Where Do Collies Come From? The Complete Collie History

collie history

Isn’t it funny how things change over time, it never fails to surprise me. Things that were popular when I was a kid that now seem ridiculous, for example The Dukes of Hazard, I used to love that show but I can’t bear to watch it now. Or how about vinyl records that were out of fashion in the 80s and 90s and now are inexplicable making a comeback. So it has been with Collie history, fashions have not played kindly with the old Collie, today largely because of the whims of fashion, we have several different Collie breeds that all originated from the same type of dog.

The Collie originated as a shepherd’s dog in the Highlands of northern Scotland where it functioned as an all-purpose farm dog. After the Highland Clearances (1750 to 1860) breeding toward arbitrary breed-standards morphed the Collie into the dog we associate with Lassie today.

Sit down for a bit and let me tell you the story of the Collie dog and how it came from one humble landrace breed in rural Scotland to be many breeds, some quite fancy, in only about 150 years. Here is Collie history laid out in all its glory and shocking truth.

Humble Origins in the Scottish Highlands

The study of history involves the recorded past so by definition only goes back as far as written history will take us. So allow me to reach back into the distant past to lay the foundation for the history of the Scottish Collie. Scotland was subject to conquest, invasion and immigration from various peoples in the centuries before the Collie appears in written history. Notable among these people who came to live in Scotland, no doubt bringing their dogs with them, were Celts, Romans, Norse, Irish and English. Dogs from all these peoples no doubt contributed genetic material to the dogs of Great Britain as a whole. Incidentally Scotland is home to a range of dog breeds many of them quite different one from another, some of the more common Scottish dog breeds include;

  • Collie
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Gordon Setter
  • Scottish Terrier
  • Scottish Deerhound
  • Sleuth hound

By the 1700s all this canine genetic material had settled into pockets where it was most useful for different jobs. The Scottish Deerhound for example was used for hunting deer and running down stags, the Scottish Terrier was used to hunt smaller animals like badgers and foxes, the Gordon Setter was used for hunting birds and the Collie was used for herding sheep.

The Highland clearances (1760 – 1860) represented the eviction of many of the Highland’s tenant farmers, forcing them to move and start new lives elsewhere. Some of them went to the New World and others to Lowland Scotland and England, some of these displaced Highland shepherds brought their dogs with them, this was the first major wave of Collies to arrive in England and America and it corresponds to their first mentions in literature and their rise in popularity in England.

The Collie’s first confirmed appearance in literature is when Scottish poet Robert Burns mentions the Collie in his poem The Twa Dogs (1786).

The tither was a ploughman’s collie
A rhyming, ranting, raving billie
Wha for his friend an’ comrade had him,
And in his freaks had Luath ca’d him,
After some dog in Highland sang,
Was made lang syne—Lord knows how lang.

The Twa Dogs – Robert Burns – 1786

The next reference to the Collie in history was English author Thomas Bewick’s A General History of Quadrupeds in 1790. His description is a bit vague but his illustrations leaves no doubt that this is the Highland Collie he is describing.

The first collie illustration in history, Bewick's illustration of the shepherds dog
“The Shepherd’s Dog” woodcut by Thomas Bewick

Many elements of this illustration tell us this is the true Highland Collie. The curled tail, the semi-erect ears, the feathering on the legs, the Irish white markings (white collar, socks, tail tip and blaze). Also the setting with the mountains behind and a kilted man with a dog tell us this is the Scottish Highlands. His written description seems to refer to shepherd dogs from all over Great Britain but then adds the following

This breed of Dogs, at present, appears to be preserved, in the greatest purity, in the northern parts of Scotland; where its aid is highly necessary in managing the numerous herds of sheep bred in those extensive wilds.

A General History of Quadrupeds – Thomas Bewick – 1790

Captain Thomas Brown was the next to write about the Collie, he described them in great detail in his book Biographical Sketches and Authentic Anecdotes of Dogs in 1829 where he describes “the shepherd’s dog”. He wrote in part

This useful and intelligent animal is one of the most placid, obedient, serene, and grateful members of the canine race. He is ever alive to the slightest indication of his master’s wishes, prompt and gratified to execute them; and he seems to enjoy the greatest delight when employed in any kind of useful service. Formed by nature with an instinctive propensity to industry, he is never more pleased than in exerting his talents for the benefit of man, and in giving constant proofs of his inviolable attachment… The breed of this dog is preserved with the greatest attention to purity in the north of England, and in the Highlands of Scotland, where his services are invaluable. 

