James Hogg, The Ettrick Shepherd – 1829

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

Note: James Hogg was a Scottish poet and novelist who wrote lovingly of his collies in the early 1800s. He lived in Ettrick, Scotland, which is in the border region. It is entirely possible that the Border Collie was distinct from the “Highland Collie” even as far back as this. I find the pointing behavior he describes in his dog of special interest as it is often theorized that the Border Collie’s “eye” came from crosses with bird dogs.


“My dog Sirrah,” says Mr Hogg, “was, beyond all comparison, the best dog I ever saw: he was of a surly and unsocial temper,—disdaining all flattery, he refused to be caressed; but his attention to my commands and interests will never again, perhaps, be equalled by any of the canine race. When I first saw him, a drover was leading him in a rope; he was both lean and hungry, and far from being a beautiful animal, for he was almost all black, and had a grim face, striped with dark-brown. The man had bought him of a boy, somewhere on the Border, for three shillings, and had fed him very ill on his journey. I thought I discovered a sort of sullen intelligence in his countenance, notwithstanding his dejected and forlorn appearance; I gave the drover a guinea for him, and I believe there never was a guinea so well laid out, at least I am satisfied I never laid one out to so good a purpose. He was scarcely a year old, and knew so little of herding, that he had never turned a sheep in his life; but as soon as he discovered that it was his duty to do so, and that it obliged me, I can never forget with what anxiety and eagerness he learned his different evolutions. He would try every way deliberately till he found out what I wanted him to do, and, when I once made him understand a direction, he never forgot or mistook it again. Well as I knew him, he often astonished me; for, when hard pressed in accomplishing the task that he was put to, he had expedients of the moment that bespoke a great share of the reasoning faculty.”

Among other remarkable exploits of Sirrah’s, as illustrative of his sagacity, Mr Hogg relates, that, upon one occasion, about seven hundred lambs, which were under his care at weaning time, broke up at midnight, and scampered off, in three divisions, across the neighbouring hills, in spite of all that he and an assistant could do to keep them together. “Sirrah,” cried the shepherd in great affliction, “my man, they’re a’ awa’.” The night was so dark that he could not see Sirrah; but the faithful animal heard his master’s words,—words such as, of all others, were sure to set him most on the alert; and, without more ado, he silently set off in quest of the recreant flock. Meanwhile the shepherd and his companion did not fail to do all in their power to recover their lost charge; they spent the whole night in scouring the hills for miles round, but of neither the lambs nor Sirrah could they obtain the slightest trace. It was the most extraordinary circumstance that had ever occurred in the annals of pastoral life. They had nothing for it, day having dawned, but to return to their master, and inform him that they had lost his whole flock of lambs, and knew not what was become of one of them. “On our way home, however,” says Mr H., “we discovered a lot of lambs at the bottom of a deep ravine called the Flesh Cleuch, and the indefatigable Sirrah standing in front of them looking round for some relief, but still true to his charge. The sun was then up, and when we first came in view, we concluded that it was one of the divisions which Sirrah had been unable to manage until he came to that commanding situation. But what was our astonishment when we discovered that not one lamb of the whole flock was wanting! How he had got all the divisions collected in the dark is beyond my comprehension. The charge was left entirely to himself from midnight until the rising sun; and if all the shepherds in the Forest had been there to have assisted him, they could not have effected it with greater propriety. All that I can farther say is, that I never felt so grateful to any creature under the sun as I did to my honest Sirrah that morning.”

Mr Hogg’s Renowned Hector.

“I once sent you,” says Mr Hogg, in a letter to the Editor of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, “an account of a notable dog of my own, named Sirrah, which amused a number of your readers a great deal, and put their faith in my veracity somewhat to the test; but in this district, where the singular qualities of the animal were known, so far from any of the anecdotes being disputed, every shepherd values himself to this day on the possession of facts far outstripping any of those recorded by you formerly. With a few of these I shall conclude this paper. But, in the first place, I must give you some account of my own renowned Hector, which I promised long ago. He was the son and immediate successor of the faithful old Sirrah; and though not nearly so valuable a dog as his father, he was a far more interesting one. He had three times more humour and whim about him; and though exceedingly docile, his bravest acts were mostly tinctured with a grain of stupidity, which showed his reasoning faculty to be laughably obtuse.

“I shall mention a striking instance of it. I was once at the farm of Shorthope on Ettrick head, receiving some lambs that I had bought, and was going to take to market, with some more, the next day. Owing to some accidental delay, I did not get final delivery of the lambs till it was growing late; and being obliged to be at my own house that night, I was not a little dismayed lest I should scatter and lose my lambs if darkness overtook me. Darkness did overtake me by the time I got half-way, and no ordinary darkness for an August evening. The lambs having been weaned that day, and of the wild black-faced breed, became exceedingly unruly, and for a good while I lost hopes of mastering them. Hector managed the point, and we got them safe home; but both he and his master were alike sore forefoughten. It had become so dark that we were obliged to fold them with candles; and, after closing them safely up, I went home with my father and the rest to supper. When Hector’s supper was set down, behold he was awanting! and as I knew we had him at the fold, which was within call of the house, I went out and called and whistled on him for a good while, but he did not make his appearance. I was distressed about this; for, having to take away the lambs next morning, I knew I could not drive them a mile without my dog if it had been to save me the whole drove.

