It is a commonplace of Celtic folklore that white animals with red ears come from the Otherworld. Cattle of this description occur in some of the earliest Irish sources, while similarly marked dogs accompany the king of Annwn (the Welsh Otherworld) in the Middle Welsh tale of Pwyll and are reported right into this century. In a presentation to the Folklore Society in 1928, Miss Moore Douglas said of the Isle of Man that "fairy dogs, usually white with red ears and feet, are frequently seen running across the fields in the evening" (Howey 1972, 350), and Marie Trevelyan reported that the Welsh Cwn Annwn were sometimes seen as "very small dogs, white as the drifted snow, with tiny ears quite rose coloured inside" (Trevelyan 1909, 47). There also seems to have been a particular fashion for red-eared white horses in the thirteenth century, especially in Arthurian material, but also in at least one Norse saga where the motif is almost certainly borrowed from Ireland (Loomis 1949, 90; Turville-Petre 1953, 248-9). The present discussion will be limited to cattle, as they are the earliest attested animals of this type and as dogs and horses seem to have only acquired this colour pattern by analogy.

Red-Eared White Cows in Medieval Irish and Welsh Sources

The earliest accounts of red-eared white cows are in certain of the Irish heroic tales, including, naturally enough, some of the cattle raids. In the Tain Bo Fraich, the hero's mother gives him "twelve cows out of the fairy-mound, and they white with red ears" (lines 5-6. My translation). In the Tain Bo Cuailnge, the war goddess known as the Morrigan transforms herself into a white heifer with red ears when she tries to destroy Cu Chulainn. In the Compert Mongain ocus Serc Duibhe-Lacha, the hero foolishly promises away his wife in return for the king of Leinster's beautiful red-eared white cattle (Meyer 1895, 75). There are further references to these cattle--always noted for their beauty or purity and frequently specified as coming from the fairy mounds--in Tochmarc Etaine, Tain Bo Regamna, Caith Maighe Lena, and the lives of Saints Brigid, Ailbhe, Mo Lua, Columcille, Finian and Ciaran. The twelfth-century Metrical Dinshenchas also contain a place name stanza about Howth which mentions "seven hundred kine, red eared, pure white." Finally, in one of the Irish law tracts, the penalty for satirising King Cernodon of Ulster includes "seven white cows with red ears" (Dillon 1932, 54). Apart from this last item, the Irish references are all purely literary. Either explicitly or implicitly, they associate these cattle with the Otherworld; at the least, they have a generalised magical aura. So why does white with red ears indicate fairy origin?

There seem to be two main choices of explanation. First, it may be that these are entirely fanciful beasts, associated in the imagination and in fantastical literature with Otherworldliness because red and white are both "magical" colours. The case is clear enough for white. In many cultures, white is variously connected with holiness, with ghosts, or with sacrificial animals. Most relevant in this context is the polysemy of the words for "white" in Celtic languages. Welsh gwyn is a good example, carrying the primary meanings "white, bright, shining, fair" and the secondary meanings "holy, blessed." Red is a bit more problematic. In his classic discussion of Anglo-Saxon magic, G. Storms gives evidence for red having been a magic colour in ancient Germanic society (Storms 1948, 102-3). This may be relevant to the early medieval Irish and Welsh, but we just do not know. Comparative studies of more recent British folklore suggest that red, white and black are typically the most symbolically significant colours, but again this provides no real information about their importance in medieval Ireland and Wales (Hutchings 1991, 57-8). The second option is that red-eared white cattle really did exist and were believed to come from the Otherworld because they were rare, or unusual, or of special value in some other way. This seems much the better explanation, for two reasons.

