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Steak-out at the city cattle show is learning experience

Beautiful eyes that dominate her face as she gazes around her.

Ginger hair carefully blow-dryed and combed. A nose ring - not to everyone's taste admittedly, but more commonly seen these days. You just have to be careful not to stand too close as she also has a vicious kick, and is lightening fast for someone who weighs three-quarters of a ton.

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No, I am not being unchivalrous, as this was Glasgow's own Highland Cattle Show at the weekend in Pollok Park, when Glaswegians could get up close with animals they normally only see on shortbread tins and toffee wrappers.

Glaswegians are animal lovers as much as anyone - they just don't meet those larger than a dog that often. Those of a certain age encountered their first bigger animal on summer holidays, when they would be dumped on the back of a listless donkey at Ayr or Blackpool beach and taken on a 50-yard slow-moving trek as the animal automatically placed its hooves in the same imprints in the sand before turning at exactly the same spot and returning to its original location, where another fractious child would be hefted aboard. The most animated person would be the child's father capering ahead trying to get a photograph of this undeviating caravan.

Only on train journeys going through the country outside the city would horses and cattle be glimpsed. "Look at these coos!" a Glasgow child was heard to shout on a train to Ayrshire. "Not coos, cows," replied his mother, hoping to improve his diction.

"Well they look like coos to me," argued her boy.

More exotic creatures would be seen only if a school trip went to a safari park such as Blair Drummond, near Stirling. Colleague Tom Shields told of the school trip from a challenging part of Glasgow going to a safari park where a warden came on board their bus and emphasised that they should not in any circumstances get off the vehicle. "We widnae touch yer lions," shouted back a pupil defensively.

At Pollok Park the cattle were only inches away from enquiring children, behind crush barriers, as they were led around the parade ring. Their white-coated handlers would surreptitiously produce hairbrushes from pockets to quickly fluff up their hair before the judge came over.

The judges looked the part, mostly white-haired old men in tweed jackets, old cloth cap on their heads, leaning on a shepherd's crook.

The handlers would control the quiet beasts with a rope through a nose ring or on a halter, but would also carry a pole with a hook on the end, much like a shortened version of the poles once used in schools to open windows. They would use it to gently move the animal's legs so it was standing the correct way for the judge.

And there were the horns that make Highland cattle so distinctive. "They could do some damage," said one admiring Glaswegian holding his child up for a closer look.

"Does the judge check the animal's bite like a dog show?" asked a visitor who had brought along his spaniel to the park, which was now sitting docilely at his feet.

"They don't have one," the handler in front of him explained. "They only have teeth on the bottom of their mouths with a flat plate on top." I never knew that. But then as a Glaswegian I know very little about large animals. We know more about how to bet on them than how to sit on them.

Just when I thought how lovely they were, the heifer in front flashed out a hind leg towards the passive spaniel, with its hoof hitting the metal fence with a resounding clang. They might look nice on tins, but you still have to give them respect.

Cattle shows in Scotland can be traced back to 1789 when the Duke of Argyll put up a seven guinea prize - a fortune then of course - and a gold medal for the best of breed at a livestock show in Connel, near Oban. The point of it was to encourage improvements in the breeding stock, and cattle-owners walked their animals for days to reach the Connel gathering. Eventually, each parish had its own livestock show.

I only know this as the commentator at Pollok Park, a kilted chap with a soft Highland brogue, was keen to pass on his knowledge of the breed as the animals were led around.

They are a hardy breed, able to cope with the harsh mountain lands of Scotland. They can make the most of poor forage, and can live their lives outdoors. The downside is less meat on the bone for the butchers.

In fact, the breed almost died out because of the poor return, although it is a high quality meat, often securing a premium price as it has less fat and cholesterol, and higher protein and iron than other beef. There are more Highland Cattle now in America, where wealthy Americans buying their own little ranch houses like a Highland cow or two out front as they are so picturesque. Not such a bad life then.

But if I don't know much about cattle, I do remember the old joke, which really only works in a Scottish accent. It is of course: "Which of these cows in the field is on holiday?" The answer being: "The one with the wee calf."

It is so old it may well have been told at that first cattle show in Connel all those years ago.

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