“The next morning, as soon as it was day, I arose and inquired if Hector had come home? No; he had not been seen. I knew not what to do; but my father proposed that he would take out the lambs and herd them, and let them get some meat to fit them for the road, and that I should ride with all speed to Shorthope to see if my dog had gone back there. Accordingly we went together to the fold to turn out the lambs, and there was poor Hector sitting trembling in the very middle of the fold-door, on the inside of the flake that closed it, with his eyes still steadfastly fixed on the lambs. He had been so hardly set with them after it grew dark, that he durst not for his life leave them, although hungry, fatigued, and cold, for the night had turned out a deluge of rain. He had never so much as lain down; for only the small spot that he sat on was dry, and there had he kept watch the whole night. Almost any other colley would have discerned that the lambs were safe enough in the fold, but honest Hector had not been able to see through this. He even refused to take my word for it; for he would not quit his watch though he heard me calling both at night and morning.

“Another peculiarity of his was, that he had a mortal antipathy at the family-mouser, which was ingrained in his nature from his very puppyhood; yet so perfectly absurd was he, that no impertinence on her side, and no baiting on, could ever induce him to lay his mouth on her, or injure her in the slightest degree. There was not a day and scarcely an hour passed over, that the family did not get some amusement with these two animals. Whenever he was within doors, his whole occupation was watching and pointing the cat from morning to night. When she flitted from one place to another, so did he in a moment; and then squatting down, he kept his point sedulously, till he was either called off or fell asleep.

“He was an exceedingly poor taker of meat, was always to press to it, and always lean, and often he would not take it till we were obliged to bring in the cat. The malicious looks that he cast at her from under his eyebrows on such occasions were exceedingly ludicrous, considering his utter incapacity of wronging her. Whenever he saw her, he drew near his bicker and looked angry, but still he would not taste till she was brought to it, and then he cocked his tail, set up his birses, and began a-lapping furiously in utter desperation. His good nature was so immoveable, that he would never refuse her a share of what he got; he even lapped close to the one side of the dish, and left her room,—but mercy! as he did ply!

“It will appear strange to you to hear a dog’s reasoning faculty mentioned as I have done; but I declare I have hardly ever seen a Shepherd’s Dog do any thing without perceiving his reasons for it. I have often amused myself in calculating what his motives were for such and such things, and I generally found them very cogent ones. But Hector had a droll stupidity about him, and took up forms and rules of his own, for which I could never perceive any motive that was not even farther out of the way than the action itself. He had one uniform practice, and a very bad one it was; during the time of family-worship, and just three or four seconds before the conclusion of the prayer, he started to his feet and ran barking round the apartment like a crazed beast my father was so much amused with this, that he would never suffer me to correct him for it, and I scarcely ever saw the old man rise from the prayer without his endeavouring to suppress a smile at the extravagance of Hector. None of us ever could find out how he knew that the prayer was near done, for my father was not formal in his prayers; but certes he did know,—and of that we had nightly evidence. There never was any thing for which I was so puzzled to discover a motive as this; but from accident I did discover it, and, however ludicrous it may appear, I am certain I was correct. It was much in character with many of Hector’s feats, and rather, I think, the most outre of any principle he ever acted on. As I said, his great daily occupation was pointing the cat. Now, when he saw us kneel all down in a circle, with our faces couched on our paws, in the same posture with himself, it struck his absurd head that we were all engaged in pointing the cat. He lay on tenters all the while, but the acuteness of his ear enabling him, through time, to ascertain the very moment when we would all spring to our feet, he thought to himself, ‘I shall be first after her, for you all.’

“He inherited his dad’s unfortunate ear for music, not perhaps in so extravagant a degree, but he ever took care to exhibit it on the most untimely and ill-judged occasions. Owing to some misunderstanding between the minister of the parish and the session-clerk, the precenting in church devolved on my father, who was the senior elder. Now, my father could have sung several of the old church tunes middling well in his own family-circle; but it so happened, that, when mounted in the desk, he never could command the starting notes of any but one (St Paul’s), which were always in undue readiness at the root of his tongue, to the exclusion of every other semibreve in the whole range of sacred melody. The minister gave out psalms four times in the course of every day’s service, consequently the congregation were treated with St Paul’s in the morning at great length, twice in the course of the service, and then once again at the close. Nothing but St Paul’s. And it being itself a monotonous tune, nothing could exceed the monotony that prevailed in the primitive church of Ettrick. Out of pure sympathy for my father alone, I was compelled to take the precentorship in hand; and having plenty of tunes, for a good while I came on as well as could be expected, as men say of their wives. But, unfortunately for me, Hector found out that I attended church every Sunday, and though I had him always closed up carefully at home, he rarely failed in making his appearance in church at some time of the day. Whenever I saw him a tremor came over my spirits, for I well knew what the issue would be. The moment that he heard my voice strike up the psalm ‘ with might and majesty,’ then did he fall in with such overpowering vehemence, that he and I seldom got any to join in the music but our two selves. The shepherds hid their heads, and laid them down on the backs of their seats rowed in their plaids, and the lasses looked down to the ground and laughed till their faces grew red. I despised to stick the tune, and therefore was obliged to carry on in spite of the obstreperous accompaniment; but I was, time after time, so completely put out of all countenance with the brute, that I was obliged to give up my office in disgust, and leave the parish once more to their old friend, St Paul.

