Live Stock Journal Almanac – 1878

The Collie Dog – by Gordon Stables, M.D., K.N.

“Whatever sad mischance o’ertake ye,
Man, he’s the dog will ne’er forsake ye.” — Hogg.

It is just fourteen years and a little over since I was captured for Her Majesty’s Naval Service. I say “captured” because, as the reader is doubtless aware, the navy is mainly supplied with Scottish doctors, and the method adopted to secure them is as follows :—

The Admiralty send a gunboat to cruise about just off the Sands o’ Dee, and as soon, as the commander of this saucy vessel sees two or three young medicos strolling on the links, he lowers away a grating, and pays out a line as it gradually floats in towards the shore. On this grating is lashed a bucket full of bargoo, nice savoury bargoo, made of good oatmeal. Of course, as soon as the doctors sniff it, they crowd on board the grating and begin to eat; and of course, as soon as the commander sees them comfortably settled, it’s “Haul away, my lads,” to the blue-jackets on board, and “Cheerily does it;” and so, in a few minutes, the youthful sawbones finds himself standing on the quarter-deck, feeling full but looking foolish.

Well, this is a picture of England’s greatness on the ocean, the bearing of which on Highland collies the reader will presently perceive. Just the autumn before my capture, say fifteen years ago, I went to Fort Augustus for a short spell, to gain a little experience by salts-and-sennaing poor Highland sinners there, and pulling paupers’ teeth. Poor Mrs. Spalding then lived in the castle, where both I and my beautiful collie were always welcome. One morning on entering the drawing-room, I was somewhat surprised to find my favourite sitting on the sofa, and looking quite at home, with Lord D- on his right and a real live Admiral on his left, the latter of whom he was very much amusing by persisting in shaking hands with his left paw, which was ornamented with an anchor. Nor would his new-found friends permit me to dislodge him. That is the first time I ever saw a humble collie made much of by any one above the rank of a farmer or a laird.

How things have altered since then! The true Scottish collie is now generally admired, his intelligence and kind-heartedness are duly appreciated, and he has free admission into “lordly ha’ or ladye’s bower.” Nor do I think the farmers of England have any reason to be sorry that they have given this dog a fair trial, for all admit that he is a faithful servitor and a most useful and willing worker. The change that has taken place in Collie’s position, within the last twelve or a dozen years is doubtless due, first to the encouragement he has received on the show-bench, and secondly to the fact that he has become the fashion as a pet dog in good society, royalty itself having first set the example in this respect.

All authorities are agreed that the collie comes nearer than any other specimen of caninity to the original type of wild dog, with the one exception, perhaps, of the tame Yack dog, used for drawing sledges in Eskimo-land as well as in the forests of the fur-country. The collie in a great many points is very like the dingo or Australasian dog, although the ears are not so much pricked, and the eye is softer. The dingo, on the other hand, would seem to stand between the fox or the wolf and the collie. In some parts of Scotland they will tell you that the collie dog is a direct descendant of the tod or fox, and they have quite as much right to their belief as you or I have to ours that we are the lineal descendants of the long-nosed monkey (vide Darwin). I wonder, by the way, if ever my honest friend, Peter Mclvor of that ilk, a godly man, and an elder o’ the Kirk, ever heard of Darwin. He (Peter) settled the origin of our canine favourite, at least to his own satisfaction, if not to mine. “Sure enough,” said Peter,” he was made before Adam himself. What could Abel have done without a collie, and what could Noah have done in the ark with all his beasties, without a real Hielan collie?” Well, granting Noah and the ark, I suppose we must grant the “Hielan collie,” though what convenience there was in those days for through transit between Glenlivat and Armenia is more than I can say.

The word “collie” is of Celtic origin, being derived from the Gaelic cu, which is not unlike the σκύλος of the Greek, or the Latin canis, just as Celts, Grecians, Latins, and Spaniards, ancient and pastoral nations all, have a word of somewhat similar sound to signify a cow or ox, thus, bo, Ουσ, bos, and buey; and wherever, anywhere in the world, as far as I know, you find flocks and herds, there you will find a dog to assist in taking charge of them, and these herd-dogs have nearly always some resemblance to each other. Perhaps the dog that most closely approaches our own collie is the Albanian shepherd’s dog. By the way, I may as well mention here, as it may be new to some of my English farmer readers, that the word “collie” should be pronounced with the o long, as if it had but a single L; it ought not to be pronounced culley, which word, if my memory serves me, means “dupe,” and our Highland collie isn’t easily imposed upon by any means.