Biographical Sketches and Authentic Anecdotes of Dogs – Captain Thomas Brown – 1829

You can read Brown’s full account at this link.

Collies Get Noticed in England

Written references to Collies in England increased greatly as the nineteenth century progressed. The word Collie (or often Colley) increased in use and was added to dictionaries of the time. In the book Dogs: Their Origin and Varieties by H.D. Richardson (1847) gives a description of the Collie that could be used today (with the exception of the color, as black and tan collies have almost completely disappeared).

The genuine original Shepherd’s dog is now nearly altogether confined to Scotland, where he is called the “Colley.” He stands about twenty-one inches in height at the shoulder; is very gracefully shaped; muzzle pointed; ears half erect; coat long, but fine and silky; tail and hams fringed with hair; colour usually black and tan, or sandy yellow.

Dogs: Their Origin and Varieties – H. D. Richardson – 1847
an historic collie illustration from 1847
The shepherd’s dog or colley from Dogs: Their Origin and Varieties, 1847

You can read Richardson’s full account of the “Colley” dog by following this link.

Written accounts of Collies in the early nineteenth century usually describe the breed’s intelligence and devotion in glowing terms. This tells us a couple of things; that the breed was highly regarded in England at this time and that they were becoming more common in England. It is in this era that the name Scotch Collie is first applied to the breed.

Another great source of early Scotch Collie information from this era are the paintings of Richard Ansdell. He painted extensively on rural Scottish subjects and many of his paintings from the 1840s and 1850s feature Collies prominently. Careful study of Ansdell’s excellent paintings can reveal much about what the original Highland Collie looked like before conformation breeding began to change their form in the 1870s. You can see a number of Ansdell’s paintings featuring Collies at this link.

Richard Ansdell'spainting of historic Highland Collie dogs working sheep
Higbland Collies in a Richard Ansdell painting

Collies Get Fancy

In the year 1859 in Newcastle, England the first recorded dog show in history took place with only pointers and setters participating. In the Birmingham show the next year, 1860, classes were first provided for sheep dogs although records do not indicate if any were actually exhibited at that time. By the Birmingham show of 1863 though six Collies were shown.

It was around this time that Queen Victoria got her first Collie to keep her company after her husband Prince Albert died in 1861. She had many dogs including some Highland Collies but her favorites were Collies from Lowland Scotland, the forerunners of modern Border Collies. Queen Victoria obtained these dogs from one Thomas Elliot, the father of the man who was important in the foundation of the Border Collie breed a generation later. You can read more about that connection by following this link.

Queen Victoria with one of her Lowland Collies
Queen Victoria with one of her lowland Collies

The whims and fancies of royalty often set the fashions for society at large and it was no different with her choice of dogs. The Scotch Collie quickly gained in popularity now that Queen Victoria was favoring the breed, Combine that with their recent arrival at the dog shows and the Scotch Collie was primed for a massive rise in popularity in the late 1800s.

(Collie) entries (in dog shows) steadily increased until they reached as many as forty-five at the show held in Birmingham in 1874, and it was about this era that breeding for show points started in earnest.

Charles H. Wheeler, The Dog Book, Volume 1, 1906

The first real star Scotch Collie to win honors and be bred extensively was Old Cockie. Born in 1867 Old Cockie had a sable colored coat at a time when most Collies were predominantly black. He had a tremendous influence on the breed and is found in practically every Rough Collie pedigree today. Old Cockie’s grandson Charlemagne was another famous sable colored Scotch Collie who was bred extensively and is in most Rough Collie pedigrees.

Old Cockie was a historic collie who is in most pedigrees today
Old Cockie, if he could only see what his progeny have become

Breeding for Shows and Conformation

Scotch Collies were at this time a landrace breed, coming in a range of looks and behaviors. But the foundations of the purebred Collies were being laid as wealthy Englishmen bought, traded, showed and bred Collies working towards uniformity. From all over the British Isles these men found and collected Collies with the types of looks that were winning shows and these were aggressively bred and crossbred to produce more with the same looks. Slowly a purebred breed took shape in the late nineteenth century.

The Kennel Club was founded in 1873 by S.E. Shirley (an early Collie breeder) and 12 other men to ensure fair and consistent dog show rules and to register dogs and track pedigrees.

