Thursday, July 7, 2016

Old Grannie: The Prima Donna of Aberdeen

Canadian Angus Foundation Summer Archivist Madelyn Shyba heard about the legendary Angus cow "Old Grannie" and was intrigued. She did some research to separate the fact and fiction, and we are pleased to share her findings with you.

The name 'Old Grannie' is not a name that gives the impression of grandeur or awe, but Old Grannie the Angus cow was a cow of great importance. Grannie was calved into the herd of Hugh Watson in 1824, the same year that Beethoven's 9th symphony premiered in Vienna and the year that Fort Vancouver was founded by the Hudson's Bay Company in what is now Washington. Grannie was the first cow entered in Hugh Watson's herd book, making her the maternal dam of some of the finest herds in Scotland. Her name then was not Old Grannie as she had to earn that moniker. Instead, they gave her the title of Prima Cow, a fitting name for a dam who would go on to produce at least 25 calves. Some sources claim she gave birth until the age of 29. She would die, struck by lightning in a storm, 36 years later, but Old Grannie had become one of Watson's most treasured assets in his quest to develop and improve the Angus breed.  

The only illustration we have of Old Grannie, based on a
photograph taken when she was 36 years old.
Hugh Watson's initial intention in keeping Old Grannie was to see how long a healthy cow could live and produce viable offspring. Despite this methodical goal, however, Grannie grew to be a well-loved animal. William Watson, Hugh Watson's son, speaks very fondly of her in his account of her later years, and she was treated with fondness and affection by her handler James Thomson. Hugh Watson takes note of an especially tender moment between them in a letter. He writes that after her final calf at the grand age of 33, Grannie was unable to produce milk and had to be separated from her daughter. The poor dam was very distraught, and William Watson describes her mourning with a fondness most often reserved for a treasured pet: "Actual tears of sorrow rolled down her old sweet maternal face. Lord bless our doddit Grannie!"

Grannie’s quality was not just recognized by her owners and handlers; she was also well known in the greater ranching community for being a fine specimen of the Angus breed. She won many awards when she was younger, and even as she advanced on her record-setting old age, she received official acknowledgement of her then-legendary fertility and longevity in the form of a medal won at the 1858 Highland Show at Aberdeen. 

Her name was even known and respected amongst royalty. In 1856, the French emperor Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, purchased one of Grannie’s sons for 50 guineas. This was just before Napoleon III’s popularity in France took a rather catastrophic downturn. One of her sons, an ox, was even purchased and put to the plough at Windsor Castle, and Prince Albert, Consort of Queen Victoria, requested that a photograph of her be taken and placed in his personal collection at Balmoral. It is thanks to this photograph that we can see Old Grannie today, since the drawing we have of her now was based on it. She certainly appears her age, but it is not surprising, as it was taken shortly before her death at the wonderful age of 36.

Looks aside, Old Grannie was a fine example of her stock and a cow that earned her position as a mother of the Angus breed. Without her and her many descendants, the Angus breed would not be what it is today, nor would its history contain such an interesting and dearly loved character. 

     Barclay, James R., and Alexander Keith. The Aberdeen-Angus Breed: A History. Aberdeen: The Aberdeen-Angus Cattle Society, 1958.

     Sanders, Alan Howard. A History of Aberdeen-Angus Cattle. Chicago: The New Breeder's Gazette, 1928.

     Spencer, J.B. Beef Raising in Canada. Ottawa: Department of Agriculture, 1910.

Posted by Madelyn Shyba