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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Ten of Scotland’s Best (Mostly Real) Beasties

Highland Cattle are as distinctive as Scotland itself.
Highland Cattle are as distinctive as Scotland itself.

Nessie (aka the Loch Ness Monster) is one of Scotland’s best known legendary beasties. However, there are many wonderful real-life animals that inhabit Scottish lakes, seas, skies, fields, and hills. Today’s post looks at eight fantastic native critters, six of which are unique to Scotland. At the end of the list, I’ve added two more beasties that are legends in Scottish hearts.

Highland Cattle

Highland Cattle is my favorite bovine breed. It has a distinctive appearance and I think it’s beautiful (or at least cute). It has low, wide horns and the hair on its head often falls across the cow’s (or bull’s) eyes. The Highland’s coat is long and wooly, usually reddish, but can be black. These cattle have a double coat—hair on the outside and a downy undercoat—that helps protect them during harsh Scottish winters.

Cattle have always been of high importance in Celtic society. At communal celebrations for each of the four fire festivals (such as Lughnasa or Samhain), a bull was sacrificed. On Beltane (another fire festival, cattle were driven between two bonfires to protect them from illness and harm. In Ireland, cattle were even used to pay legal fines. Today, Highland Cattle is prized as a commodity for its tender meat. They are a great breed to raise as they are docile and have a gentle temperament. Highland cows (or, as Scots say, hee-lind coos) are sometimes even kept as pets. They have a long lifespan and can live for up to twenty years. That’s enough time to provide a whole lot of milk and cheese! And joy.

Shetland Pony

Shetland Ponies are cute but they're also hardy workhorses.
Shetland Ponies are cute but they're also hardy workhorses.

Often associated with children’s pony rides, Shetland Ponies are another adorable Scottish animal. But they’re not just cute. They are hardy and have been used for various types of work—pulling carts, carrying bags of peat or coal, and ploughing—for centuries.

Like Highland Cattle, Shetland Ponies are well-equipped for Scotland’s climate. They have a double winter coat of fur as well as a thick mane and tail. Again, similar to Highland Cattle, Shetlands are long-lived. Although many were used in coal mines and died young because of the conditions, generally Shetland Ponies can live for thirty years or more.

Today, in addition to being used for pony rides at fairs, Shetlands are used as show horses, and they continued to be used as workhorses, especially carrying peat. Some miniature Shetlands have even been trained to be guide animals.

Eriskay Pony

Although it’s not famous like the Shetland, the Eriskay Pony is an important Scottish animal. It is a link to Scotland’s past. Generally grey with a dense, waterproof coat, these ponies are of ancient origin and resemble drawings of horses on Pictish Stones. They are believed to have been bred originally in the Hebrides for light draught work and cart-pulling. They continue to be used for these purposes but also are shown as well as used as mounts for children as their temperament is easy-going.

In the 19th century, Scots began using the Eriskay for crossbreeding purposes to create a larger draught pony. This has steadily decreased their population and Eriskay Ponies are now rare. This is a shame as the Eriskay is considered the last of the Hebridean pony breeds.

Soay Sheep

Kilts and tweeds are emblematic of Scotland. They're made from wool and, to get wool you have to have sheep. So, it’s clear that sheep are an important part of both the economy and culture of Scotland, and Scotland’s home-grown sheep breed is the Soay.

Stand with Ukraine.
Stand with Ukraine.

Although the Soay is smaller than most modern sheep, it is much hardier. This, of course, is unsurprising. It, like the animals above, is built to deal with the cold Scottish climate. Its fleece usually is black or brown. Some have white markings on their faces.

Each Soay sheep can provide around one kilogram (about two pounds) of wool a year. So, the next time you’re cuddling into your Scottish wool sweater (or jumper), give a thought to the Soay Sheep.

Scottish Crossbill

Scotland is a bird lover’s dream, and there is one bird that stands out from the rest because of its appearance and its status as unique to Scotland. That bird is the Scottish Crossbill. A passerine (perching bird) with a distinctive bird song. Its bill, as the name suggests, crosses at the tips. This gives the birds the ability to open conifer cones from pine trees and eat the seed. The make their homes in the Scots Pines in Highland forests. And they like to stay home. The Scottish Crossbill does not migrate.

For a while, it was thought that this bird was a subspecies of either the Red Crossbill or the Parrot Crossbill as it was similar in size and plumage to the other two. In 2005, however, the Scottish Crossbill was declared to be a unique species native to Scotland.

Scottish Red Deer

Although red deer can be found across the world, the Scottish red deer is native to Great Britain and is a subspecies of the red deer. It is believed to have been in Scotland since the Stone Age.

