Ultimo aggiornamento:  04.11.2019 16.11
April 20, 2018

the scotch collie

By  Rev. Alexander Stewart

The Poultry Monthly, 1887. Digitized by Google. Original from Cornell University. Courtesy of Hathi Trust


The Rev. Dr. Alexander Stewart (1829–1901), known as "Nether Lochaber" was a most remarkable man. Minister of his parish of Ballachulish and Onich for some 50 years, until his death, he was much loved by all who knew him. There can be little doubt that he achieved a great deal during his lifetime and his literary efforts were recognised by the University of St Andrews with the award of the degree of LL.D. (Legum Doctor) in 1884. Previously he had been elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (F.S.A.) and he was also made a Fellow of the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh, and of the Geographical and Natural History Societies of Glasgow. Perhaps the inscription on his memorial best sums up the man and his achievements:

“In memory of Rev. Alexander Stewart, LL.D., F.S.A. Scot. For fifty years minister of Ballachulish and Ardgour. Died 17th January, 1901, in the 72nd year of his age. Scholar, naturalist and bard, distinguished for the variety and charm of his writings; dear to all how knew him, and most dear to those who knew him best.”


Of the many breeds of dogs the British Islands can boast of, far and away the most really useful, as well as the most intelligent and sagacious, is the Scotch Collie or shepherd's dog, of which there are two well-marked varieties: the rough coated, usually a big, burly dog of considerable size and weight, and the slenderer, smooth-skin Collie; equally intelligent perhaps, though not so powerful a dog as his rougher confrere. Both are very hardy dogs, capable of any amount of work, and always doing the work allotted to them with a thoroughness and willingness which entitle them to a first and foremost place among our canine collaborators. In the genuine sheep dog the pile or coat proper overlies an inner woolly coat of closest and softest fibre, very much as we find it in the hill fox and Alpine hare, and this peculiarity of coating enables him to face with impunity an amount of wet and cold under which most other dogs must inevitably perish. In the highlands the rough coated variety is preferred, partly because of his superior strength and greater power of endurance, but mainly and more particularly because of his wonderful firmness of pad, so thick and leathery and tough, that he can work for days together over the roughest ground, without the slightest limp or other symptoms of lameness.

We claim for our life-long friend the Collie, that he is a gentleman of very ancient descent. With sufficient time at our disposal, we think we could prove beyond any reasonable doubt, that he is the old indigenous dog of the British Islands, and that it is he and no other that is so frequently referred to in the old ballads of the far Fingalian times in Ireland, and the Scottish Highland. Some of these ballads date from as early a period at least as the eighth and ninth centuries, and in almost all of them dogs of a certain breed are mentioned as perhaps the most valuable possession owned by a people who lived mainly by the chase, and whose only weapons were the bow and arrows and light hunting spear; and from the character and feats ascribed by the ancient Celtic balladists to these dogs, we believe they were nothing else but Collies, of whom our modern rough-coated Collie is the direct descendant; in shape and form probably differing little, if at all, from his medieval ancestors. These dogs are represented as not only tracking and pulling down the wounded elk, the fierce wild boar of the brake, and the red deer, stag, and hind, but as also hunting and killing the wily hill fox in his den, the badger, otter and seal. If a river, or lake, or arm of the sea had to be crossed, they are represented as taking the water readily, and swimming alongside the corracles of the huntsmen; while once and again a scene is described where one of these dogs, after a tough tussle with a seal on a slippery skerry, tumbled headlong with his antagonist into the sea, and there fighting it out, until the seal is mastered and killed, and finally dragged to land. The dog of the medieval Gaelic ballads, in short, did anything and everything that might be necessary in aid of his master in the chase, and excelled in all.

We maintain that no dog but the Collie could be so good all round, so ready to fight in water as on land, and so valuable an aid in the pursuit of every animal of the chase; whether the pursuit was by scent or sight, whether amongst the rough mountain corries or the rush-tufted plain, or, as in otterhunting, by the rocky banks of rivers or the boulder-strewn margin of the sea. In a hunting ballad of a date that cannot be more recent than the twelfth century, there is a quatrain, of which a literal translation is this:

"On that day we killed hinds and stags nine times nine;

Surly badgers (we killed) a score and three,

Two wild boars of the brake, five otters too,

And five fat seals that swim the ocean wave.

