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Shaggy Sheepdog History

by Toni Teasdale

This article appeared in the Millennium Book 2000
for the Southern Counties Bearded Collie Club.
Permission to use this article was granted by Toni Teasdale.
It is under copyright. Please do not copy or reproduce.

"As with many breeds, the Bearded Collie does not have a positive documented history. It is known that the shaggy sheepdog is ancient but tracing its ancestry and development can only be speculation. The concept of the pedigree dog bred to a particular standard is a relatively young idea. In most breeds less than 100 years old.

Some breeds have developed by definite crosses between two or more breeds perhaps to produce a dog of a particular appearance such as the Leonberger or to serve a special purpose and others have just evolved because of talents or attributes they possessed secondary to their looks.

The origins of the shaggy sheepdog in Europe are really pre-history. That is before written records and one has to rely on the evidence of archaeologists so nothing is certain. Even when history was recorded the humble shepherd's dog was less documented than the sporting dogs of Kings and Noblemen so there are very few references to which one can refer.

The Bearded Collie started out as a shaggy sheepdog of no particular size or colour and by careful selection over the years it has gradually become standardised. Even more so since it became a show dog. However, even if you are only interested in the Beardie as a show dog, the function and history of the breed is all important.

When you consider the areas where shaggy sheepdogs of Beardie type exist these are the areas of the Celtic dynasty in its heyday. The Celts emerged after the late Bronze Age culture between the seventh and fifth Centuries BC and inhabited Europe in the pre-Roman period. At the height of their dynasty they occupied a vast territory from the Iberian Peninsula to the Rhine and from Ireland to Romania. They even moved into Northern Italy and went as far south as Rome which they sacked in 390 BC. They were barbarians and 'war mad' but their craftsman created a brilliant art style and by the first century BC a truly urban society had begun to develop. It was against these people that the Roman armies moved in the first century BC and the first century AD gradually pushing them westwards leaving only a Celtic fringe in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Britany.

The Celts had come to Europe from the East, as all previous and subsequent invading armies did and moved across Europe gradually. To be sure of food invading armies brought it with them on the hoof - no fridges or freezers in those days - and, of course, with them came their dogs to herd and protect the animals. When the food was eaten, the dogs surplus to requirements were abandoned in the locality.

As time went on, the Celts became less warlike and began to settle in these new lands. Firstly they made their homes around the rivers and plains and developed the land as farmers. Others became pastoralists, the older native tradition, and settled on the hills and uplands. Their population started to increase as did the spread of food production, as opposed to food collection. Hunting became less important and this meant the Celts did not have to travel vast distances in seasonal pursuit of a food supply and they settled in hamlets and villages close to their growing crops and their grazing animals. As a consequence their lives became more sedentary and this led to the creation of large communities, the inevitable growth of population and to craft specialisation, thus paving the way for the eventual emergence of civilization.

Their shaggy sheepdogs were essential aids to this way of life and gradually these dogs were bred from and developed according to the terrain they lived in and the tasks expected of them.

The Russian Owtcharka, the Polish Lowland Sheepdog, the Briard in France, the Schapendoes of Holland, the Bergamasco from Northern Italy and Pyrenean Sheepdog from the Basque region of Spain have all evolved from these early shaggy sheepdogs. Also the Catalan Sheepdog currently enjoying a revival of its fortunes in its native Spain. The Portuguese Sheepdog is the shaggy sheepdog of Portugal. In Egypt there is the Armant who, although not directly descended from Celtic ancestors, has evolved from the Briards taken to Egypt in the eighteenth century by Napoloan's armies with the herds of 'food' and later abandoned to breed with local dogs.

Germany also had a shaggy sheepdog which, I believe, is now extinct. It is an ancestor of the very popular German Shepherd Dog and the reason why some GSDs are long haired. A few years ago I was fortunate to see an exhibition of a private collection of paintings in Darmstadt Castle, Germany and a very shaggy black Beardie type dog appeared in three or four of the pictures. I assumed it to be their extinct shaggy sheepdog.

The Puli and Komondor etc. did not evolve from the Celtic dogs but came from the East with the much later Magyar migration about 1000 years ago.