I shall now proceed, in as few words as possible, to pick my canine favourite to pieces, in order to show how wonderfully formed he is for the work that Nature designed him for.

I begin with the head, which, after all, is the most important part of any animal. The collie’s head is usually described as foxy, but it is more the muzzle than the skull that deserves that title, as you may see by comparing it with the well-stuffed head of a fox. The skulls of the best collies are not flat, neither are they too much raised, but in all there is room for brains. The head is not narrow—not even so narrow as it appears. In criticising a collie, you will often hear the expression made use of, “That dog is too thick in the skull;” but in nine cases out of ten you will find that this is more apparent than real, and that it is shortness of muzzle that gives rise to the seeming fault.

The nose, or rather the muzzle, is fine and somewhat fox-like; the nose itself tapers somewhat, and the point of it is narrow, cold, black, and wet. The mouth is small, and quite the antithesis to the bull-dog mouth. This would naturally cause you to expect that the teeth would either be level, or that the upper jaw should slightly protrude over the under, and either the one state or the other will be found in most well-bred specimens. There is, therefore, no squareness of muzzle, and in the fore-part of the jaw—that is, where the incisors are placed—there is but little breadth. So that, upon the whole, the mouth is small and neat, in the true-bred collie. Still, it is but right to add that I have heard Highland shepherds say they did not like a too small mouth, and that collies so possessed were apt to be biters. The reader must take this for what it is worth.

The eyes of the collie ought not to be too small, and they should be extremely intelligent and bright, and of a dark hazel-colour. The position of the eye is slightly oblique, “but this gives an expression of keenness or sharpness, rather than the crafty, cunning look of his forty-second cousin, the fox.

The ear is somewhat small in the best specimens. It should never hang downwards like that of a dandy, nor forwards like that of the fox-terrier. It is what the Scotch call “worn at half-cock,” when the animal is listening—i.e., it would be a prick-ear if it did not fall partially over at the top. It is just the ear to catch the faintest, most distant sound on the hill-side, whether bleat of sheep or the shepherd’s whistle.

The chin is clean and finely cut, the lips being thin, and there is neither throatiness nor dewlap.

On the whole the collie’s is not a grand head, but it is very elegant, and shaped evidently more for speed than strength.

The neck is longer than it seems, and is beautifully arched.

The shoulders slope well backwards, as in all animals prized for speed; they should also be strong and plentifully clad in muscle.

The chest ought to be deep rather than wide, giving plenty of lung-room, without in any way interfering with his powers of swift locomotion.

The fore-arm ought to be sturdy and strong, and the elbow well let down; the pasterns tendonous, hard, and long; the whole leg perfectly straight.

The stifles should be moderately well bent, the hock low, the thighs well clad in muscle, without which a collie is of little use for hill work.

We come now to the foot, and this is a very important point; first the soles must be beautifully padded, and work soon makes the cuticle of the pad strong and horny, as it does the hands of a labouring man, though you can’t expect to find this firm hard pad on a drawing-room or show-bench dog. The foot should be well knuckled up, should not spread, and be more the round cat-foot than the long hare-foot; but in old age they get longer and spread somewhat.

The ribs ought to be well rounded, and the back ones pretty deep ; the reverse shows a defect.

The loins should be strong and muscular, both for the sake of speed and staying powers.

The collie dog, to sum up, is one of the most symmetrically made dogs we have: his shapely head, his graceful curves, nice deep chest, and proportionate legs make him a picture; and if in addition to all this he is happily coloured, and has a good coat, he is a picture that once seen is not soon forgotten. The accompanying portrait of Mr. Ashwin’s “Cocksie” is a fair specimen of a good collie.

Before going on to describe the true collie coat and colour, I must say a word about the proper size of this breed of dog. It is not enough for me to say I do not like a large collie, or a very small one. Experience must be our guide as to the correct size of the animal. The amount of work a shepherd’s dog gets through in a day in the mountainous districts of Scotland, is quite surprising, and this too every day all the year round. What you need in a collie, then, is activity and good staying powers, and the experience of most shepherds goes to prove, that you find these two qualities most often combined in the medium-sized collie.

On first glancing at a well-bred specimen in full feather, one would be apt to fancy that the head was disproportionately small coin pared to the bulk of the body.

