collie history

James Watson was a Collie lover who lived over a hundred years ago, he wrote the following well research Rough Collie history at a time when the Collie had just begun to really change in form from the original Scottish shepherd’s dog to the aristocratic Rouch and Smooth Collies we have today. Collies first appears in dog shows in 1860 and some time after 1870 began to be bred especially for that purpose. So at the time Mr. Watson’s “History of the Rough-Coated Collie” was written they had only been tracked and bred within the Kennel Club system for a mere 40 years. Certainly a short enough period that the true story of the Collie was still to be had by people who were there to see it. The following text comes from The Dog Book, Volume 1 by James Watson, 1906.

When Buffon stated that the shepherd dog was the original dog from which all others had descended, he was a good deal nearer the truth than in a number of his theoretical assertions, many of which have been proved erroneous. One of the earliest dogs man must have had was that which took care of his property and protected his flocks from wild animals. The mistake all are likely to make in considering this claim of Buffbn’s is to assume that the particular sheep dog with which each one is most familiar was the one Buffon meant, whereas every nation has its sheep dog, England alone having three, and by England we mean, of course, the British Kingdom. Buffon could have known little or nothing about the sheep dogs of England, and much less of that of Scotland, hence neither of the three is a competitor for the right to be considered the most ancient of all breeds of dogs. But no matter what the age of the breed may be, there is no question as to the high rank in popularity enjoyed by the rough or Scotch collie at the present day.

If we are to take the records of the American Kennel Club as an infallible guide, he is beyond question the dog of the day, Volume XX, of the “Stud Book” showing that 267 pages were required for the record of collies, while 140 pages sufficed for setters, 172 for Boston terriers and 106 for pointers. The whole of the spaniels were put on seventy-two pages, and the one-time leader in popularity, the fox terrier, filled the same number of pages as the spaniels. While not absolutely correct as a guide to the number of setters, so many being bred for use only and never registered, yet there is no throwing out the evidence of the great popularity of the Scotch collie in this country as well as in England.

Where the collie came from is and always will be a mystery. He could not have gone north from England without also having gone into Wales or Ireland, and every vestige of the breed could hardly have disappeared from England had it once been in use there. They ask us to believe that the name is from the old English word “coll,” meaning black or dark, and that as the collies were mainly black it just meant the black dog, and then came into use for the sheep dog. The objections to that are many, but here are two: the word collie, or colley, or, still older, coally, came south, and there were plenty of black dogs in England to which the word collie or any of its equivalents was never applied; and secondly, there is a Gaelic or Celtic word for the dog, which is phonetically spelled collie, and with the broad “o” of the Northerner could very well be Bewick’s “coally.”

an early illustration of a collie
Bewick’s coally dog

Lee holds to the opinion that it came from black-faced sheep being called by that name, and thus the dog that looked after the colleys was the colley dog. To accept this we must assume that this name for the variety of sheep was universal, and that is not in evidence. Lee quotes the “Dictionary of Husbandry,” 1743, which gives the word colley as being “such sheep as have black faces and legs. The wool of these sheep is very harsh with hairs, and not so white as other sheep.” It seems somewhat strange that this name for certain sheep should have died out so quickly, for it is found nowhere else that we are aware of, and surely persons who wrote of collies a century ago had pretty good knowledge of what was common fifty years before. Of course if there was not a more evident origin than the Highland word—which is akin to the Irish word for colleen—the black- faced-sheep suggestion would be a little better than any other, but it is not worth considering in the face of the very plain fact that the word is Gaelic or Celtic.

It is probable that the word travelled south with more freedom in some directions. Our knowledge of Scotland is of the east side, Edinburgh to Dunbar, and later at school at Jedburgh; good old Jethart, with its relics of the oldest of English in its “yow” and “mie” for you and me, and its historical Jethart justice. We do not recall when we did not know the dog as the collie, pronounced as Bewick spelled it. Undoubtedly we heard it called shepherd’s dog, and probably collie dog, but as long as we have known the dog we seem to have known him as the collie, and that of course from what our elders called the variety. At the same time we have no recollection of the name as applied to sheep of any kind.