That evening we feasted well. In water as on land

Our dogs were keen and brave."

We believe that Fingal’s own dog Bran, so famous in Ossianic song, was no hunting “hound” at all in the modern sense of the term, but just an exceptionally strong and intelligent rough-coated Collie; nor would it be easy to persuade us that the faithful Argus of Ulysses himself, in far off Ithaca three thousand years ago, was other than a genuine Collie of the same breed as the dogs of the Fingalians, more than a thousand years afterwards, in the hunting-grounds of medieval Scotland and Ireland. Properly tried and tested, no other dog of our day is found to be so versatile and many-sided as the Collie. Now, as in the old Fingalian times, he may be got, and got easily, to do all and anything that a dog can do; and sportsmen are fast discovering that the Collie is not only the shepherd's dog par excellence, but that, duly taught and trained, he is of all dogs the sportsman’s dog as well. As delicate and keen of scent as the Setter or Pointer, he is a far more intelligent dog than either, and with less than half the training necessary to make them good dogs, he will work over heather or stubble, with grouse or partridge, so satisfactorily that the sportsman who has once shot over him will rarely desire a better dog.

In Scotland as a deer-stalker’s dog the Collie is rapidly coming into high repute. Less fleet, indeed, than the orthodox stag-hound, he is in every way a much surer dog in the forest. He will follow a wounded stag through all his doublings and windings, and fast enough to be close at hand when the stag stops from exhaustion, either to pull him down or keep him at bay until help arrives. What, in a word, he wants in speed and strength as compared with the bigger deerhound, he more than makes up for by his unflinching perseverance in pursuit and his intelligent and steady conduct with the stag at bay; always avoiding the sweep of the stag’s antlers, so that while the deerhound, from blindly dashing at the quarry, is often so seriously wounded as to be ever afterwards useless, or is killed on the spot, the Collie, with his constant self-possession and caution, never allows himself to be hurt. Let us put it in this way — the orthodox deerhound is a swift machine of high courage but low intelligence; the Collie is a slower machine of equally high courage and far higher intelligence — the safer and rarer dog of the two. The late Mr. Campbell of Monzie, whose feats on the grouse moor surpassed those of any other sportsman of his time, and who as a successful deer-stalker had no equal in the North, after due trial adopted the Collie as upon the whole the best grouse dog in the world; while as a forest companion, when a wounded deer had to be found and held at bay, it was his contention, and he had abundantly proved it, that a good Collie was fit for all a dog could do in such a case, and did it better than any other breed of dog that could be brought into the forest. We once heard Campbell pay the Collie a compliment with which everyone who knows anything of the dog will entirely agree. “No other dog," said Mr. Campbell, “exhibits under all circumstances so much true courage, courage, that is, combined with high intelligence and unfailing self-possession and caution.

If desired, the Collie with very little training becomes also the most perfect of retrievers. In his keen scent, delicacy of mouth, and unfailing nous are to be found all the essentials of a good land retriever; while the readiness with which he may be brought to water-retrieving is known to every shepherd and gamekeeper in the highlands. Nor, if you desire him to excel in such an accomplishment, is he less valuable as a vermin-killer. We have known him single-handed to tackle and kill the wild cat amongst the boulders of a steep mountain scairneach; nor will he turn his back on the pine-marten or pole-cat, animals of which most other dogs fight shy. Although too big to enter, like the terrier, the winding avenues to their dens, he is always ready to face either badger or otter in the open; and although the fight in such a case is always severe, a really good Collie can generally claim the victory, even if he has to show such wounds for it afterwards as leave their scars, memorials of the event, on head and muzzle until his dying day. What he can do with the strong, black-legged hill-fox of the highlands, whose bite is as the snap of a steel trap, may be gathered from the following incident of recent occurrence in our immediate neighborhood. A fox having descended from the hill in the grey dawn of morning was prowling about a farmstead hen-house, when he was scared by the screams of the milk-maid early astir who chanced to notice him. A Collie at hand instantly gave chase to the black-legged depredator, and overhauling him in the open, after a fierce encounter, killed him on the spot. An examination of the fox showed that in the tussle the Collie had got his opponent by the windpipe, and slowly worrying and digging into the tissues, held on until the fox fell over dead as Julius Caesar. The Collie had some ugly gashes on the forearms and head, which soon healed, however, so that he was none the worse for the encounter.