The following are the average measurements of head compared to height in the Highland collie:—

Height at Shoulder Length of Head Girth of Head Below the Ear Girth of Nose Below the Eyes
22.5″ 9.5″ 14″ 8″

N.B.—In measuring the length of the head, you carry the tape from the occiput to the very tip of the nose.

Coat.— Tracing the coat backwards from the nose, we first and foremost find the face covered with short, soft, close hair. It is a smooth face, and the ears are also smooth, but as soon as you pass the occipital protuberance, and the larynx below, you find that the coat has suddenly elongated. It is massed upon the neck and shoulders, where it is called by fanciers the “mane;” it hangs in quite an apron over the chest, where it is called the “frill.” All along the back and loins down to the root of the tail the coat is long and abundant, and, like that of the Newfoundland, it parts in the centre. The tail itself is plentifully feathered, being in fact a bushy tail.

The breech is well protected. The fore legs, covered with smooth hair in front, are moderately feathered behind, but the feather on the hind-legs ends at the hock—all below that is smooth.

Now as to the texture and quality of the coat. As that glorious garment, the Highland plaid, is to the Highland shepherd, so is his coat to the collie; it protects him by day and shields him at night. That anything short of a ten-horse-power thunder-shower would penetrate a real Scottish plaid I do not believe, and I don’t think that that would; and collie’s jacket is just as impervious. On the breast and on the breech it is somewhat finer in texture than on the back, for on these portions of collie’s anatomy, it is protection from cold more than anything else that is needed; but over the neck, shoulders, back, and loins the long outer hair is as hard as needles. I said outer hair, because if you separate this, you will find that collie is also possessed of a warmer woolly undergrowth, so you see Nature hasn’t forgotten the shepherd’s dog in any one way.

Colour.—Black-and-tan, and black-and-tan with a bit of white, are the most favourite colours. The tan, be it remembered, must not be that rich deep tan, which we love to see on the Gordon setter, but a lightish red tan. The white is generally on the fore legs or feet and hind feet, on the chest, and around the neck, with or without a blaze up the face. There are collies of many other colours, and I ought not to forget the old-fashioned iron-grey collie, good specimens of which are still to be met with, in the highland or upland districts of Aberdeenshire. I am, however, partial to the black, tan, and white for several reasons: they are so pretty — that is perhaps a selfish reason; but they are doubtless more easily seen on a snow-clad hillside, and that is certainly an advantage to the shepherd.

The carriage of the tail is in some measure characteristic of the breed. Robert Burns, our favourite Scottish bard, is often quoted on this head.

“His gawcie tail, wi’ upward curl,
Hung ower his hurdles wi’ a swurl.”

These are the poet’s words. Now “hurdies” meaning hips, and ” swurl,” in the form of a ring, the intelligent dog-fancier will at once perceive that Burns’s Luath, however good a dog in his way, was hardly the animal to take a judge’s eye in a modern show-ring. Few dogs nowadays can afford to cock their tails. The well-bred collie carries his tail, while standing at ease, hanging downwards and sweeping backwards very gracefully indeed, the slight curl quite at the end of it showing the pride of the animal, I suppose. When excited, he carries it high above the level of his back.

It is not an uncommon thing in some parts of the country, to cross the collie with the Gordon setter, by which some people think him more pretty to look at. For my own part, I consider a dog crossed in this fashion an abomination. The setter blood brings about some, if not all of the following results: it alters the form of the ears, it straightens the tail, deepens the colour of the tan, feathers the fore-legs too much, takes from the coat its undergrowth, thus rendering it lanky, while the dog himself looks lathy in consequence.

As of late years Collie’s good qualities have become better known, and his beauty appreciated, so has his price gone up in the market. You can hardly expect a puppy of any consequence, certainly not a good pedigree one, for less than £5, and for grown dogs £10 to £15 is often asked and received. I have known 30 guineas given for a crack bitch, and £50 for a dog, and these prices, large though they may seem, would hardly be sufficient to lure some of our redoubtable champions from off the show-benches. Still you may occasionally pick good collies up cheaply enough. At Lochgoil, about two years ago, I offered a Highland drover a pound for a very nice one. “Na, na,” was the reply of the canny Scot, ” I’ll no tak a took less than a five-and-twunty shillin’.” I gave Donald his “five-and-twunty shillin’,” and afterwards gave away the dog, as a favour, to a friend, for 10 guineas.


