Tails from the Toffee that's good for you

CHILDREN’S author Marghanita Hughes breezes in dressed in a regimental piper’s jacket, looking as if she’s just dropped off one of the battlements at Edinburgh Castle. "I’ve just come from there, been doing a photoshoot," she says, out of breath. "I don’t always dress like this."

But the next time I see her she’s uniformed up again, marching next to a piper in full blow and leading an excited gaggle of fancy-dressed children up the Castle Esplanade to a book reading. Only this time she has added two shampooed and blow-dried Highland cattle to the cocktail. Has no one warned this woman about working with children, animals and bagpipes?

But kids and cattle are Hughes’ bread and butter, or rather neeps and tatties, and her creation, Toffee the Highland calf, is a global phenomenon. Three- to six-year-olds from Oregon to Osaka, Brooklyn to Bathgate, are devouring the books and making mini versions of the cow with the modelling clay that comes free with copies of the latest adventure, Toffee on Parade.

Irn-bru hued and twice as sweet, Toffee is about to become a household name in her homeland when her animated adventures hit the small screen. Narrated by Monarch of the Glen’s Hamish Clark (who plays Duncan), also possessed of big soft eyes and unruly curls, the series is to be on air "very soon", confides Hughes.

"It won’t be long now. There are 13 episodes to begin with. Hamish’s narration is captivating and children are completely absorbed by it. The animation is going to be big, it’s an enormous leap for us and it’s a little scary just thinking about it," she says.

The Glenalmond-based former graphic designer’s feet haven’t touched the ground since the three books of Toffee’s adventures took off and the website sent the hairy calf far beyond the boundaries of her peaceful Perthshire field to a global audience. Like all things Scottish she’s big in Japan and ex-pats in Australia, Canada and America are besotted with the boisterous bovine. The books have been translated into Japanese and Gaelic, where Toffee goes under the moniker Tofaidh (like all pedigree Highland cows, she has a Gaelic name), and there is a French version in the pipeline. Hughes marched down New York’s Fifth Avenue with the massed pipers at this year’s Tartan Day and played host to Japanese schoolchildren whose school curriculum now includes Toffee, and who wanted to see the real thing.

"We have won fans from all over the world through the website. We didn’t realise how many countries you could reach. It has been a fantastic calling card," says the mother-of-three.

"New York was great fun, although the Americans did think Toffee was a ginger buffalo at first. In Brooklyn they did really interesting models of her, one with a ginger and black dreadlock for a tail and one with horns so big I’m surprised it could stand up," she says.

In Japan, the Scottish Academy in Osaka has integrated Toffee into the curriculum, gleaning information about Scottish wildlife and nature from the stories. A scene from one of the books where Toffee leapfrogs over a Clydesdale horse has found its way into gym lessons.

"That was a real thrill for me, to know that a school class the other side of the world were acting out a scene from my book. I never realised how much of an educational source it was to the Academy."

When she’s not rushing from book signings and readings in bookshops or libraries, or working on the illustrations for the TV series, Hughes likes to stage events at castles such as Glamis or Edinburgh, where farmer Kelso Logan from Alva brings along two of his 32 pedigree Highland cows.

"They have a very good, calm temperament. You just have to watch out for the horns. We shampoo them, comb the tails and polish the horns with emery paper, and they love it," he says.

Hughes came up with the idea for a book four years ago while she was watching the Highland cattle over the fence from her Perthshire cottage. "The inspiration was seeing the cows playing at the bottom of the garden, springing about, just like my children. I think there’s a bit of me in the character and parts of my children too. Toffee is a calf, so she appeals to the child in everyone. But I don’t want to analyse it at all, it might spoil the fun," she says.

It’s all about fun but there’s an educational message in there too, and one of the aims of the books is to teach children at home and abroad about Scottish wildlife and culture. Toffee’s friends include Angus the Westie, Clyde the Clydesdale and Bracken the Red Squirrel, while the backdrops to the stories are lochs, mountains and castles and the pages are peppered with capercaillies, otters and sheepdog trials. The cow also manages to get caught up in the Edinburgh Festival in Toffee on Parade when, returning from the Highland Show, she mistakes Edinburgh Castle for her farm and joins the pipers leading a Festival parade.

Meanwhile, at the Castle book launch, the real life cows stand shortbread-tin still despite the screams of young tourists eager to hear more and the soundtracked skirl of the pipes. Soon the castle is filled with small children making Highland calves out of orange modelling clay, fulfilling Hughes’ aim of making the books and website interactive. "The children come along, hear a story and make a model. The latest book comes with modelling clay and the creative aspect is very important. The beauty is they’re all different, although the grown-ups try desperately to make their cow look like the ones I do," she says, laughing.

The original Toffee nearly didn’t make it. A sickly calf destined for the slaughterhouse, the next-door farmer gave her a reprieve and Hughes’ children, David, 11, Jasmine, nine, and Samuel, six, followed her progress, Jasmine coming up with the name, Toffee, "because of the colour".

Turning to the net for information about Highland cows and other Scottish wildlife, Hughes was surprised at how little there was aimed at children. "So I set up my own website and included the stories I had been telling the children. We need information on what’s around us, on our own culture and environment, what’s on our own doorstep as well as in other countries and cultures," says Hughes.

"At the time of the first book, foot and mouth disease was overshadowing the countryside and it was nice to put a positive message across."

The Highland Cattle Society are also delighted with the good press and have a link to the Toffee site on their home page.

What is it about Toffee that appeals to children? Hughes puts it down to a combination of the unique appearance of Highland cows, the simplicity of her drawings and good old-fashioned morals. "They are just stunning animals, there’s nothing like them. I think that’s what’s so appealing. And simplicity is the key to Toffee’s success - she’s a simple character with basic morals who cares about other animals.

"Today’s TV bombards children with American trash and noise, but Toffee is a wholesome character with wholesome stories."

Hughes credits her graphic design background for the clarity and instant impact of the books. "I use bold, strong colours and clear lines. The animation is aimed at the very young pre-school market who love those strong colours and simple shapes," she says.

But it’s not just about Marghanita (who was born to be a writer, having been named after a Polish poet); the Toffee phenomenon is a real family affair. She and husband David, a website designer, set up Wildwood Productions to produce and promote the books, the website and TV series. "It was meant to be part-time, but it kind of took over," says Hughes. "It’s nice that everyone is involved."

As well as the TV series, Toffee is to star on a float in this year’s Edinburgh Festival Cavalcade. Book sales are "doing very well"; Wildwood Productions was a finalist in the Tayside Business Awards this year and received the Best Creative Business Award 2003 from the Perthshire Chamber of Commerce. Recognition also came from the Scottish Arts Council for the creativity and originality of the Toffee on Parade book and artpack.

The only thing missing is a Highland calf for the Hughes children to call their own. "We want one eventually but the problem is they want a Clydesdale and a Westie too. Just like in the books."

Back at the book launch, Hughes and her husband have hidden orange cows all over the Castle for children to find. I only spot three and wonder if some of the tourists couldn’t resist them. "Ah, that’s the only problem with Highland cows. Sometimes they go walkabout," says Hughes. "The ones in the field next to us get out on to the golf course sometimes. We can hear the golfers’ cries," she laughs.

Highland cows playing golf? That would be very big in Japan.

Toffee on Parade, published by Wildwood Productions, Toffee at Home on the Farm and Toffee Goes Camping (Scottish Children’s Press) are available now, or visit www.highlandtoffee.com