From the first drawings of the rough collie, which are those of Bewick and Howitt, we find him practically the same dog that he is to-day, and totally different from any other dog in the British Isles, hence he is a good deal of an enigma. It is all very well to point to the similarity of the smooth sheep dog and the rough collies of the present, and decide off-hand that it is only a question of coat. With that we do not agree at all. As we shall show when it comes to discussing the smooth dog, the latter was developed from the common English dog of the farm, the small mastiff that went by the name of bandog because he was the dog that was kept on a band or collar and chain—a watch dog, in fact. Why we hold that need not be gone into here, for it is the rough collie that is now in the ring.

No other dog exactly resembles the rough dog, the product of the Highlands; still he must have come from somewhere, for he was not a locally developed animal confined to one or two glens, but was as widespread as the flocks he had to guard, and of commanding blood when bred to outside breeds. We might surmise that he was akin to some of the dogs of northern Europe, but there are only the Pomeranian, the elk hound of Norway, and the Eskimo that bear even the faintest resemblance. All of these have some likeness, but the collie has always been different in ear and tail carriage. There is much less difference between the rough collie and the dingo than anything else of dog-like resemblance, but relationship between them is of course out of the question.

a photo illustrating collie history

There is one thing with regard to the Highland collie that we might better mention here, and that is as to the coat. In looking through some Landseer portfolios and reproductions we were not a little surprised to note the number of collies with decidedly medium-length coats, very closely approaching to that of the smooth sheep dog. Landseer undoubtedly copied every dog most faithfully in his drawings; that is, he made likenesses and did not make them all “Landseer collies” of equal beauty and differing only in colour. If he painted a short-coated collie that dog was so in the flesh. Hence, seeing several of these dogs, it led us to question whether the generally accepted supposition that the collies from the Highlands were all heavily coated is correct. We must recognise the fact that these were working dogs, not bred for coat but for work, and the best worker was used for breeding, not only by his owner but by his friends, and they probably varied in coat as in other properties, and, of course, were not always in their full winter coat.

There is one characteristic we find in all the old-time drawings of collies that must then have been part and parcel of the breed, but is now seldom seen. It has been bred out, as a disfigurement or as a fault of conformation. That is the twist at the end of the tail, which every artist gave to the collie. We find it in Bewick’s “Shepherd’s Dog;” in Howitt’s beautiful etching in Bingley’s Quadrupeds, which was entitled “The Shepherd’s Dog,” with the sub title of “Curr”; in “Brown’s Anecdotes,” published in 1829; and in an illustration of the collies, both rough and smooth, of 1843, given in “The Twentieth Century Dog.” All show the same upward curl and twist to one side of the end of the tail. Nowadays it is described as a wry tail, and is as much condemned as if it was the twisted tail of some cockerel at a poultry show. We have seen it in a good many dogs, and, all standards to the contrary, we like it and look upon it as thoroughly characteristic.

Quite a number of writers on the collie have quoted from Caius’s description of the “shepherd’s dogge” in treating of the rough collie, but he did not write of that dog at all, but the light mastiff or bandog, which was used as a sheep dog. If we recognise that mastiff meant simply mongrel or common dog, and that it included pretty nearly everything outside of hounds, spaniels and terriers, and not a specified breed such as we know mastiffs, we will the more readily understand what produced the English sheep dog, and that, as we have already said, he is not a collie proper, though now known in England as the smooth collie. As Caius wrote only of the smooth dog, he will be quoted in the chapter on that breed.

We have already mentioned that it was probable the term collie was confined to parts of Scotland, and that it found headway down the east coast as far as Northumberland, where Bewick gives it as applied to both rough and smooth, and also gives the first representation of the rough dog as early as 1790. This was along the main highway from Edinburgh to England. That it was by no means universal even as late as 1825 may be proved by reference to Captain Brown’s “Anecdotes,” 1829, ‘n wr|ich there are fifty pages of quoted stories about these dogs. We have gone through these anecdotes and found that in the first twenty pages’the collie is either shepherd dog or merely dog. The first use of “colley” is in a quotation from Blackwood’s Magazine, from a communication by Hogg, “The Ettrick Shepherd.” As it is a very good illustration of the several names applied to the rough dog at that time in his section of South Scotland, we will quote two full paragraphs:

“It is a curious fact in the history of these animals that the most useless of the breed have often the greatest degree of sagacity in trifling and useless matters. An exceedingly good sheep dog attends to nothing else but that particular branch of business to which he is bred. His whole capacity is exerted and exhausted on it, and he is of little value in miscellaneous matters, whereas a very different cur, bred about the house and accustomed to assist in everything, will often put the noble breed to disgrace in these paltry services. If one calls out, for instance, that the cows are in the corn or the hens in the garden, the house colley needs no other hint, but runs and turns them out.