In Britain we are only left with the Old English Sheepdog and the Bearded Collie as native breeds. The Beardie was also referred to as the Hairy Mou'ed Collie and the Highland Collie by some. There was also the Old Welsh Grey, the Smithfield, the Cotswold Sheepdog and the Dorset Blue Shag and all except for a few Blue Shags are probably extinct now.

As I have said before the Roman invasion pushed the Celts westward across Europe and to the fringes of Britain and their dogs went with them. In Ireland there is very little evidence of a native shaggy sheepdog but pictures of Beardie type dogs do exist and although locals refer to them as Border Collies they are not what we know as Borders.

The origins of our shaggy sheepdogs are obscure and it may well be that fresh blood from elsewhere has been added along the way. Dogs used for a specific purpose were selected for their suitability for the job, their brain was important but so was the ability to survive the harsh Scottish winters in the hills. The shepherds were tough and the dogs had to be as well.

The Old English Sheepdog of today, although the man in the street frequently thinks the Beardie is a 'Dulux' dog, is very different to the Bearded Collie in the eyes of the enthusiast of either breed. However, you do not have to go back very far in Old English Sheepdog history to find dogs resembling today's Beardies. The OES was first shown as a breed in 1873 and a Breed Club was formed in 1888. Today's OES are an example of how a breed can be changed by breeders over a period time. I possess a bronze of about 1875 which shows a 'Beardie' with half a tail. Obviously it must have been an OES of the period as it is unlikely anyone would have wanted a Bearded Collie cast in bronze at the time. The head, expression, proportions, topline, coat and markings are Beardie. Even the famous Champion Fair Weather first shown at Crufts in 1899 had a very Beardie like head and front from the painting published in 'Our Dogs' (OES feature 23rd July, 1999).

In the early days docking was the most obvious difference between the two. In some areas it was fashionable to dock and not in others. It stemmed originally from the Forest Laws - the tail was shortened to signify that the dog was not fit for sporting activities and, therefore, not qualified to course.

Although Bearded Collies did not have their interests protected by a Breed Club or have a published breed standard, they had their devotees and there are many descriptions of the breed over the years. Taplin in 'The Sportsman's Cabinet' published in 1803 refers to the Highland Collie as 'The most timid, placid, serene and grateful in creation'. One must, of course, remember that words change their meanings over the years! In 1836, Parley wrote 'This sagacious animal is of the utmost importance with immense flocks. In driving keeps them to the road. In his absence, the shepherd depends on his dog to keep them in order'. Richardson in 1847 refers to a dog 'Destitute of tail'. Stonehenge in 1852 lists among the characteristics 'will back sheep' which was probably a useful attribute.

J D T Gray in 1872 gave quite a full description of the breed referring to it as 'the Hairy Mou'ed Collie' remarking that he was the 'only judge to distinguish them from rough collies. He said they were 'the hardy dog of the drover. A big rough tousy looking tyke'. Some of his description closely resembles the present standard 'legs heavily covered with hair', 'ribs well sprung', 'forelegs straight, shoulders oblique' and 'Feet oval, toes arched and close. Soles well padded.' The description of the eyes reflects a common problem today, 'Dark brown is what is generally seen. Light yellow objectionable.' The coat clause would be unacceptable today, 'not unlike a doormat'.

In "The Dogs of Scotland' by Whinstone, a pseudonym for Gray, published in 1891 the description is similar to that of 1872. 'A big rough tousy looking tyke with a coat not unlike a doormat, the texture of the hair hard and fibry, and the ears hanging close to the head, is a rough and ready description for this dog.' He considered the English and Welsh Bobtailed Sheepdog and the Bearded or Hairy Mou'ed Collie to be identical. A letter is reproduced in this book from the 'Live Stock Journal of 15th November 1878 describing the breed and its virtues and how it differed from the more common black and tan collie.