The next important dog to make history was Metchley Wonder, a nicely marked sable-and-white. Just a nice-sized dog, not too big nor yet a little one, excelling in body, legs and feet, he possessed a beautiful coat and frill, and a typical head, set off with good ears. He was born in March, 1886, and was without doubt the best all-round show collie produced up to the date of his initiation to the show ring.

Charles H. Wheeler, The Dog Book, Volume 1, 1906
Metchley Wonder a famous collie from the 1800s
Metchley Wonder

Metchley Wonder was a grandson of Charlamagne and another one found in many pedigrees today. He still had that old fashioned look, born only about 10 years after Collies began to be bred for dog shows. But trouble was brewing, breeders can only ignore temperament for so long before unfavorable changes take place.

Collies Begin to Change

As the new century approached people began to notice changes in the Scotch Collies, the most notable being the shape of the head that breeders were striving for, less noticeable but more importantly a loss of intelligence and working ability were also observed. Some people connected the two items, reasoning that the narrower head held fewer brains, but just because these changes happened simultaneously does not mean they are necessarily connected. They are both the results of the arduous breeding program the Scotch Collie had been going through over the previous 20 years, the first intentional, the second items was accidental.

That they are beautiful dogs in their way nobody can deny, but to speak of them as lovely collies is another matter, for the majority of them are no more fitted to perform the work of the old Scotch collie than is the Laird, the lion of some London drawing room, to pursue the avocation of his Highland shepherd. There is no reason why beauty should not go hand in hand with utility, but at present unfortunately such is not the case.

 The Fanciers’ Journal, January 1892

It was in this period that some have accused breeders of crossing Borzoi blood into the Collie breed. Whether or not this ever actually happened I have never seen any conclusive evidence but some very knowledgeable people on this subject are convinced that it did happened, the truth may never actually be known.

Scotch Collies of the Victorian era
Scotch Collies of the Victorian era

The showmen have been breeding a head of peculiar shape, and this, with a few other obvious parts, which contribute to the new type, makes the modern collie. His obscure type parts that are of practical importance get scant recognition from the collie judge. The intelligent collie of other days will soon be in a separate group. The show collie will form another variety, useful only as a show dog.

The World Today, 1908

Border Collies

Old Hemp was a Lowland Collie born in Northumbria, England in 1893. He was an excellent sheep herder and won many awards at sheepdog trials (a new sport at the time). His had a way of working sheep in a low crouching style that was new and desired by others so he was bred far and wide. The Border Collie breed grew out of two things, the landrace Collies indigenous to Lowland Scotland and efforts to perpetuate that intense crouching style of herding. Every Border Collie today can trace its lineage back to Old Hemp. The breed was first called “Border Collie” in 1915 to differentiate them from the Scotch Collie and to highlight their origin in the Scottish/English border region.

Scotch CollieBorder Collie
Landrace OriginsHighland ScotlandLowland Scotland
Herding Styleuprightlow, crouching, “eye”

Over time the Border Collie’s efficiency at moving sheep made it very popular on farms. The old landrace, working Scotch Collie lost much of its job to these Border Collies in the twentieth century, not just in the UK but in America and Australia too. The old fashioned, landrace working Collies began disappearing, pushed aside by papered kennel club collies and hard working Border Collies but some people took notice and tried to save them.

Learn more about the Northumbrian type of Collie by reading this article.

Old Hemp is the progenitor of the Border Collie breed
Old Hemp, the father of the Border Collie breed was a Lowland (Northumbrian) Collie

Old Fashioned Collies

In 1911 a letter to the editor of Country Life in America magazine written by one Otis Barnum asked the question, “Who Is Breeding Old–Fashioned Collies?” In part he wrote

As long as I can remember I have heard stories of the wonderful sagacity and faithfulness of Scotch collies, but somehow, since the advent of the modern, sharp-nosed, show type of collie, these stories have been getting fewer… I believe that the old-fashioned collie or shepherd dog was one of the finest dogs that ever came to be the companion and helper of man… I wish Country Life in America could do something to save this noble breed from extinction, and I wish I could find out myself where I could get such a dog.

Otis Barnum, County Life in America, December 1911

This letter really got a lot of people interested, other people interested in an old fashioned Collie also wrote letters. Collie breeders wrote in as well, mad as hornets about the bad things being said of modern show type Collies. Letters on the subject of old fashioned Collies continued to be printed throughout 1912, then in 1913 the stable & kennel editor was replaced and no further letters on the subject were printed. The old fashioned Collie movement of 1912 died on the vine.

