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The Bearded Collie in the UK

Mrs. G.O. Willison in her book “The Bearded Collie” (1971) writes that “ ...about 1514...there is a record of the trading ship owner, Kazimiez Grabski, sailed from Gdansk to Scotland with grain in exchange for Scottish sheep. With him he had six lowland sheepdogs. According to the record the sheep were very good Scottish sheep, much valued by the shepherd, and this same shepherd offered a very fine horn ram for a pair of the dogs, a deal being made for a ram and a ewe in exchange for two bitches and one dog.” Willison further writes that the“...dogs of the Bearded type came to Britain from the west of Europe about 2,000 BC and that the new blood landed in Scotland helped form the dog we have today”.

Major James C. Logan in his article “The Bearded Collie Origins and Early History (appearing in Moorhouse, K. Suzanne. 1990. Talking about ...beardies. ) says "The safest thing that can be said about the origins of the Bearded Collie is that they are lost in the mists of antiquity. This is a breed which has evolved naturally over the centuries and not one created in the relatively recent past, such as the Golden Retriever and the Doberman, whose pedigrees can be traced right back to the original stud books. "

There have been working dogs with shaggy coats and hairy faces in Scotland and in other parts of Europe for many centuries. In Scotland they were known under names such as Scotch Sheepdog, Mountain Collie, Highland Collie, or Hairy Mou'ed Collie, and probably had many equally distinctive names in other lands. Major Logan feels it would be very hard to claim a specific specimen or place as the dog or country of origin for the breed we have come to identify as Beardies. He further states that “To describe the Polish Lowland Sheepdog as the ‘ancestor of the Bearded Collie’ is quite unjustified; at the very most it may have contributed a small part to the ancestry of the Beardie.”

Major Logan reminds us that most theories about the ancestry of the Bearded Collie are “sheer speculation” and that: "All that can really be said is that over the years a longhaired, hairy-faced dog developed in Scotland, valued for its hardiness and its ability to work sheep and cattle. Little or no attempt was made to fix type until late in the 19th century, working ability being the only criteria."

There is strong evidence that Bearded Collies were among the dogs used in the cattle drives from approximately 1707 to the late 1880s. This fact seems to be confirmed in an article by Bailie James Dalgliesh in “The New Book of the Dog (1907), in which he states that the Bearded Collie... is a favourite with the butcher and drover.

A dog, possibly a Bearded Collie is depicted in Gainsborough’s portrait of the Duke of Buccleuch, painted in 1771. This is one of the earliest painting to depict a Beardie. Reynolds painted a portrait of the Duchess with the same dog a few years later. Reinagle’s painting of the “Shepherd’s Dog” more closely resembles a Bearded Collie - it’s long body, unobscured eyes and brown colour - than an Old English Sheep Dog. A number of other paintings or drawings of the 19th century include dogs which can be identified as Bearded Collies (e.g., Herring’s Bearded Collie and Hound, 1855; Rosa Bonheur drawing, 1879).

Written (documented) history of the Bearded Collie begins with the publication in 1891 of “The Dogs of Scotland” by D. J. Thompson Gray. This is possibly the first publication to refer to the Bearded Collie by that name. Gray describes the Beardies as “ a big, rough, “tousy” looking tyke with a coat not unlike a doormat, the texture of the hair hard and fibry, and the ears hanging close to the head”. Gray further states that at the time the Bearded Collie was not common in Scotland, but neither was it particularly scarce; there were many entrants at dog shows in Glasgow and other West Country shows. The first show at which the breed was classified, however, is thought to be the 1897 Edinburgh Show of the Scottish Kennel Club.

In 1898 two publications featured Bearded Collies: Arthur Ollivant’s novel “Owd Bob” and Mrs Hall Walker wrote an article, using information from Beardie enthusiast and judge H. Panmure Gordon, on the breed in the December 17th issue of “Our Dogs”. This article contained a standard for the Bearded Collie which was to remain, with few alterations, the principal standard for nearly sixty years. And which formed the basis of all future standards.

In 1924, John Buchan’s novel “John Macnab” was published. The dog, Mackenzie is described as “He was a mongrel collie of the old Highland type known as “Beardies”, and his towzled head, not unlike an extra-shaggy Dandie Dinmont’s, was set upon a body of immense length, girth and muscle. His manners were atrocious to all except his master, and local report accused him of every canine vice except worrying sheep.”