Mrs. Hall Walker, an early devotee of the breed, published an article in 'Our Dogs' in December 1898 including a description which came to be considered the standard for the breed. Many of the phrases used by her were incorporated in the official Kennel Club Breed Standard later on. She described the Beardie as 'Active; None of the stumpiness of the Bobtail; Though strongly made should not look too heavy; Sharp enquiring expression; Eyes to match coat colour. Rather widely apart, big, soft affectionate not protruding; Nose, large and square; teeth large and white; Tail moderately long. Carriage must be low when walking and extended when at high speed and outer coat, hard strong, shaggy and unkempt.' No description of movement was given but a meagre, short bare tail, legs devoid of hair, thick rounded ribs, too round in body, too short in length, narrow skull and too long a nose were considered to be faults.

By 1909 Pathfinder and Dalziel described the Beardie of 'High intelligence. Singular aptitude in the care of sheep and cattle'. For general appearance it is 'unnecessary to distinguish the Old English from the Beardie save that the latter is allowed a tail and is a very elegant shape. Coat differs greatly in length from short, to long and shaggy hair'. In 'Stephens' Book of the Farm' published the same year Beardies are described as 'nearly always dark or hazel grey in colour, roughly haired over the upper part of the face and eyes, and rather pronounced in the hook of the hind leg... It is a tribute to the Beardie that he is often seen in the hands of drovers - a class of men who waste little sentiment, as a rule, on their dogs, but usually put points of utility and usefulness in the forefront.'

We come to 1912 for the next description in 'Cassell's New Book of the Dog' edited by Robert Leighton. James Dalgleish writes that the Beardie is 'less popular with the flockmaster. Better with cattle than sheep.' 'Much like the Old English but more racy'. 'Head resembled that of a Dandie Dinmont rather than the square head of Old English'. Dalgleish states 'the coats of many are far too soft. Undercoat frequently absent,' In this description there is a clause on movement - 'Active, considered to be very important.'

Theo Marples was the editor of 'Our Dogs' and in his book 'Show Dogs' published in 1915 he mentions that the breed is frequently exhibited in Scotland although there is no standard description - 'type and merit being left entirely to the individual judgment and opinion of the gentlemen who adjudicated upon them'

Robert Leighton in the 'Complete Book of the Dog' published in 1922 makes similar comments to those in 'Cassells New Book of the Dog' (1912) which he edited adding that legs, feet, bone, body, coat, movement and style were important but head and ears were not. Edward Ash in 'Dogs and their History' published in 1924 suggested that the origins of both the Old English and the Bearded Collie lie in the Russian Owtcharka and in the short-tailed cur dogs. In the 'Animal Home Doctor' published around 1930, the Beardie is described as having a superficial resemblance to OES before improvement but also states he is smaller than the English dog (I assume the OES). The unknown author also suggests that James Hogg's (The Ettrick Shepherd) Sirrah was a Bearded Collie. There are further similar descriptions in the 1930s from Croxton Smith, Roberts and Craven. Then we come to Perry in 1944 who says the Beardie is for herding big flocks over moors and is the first to mention that the dog is noisy 'for only a strong rough dog would keep them on the move. Not for gathering.'

Clifford (Doggie) Hubbard in his book 'Working Dogs of the World' published in 1947 and 'Dogs of Britain' published in 1948 mentions the Beardie as having many fine qualities but almost extinct. 'Flockmasters and drovers of the old school entrust their flocks to them. Makes an excellent cattle worker as well.'

In 1954 McDonald Daly makes references to the breed and the nine points of excellence published about 50 years previously. Stanley Dangerfield's 'International Encyclopaedia of Dogs' published in 1971 quoted the breed standard current at the time and said the Beardie was more a drover's dog than a sheepdog.

In Mrs. Willison's book on the Bearded Collie published in 1971 she gives a detailed account of the events that led to the successful revival of the breed in this country and reprints a letter from James Garrow, a well respected judge of the day, written when Mrs. Willison first started breeding and showing Beardies. He comments on the coat, 'Not overlong and of a raw harsh texture.' He said he was the only judge who distinguished them from Rough Collies and suggested that Mrs. Willison emphasised the rule on coat when drawing up the standard for the Kennel Club.

As the breed has gained in popularity throughout the world entire volumes have been devoted to the breed. These are far more informative books giving an insight into all aspects of the Beardie today but the books of the past with these early descriptions make interesting reading and emphasise the fact that, although the type is ancient, the breed is fairly young as far as standardisation is concerned."

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