The Galloway is primarily a beef breed, and the high quality of Galloway beef has been recognized in some of the oldest writings on breeds of cattle. As early as 1573, Abraham Ortelius, a well-travelled geographer who published the first modern atlas, came upon Galloway cattle and described their flesh as “tender, sweet and juicy.” Those qualities are still evident today.
The breed originated in the Galloway region of southern Scotland, a damp, chilly and windswept area that borders the Atlantic Ocean. Forage can be scarce there, and Galloway cattle are well known for their ability to thrive on some of the coarse vegetation that other breeds avoid. From the rancher’s perspective, this quality has significant economic value, as Galloway do not need the extensive and costly pre-slaughter finishing that many other breeds require.
Galloway are naturally well-adapted to the cold and wet. Their coats are long and layered, with coarse outer hair that protects the animal from rain and wind, and a soft inner coat, often compared to beaver fur, that provides insulation and additional water-resistance. With such effective insulation, Galloway develop relatively little subcutaneous fat, another quality important to ranchers because it results in less waste at slaughter.
The breed is known for its docility, excellent maternal qualities and easy calving. Born weighing around 75 pounds, calves tend to be vigorous and hardy. Mature bulls weigh, on average, 1,800 pounds, some 500 pounds more than mature cows, and the breed is long-lived, with cows remaining productive into their teens.
The earliest herd books, kept in Edinburgh, were destroyed by fire in 1851. As a result, much of the breed’s genetic development is somewhat speculative. For centuries, though, what we now call the Galloway was referred to only as “the black cattle” and there is evidence that the animals were once horned, though that is no longer the case. Today, the Galloway is polled, and the cattle can be black, red, dun or brown.
There are also two recognized variations on the standard configuration. The Belted Galloway, or “Beltie,” has a wide white stripe surrounding its middle. It was developed by breeding Galloways with a dairy breed, the Belted Dutch, and the result was a smaller animal better suited to dairy. The second type, the Riggit Galloway, has a long history as a variety, but its popularity has varied over time. It was never accepted into the Galloway herd books and was disfavored in breeding programs until the 1980s, when it regained the interest of English breeders. The Riggit can be any of the standard Galloway colors, but it is distinguished from the true Galloway by a white stripe running down the animal’s back.
In 1862, a British herd book was developed to replace what was lost in the 1851 fire, but the breed was already making inroads abroad. The first animals were sent overseas to Toronto in 1853, and that event was followed in 1866 by the arrival of the breed in the United States. The breed has been successful in warm climates despite its efficient adaptation to its harsh native environment, at least in part because it sheds some of its abundant coat in summer-like conditions. After hundreds of years as the premier beef breed of Scotland and England, the Galloway, with its distinctive appearance, gentle temperament and commercial value, has become popular today in diverse environments around the world.