Looking into the history of the Border Collie-first steps in understanding the working sheepdog.

Last Sunday was not only an inspiration for my equine art but turned out to be quite inspirational for my canine art as well.  The show brought back vivid memories of our beloved Border Collie Bess. (Working sheepdogs were present and were just as keen, responsive and sharp as I remember our wee Bess.)
Reflecting on those memories, I came to the conclusion that I am clueless about the history of Border Collies (part of my heritage) and the making of the modern day Border Collie.
We (my parents) bought Bess from a working shepherd in Scotland nearly 30 years ago.  
In those days the breed was purely a working dog and had not reached the international and commercial notoriety that it has today. 
Bess was small making her very agile and fast, had a slow heartbeat allowing for very fast recovery, had the kindest disposition and temperament, herded cats, horses and cars all with the same dedication and skill. 
Not a very extensive knowledge to say the least.

Today's post is, I shamefully admit, my first deeper look at this graceful, tenacious and hardworking dog.
I would like to try and answer three basic questions:
  • where the Border Collie originates from 
  • how it has shaped the modern day Border Collie 
  • why it continues to conquer the hearts of so many people the world over.
Basically, the way I see it, the more I find out about the breed, the better I will be able to draw it.

(Note to all Border Collie experts: please forgive any misinterpretations and misunderstandings I may formulate... Researching the information for this post highlighted how many sources do not give the same facts.  I believe the sources I have used and quoted from (noted at the end of this post) to be well informed and accurate.)

History of the Border Collie.

The Border Collie originated in the Scottish Border Country around 350 years ago and is descendant from the Persian Sheepdog.

It was when livestock farming and wool trading in the border regions started to develop that the need for working sheepdogs was felt. Local farmers began developing agile and powerful dogs to work their livestock.  

They needed a hardy dog, a dog that could withstand the harsh climate as well as a dog that had endurance. A dog with stamina, a dog that could tackle the rugged terrain, a terrain  made up of cliffs, hills and large open spaces.  A dog with the intelligence, with the right temperament making them not only keen herders but also possess power over sheep. 

These Collies worked for hundreds of years with the shepherds, being bred solely for their working ability. 

James Hogg (1772 -1835), poet and shepherds' son born in Selkirkshire (Scottish Border country), wrote

"without the sheepdog the mountainous land of England and Scotland would not be worth sixpence. it would require more hands to manage a flock of sheep and drive them to market than the profits of the whole were capable of maintaining."

Border Collie ancestors, anchors to the modern breed.

Sheila Grew, (author)

wrote in her book"Key dogs from the Border Collie Family", Volume II (1985)  

"... a century ago many of the working collies were hard, powerful... dogs, difficult to control and rough with ... stock; but their keen .. instinct, ... concentration and get power over sheep or cattle were such useful assets it seemed worth trying to find a milder natured type of working collie to cross with [them]." 

In 1894, Adam Telfer, a Northumbrian farmer, succeeded  in toning down the highly strung collie. Sheila Grew goes on to say that Telfer "succeeded... in finding the right blend of the two types of dogs".  

The modern day Border Collie is descended from his dog:  Old Hemp. 

Old Hemp Born in 1893. Undefeated at trials and one of the most notable stud dogs in Border Collie history. Old Hemp was a cross between a very strong-eyed, black bitch with a reticent temperament and a black and white tri-colored dog with loose eye and a good natured, outgoing temperament.  Hemp was a powerful, keen worker.   Old Hemp sired more than 200 dogs, and a countless number of bitches. Bred for his looks and impeccable working ability. Old Hemp is an ancestor of most Border Collies today. Old Hemp died in 1901

Old Kep: Born in 1901, Old Kep (son of Old Hemp) was a very kind and friendly dog. One of his contributions to the breed was his "Eye" which resulted in 45 first place wins at trials. Don (ISDS 11), a son of Old Kep, was exported to New Zealand where he contributed to the Australian Border Collies.

In both descriptions of these legends there is the mention of "eye". 

Basically. The Border Collie controls the sheep with 'eye".  This refers to the

 amount of concentration the dog directs at the sheep. The sheep are held by the strength of the dog's eye.  A dog where this characteristic is well developed is called "strong eyed".

"Gather", "Clapping" and "Intelligence" are  some of the other crucial working features that Border Collies are born with. 

Here is a page with a list giving a good insight into understanding herding terminology. An online  glossary of herding terminology.

That special Border Collie appeal

I've come to the conclusion that the international appeal that the Border Collie has  must be down to the fact that it is: 

  • one of smartest and most capable breeds in the world. ( They are considered intelligent, meaning that they could think for themselves.  Border collies were sent great distances to gather the scattered sheep. Being far away from the shepherd they had to be intelligent, independent and able to handle all sorts of situations without the shepherds' guidance.)
  • receptive to training
  • eager to learn and please
  • beautiful, graceful, 
  • thrives on attention and genuinely loves people
  • not nervous nor aggressive
  • good natured
  • and well... most certainly it is because they are (very often)... black and white

Don't let all this praise deceive you. 
Border Collies are much more work than most other breeds
If you don't have horses, cattle, sheep, a farm, ranch or an incredibly large area you can use for exercise, it will be difficult to give the dogs all the exercise and stimulation they need.
Unfortunately many Border Collies end up in shelters when their owners realise that they need so much exercise, attention, and training/mental stimulation (actually the training requirements are most probably the highest of any breed.)

I firmly believe they are working dogs, workaholics, bred for their performance and working skills...this should never be forgotten
Some breeders fear that emphasis on looks and beauty could be the breeds downfall and therefore concentrate on their working qualities.
Thankfully, Border Collies are naturally versatile and can excel in other fields (no pun intended!) other than herding and sheepdog trials. 
If I remember correctly, the agility, freestyle and obedience categories at Crufts (amoung other shows) are strongly dominated by Border Collies. 

Well there you have it: a wee bit of sheepdog history and some gathered facts.
Bess lived to the grand old age of 14 and a few months. 
Now,  I understand why I still miss her...

Useful links used for this article and my general understanding:

And a final link for all those of you who really want to get dug in:

Complete list of Border Collie books


Ar of the Horse said…
Another huge Border Collie fan here! I have a lovely girl named Tess. This is a wonderful post about the breed!Well done! And your artwork is just lovely!
Linda Shantz said…
A great post on a great breed, Sheona!
Many thank yous. Researching and learning about this special dog was an eye opener. It was good to learn that the BC are still bred for their working talents (makes them so special) and not their good looks. Phew!

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