This dog should, in all points, with the exception, of course, of coat, come as close to the true Highland collie as possible. They have, however, seldom got such nicely pricked ears, nor so small a mouth. The coat should be as thick and close as possible. In colour they may be black and tan, but the black and grey mottle is a great favourite. These animals are common in the lowlands of Scotland, in the north of England, and in Wales. They are greatly prized, and never fail to do their work well.

At some future day I hope to contribute a paper to our Journal on the old-fashioned bob-tail English sheep-dog, and on the drover’s cur; so, for the present, I shall leave those alone.


Wise and all as collie is, and apt as he is to learn, his education must be taken in hand when he is young, or he will be of very little use to the shepherd. The training of some dogs is commenced as early as the sixth month; it is better, however, in my opinion, that the animal should be twelve months old before he gets his first lesson. And that first lesson is obedience to command. Now, although it is necessary at times to chastise a dog, when he persistently refuses to obey orders, it never ought to be done with too great severity, for if so the poor thing gets confused, and has no sort of notion what he is being reprimanded for. The shepherd, however, who first gets his dog thoroughly to love him, and understand a good deal of what he says, and who teaches him slowly, never expecting too much, and always being lenient with his shortcomings, will most certainly find that his collie will turn out trumps in the long run. The shepherd for the most part will have to use his own judgment as to the method he takes to teach his collie, but perseverance he must have; he must never weary in teaching the dog. Obedience in coming at once to heel, and down-charging when told, are two great points in a collie’s education, and a well-trained collie should work to signs as easily as to words. Whatever language is used—whether Gaelic, Welsh, or English—the word of command ought always to be given distinctly and firmly, and accompanied by its proper signal. To come quickly and quietly to heel, to down-charge at signal, to keep the sheep well together on the march, to head quickly, to bring in stragglers with little noise, to part the flock, to bring out a ram therefrom or some particular sheep, to keep the flock together on any particular spot, and to go miles up the glen or over the hills, and fetch home sheep all by himself, are only a part of the many useful accomplishments that a good shepherd ought to teach his dog. The Highland shepherd always addresses his dog in a quiet, steady sort of way, with no change in the tone of his voice, and it is really surprising how very much a collie understands of the conversation that goes on around him, and I’m quite convinced that if the dog could talk, his familiar chat would be a deal more edifying than one-half we are obliged to listen to every day of our lives.

I don’t think collie is ever happier than when he has some sort of trust reposed in him. I was in a farmer’s house in Scotland not long ago: Kooran, the collie, was lying at the fireside, apparently asleep. “Gang o’er the moor, collie laddie, and fetch the sheep hame.” The farmer gave the order as quietly as if speaking to a man-servant. Kooran jumped up with alacrity, looked very pleased indeed, and trotted out, wagging his tail certainly, but showing no excitement, for he was going on a mission of trust that required both caution and thought. “O’er the moor” in this case meant a journey of fully two miles, but in an hour Kooran was back with the sheep, barking to have the yard gate opened. Half an hour afterwards the farmer looked out at the window. “Oh, bother take that cat!” he said; “I won’t have an onion this year.” Now this time Kooran didn’t take time to go out by the door, but darted like lightning through the open window, in a state of agitation and merriment that contrasted strangely with his staid demeanour when, going for the sheep.

I was much amused one day at the conduct of a collie dog who was left in temporary charge of about fifty sheep. The sheep were on a journey, and the shepherd had driven them into a field opposite a public-house: “Just haud them there a few minutes, collie,” he remarked to his dog, a wall-eyed grey animal, “until I wet my whustle.” When half an hour elapsed, and no shepherd appeared, the dog got very impatient, changing the sheep from corner to comer of the field, and making no end of fuss over them. So an hour elapsed. “Oh, bother!” Collie must have thought; “he’s had time enough to wot twenty whustles, so here goes,” and collie drove the sheep out of the field and stationed them in a cluster in the middle of the road, right opposite the public-house, looking all the while eager-eyed at the door. But even this hint was thrown away on the drouthy Scot, and even the dog’s pretending that the sheep were getting very wild indeed, and wanted any amount of tongue and labour to keep them in order, didn’t bring the shepherd out, so honest collie started off home with the sheep. I watched him till he was quite out of sight, and thought there the matter ended, but fully an hour afterwards back came collie with his fifty sheep, and this time the shepherd, having “wetted his whustle” till he couldn’t walk straight, condescended to leave the house and continue the journey. Query: In this case which was the nobler animal?

