Chillingham Castle, an ancient fortress from the 12th century nestled in the borderlands between Scotland and England. The rock of Chillingham’s walls are witness to a myriad of grim atrocities from both sides of the borders; even the trees than line the ‘Devil’s Walk’ that leads to its gates carry their own malefic history.
Chillingham Castle is one of my favourite places in the world and was one of the most profound influences on my novella ‘The Black Land‘. I will dedicate a future blog post about my experiences behind its walls and the others who cannot rest there…
However, Chillingham’s ghosts (and there are many of them, let me assure you!) can rest easy in their eternal turmoil for now as there is something else about this awe-inspiring place that often, and without due course, gets somewhat overlooked.
Rarer than the giant panda, exclusive to this part of the world and as wild as they were back before the cursed stones of the castle was constructed in this part of Northumberland …allow me to introduce to you…
The Chillingham Wild Cattle
No human hand has ever tried to tame them and no vet has ever treated one; these survivors of the days where the forests tangled wild and deep throughout our land, have survived wars, disease and the unrelenting march of modern life.
The wild cattle that roam the parks of Chillingham since the 13th century are genetically unique. There is a reserve herd that are allowed to roam, just as untouched and wild in an undisclosed location in the Scottish highlands. That is perhaps, along with frozen sperm and cell cultures as a precaution, the only intervention that these creatures have had and it is all they need.
When we think of cattle, we imagine the doe-eyed and domesticated milk cows or the brown beef- herds that pepper our landscape. Cows are my favourite animal; they have an innocence about them, an elegance and a beauty that has, alas, been overlooked as these gentle creatures are seen by humans for their uses rather than animals in their own right.
I beg anyone to dare to overlook the Chillingham herd.
These are far from peaceful; the beasts of Chillingham are formidable; their ebon gaze invokes a stormy vehemence and the curls of their fur that hangs amid their curved horns plays testament to an ancient and savage essence.
When you take a guided tour of their paddock, you are advised not to approach. Mark these words.
Their paddock is littered with great brown patches, where the animals have created their own fighting rings. The herd is a relentless hierarchy where a single bull is king. He passes on his genetic material to the females. Through very gradual inbreeding, the herd has purged itself from harmful inbred genes and sustain themselves. These cattle are completely unrelated to the docile, domesticated breeds that are now common in the British isles.
Many of the bulls carry scars from fights and they fight all year round. To the death. There is no rutting season for these creatures. The king bull is challenged all year round by his younger rivals and when he is killed in a fight, the new king takes his place.
When you climb the fence to enter their paddock, you stay to the edge and if they come too close, you turn around and you leave. Quickly. During my visit, the cattle were docile, roaming, feeding and flicking their tales; the sight of them is something quite phenomenal, you are seeing living history in motion. They show no fear and do not back away like the domesticated dairy or beef herds. These are the last wild cattle in the world.
Legend has it that this herd are protected by more than simply their genetics and the good will of the Chillingham estate. I read an interesting account about a school trip to Chillingham castle in the 1980s (It was in a book which seems to have disappeared off my shelf!) where a pupil took it upon himself to attempt to taunt the herd. He began running toward them, shouting and waving a stick (I can only imagine the poor lad had some sort of deathwish) but upon approaching the creatures, a hand reached up from the ground and grabbed his ankle, overbalancing him mid-flight. On my tour, I asked the guide about this story and he became evasive, claiming he did not know anything about that. Maybe it was just my own fascination with the supernatural that skewed my judgement, but his eyes told me a different story.
These white animals were once considered sacred and were sacrificed by the druids to the deities of the upper world right back to the stone age. This Welsh fairy tale tells of white cattle that are owned by ‘a band of elfin ladies’ and protected thus.
I urge anyone to go and visit Chillingham, the ghosts of the castle are its main draw, but, in my opinion, equal to them are the magnificent beasts that dwell in its wake, go pay them a visit, for their lore has endured long before the bricks and stones of men.