First, in addition to the imaginative Irish examples, there are a couple of other mentions of these special cattle, which make them seem rather more real. The first is an often-cited passage in the thirteenth-century Iorwerth Redaction of the Welsh laws in which the sarhaed (or payment due for insult) of the king of Aberffraw is set at "a hundred cows for every cantred he has, with a red-eared [white] bull for every hundred cows," plus some very precisely-measured pieces of gold (Jenkins 1990, 5). The Cyfnerth and Blegywryd redactions add the following: "The status of the lord of Dinefwr is also adorned with white cows, each with its head to the tail of the next, with a bull between every twenty of them, so as to fill the space from Argoel to the court of Dinefwr" (Jenkins 1990, 6). It seems unlikely that the laws would specify payment in imaginary animals. Also, according to the Reverend John Storer, the entry for the year 1211 in Holinshed's chronicle reports that the wife of William de Braose (a powerful Norman baron with lands in Wales) gave to the queen of England "a gift of foure hundred kine and one bull, of coulour all white, the ears excepted, which were red" (Storer 1879, 107). Evidently this was insufficient, as King John was to murder Matilda de Braose and her eldest son, but one may presume that the cattle were real. Finally, a custom current at Stretton-on-Dunsmore in Warwickshire at least until the 1870s required the villagers to pay "Wroth or Ward money" to the lord of the Hundred of Knightlow. In default they would forfeit "twenty shillings for every penny, and a white bull with red ears and a red nose" (Storer 1879, 104). Storer, who recorded this custom in 1874, said that local tradition claimed that it pre-dated the Norman Conquest. While this is, of course, unverifiable, it does at least suggest a practice of some generations' standing.

The Chillingham Wild White Cattle

The other compelling reason to suppose that the fairy cattle are based on real ones is that red-eared white cattle still exist today. Up until the last century there were several herds, including one at Dinefwr as the Welsh laws suggest, but now there is just one, at Chillingham in Northumberland. Although a fair amount has been written on these cattle (much of it simply repeating Storer), trying to get any scientifically sound information about the Chillingham herd leads one into remarkably convoluted myths of origin and purity, evidently bound up with the prestige of the noble family to whom the animals belonged until a private association was formed in 1939 to manage the stock. However, there are a few basic, uncontroversial facts. First of all, I visited these cattle in 1997 and can confirm that they are quite clearly white with surprisingly red ears. The other obvious feature is that they are a primitive, unimproved breed, not specialised for either beef or dairying. Proper records only go back to 1689 when a steward's account notes the purchase of a white calf (perhaps with red ears, perhaps not). The next mention is in 1692: the same steward counts "Beasts in ye Parke my Lords--16 white wilde beasts, 2 black steeres and a quy [heifer], 12 white read and black eard, 5 black oxen and browne one" (Mackenzie 1825, 390). It is noteworthy that of the twelve with coloured ears, some have red and some black ears. There are still a number of herds of White Park Cattle scattered around the country and these typically have black ears. The White Park is a registered breed and, despite some popular confusion, is genetically distinct from the highly inbred Chillingham herd. The latter are distinct from everything, a fact which many have regarded as proof of their ancient origin. However, it may have as much to do with their long enclosure and the bad winter of 1947 when the herd was reduced to thirteen individuals, thus creating a genetic bottleneck from which the animals were lucky to recover.

The uniqueness of the herd in the view of the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, is that they are genetically pure, ancient, and wild. They certainly are wild in temperament now and may have been so since the park was enclosed in the 1220s, which may or may not be when the ancestors of the present herd got locked in. However, I should stress that their origin is still entirely unknown. And this is where the pseudo-magical Chillingham foundation myth comes in.

