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Tura Coo: The Cow That Led A Town To Riots

A hundred years ago, a small farming community called Turriff in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, became the unlikely stage for one of the most bizarre anti-government riots ever staged in Britain. At the center of the disruption was a white shorthorn cow, famed throughout the country as the "Turra Coo".

The story of Turra’s most famous “coo” begins in 1911, the year the government introduced National Insurance. According to this new scheme both workers and employers were required to contribute towards the funding of state benefits, such as insurance against illness and unemployment, which was made compulsory for all workers between the ages of 16 and 70.

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A bronze statue of “Turra Coo” in Turriff.

National Insurance is a good thing, but back then people were skeptical. Many Scottish farmers remained unconvinced of the merits of state support for those in need. Some felt the level of contribution required from them was too high. The farmers around Turriff were particularly incensed, because this would increase the cost of employing farm laborers, which they felt they already took good care of and thus had little use of state benefits.

A local farmer named Robert Paterson, who employed lots of men on his farm at Lendrum, decided to lead by example. He refused to stamp the insurance cards of his employees. The authorities were upon him at once. They decided that he had committed as many as 20 offences against the 1911 National Insurance Act, attracting a cumulative five of £15 plus the arrears of national insurance contributions. Paterson paid the fine, but refused to make up the arrears. In response, the court ordered the local sheriff to seize property to the value of £7 from Paterson's farm.

When the sheriff's officers came to impound his property, they took the only thing of value that was moveable—a white milk cow.

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“It might have been OK if the sheriff officers had pounded an implement, a plough or something like that,” said Allen Stephen from Turriff Heritage Society to the BBC. “But the whole thing became tied up in an emotional incident because they took the little white cow.”

Turriff's agricultural marts refused to organize the sale and no local auctioneer came forward to conduct it. The authorities fought hard, and brought in an auctioneer from outside town and scheduled an auction to be held right in the town center. On the appointed day, the cow was tied in the town square and the villagers decorated with ribbons and painted it with the slogan “'Lendrum to Leeks” in reference to the then serving Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, who was Welsh.

The square was packed with people. Farm workers had been given a half day off so that could come and watch the auction or disrupt it. There was a palpable tension in the air. The crowd was agitated, the cow was agitated. Then somewhere nearby, as some people recall, a dog barked. Others suggested that Paterson himself came up and shouted “yoo hoo” and scared the cow. The frightened beast bolted down the streets.

Then the riots broke out. A 100-strong mob proceeded to pelt the sheriff's officers with rotten fruit, eggs and soot. Somebody let off firecrackers. At the end of the day, eight farm workers, including Paterson, were arrested and put on trial in Aberdeen for disorderly conduct. But all were acquitted because of lack of evidence.

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Meanwhile, the escaped cow was soon found hiding in a nearby barn and taken to Aberdeen for a more orderly auction. The cow was successfully sold, but the local community got together and bought the cow back from her new owner. The presentation of the cow back to the Patersons on 20 January 1914 was a major public event. More than 3,000 people turned out to see the cow paraded in triumph through Turriff, adorned with ribbons and garlands of dried flowers, painted with the slogan “Free!! Divn't ye wish that ye were me” and accompanied by playing band.

Coo died six years later and was buried in a corner of Patersons' farmland in Lendrum. But she was hardly forgotten.

The cow became a sort of emblem of the town. For many years, locals sold souvenir items featuring the likenesses of Coo and frequently adorned with the slogan "Lendrum to Leeks". In 1971, a roadside monument was unveiled at Lendrum, with a plaque featuring a silhouette of a cow's head. In 2010, a sculpture of the Turra Coo was unveiled in Turriff town center, at the junction of the two major shopping streets, a spot now known locally as "Coo Corner".

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