Exploring the origins of dog breeds is an ongoing passion of mine. You may remember I’ve already shared some fascinating information about two breeds that originated in Scotland: Shetland Sheepdogs (aka Shelties) and Golden Retrievers. Of the fifteen Scottish breeds still in existence today, six were purposely bred to herd and drive livestock. One of these is the breed known as the Border Collie.
The origin of the Border Collie is, like many other Scottish breeds, a matter of debate. There is, however, some agreement that the Romans may have brought their drover dogs to this far-flung outpost of the Roman Empire, followed by Viking invaders with their smaller Spitz-like dogs. Cross-breeding the larger Roman dogs with the smaller Viking dogs resulted in medium-sized double-coated dogs who adapted well to the climate of the British Isles and the challenges of working in rough terrain. These dogs were agile, highly intelligent, and excelled at herding as well as other tasks.
Despite the speculation regarding the specific orgin of the breed, research suggests the modern-day Border Collie may be traced back to a single dog known in Scotland as Auld Hemp (Old Hemp in English). From the Border Collie Museum we learn that Old Hemp, having sired more than 200 pups in his short life, is considered the progenitor of the modern-day Border Collie breed.
Today, there are generally four recognizable ‘types’ of Border Collie: the Northumbrian; the Wiston Cap; the Nap, and Herdman’s Tommy. You can learn about each type’s individual characteristics and ancestry through a Google search for the specific type. You might also find it interesting to read books such as Sheila Grew’s Key Dogs from the Border Collie Family. Here’s an excerpt from Grew’s frequently cited work:
A century ago many of the [working collies] were hard, powerful rather unfriendly dogs, difficult to control and rough with the stock, but their keen handling instinct, their concentration and great power over the sheep or cattle were such useful assets that it seemed worth trying to find a milder natured type of working collie to cross with these hard dogs.
One shepherd who took a keen interest in breeding and training sheepdogs was the Northumbrian, Adam Telfer, and he succeeded in finding the right blend of the two types of dog. The result was a canine genius called Hemp…who died in 1903 having sired over 200 puppies and founded the modern breed of Border Collie.
Whatever its origin, the Border Collie is now recognized by many as the ultimate herding dog with a natural instinct to herd using its “eye” to control livestock by staring at them in a silent and unwavering manner. No other breed appears to have this ability.
In the 1940s, Britain’s Ministry of Information created The Pattern of Britain documentaries, and in 1944 one of those short films focused on the lives of Scottish crofters. (Crofting is a traditional social system, unique to the Scottish Highlands and islands, focused on small-scale food production in common working communities.) If you’re a history buff, you’ll appreciate this glimpse of the old traditions still practiced in this highland community. Dog lovers will appreciate the skills of the Border Collies and other working dogs who can be seen demonstrating their unique ability to collect the sheep scattered among the craggy mountains and drive them down to the crofts.
In this film, you can see those dogs in action beginning about the 7:00-minute mark of the presentation. As you’ll hear, this activity is repeated five times each year, with the men and their dogs travelling a distance of 30 miles or more, and climbing 3,000 feet to reach the higher peaks where the sheep can be found.
Today, Border Collies continue to serve as working dogs for farmers, crofters, and shepherds around the world. As the breed evolved, though, so too did their purpose. While some types of the breed continue to herd and drive livestock, others have been bred for conformation, agility, and other athletic events. Still others serve as companion dogs and service animals. If you can provide the necessary physical and mental stimulation the breed requires, this intelligent, energetic dog might be the right one for you!