To provide some background, in the Upper Palaeolithic, after about 13,000 B.C., humans and large land mammals crossed the then-existing land bridge from the Continent into Britain in the wake of the retreating ice (Grigson 1982, 47). Among these large animals was the prehistoric forerunner of all domestic humpless cattle: the aurochs (Bos primigenius). Cave paintings and archaeological finds of aurochs remains in association with human settlements make it abundantly clear that Palaeolithic people hunted these wild cattle. About the sixth millennium B.C., some aurochsen were domesticated in the north-west Mediterranean, and by the early Neolithic period (probably in the fourth millennium B.C.), domestic cattle were introduced into Britain (this happened in the late Neolithic in Ireland). These very early domesticated beasts looked much like aurochsen; they were large and of very similar morphology. Cattle then diminished in size steadily right through the Iron Age (probably due to the human population's poor knowledge of husbandry). In the meantime, the aurochs disappeared from Britain c. 2000 B.C., never having made it to Ireland at all. Aurochsen lingered on in continental Europe until the seventeenth century, when the last one was shot in Poland. The points to bear in mind about British cattle are: (1) aurochsen disappeared well before the insular Iron Age; (2) Iron Age (so-called "Celtic") cattle were very small and probably represent the parent stock for all modern British and Irish breeds (Grigson 1982, 47); (3) after the demise of the aurochs there were never again any truly wild (as opposed to feral) cattle anywhere in Britain.

Bearing these points in mind, let us return to the Chillingham myth. I use the term "myth" advisedly, to mean not "falsehood" but a belief deeply held and symbolically meaningful although not necessarily rooted in scientific "truth." The story one hears during a visit to the cattle park, and in many of the nineteenth-century accounts, is virtually a sacred origin myth. The basic account that the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association presents to the public, in evident good faith, is that aurochsen migrated over the land bridge to roam prehistoric Britain until they gradually died out in all but the most thickly forested and inaccessible regions. They dwindled finally into a few herds of wild northern beasts, one of which was enclosed at Chillingham in the thirteenth century. For example, during the park tour, the warden stresses that they did not come on Viking longboats. Similarly, the Association's long-standing, but sadly late, president, the Hon. Ian Bennet, has stated categorically (in private correspondence) that the cattle have been proven by blood-typing to be unrelated to Roman cattle and must therefore antedate the Romans. The Dowager Countess of Tankerville, who is the Association's patron, has also written an information leaflet in which she says:

the shape of the skull and the manner in which the horns grow out from it
are similar to the Aurochs (bos primogenius [sic]) and quite different from
the skull of the Roman importation (bos longifrons). It is thought by many
therefore that the Chillingham Wild Cattle are the direct descendants of
the original ox which roamed these islands before the dawn of history.

The three things constantly stressed by the Association, both in publications and in general information given to tourists by the warden, are that the cattle are always white, have never been domesticated, and are related to the aurochs in some more direct way than are modern breeds. Their wildness and the mystery surrounding their ancient origin are highlighted even in the physical approach to the park. In the film Jurassic Park, the visitors enter on a narrow road with electric security fences on either side and, although no dinosaurs appear for about ten minutes, there is a gradual build-up of expectation as the people move further in between high walls of vegetation. Chillingham Wild Cattle Park is a bit like that. Notices advise that the cattle are dangerous and that one must stay on the path, which starts off with a long climb through the woods and then emerges onto high pasture. There are wire fences on either side and there is no way of telling where the wild cattle might be. Finally, one reaches a hut where the warden comes to start the tour and tell the tale of the origin of the cattle.

Problems with the Chillingham Origin Myth

So, what is strange about the Chillingham story? Obviously, the theory that aurochsen survived down the ages is incredible. The insistence that the animals must be pre-Roman is also unfounded. There have indeed been genetic studies which suggest that the Chillingham cattle are not related to Roman stock and there is no historical record of substantial Roman importation of cattle into Britain. However, this lack of relationship to Roman cattle does not at all prove that they are pre-Roman; they can equally well be post-Roman. The scientific-sounding information in the Countess's leaflet is misleading. Bos longifrons is a now-defunct term that used to be applied to the small Iron Age cattle kept by the British before and during the Roman period. It is now accepted that all humpless domestic cattle are of a single species, Bos taurus, and that they all descend ultimately from the aurochs, Bos primigenius. In other words, since the Chillingham cattle, wherever they came from, cannot be aurochsen, they must be Bos taurus just like Jerseys or Herefords or any other breed. They do look more like miniature aurochsen, but that is because they have not been selectively bred for beef or milk, and cattle that have been left to their own devices will tend to revert to ancestral type. Although both the late president and the patron have quoted genetic work done on the cattle to support their arguments, the zoological reports in fact make it quite clear that the Chillingham herd does not have any special relationship to the aurochs whatsoever (Hall 1982-3, 96; 1991, 540).