“The shepherd’s dog knows not what is astir, and if he is called out in a hurry for such work, all that he will do is to break to the hill and rear himself up on end to see if no sheep are running away. A bred sheep dog, if coming hungry from the hills and getting into the milk house, would most likely think of nothing else than filling his belly with cream. Not so his initiated brother; he is bred at home to far higher principles of honour. I have known such to lie night and day among from ten to twenty pails full of milk and never once break the cream of one of them with the tip of his tongue, nor would he suffer rat, cat or any other creature to touch it. The latter sort are far more acute at taking up what is said in a family.”

Hogg then went on to tell of some incidents, and in the first two the animal is mentioned merely by the sex name; the third is of a “dog” until the final sentence, which is this: “I appeal to every unprejudiced person if this was not as like one of the deil’s tricks as an honest colley’s.” The fourth “dog” is described as “a female, a jet-black one, with a coat of soft hair, but smooth headed and very handsome in her make.” The fifth is about a “dog,” though with an editorial heading of “The Ashie- steel Collie.” Six named contributors are then credited with anecdotes, and in three the word colley is given.

An historic collie
An historic collie

In the matter of the colour of these dogs, Hogg had two that were “not far from the colour of a fox”; these were father and son, and the grand-sire was “almost all black, and had a grim face, striped with dark brown.” Black is the only other colour mentioned, and that in only a few instances. One of his red dogs Hogg calls a colley, and as he was a sheep farmer in a very large way—one anecdote relating to the straying of seven hundred lambs, and another to the purchase of a lot of wild black-faced sheep—it is worth noting that he gives no evidence in any way that the word had the slightest connection with, or that there was any such name as, colley for sheep.

The introduction of the rough collie into England, outside of those owned by farmers in the Border counties, followed the development of railroad traffic; and, as much of the northern trade made Birmingham a centre for sale purposes, it early became the best-known district for dogs from the north country as far as the Highlands. London was a market for sheep for slaughter, Birmingham more of a farmers’ market, and dogs brought down by the shepherds found a sale among the shepherds and farmers of the midland counties. We can say that the collie was practically unknown in London as late as 1860. The sheep dogs seen there were mostly the tucked-up-loin smooths with no tails, as shown by Bewick, with an occasional wretched, mud-and-rain-soaked, bob-tailed sheep dog, and still more infrequently a rough collie, usually undersized and a sorry looking object. These all went under the name of drover’s dogs, being used for either sheep or cattle.

The first volume of the English stud book fully bears out our own early knowledge of the conditions prevailing up to 1868. In this book there are seventy-eight “sheep dogs and Scotch collies” registered up to 1874, and but two of these were owned as far south as London. The majority were the property of owners living in Lancashire, Warwickshire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. Fifteen of them had pedigrees, only three extending beyond sire and dam. Mr. H. Lacy, one of the best known and most respected of the past generation of Manchester dog fanciers, and father of the equally well-known and respected Mr. H. W. Lacy, of Boston, was then the leading exhibitor of collies, and his Champion Mec was one of the most typical collies of his time. He was a black and tan, as were most of the dogs of that day. One of his rivals was the dog Cockie, a red-coated one; and Mr. Charles H. Wheeler, the “father of the Birmingham fancy,” is our authority for saying that Cockie was the dog from which we got the sable in the show dogs.

Another great article on the subject of Rough Collie history can be read here Charles Wheeler’s History of the Collie.

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  1. What if we’re all wrong and the border collie is what was kept in the house and the Scott collie was the one that alerts while doing nothing about it?

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