Biographical Sketches and Authentic Anecdotes of Dogs – PART V

Excerpted from “Biographical Sketches and Authentic Anecdotes of Dogs” by Captain Thomas Brown – 1829


“There was a shepherd lad near Langholm, whose name was Scott, who possessed a bitch famed over all the West Border for her singular tractability. He could have sent her home with one sheep, two sheep, or any given number from any of the neighbouring farms; and, in the lambing season, it was his uniform practice to send her home with the kebbed ewes just as he got them. I must let the town reader understand this. A kebbed ewe is one whose lamb dies. As soon as such is found, she is immediately brought home by the shepherd, and another lamb put to her; and Scott, on going his rounds on the hill, whenever he found a kebbed ewe, immediately gave her in charge to his bitch to take home, which saved him from coming back that way again and going over the same ground he had visited before. She always took them carefully home, and put them into a fold which was close by the house, keeping watch over them till she was seen by some one of the family; upon which she instantly decamped, and hastened back to her master, who sometimes sent her three times home in one morning with different charges. It was the custom of the farmer to watch her and take the sheep in charge from her: but this required a good deal of caution; for as soon as she perceived that she was seen, whether the sheep were put into the fold or not, she concluded her charge was at an end, and no flattery could induce her to stay and assist in folding
them. There was a display of accuracy and attention in this that I cannot say I have ever seen equalled.”


“The late Mr Steel, flesher in Peebles, had a bitch that was fully equal to the one mentioned above, and that in the very same qualification too. Her feats in taking sheep from the neighbouring farms into the Flesh-market at Peebles, form innumerable anecdotes in that vicinity, all similar to one another. But there is one instance related of her, that combines so much sagacity with natural affection, that I do not think the history of the animal creation furnishes such another.

“Mr Steel had such an implicit dependence on the attention of this animal to his orders, that, whenever he put a lot of sheep before her, he took a pride in leaving them to herself, and either remained to take a glass with the farmer of whom he had made the purchase, or took another road to look after bargains or other business. But one time he chanced to commit a drove to her charge at a place called Willenslee, without attending to her condition as he ought to have done. This farm is five miles from Peebles, over wild hills, and there is no regularly defined path to it. Whether Mr Steel remained behind, or chose another road, I know not; but, on coming home late in the evening, he was astonished at hearing that his faithful animal had not made her appearance with the flock. He and his son, or servant, instantly prepared to set out by different paths in search of her; but, on their going out to the street, there was she coming with the drove, no one missing; and, marvellous to relate, she was carrying a young pup in her mouth! She had been taken in travail on those hills; and how the poor beast had contrived to manage the drove in her state of suffering is beyond human calculation, for her road lay through sheep the whole way. Her master’s heart smote him when he saw what she had suffered and effected: but she was nothing daunted; and having deposited her young one in a place of safety, she again set out full speed to the hills, and brought another and another, till she removed her whole litter one by one; but the last one was dead. I give this as I have heard it related by the country people; for though I knew Mr Walter Steel well enough, I cannot say I ever heard it from his own mouth. I never entertained any doubt, however, of the truth of the relation; and certainly it is worthy of being preserved, for the credit of that most docile and affectionate of all animals,—the Shepherd’s Dog.”


“The stories related of the dogs of sheep-stealers are fairly beyond all credibility. I cannot attach credit to some of them without believing the animals to have been devils incarnate, come to the earth for the destruction both of the souls and bodies of men. I cannot mention names, for the sake of families that still remain in the country; but there have been sundry men executed, who belonged to this district of the kingdom, for that heinous crime, in my own days; and others have absconded, just in time to save their necks. There was not one of these to whom I allude who did not acknowledge his dog to be the greatest aggressor. One young man in particular, who was, I believe, overtaken by justice for his first offence, stated, that after he had folded the sheep by moonlight, and selected his number from the flock of a former master, he took them out, and set away with them towards Edinburgh. But before be had got them quite off the farm, his conscience smote him, as he said, (but more likely a dread of that which soon followed,) and he quitted the sheep, letting them go again to the hill. He called his dog off them; and mounting his pony, he rode away. At that time he said his dog was capering and playing around him, as if glad of having got free of a troublesome business; and he regarded him no more, till, after having rode about three miles, he thought again and again that he heard something coming up behind him. Halting, at length, to ascertain what it was, in a few minutes there comes his dog with the stolen animals, driving them at a furious rate to keep up with his master. The sheep were all smoking, and hanging out their tongues, and their guide was fully as warm as they. The young man was now exceedingly troubled, for the sheep having been brought so far from home, he dreaded there would be a pursuit, and he could not get them home again before day: Resolving, at all events, to keep his hands clear of them, he corrected his dog in great wrath, left the sheep once more, and taking colley with him, rode off a second time. He had not ridden above a mile, till he perceived that his assistant had again given him the slip; and suspecting for what purpose, he was terribly alarmed as well as chagrined; for daylight now approached, and he durst not make a noise calling on his dog, for fear of alarming the neighbourhood, in a place where they were both well known. He resolved therefore to abandon the animal to himself, and take a road across the country which he was sure the other did not know, and could not follow. He took that road; but being on horseback, he could not get across the enclosed fields. He at length came to a gate, which he shut behind him, and went about half a mile farther, by a zigzag course, to a farm-house where both his sister and sweetheart lived; and at that place he remained until after breakfast time. The people of this house were all examined on the trial, and no one had either seen the sheep or heard them mentioned, save one man, who came up to the aggressor as he was standing at the stable-door, and told him that his dog had the sheep safe enough down at the Crooked Yett, and he needed not hurry himself. He answered, that the sheep were not his—they were young Mr Thomson’s, who had left them to his charge, and he was in search of a man to drive them, which made him come off his road.