The purported wildness of the herd is another problem. If there have never been any truly wild European cattle except the aurochs, which became extinct in Britain in the Bronze Age and to which the Chillingham cattle are not especially closely related, then by definition neither they nor any other herd in Britain can possibly be wild. The Chillingham herd could have become feral at any time prior to the seventeenth century, when records begin, but they must have been domesticated at one stage. The late president has stated in print the refusal of the cattle to be driven, or even closely approached, proves that they must have always been wild, despite their emparked state (Bennet 1991, 22). However, seven hundred years is a very long time, and the cattle could easily have reverted to wild behaviour within the three hundred acres of Chillingham Park during this period. Alternatively, they could have become feral some time in the early Middle Ages before they were enclosed. The Association apparently takes it for granted, as have many scholars, that the animals enclosed in the thirteenth century had been living wild in the Caledonian forest, when it must have been either a feral or a domestic herd which was emparked. One should remember that livestock in the Middle Ages was often allowed to wander more or less freely in the forest, so that the distinction between domestic and feral was less clear-cut than it is today. It is also possible, in the absence of any evidence before 1692, that the ancestors of the present herd were purchased and placed in the park at any stage between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, although this cannot be ascertained, and once they became wild in their behaviour it is unlikely that anyone moved them anywhere much. The bottom line is that, as there were never any wild (as opposed to feral) cattle in medieval Britain, the Chillingham cattle must descend either from domestic or feral stock.

There is an excellent article by Harriet Ritvo in which she analyses the reluctance of the aristocratic owners of white cattle (both White Park and Chillingham varieties) to acknowledge any arguments that challenge either the wildness or the primeval nature of the animals. This argument has been going on since the eighteenth century and appears to be tied up with issues of "race, descent, and pedigree" as they relate to the families keeping the cattle (Ritvo 1992, 2). Ritvo argues that the cattle are identified symbolically with their owners and that to question their wildness, and thus primordial, indigenous nature, is to cast similar doubts on the ancient lineages and quintessential Britishness of the noble families on whose estates they live (ibid., 10-14). In light of the material published on the subject, and also of the evident sensitivity of the Association's late president to questions about the cattle's origin (he was also the son of the eighth earl of Tankerville by his second marriage to the present patron of the Association), Ritvo's article seems both convincing and enlightening. There are good psychological and symbolic reasons why some parties want the cattle to be prehistoric and immemorially wild, but the scientific studies do not bear out these claims.

The third problematic issue is the colour of the Chillingham cattle. The Countess's leaflet states, "They invariably breed true to type and have never been known to throw a coloured, or even partly coloured, calf." That the cows did occasionally produce calves with black, rather than red, ears in former times is suggested by the steward's account of 1692 and further supported by the engraver Thomas Bewick's remark in 1790 that "about twenty years since, there were a few, at Chillingham, with BLACK EARS [sic], but the present park-keeper destroyed them; since which period there has not been one with black ears" (Bewick 1970, 39) (see Figure 1). In other words, the colour may be as much the result of selective breeding as of ancient purity. If anything, the whiteness is an indication of not being aurochsen, as the northern European strain of aurochs (as far as one can tell from cave paintings) may have had black bulls (sometimes with a white dorsal stripe or pale saddle) and red cows and calves (Clutton-Brock 1987, 64). There is some evidence from remains preserved in bogs that the small oxen of the Iron Age may have been reddish. One zoological study also notes that "Coloured domestic herds frequently produce white calves with reddish-brown ears" and that the Chillingham herd may have "originated in the white calves dropped by a coloured domestic herd" (Bilton 1957, 147).