Photo of an old fashioned collie that appeared in Country Life in America in 1912
Photo of an old fashioned collie that appeared in Country Life in America in 1912

As the twentieth century progressed the purebred, show collies continued to change, coats became heavier and heads became narrower while noses got longer. The name Scotch Collie fell out of fashion replaced by Rough Collie or Smooth Collie.

Meanwhile the old fashioned working type Scotch Collie continued to shrink in numbers. Was there a place for a moderate, multi-purpose working Collie? Some fanciers of the old fashioned Collie found a home in an unusual place.

English and Australian Shepherds

The Scotch Collie was not the only British herding dog to make their way to the new world. Great Britain was historically full of pockets of different people with local dialects and local genetics, and so were their dogs. Wherever a herding dog was needed a local landrace was developed to meet that need. Some of these regional shepherd dogs were never very common, pre-1900 references to the Bearded Collie or the Old English Sheepdog are virtually nonexistent. Others like the Smithfield Sheepdog and the Welsh Sheepdog were nearly wiped out by the same changes that effected the more populous Scotch Collie.

Another of these local herding breeds is that indigenous to northern England, this breed is well documented in early literature.

An historic English Shepherd at a sheepdog trial in the Lake District of Northern England
An historic English Shepherd at a sheepdog trial in the Lake District of Northern England

The most useful and sagacious of all is the Scotch colly… He is more hairy, and with a sharper and more fox-like nose than the English sheep-dog, or than the drover’s dog, both of which resemble the setter or Newfoundland dog more than the Scotch shepherd’s dog; but in the south almost every district has its own breed, and they vary In size and appearance.

Manual of British rural sports, 1856

The Scotch Sheep-dog, more familiarly called the Colley, is not unlike the English Sheep-dog in character, though it rather differs from that animal in form. The ” dew-claws ” of the English and Scotch Sheep-dogs are generally double, and are not attached to the bone, as is the case with the other claws.

The Illustrated Natural History, John George Wood, 1865

The United Kennel Club (UKC) began registering English Shepherds in 1927 thanks to the efforts of O.O. Grant. Tom Stodghill founded the English Shepherd Club of America around 1949 and Ed Emanuel started the International English Shepherd Registry in 1954. It is interesting to note that at this time the English Shepherd was seen as distinct from the Scotch Collie, Mr. Grant wrote about the differences between these breeds and Mr. Stodghill actually bred both Scotch Collies and English Shepherds. In later years the differentiation between these breeds would be disputed by English Shepherd breeders who were unfamiliar with this history.

For more information on the English origins of the English Shepherd take a look at my article The English Shepherd’s True Origins – England.

comparison of an 1847 illustration of an English shepherd's dog and a modern illustration of an English Shepherd dog
A 1847 illustration of an English shepherd’s dog compared to the current UKC English Shepherd breed standard.

Because these two breeds are closely related and have similar looks and behavior, some old fashioned Collies could easily meet the English Shepherd breed standard while they could no longer meet the modern kennel club standards for Rough Collies. So Scotch Collie owners that wanted to preserve their lines and track pedigrees in a world that placed increasing value on “papered dogs” sought and received English Shepherd registration. In some cases this was encouraged by the clubs themselves as a way to enlarge and expand their rather limited pool of dogs. Many Scotch Collies entered the English Shepherd breed this way in the later half of the twentieth century.

Similarly, the Australian Shepherd breed developed in the western United States from a mixture of herding dogs, Scottish, English and Spanish. The Australian Shepherd Club of America was established in 1957 as the parent club for the Australian Shepherd and pedigrees were handled by the National Stockdog Registry. This working dog breed provided yet another place for working Scotch Collie dogs to get registered.

Lassie Come-Home

The popularity of the Collie got a huge boost in 1940 when Eric Knight’s book Lassie Come-Home was first published to critical and commercial success. Three years later the book was made into a major motion picture which was followed up with six more Lassie movies, a radio series, a TV show as well as books, comics, toys and other merchandise. All this caused the popularity of the Collie to skyrocket like never before. 

