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The Scottish Wildcat - One of the World's Most Endangered Animals

Updated on July 11, 2014

The Scottish Wildcat, affectionately (or fearfully!) known as the Highland Tiger, has lived in the Highlands of Scotland for thousands of years. It has been the inspiration for legend that is deeply embedded in Scottish culture. The wildcat is currently facing imminent extinction, so now more than ever it is imperative to bring awareness about the situation of this legendary feline in the hope that we can band together to ensure its survival.

Sketch of a European wildcat killing a deer fawn, by Richard Lydekker
Sketch of a European wildcat killing a deer fawn, by Richard Lydekker

Because if its feisty temperament and sharp reflexes, the Highland Tiger has had a reputation as a beast not to be trifled with. The Scottish Wildcat is smaller than a lynx, but larger than average domestic cats, and males weigh in at up to 7.26 kilograms (16lbs). But don’t let his small size fool you, this cat’s larger than life bad attitude more than makes up for it! The Scottish wildcat is described as highly aggressive and has been known to successfully take down prey its own size. Wild hares, which are larger than rabbits and comparable in size to the wildcat (and sometimes even larger) are one of its regular meals. The cat has also been documented successfully hunting fawns, which are larger than it, as well as large game birds. And, no wonder, this cat is built as a virtual hunting machine. He has incredibly strong jaws, claws of steel, excellent vision, and ears that can rotate 180 degrees. You don’t want to mess with this cat.

The crest of Clan MacPherson
The crest of Clan MacPherson

The Wildcat in Scottish Heritage and Folklore

The Highland Tiger has ancient roots in Scotland. Even some of Scotland’s earliest inhabitants were said to have had interactions with the wildcat. An old legend says that the Picts landing in Northern Scotland were attacked by a pack of wildcats. So fierce were these animals that the Picts in the region had great reverence and respect for them, and adopted the wildcat as their tribal symbol and name. At least one region once occupied by Picts is named for him; Caithness means “Land of the Cats” or “Land of the Cat People.”

Even when the Celts came to Scotland's shores, the Highland Tiger held his ground. And like the Picts, the Celts soon fell in line and learned to respect this beast. This is reflected in the Scottish clans that are associated with the wildcat. Clan Chattan literally means “Clan of the Cat.” The motto on Clan Chattan's crest is “Touch not the cat bot a glove” (bot meaning without), again attesting to the Scottish wildcat's ferocity. And the leader of Clan Sutherland, the Duke of Sutherland, is known as The Great Man of the Cats (Morair Chat in Gaelic). These are just two examples. Clan MacPherson, Clan Mackintosh, and Clan MacBean are some other clans who feature the wildcat on their crest.

Illustration from "More English Fairy Tales" published in 1894
Illustration from "More English Fairy Tales" published in 1894

The Cat Sìth

So feared was the Highland Tiger that his tales influenced Highland folklore and may have spawned at least one fearsome feline supernatural figure. The Cat Sìth, or Cait Sidhe in Irish, was a frightening ghostly cat creature who haunted the hills of Scotland. In some tales the animal is a menacing fairy. In others, it is a shape-shifting and terrifying witch.

The Cat Sìth held the ability bless or curse whomever crossed its path. On Samhain night, those who offered a saucer of milk could be blessed. But, woe to those who neglected to appease the Cat Sìth, for they may receive a curse. The powerful Cat Sìth also had the ability to steal souls, so people kept vigils over corpses at wakes. It was the only way to ensure that the souls of loved ones departed would be safe from this creature.

Although the terror instilled by Cat Sìth match the wildcat's reputation, its physical description differed somewhat.

According to legend the Cat Sìth was a large black cat with a distinctive white mark on the front. The legendary Kellas Cat more accurately fits this description.

The Kellas Cat is thought to be a wild hybrid of the Scottish wildcat and feral domestic cats, and was also famed in Scotch folklore of yore.

Scottish Wildcat mother and cub. Photograph by Peter Trimming.
Scottish Wildcat mother and cub. Photograph by Peter Trimming.

Why The Wildcat Threatened And How We Can Help

If the Kellas Cat is real, then it may actually be one factor contributing to the Highland Tiger's demise. The wildcat is breeding with feral domestic cats due to dwindling numbers of purebreds. So closely related in genetics and size they can breed together easily. Experts working on conservation of this species urge all cat owners near wildcat habitat to have their house cats fixed to avoid interbreeding.

Other major threats are the same as those typical of most endangered species. Human encroachment is limiting their habitat and pushing the wildcats into contact with people. Sadly, the wildcat has been spotted as road kill on numerous occasions.

Further, there have been reports of farmers and landowners mistakenly believing the animals are pests and poisoning them. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as the wildcats’ natural prey are rodents who devour crops and invade homesteads.

They have also been hunted as trophies, especially for their luxurious tails to decorate Celtic sporrans, the pouches which are traditionally worn with a kilt.

This is a make or break year for the Scottish Wildcat. What happens in 2013 will determine if this cat has a future, or goes the way of the Tasmanian Tiger. If we spread awareness, this could be the year we stop the downward spiral and change the fate of the Highland Tiger. There is, actually, some good news. There are concerted efforts in Scotland to develop captive breeding programs. Wildcats bred in captivity could be released in the wild to bolster the numbers and revive the population. Scientists are also exploring other options such as cloning. While this may be controversial, with such small numbers of purebreds left, drastic times may call for drastic measures. And, when a species’ extinction is directly related to human activity, then it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to reverse the situation.

Scottish wildcat with black grouse carcass, as illustrated by Archibald Thorburn (1902)
Scottish wildcat with black grouse carcass, as illustrated by Archibald Thorburn (1902)

There are also many groups actively working to save this much loved cat. One such group is the Scottish Wildcat Association. Their website provides links to educate the public on how to get involved. Locals can volunteer, and those who are not local but want to help can donate to conservation efforts (www.scottishwildcats.co.uk). Another organization, Highland Tiger, promotes education and awareness about the wildcat's plight. On their website (www.highlandtiger.com) you can find more ways to help, including their Adopt A Wildcat program.

For more on Scottish history/folklore

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© 2013 Carolyn Emerick

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    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 3 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      This is so interesting and well-written! I am half-Scottish, always concerned by the plight of wildlife, and love cats, but almost all of this information was new to me! Thank you for an excellent article...sharing. ~Lurana

    • Theater girl profile image

      Jennifer 3 years ago from New Jersey

      Very interesting facts. Thanks for sharing!

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
      Author

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      thank you so much for commenting! I would like to do a follow up soon, but unfortunately there has not been much news and much of it is not optimistic :-/

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 3 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thanks for this article. I lived in Scotland for five years and have seen one of these beautiful cats. They are a separate species but are now under severe pressure due to habitat loss and, yes, killing by local gamekeepers -who follow tradition to save their precious game birds for the shooting fraternity!!

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Wow, interesting stuff! I didn't know much about them so when I came across this hub title I was curious-- thanks for all the great info! I really learned a lot!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 2 years ago from California

      Very informative!

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Beautiful cats with an interesting history. The pictures are quite nice too. Sorry to hear of their plight. There's a feral cat that lives around our neighborhood that looks somewhat like this breed. I call him Brian Williams.

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      ArtDiva 2 years ago

      More often than not, a species’ extinction is directly related to human behavior, and it is our responsibility to change attitudes. Sadly, happening to so many animals around the world. Sadder still, when we reference these beautiful animals as beasts. Very informative article.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Carolyn, thanks for all the interesting and helpful information. These are beautiful animals with a long history in Scotland. I hope all the efforts to save them are successful.

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