During the early part of the 20th century Beardies were being shown at Scottish shows and in 1913, at the SKC Edinburgh Show, a trophy was offered for the best Bearded Collie owned by a member. There were attempts to form a breed club, but the start of the First World War thwarted these efforts and put showing on hold.

By 1923, following the war, registration efforts had resumed and three dogs made five entries at the Edinburgh show. Best of Breed was Ninewells Nell, who was to become dam of Mrs. Cameron Miller's well-known dog, Balmacneil Jock. The leading figure in Bearded Collies from the late 1920s to the mid 1930s was Mrs. Cameron Miller. Major Logan states that though Mrs. Miller made a great effort to promote the breed as a show dog, registering 55 dogs and breeding ten litters between 1929 and 1934; by 1936 the Beardie classification had been discontinued for the Edinburgh shows. Mr. Logan postulates that difficulties in competing with Mrs. Miller's dogs and her unwillingness to part with breeding stock were major influences in thwarting her effort to reinforce the Beardie’s place in the show ring. The last Beardie for nearly nine years was registered in 1938.

Major Logan write that "Although Bearded Collies had ceased to be registered, they had by no means become extinct, nor were they in any danger of doing so. Writing in 'Working Dogs Of The World' in 1947 Hubbard describes the breed as almost extinct except in Peebleshire. In fact, Beardies were at that time to be found, admittedly in small numbers, all over Scotland, and none of the dogs which were to form the foundation of the modern registered breed actually came from Peebleshire. Hubbard writes that despite the small numbers, the best specimens were to be found working with the flocks instead of parading the exhibition rings, and Beardies are still to be found working today which owe absolutely nothing to the registered breed."

The re-emergence of the registered Bearded Collie happened by chance. Mr. Logan writes: "Mrs. G.O. Willison, of Bothkennar Grange in Middlesex, was interested in training and working Shetland Sheepdogs. In January 1944 she decided that her next dog would be a Shetland Sheepdog of working stock, so she somewhat optimistically booked one from a farmer's agent in Scotland. Fortunately, but scarcely surprisingly, no such Shetland Sheepdog was available, but the agent, showing commendable initiative . . . sent her instead a Bearded Collie puppy which his own dog had recently sired from a bitch owned by a Mr. McKie of Killiecrankie. It was upon this happy accident that the revival of the Bearded Collie as a show breed depended, for Mrs. Willison was captivated by the puppy's temperament, intelligence and working instinct, and she was the very person who had the enthusiasm, persistence and opportunity to undertake the revival of the breed."

In 1948, at two years of age and approved after inspection for registration, this puppy was registered at Jeannie of Bothkennar. She was the first Beardie registered since December 1939 and only the fourth registered since May 1935. Mrs. Willison set about to try to find a mate for Jeannie and happened to be at a beach at Hove and saw what appeared to be a typical Beardie. His owner was about to emigrate and was seeking a home for the dog, which was immediately provided by Mrs. Willison. The dog was subsequently registered by Mrs. Willison as Bailie of Bothkennar. In April 1950 the long awaited litter between Jeannie and Bailie were born and the litter registration appeared in the Kennel Gazette for June 1950, the first Bearded Collie litter registered since Mrs. Cameron Miller’s last litter in December 1934.

Thus began the modern, documented, history of the modern show Bearded Collie.

But the Beardie was never a dog whose major role played only in show rings. Through the years, the Beardies maintained their fine working tradition. The shepherd dogs continued to perform the work they were bred to do, unrecognized, and, most often, unregistered. Major Logan writes: "During the 1970s and early 1980s advertisements regularly appeared in newspapers such as the Oban Times for Beardies to work as 'hunters' (a term now often replaced by the New Zealand term 'huntaways'). These dogs are required to have 'plenty noise' and they use their voices to drive the sheep to and from hill grazings. Beardies are, however, quite capable of working in a more orthodox manner.... Mr. Tommy Muirhead... used nothing but Beardies on his hirsel of 1,000 ewes...Nor are Beardies incapable of finer work required for sheepdog trials. In 1984 Mr. Paul Turnbull's dog Blue, working in the North of England but bred in Dumfriesshire, qualified on merit for the International Sheepdog Society Register."

Thus, today, the Bearded Collie is both Kennel Club registered, seen in the show ring, and unregistered, seen on the farms of Scotland, England and Wales (although many of these may be registered with the Working Bearded Collie Association).

Copyright © 2009 [Lois Gaspar]
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Last revised: November 11, 2010