In the Hebrides the Collie was, up to comparatively recent times, trained to hunt seals, and proved himself an invaluable ally in the pursuit of the phoca vitulina, whose flesh is sweeter to the Islanders than mutton or beef, and whose oil is accounted of rare virtue as an emollient and embrocation; and taken internally is in high repute as of sovereign efficacy in gastritis and phthisis. A passage in Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba seems to indicate that in the sixth century the monks of Iona employed the Collie in the pursuit of seals; and it is certain that the flesh of seals formed a considerable and highly-prized part of their food, both in a fresh and dried state, and that its oil was of inestimable value for their lamps, and as a lubricant for the rude machinery of the meal mill which ground their corn.

In the spring time, when corn stacks are being removed from the stackyard to the barn, and rats are likely to be about and on the move, it is amusing to see the eagerness with which the Collie in attendance watches the operations, as layer by layer the stack diminishes in height, until only a few rounds of closely-pressed bottom sheaves remain. It is in these bottom sheaves that the rats hold their “at homes," so to speak, and have their nests.

The Collie knows this as well as they do themselves, and he knows also that as the last layer of sheaves is being removed, they must make a bolt of it; and he stands eagerly ready for action, with eyes all ablaze, and trembling in every limb with the intensity of his excitement at the immediate prospect of a good time amongst the whiskered marauders.

The lowermost sheaves are at last being removed, and the rats bolt wildly in all directions; but the Collie is at work; and if you watch him you will observe that he disposes of a rat with a single snap and toss, as handsomely as ever did trained terrier in a boarded rat-pit. On such occasions a single Collie will settle accounts with a dozen rats in a few seconds. Other dogs perhaps, let it be admitted, will kill rats as well as a Collie; but no dog that we have ever seen try it, will kill a weasel so handsomely. A weasel is the lithest, activest, and varmintest of quadrupeds, and if a dog doesn’t get him at the first dash, the fiery little mustela fixes himself at a single leap on his assailant's throat, or gets fast hold of him under the ear; and in such a case the dog has considerable difficulty in shaking off the red-eyed varmint so as to dispose of him snap and tosswise, as he would with a rat. We have never, on the contrary, known a Collie miss his first dash at a stoat or weasel. Quick as lightning he has him at the first bound, at single snap and a sideways toss into the air, and the weasel gasps his last gasp and dies.

Take him all in all, and, in a word, our contention is, that the Collie is a better all-round dog than any other breed of dog in the world; a hardier and wiser dog than any other dog you can place alongside of him; and like the medieval dog of the Heroic Ballads, so many-sided, that we believe the modern Collie and the medieval dog to be identical. Get a good, well-grown Collie of a pure strain, and you have the wisest and faithfulest companion, and the most capable dog of the canine race; at home and abroad, ever and always to be trusted and depended upon as “guide, philosopher and friend," to whom when in error your frown is more than sufficient punishment; and for a difficult feat handsomely accomplished, your smile of approval a sufficient reward.

It is a sheep and cattle dog, however, which his marvellous sagacity, and readiness to act or refrain from acting at his master's slightest nod, make him the fittest dog in the world. What a good Collie can do with sheep almost everybody knows; and well-authenticated stories of his sagacity, patience, and unconquerable endurance would fill volumes. In response to a single word, or even a look from his master, we have seen him "wear away back," in shepherd's phrase, and gather into a certain hollow, only indicated by a slight wave of his master's crook, all the sheep scattered over hills and valleys for three miles around. When the hirsel of up wards of twelve hundred were counted, four were missing, and the good dog on being directed to go instantly and find them, darted off and was over the nearest ridge and out of sight in a few minutes. In less than half an hour his bark was heard from the top of a steep ridge to the left, and in a few minutes he was besides us with the four lost ones in charge; and those being added to the hirsel, and the lot again counted, the tale was complete — and the handsome brown-eyed dog really seemed to know it, and was very manifestly pleased with himself for having done his work so well.