Relevance of the Chillingham Herd to Irish Fairy Cattle

What, then, do we know about the real history of the Chillingham herd and what can it tell us about the fairy cattle of Celtic literature? I think we can safely dismiss the many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century arguments that the cattle are direct, never-domesticated, descendants of British aurochsen. As they do not seem to have been brought in by the Romans, they are either of "Celtic shorthorn" or of Anglo-Saxon imported stock, or a mixture of both. They could have become feral at any point during the Middle Ages and there are certainly medieval accounts of wild forest cattle. The earliest is in Cnut's Forest Laws, where the king refers to "bubali" and "vaccae." [9] Properly speaking, these are "buffalo" and "cows," but as there have never been any buffalo in Britain, "bubali" must refer to some kind of cattle. It may simply mean "wild bulls," as opposed to wild cows, or it has been suggested that "bubali" were beef-type cattle, while "vaccae" were dairy cows (Dent 1974, 30). This suggestion clearly implies that the animals were feral, or even simply free-roaming domesticated herds, rather than genuinely wild. As turning domestic stock loose in the woods to forage for themselves was common in the Middle Ages (rather like the pasturing of ponies in the New Forest today), there would have been ample opportunity for feral herds to form. Neither Cnut's law nor the twelfth-century references to "tauri sylvestri" (Storer 1879, 56-60) clarifies the matter, That some of these bulls became quite ferocious and were regarded as wild is clear from some of the somewhat later accounts. The "Ballad of Sir Guy of Warwick" (written in 1591) features a tremendous struggle with such a creature, while Edward Topsell's 1658 History of Four-Footed Beasts gives an elaborate description of the "White Scotian Bison," which sounds much like a Chillingham-type animal. He says:

In the woods of Scotland, called Callender or Caldur, and in ancient time
Calydonia ... there are bred white Oxen, maned about the neck like a Lyon,
but in other parts like ordinary and common Oxen. This wood was once full
of them, but now they are all slain, except in that part which is called
Cummirnald (Topsell 1658, 42).

There is simply no way to know whether the Chillingham cattle were originally a group of feral "white Scotian bisons" or a domestic herd which reverted to wild behaviour during the course of its seven centuries in the park. Neither can we be sure if they were always white with red ears. White being recessive in cattle, at least some of the herd must have carried genes for that colour, and if the population was isolated for long enough (say, seven hundred years in a walled park), the recessive trait could well have become prevalent by a process known as genetic drift (Albarella, pers. comm.). There was presumably also a red gene in the mix which gave the red ears; this presents no great difficulty, as red seems to have been common in aurochsen and perhaps Iron Age domestic stock. It also persists most famously among that other northern breed, the Highland.

This is one reasonable scenario for the origins of the Chillingham herd (which will no doubt continue to be the subject of much debate for years to come). But how does it help resolve the issue of why red-eared white cattle are special and Otherworldly in medieval literature? The fact that, even with centuries of inbreeding behind them, the Chillingham cows continued to throw the occasional black-eared calf until the eighteenth century suggests that maintaining the red-eared white pattern required vigorous artificial selection. Also, simply preserving whiteness involves selective breeding or strict isolation to make sure that no coloured animals contaminate the genetic pool. Even in the White Park cattle (which are a carefully managed rare breed), black or brown calves still occasionally turn up. In other words, in the eighth or tenth or thirteenth centuries, it would have been at least as difficult to maintain a sizeable stock of red-eared white cattle as it was in the early modern period. So we can immediately see that animals of this type are special by virtue of their unusual appearance and the effort needed to keep the breed pure and numerous. I have already mentioned why a white coat might have been a desirable characteristic. Its possible connection to sacredness, magic, or purity suggests that white cattle might have been bred by religious communities. It has been suggested by some that they were the Druids' sacrificial animals (see, for example, Storer 1879, 109-10; Whitlock 1977, 31). However, unless someone finds a red-eared white carcass bearing the marks of sacrifice, preserved in a bog, this suggestion can probably never be substantiated. Moving into the Christian period, it is certainly possible that herds of this colour were the property of monasteries, although Anthony Dent, who posits this, also suggests that the white colour originated in the capture of white "sports" from dark herds of aurochsen (Dent 1974, 31). This brings us right back to the argument that the red-eared white cattle are special because they are more closely related to aurochsen than are other modern breeds, but I think we have already laid that theory to rest.