A Scottish resident since the Stone Age, the Scottish Red Deer has an air of nobility about it.
A Scottish resident since the Stone Age, the Scottish Red Deer has an air of nobility about it.

The red deer is one of the largest species of deer. The Scottish red deer is slightly smaller. It is dark reddish brown in color with a grayish face and has blackish-brown legs. In winter, it sports long hair on its neck. This deer is the classic Monarch of the Glen, striking and noble in appearance.

Celtic folklore teaches that, if you see a deer, you should pay attention as they are messengers from the Otherworld.

Atlantic Salmon

Salmon is not unique to Scotland but it is highly important to its economy. The rich pink fish is one of Scotland’s largest exports and Scottish salmon has become recognized internationally as something akin to the gold standard. It was the first non-French food to be awarded the Label Rouge, a French stamp of quality awarded to food products considered superior.

In medieval Scotland, salmon was considered so important that poaching it from a royal estate more than once could lead to execution.

Celtic folklore also holds this fish in high regard and associates salmon with wisdom.

Scottish Terriers

When you read the words “Scottish Terrier,” a picture probably popped into your mind. Here’s the confusing thing. Scottish Terrier is only one of five breeds of Scottish Terriers. While they all have similarities, there are differences too, both in appearance and in personality. The five types of Scottish Terriers are: Aberdeen (officially called “Scottish Terrier” or, more affectionately, “Scotties”), Cairn, Dandie Dinmont (yes, you read that right), Skye, and West Highland White (aka Westies).

The Aberdeen has a double coat of wiry hair. Most commonly, this breed comes in black, wheaton, or four types of brindle (a coat with subtle streaks of more than one color). The AKC describes this breed’s personality as independent, high-spirited, and dignified. Territorial and not friendly towards strangers, the Aberdeen makes a great watchdog. It is not recommended as a pet in a family with small children.

The AKC describes the Skye Terrier as "canny," "courageous," and "good-tempered."
The AKC describes the Skye Terrier as "canny," "courageous," and "good-tempered."

Cairn Terriers are popular and easily recognizable. They come in a variety of colors. Cairns tend to have cheerful, curious personalities. They make great family dogs, but the family will have to be prepared for the Cairn’s tendency to dig and be rather vocal.

Of the five Scottish Terriers, the Dandie Dinmont is probably the least well-known among Americans. The breed was named after a character in Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott. This breed is the smallest of the five but he is no pushover. The AKC describes him as “independent,” “smart,” and “proud.” Despite these adjectives, the Kennel Club claims this breed is “easily trainable.” Of the five Scottish Terriers, the Dinmont is said to be the least demanding of its owners. It is friendly and makes a good companion for older children.

The Skye Terrier is easy to distinguish from the others because of its long flat hair that falls around its body like a skirt. Its hair also falls across the Skye’s eyes. The AKC describes this dog as “canny,” “courageous,” and “good-tempered.” It is good with older children.

West Highland White Terriers are “happy,” “loyal,” and “entertaining, according to the AKC. What’s not to love? Well…they characteristically bark a lot. But they can be trained. More accurately, the Kennel Club says they are “agreeable” to training. Note: that’s not exactly the same thing as “easily trainable.” These bundles of joy will take a bit of work on the owner’s part but, if you’re willing, it’s worth it. Of the five breeds, Westies are among the best dogs for children.

The Haggis Creature

In the lonely wilds of the Scottish Highlands, high among the craggy rocks, lives a short-legged yet swift long-haired goat-like creature with long, green fur. It is agile. It is canny. It is the Haggis. Nah! I’m having you on. Some Scots report that they have frequently been asked by tourists, “What kind of animal is the haggis?” Of course, you know it’s not an animal. Haggis is the name of a beloved Scottish dish made of lamb organs, oats, onions, and spices stuffed into the lining of the sheep’s stomach. But certain Scots enjoy playing with tourists and, like good Celts, spin the tale of the mythical Haggis Creature. I gave you my version, but there are many others. Click here for another.

Can you pick out the Haggis Creature in this picture? No, because it's a myth! Haggis is not an animal. It's a traditional Scottish dish made from lamb organs.
Can you pick out the Haggis Creature in this picture? No, because it's a myth! Haggis is not an animal. It's a traditional Scottish dish made from lamb organs.


Unicorns are not unique to Scotland. They appear in the folklore of most cultures throughout the world. But I had to include them. On the Royal Coat of Arms for the United Kingdom, the symbol for Scotland is a unicorn. Even more importantly, the unicorn is Scotland’s national animal. “But, “you protest, “Unicorns aren’t real.” And you may be right but...Scotland’s an ancient and mystical land and unicorns are known to be elusive. Just saying.

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Slán go fóill

All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and Kernit the GIF) was done by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.

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