Besides this dog, whose work on the hill was mainly collecting together to a certain indicated place the sheep scattered over the run, there was another dog, whose business it was to take the sheep away in different detachments, as the shepherds were done with them, to various parts of the run; and this he did as smartly and handsomely, as the other had previously collected them. Having thus each a different kind of work to perform, the one, in the Gaelic of the shepherd, was appropriately called the "Gatherer," and the other with equal meaning, the "Disperser." Frequently, however, one and the same dog is taught to combine both offices; is equally expert as gatherer or disperser, just as he may get the command to act in either capacity.

Nowhere else is the law of animal heredition, nous, and intelligence more strongly displayed than in the case of the sheep dog puppy. At three months old, and even sooner, he will begin to work after his kind, turning and "wearing" sheep and cattle ex proprio motu, without a word of direction or encouragement from anybody, when the opportunity comes in his way.

A young dog in the possession of the writer, of the rongh jet-black breed, so famous in the West Highlands — Coin dubh nan Stinbhartach — when only three months old, began to manifest the sheep "wearing" instincts of his race after a very striking fashion. There were no sheep immediately at hand on which he could operate; but in default of sheep, he took to "wearing" and gathering into some selected corner all the fowls belonging to something like a score of houses in our hamlet. It was amusing to see him gather into one batch, and then, by describing a wider circle, gather in a second lot and so on, until he had collected all the fowls that were to be seen abroad into one particular corner selected for the purpose; and when he had thus got them together, with a vast deal of labour and trouble — for some of the fowls would try to escape by flying over his head, or otherwise as best they could — he sat in watch over them; turning back stragglers, and keeping the lot as quietly huddled together in one spot, as if they were for the time under a clap-net.

Sometimes a young and active, longlegged cock would break out and dash away with a cackle and a scream towards his own proper plot and home; but Toss, which was the name of our three months old pup, generally managed to turn the runaway ere he could get to any distance; and his "pride o' port" as he returned with the crestfallen cockerel, and drove him in among the rest again, was amusing in the extreme.

Nor is the Collie less valuable as a cattle than a sheep dog. While quietly feeding on the grazings of their native glens, cattle are easily herded, and almost any dog is good enough for all the work that has to be done. It is when herds of cattle, collected at the different local markets, fresh from their native wilds, and have to be kept day after day and night after night together, as they are being slowly driven to the great Southern Trystes of Falkirk, Doune, and Dumbarton, it is in such a case that the active and long-enduring Collie of purest strain is indispensable.

The driving over the moor and through mountainous defiles of a drove of Highlanders, is perhaps the severest labor that can be given to a dog to perform. Night and day for days together, and be the weather as it may, he is close in charge, constantly on the qui vive, often hungry, and often too without the companionship of his master, he works when it is work, and waits when it is wait — a vigilant sentry over the drove, faithful and steadfast and true through the long hours of the cold wet night, as in the bright noonday; as faithful when left in charge all alone with the drove in the middle of the desolate moor, as when his master is beside him to encourage him with a word of kindness, and pat him on the head or flank in reward for constant diligence and unwearied well-doing. The herdsman has often to go aside for a mile or two to call at a shepherd's or forester's house in some solitary glen in order to procure a little food, or, it may be, to snatch a few hours sleep; and on such occasions the dog is left in charge of the drove, all by himself, wet and cold and hungry, but vigilant and faithful always, until in the grey dawn of morning his master returns with some food for the night-through sleepless sentinel, who, eating it hastily, is in a few minutes ready again for the hard work of another stage on the long and weary journey.

But we must stop; when all is said that can be said, it just comes to this, that, of a pure strain, rough or smooth, the Scotch Collie is far and away the best all-round dog in the world.