Eric Knight, author of Lassie Come-Home with his old fashioned Collie "Toots"
Eric Knight, author of Lassie Come-Home with his old fashioned Collie “Toots”

Eric Knight had a smart, devoted old fashioned Collie named Toots that was the inspiration for Lassie. However Lassie in the book was not described as an old fashioned Collie despite the fact that her actions were definitely those of an old fashioned Collie, likewise the film Lassie was cast to a more modern looking Collie as well. This had a negative impact on the remaining Scotch Collie populations as it put a demand on the more modern looking Collies, which is ironic since Lassie’s actions and temperament were more in line with the old Scotch Collie type that had inspired the story in the first place.

The 1940s and 1950s were a heyday for the Rough Collie thanks to Lassie. After the popularity of the movie, breeders and dogs proliferated, the American kennel Club recorded a 40% increase in collie registrations in the years following.

Old Shep Come Home

Over the years the working Scotch Collies had acquired a common name on farms and in rural areas in America, they were widely named and often referred to in shorthand as “Old Shep”. These dogs had slowly diminished in numbers and popularity throughout the twentieth century until ‘Old Shep’ was truly lost. A number of factors had contributed to this decline.

  • Society at this time highly valued registered, papered dogs
  • Kennel club people devalued the Scotch Collie as worthless 
  • The Border Collie took over their job on many farms
  • English Shepherd and Australian Shepherd offered to register Scotch Collies
  • Lassie made the modern Rough Collie very desirable
  • Small family farms became unprofitable, this had been the last, best place for such a great multi-purpose dog
Gracehaven Angus a modern Scotch Collie
One of the Scotch Collies that were found, this is Gracehaven Angus who came from a remote part of British Columbia, Canada.

In the 1980s a few people who remembered the old Scotch Collies from their childhood went looking for them and they suddenly could not be found. It seemed as though the Scotch Collie had suddenly gone extinct while nobody was paying attention some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

It’s a truth I can validate… I was there! In the mid-twentieth century, the old original American Farm Collies of Scotch Collie ancestry almost trotted off into the misty fog of obsolescence – along with draft mules, victory gardens and covered bridges. As late as the 1980’s I turned around and these versatile old farm dogs were very nearly totally gone, and seemed to have slipped away rather quickly.

Guy Ormiston, 2002

I am 62 years old. The country was full of Old Time Farm Shepherd or Farm Collie dogs when I was a boy… They served as family pet, guarddog, stock dog and hunting dog. After World War II people turned to specialist breeds and just neglected the old farm dogs that excelled at many things.

J. Richard McDuffie, 1995

After much searching for any remaining working type Scotch Collies, a few dogs were eventually found in remote areas. Dogs that fit the Scotch Collie type from breeds that had received Scotch Collie blood were used to breed these found dogs and their numbers increased. In 2010 the Old-Time Scotch Collie Association (OTSCA) was established to register and track Scotch Collies pedigrees. Today there are several hundred living Old-Time Scotch Collie dogs and their numbers are increasing all the time. learn more about the activities of the OTSCA by visiting their website at this link.

dogs of the farm collie movement
A collection of modern day Scotch Collies

What Does the Collie’s Future Hold?

From humble beginnings as a working dog in the Scottish Highlands the landrace Collie has become or contributed to many breeds, some hard workers and some fancy show dogs. It is a proud lineage, but there is reason to be concerned about the future too. The Rough Collie and Smooth Collie have been highly inbred through many years in a closed registry and poor breeding practices.

  • The British Kennel Club reports that the breed average COI (Coefficient of Inbreeding) is 14.3% that’s just slightly better than what would be achieved by mating a brother and sister.
  • Kennel club Collies have an EPS (effective population size) of 39.43, lower than 100 is considered critical and below 50 brings a breed close to extinction.
  • 70% to 90% or Rough Collies in the United States and Great Britain are effected by the genetic disease Collie Eye Anomaly (CEO).

All these items are serious threats to the Rough Collie and Smooth Collie breeds and things are only going to get worse moving forward in a closed registry. Perhaps in the future the healthier and more genetically diverse population of the Old-Time Scotch Collie can help to restore genetic health to the Rough Collie breed.

More Info on Collie History

The pages of this website holds much more information about Collie history, both historic and modern articles on the history of the breed and conservation efforts. If you would like to learn more check out these articles.

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  1. Great article, Andy. Thanks for your work to revive this beautiful smart funny and loyal breed. I have my first girl she’s now 6 months old and a fantastic dog.

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