound changes that took place when traditional clan society was brought to and end in the century from the mid 1700s, nor why those changes still matter so much. Yes, this is a book about cattle: but it is also essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the story of the Highlands.
The book takes a look at many different aspects of the role of cattle in the Highlands. It begins, appropriately enough, with a look at the origins of Highland cattle, touching on the different genetic influences which produced them. It then moves on to look at the Caterans and the traditional role of cattle thieving in clan society, and the feuds that could result.
The core of the book might be subtitled "life with cattle", and sets out to examine the role that cattle played and the way society evolved as result. One chapter deals with the annual cycle of moving cattle to summer pasture in upland shielings, before retreating to lower ground in the winter. Another looks at the role of droving, the means by which herds of cattle were walked (and where islands and rivers were involved, swum) to markets in the lowlands. The uses of cattle, both as food and as a source of raw material for clothing and much more, is also examined.
As the book draws to a close the role of cattle in story and song, and more recently in literature and art, is covered. The concluding chapter reminds us that cattle in the Highlands are not just a figment of history by bringing the story up to date and looking at the picture today.