“After this discovery, it was impossible for the poor fellow to get quit of them; so he went down and took possession of the stolen drove once more, carried them on, and disposed of them; and, finally, the transaction cost him his life. The dog for the last four or five miles that he had brought the sheep, could have no other guide to the road his master had gone, but the smell of his pony’s feet. I appeal to every unprejudiced person if this was not as like one of the deil’s tricks as an honest colley’s.”


“It is also well known, that there was a notorious sheep-stealer in the county of Mid-Lothian, who, had it not been for the skins and the heads, would never have been condemned, as he could, with the greatest ease, have proved an alibi every time on which there were suspicions cherished against him. He always went by one road, calling on his acquaintances, and taking care to appear to every body by whom he was known, while his dog went by another with the stolen sheep; and then on the two felons meeting again, they had nothing more to do than turn the sheep into an associate’s enclosure, in whose house the dog was well fed and entertained, and would have soon taken all the fat sheep on the Lothian edges to that house. This was likewise a female, a jet-black one, with a deep coat of soft hair, but smooth-headed, and very strong and handsome in her make. On the disappearance of her master, she lay about the hills and places where he had frequented; but she never attempted to steal a drove by herself, nor the smallest thing for her own hand. She was kept some time by a relation of her master’s, but never acting heartily in his service, soon came privately to an untimely end. Of this there is little doubt, although some spread the report, that one evenings after uttering two or three loud howls, she instantly vanished! From such dogs as these, good Lord deliver us!”


“I once witnessed a very singular feat performed by a dog belonging to John Graham, late tenant in Ashiesteel. A neighbour came to his house after it was dark, and told him that he had lost a sheep on his farm, and that if he (Graham) did not secure her in the morning early, she would be lost, as he had brought her far. John said he could not possibly get to the hill next morning, but if he would take him to the very spot where he lost the sheep, perhaps his dog, Chieftain, would find her that night. On that they went away with all expedition, lest the traces of the feet should cool; and I, then a boy, being in the house, went with them. The night was pitch dark, which had been the cause of the man losing the ewe, and at length he pointed out a place to John by the side of the water, where he had lost her. ‘Chieftain, fetch that,’ said John; ‘bring her back, sir.’ The dog jumped round and round, and reared himself upon end; but not being able to see any thing, evidently misapprehended his master, on which John fell a-scolding the dog, calling him a great many hard names. He at last told the man, that he must find out the very track that the sheep went, otherwise he had no chance of recovering it. The man led him to a grey stone, and said he was sure she took the brae (hill-side) within a yard of that. ‘Chieftain, come hither to my foot, you great numb’d whelp,’ said John. Chieftain came. John pointed with his finger to the ground. ‘Fetch that, I say, sir—bring that back; away!’ The dog scented slowly about on the ground for some seconds; but soon began to mend his pace, and vanished in the darkness. ‘Bring her back; away, you great calf!’ vociferated John, with a voice of exultation, as the dog broke to the hill. And as all these good dogs perform their work in perfect silence, we neither saw nor heard any more of him for a long time. I think, if I remember right, we waited there about half an hour, during which time all the conversation was about the small chance which the dog had to find the ewe, for it was agreed on all hands that she must long ago have mixed with the rest of the sheep on the farm. How that was, no man will be able to decide. John, however, persisted in waiting till his dog came back, either with the ewe or without her; and at last the trusty animal brought the individual lost sheep to our very feet, which the man took on his back, and went on his way rejoicing.”

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