The sagacity and high intelligence of the collie is well seen in the sheep-dog trials, a kind of exhibition which I long to see much oftener than I do. These trials take place on the hills, and are exceedingly interesting. Each shepherd and his dog has three sheep liberated to them, and these the dog has to drive a distance of about 500 yards and pen them in a small enclosure. The dogs are also sent a long distance all alone, to bring a few sheep home from the hills. Penning so few as three sheep is a much more difficult task than penning fifty would be, and requires great tact and caution on the part of the dog. If the trio happen to be all English sheep it is easier for collie, but if it is composed, for instance, of the three elements, Scotch, Welsh, and English, then, indeed, the doggie’s judgment is put to a sore test; for, “I mean to be off over the mountains,” says the wild Welshman; “And I mean solid fighting,” says the horned Scot; “And,” adds the Saxon, “I don’t mean to budge an inch or do anything at all.” In this case collie is a clever doggie indeed if he pens in ten minutes. In these trials the shepherd is allowed to guide his dog by voice or sign, but a truly well-educated collie needs little of either.

Even a collie that has never been trained will often do by instinct, what no other breed of dog will do. “Trio,” the winner of the Alexandra Cup, was walking with me one day on the Bath road, in company with a few other dogs, two of which were pups of her own, about five months old. Farmers coming home from market are at times reckless enough in their driving, and puppies are apt to get in front of the horse. There is no doubt that one, if not both these collie pups would have been run over, had not “Trio” rushed forward and driven them back on to the side-path; and all the rest of the journey, more than a mile, she kept them there, she herself walking on the road between them and danger.

By the way, two years ago, a collie pup, nine months old, was brought from Belleter to Inverurie by train—not a direct line. At the latter village it was lost, but three weeks afterwards, with sadly-cut feet, and weary and worn, the puppy returned to Belleter. The distance would be, across country, about seventy miles, but a collie dog is neither a cat nor a carrier pigeon. How did the puppy find its way?

No animals are more faithful to their master than collies. They are extremely affectionate, in fact, quite devoted to their owners, and will fight for them at any time, if need be, and guard their property by day or by night. The bitch is often rather nervous, timid, and shy; but the dog, on the other hand, although he is by no means quarrelsome, can take his own part, even against a much bigger dog. like a Turk, he is wiry and tough, and, like a Turk, could make it exceedingly nasty for a blustering bear, if called upon to show his teeth. My friend, Captain D-, has a beautiful collie bitch, which always accompanies him wherever he goes. Now the railway crossing at Twyford is rather dangerous for dogs; so, although the captain himself walks over the metals, “Meg” has been taught to cross over the bridge, and now she never at any time requires to be told to do so. Poor “Meg” is very loving and gentle, and her mode of caressing one is very fetching—she places her two paws upon you, and leans her cheek against your breast, and thus remains for a short time.

In conclusion, I think that, taking all things into account—his ancient pedigree, his extreme utility to mankind, his high intelligence and sagacity, and his faithfulness and devotion to his master—I am not far wrong in dubbing as I do the Highland collie. King of the Canine Race.

Excerpted from Live Stock Journal Almanac – 1878

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  1. Your comment about the term cú is correct, and the stem is actually the same in many Indo-European languages. This assumption that “Collie” derives from the word cú is highly likely even to me, as a linguist. Many agricultural terms in Indo-European and later European languages begins with C/K/G depending on the language family. CAnis,KYnos,KOira,Cú,Cí are all forms denoting dog, and canis has of course developed into hound according to vowel and consonant shifts. (As cornu – horn and cord – heart). Collie/Colly,culley etc. are all the same word, only varieties and based on local pronounciations. It most probobly means “dog” and the suffix is generating the same intention as in -ie e.g. doggie, laddie, colleen etc, where -lle and -ie denotes something common, little and dear to us. Cull dogs were useful, they served as farmdogs in general and in particular they could cull sheep and cattle on a distance from the hearder. /cull/ in the original ethymological meaning of this ancient word in Gaelic and later also as a term used in English but with perhaps slighly widened meaning. The word Collie served well as a brandname when the refinement of the breeds started and the various type definitions of the “Cullys” begun. 🙂

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