One definite possibility is that the fairy nature of these cattle was an exclusively Irish construct. There is no consistently red-eared white breed in Ireland now, nor is there any historical (as opposed to literary) evidence that there ever was. A. T. Lucas closes his book on ancient Irish cattle with the hypothesis that this breed was either known only from the tales of travellers who had seen them in Britain, or that if they had ever existed in Ireland itself, "their magical appearance in Irish literature can only be explained as a folk memory which had passed into folklore" (Lucas 1989, 245). By this logic, they would seem to be Otherworldly because neither composers of the tales nor their audiences would ever have seen any such beasts. However, there is no reason why there could not have been export of some red-eared white British stock to Ireland during the early medieval period. The animals would still presumably have been special, as they would have been exotic--and probably expensive--imports. There is some (albeit not conclusive) evidence that Ireland did have red-eared white cattle. The modern Irish hornless breed known as the Moylie is typically "red-brown with white faces, and a continuous white stripe along their backs, or almost entirely white with red ears and muzzles" (Bell 1985, 7). Moylie enthusiasts claim that they are an ancient breed, although, like most such claims of breed societies, this is probably impossible to verify. The first issue of the Royal Dublin Society Historical Studies in Irish Agriculture is a book on ancient Irish cattle breeds by Patrick Curran, who states that red-eared white cattle were known in Ireland until at least the 1820s. He cites the journal of a nineteenth-century Kilkenny farmer named O' Sullivan (McGrath 1936) in which these animals are among the breeds at the Callan fair (Curran 1990, 18). I have looked at this journal and could not find this reference, but as it is in three volumes without an index I could well have missed it. Even if it is there, it does not necessarily prove a long ancestry in Ireland, as they could have come straight from Britain (not from Chillingham, according to the Association, but from one of the now defunct herds elsewhere).


Whether there was, or was not, breeding stock in Ireland in the Middle Ages, it seems that the red-eared white coloration has always been unusual and has required careful selection. The cattle were probably never particularly numerous anywhere, and may have been especially scarce in Ireland where all the early accounts connecting them with the Otherworld come from. This rarity, combined with the general sacred associations of the colour white, could have been enough to make the cattle seem magical. This assumption would have been reinforced if the herds were the private preserve of religious houses or noble families. Alternatively, if they were already feral in the Middle Ages, their peripheral relationship to civilisation could have given them a kind of liminal status: being cattle, they were not quite wild beasts; but being feral, they were not tame either. Or perhaps it was not that the cattle were magical in themselves, but that the fairies were simply assumed to have the most expensive, exotic types known to mortals.

One interesting thing about the real red-eared white cattle is that they still retain something of their magical, mysterious aura. The public literature distributed by the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association deliberately fosters this sense of mystery, as does the Association's reluctance to accept the findings of recent zoological studies which indicate that the animals are the feral descendants of ordinary domestic stock. Nobody claims that they come from the fairy mounds any longer, but arguing that they are the direct descendants of "the gigantic wild white bull of Caesar's time, and of the monstrous bovine wonders of the Palaeolithic and neolithic ages" (Wallace 1907, 29) seems thematically similar. Where the origin is obscure, it is easy to imagine it to be remarkable.

And if to this day we still cannot determine exactly where the red-eared white cattle came from, how much more extraordinary must they have seemed in the early Middle Ages?