“Hector was quite incapable of performing the same feats among sheep that his father did; but as far as his judgment served him, he was a docile and obliging creature. He had one singular quality, of keeping true to the charge to which he was set. If we had been shearing, or sorting sheep in any way, when a division was turned out, and Hector got the word to attend to them, he would have done it pleasantly for a whole day without the least symptom of weariness. No noise or hurry about the fold, which brings every other dog from his business, had the least effect on Hector, save that it made him a little troublesome on his own charge, and set him a-running round and round them, turning them in at corners, out of a sort of impatience to be employed as well as his baying neighbours at the fold. Whenever old Sirrah found himself hard set in commanding wild sheep on steep ground, where they are worst to manage, he never failed, without any hint to the purpose, to throw himself wide in below them, and lay their faces to the hill, by which means he got the command of them in a minute. I never could make Hector comprehend this advantage with all my art, although his father found it out entirely of himself. The former would turn or wear sheep no other way but on the hill above them; and, though very good at it, he gave both them and himself double the trouble and fatigue.

“It cannot be supposed that he could understand all that was passing in the little family-circle, but he certainly comprehended a good part of it. In particular, it was very easy to discover that he rarely missed aught that was said about himself, the sheep, the cat, or of a hunt. When aught of that nature came to be discussed, Hector’s attention and impatience soon became manifest There was one winter evening I said to my mother that I was going to Bowerhope for a fortnight, for that I had more conveniency for writing with Alexander Laidlaw than at home; and I added, ‘But I will not take Hector with me, for he is constantly quarrelling with the rest of the dogs, singing music, or breeding some uproar.’ ‘ Na, na,’ quoth she, ‘ leave Hector with me; I like aye best to have him at hame, poor fallow.’

“These were all the words that passed. The next morning the waters were in a great flood, and I did not go away till after breakfast; but when the time came for tying up Hector, he was awanting. ‘The d—’s in that beast,’ said I,—’ I will wager that he heard what we were saying yesternight, and has gone off for Bowerhope as soon as the door was opened this morning.’

” ‘If that should really be the case, I’ll think the beast no canny, said my mother.

“The Yarrow was so large as to be quite impassable, so that I had to walk up by St Mary’s Loch, and go across by the boat; and, on drawing near to Bowerhope, I soon perceived that matters had gone precisely as I suspected. Large as the Yarrow was, and it appeared impassable by any living creature, Hector had made his escape early in the morning, had swam the river, and was sitting, ‘like a drookit hen,’ on a knoll at the east end of the house, awaiting my arrival with great impatience. I had a great attachment to this animal, who, to a good deal of absurdity, joined all the amiable qualities of his species. He was rather of a small size, very rough and shagged, and not far from the colour of a fox.”


“His son Lion was the very picture of his dad, had a good deal more sagacity, but also more selfishness. A history of the one, however, would only be an epitome of that of the other. Mr William Nicholson (footnote: A celebrated portrait-painter, and Secretary to the Scottish Academy of Painting. This gentleman also excels in the portraits of animals.) took a fine likeness of this latter one, which that gentleman still possesses. He could not get him to sit for his picture in such a position as he wanted, till he exhibited a singularly fine portrait of a small dog, on the opposite side of the room. Lion took it for a real animal, and, disliking its fierce and important look exceedingly, he immediately set up his ears and his shaggy birses, and, fixing a stern eye on the picture in manifest wrath, he would then sit for a whole day and point at it without budging or altering his position.

“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 avail in miscellaneous matters; whereas, a very indifferent cur, bred about the house, and accustomed to assist in every thing, will often put the more noble breed to disgrace in those 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 a milk-house, would most likely think of nothing else than filling his belly with the cream. Not so his uninitiated brother; he is bred at home to far higher principles of honour. I have known such 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 cat, rat, or any other creature to touch it. This latter sort, too, are far more acute at taking up what is said in a family.

“The anecdotes of these animals are all so much alike, that were I but to relate the thousandth part of those I have heard, they would often look very much like repetitions. I shall therefore only, in this paper, mention one or two of the most singular, which I know to be well authenticated.”

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