According to DNA researchers, nearly half of my ethnic roots can be traced to the Scottish Highlands and the Shetland Islands. That prompted me to start my study of dog breeds there, beginning with Shetland Sheepdogs (commonly known as Shelties).
I knew that, while the specific original breeds involved are unclear, it appears today’s Shelties likely descend from “common bloodlines first developed on the Shetland Islands in the 1700s.” (See my November 2022 post for more details and resources.) What I didn’t know, however, was just how many dog breeds originated in the Highlands and elsewhere in Scotland. Among those breeds, we have the Golden Retriever.
In 1868, Sir Dudley Marjoribanks bred a Wavy Coated Retriever named Nous to a Tweed Water Spaniel named Belle in hopes of producing a gun dog who could work effectively in the wet and rugged terrain of the Scottish Highlands. According to History of the Golden Retriever and other sources, the resulting litter of three yellow puppies (named Cowslip, Crocus, and Primrose, after a trio of yellow flowers) became the foundation of the entire Golden Retriever breed.
We can thank Sir Marjoribanks’ diligence for our knowledge about the breed’s origins. He spent years developing the breed at his Guisachan Estate in the Highlands and keeping detailed records. (A personal side note: the Guisachan Estate had previously been owned by members of Clan Fraser—a surname that appears time and again through my paternal line.)
We learn more about the breed from the website Friends of Guisachan:
The Guisachan dogs were reportedly given only to family and close friends, all of whom were persons of means and title. Lord Tweedmouth kept copious records in the Guisachan Record Book covering 1865 to 1890, a book that only came to light in 1952 when Lady Pentland, a granddaughter of Lord Tweedmouth made it available to the noted English Golden Retriever historian Elma Stonex. In 1952, her friend, the 6th Earl of Ilchester published a famous article in Country Life which, for the first time, gave a complete and accurate history of the development of the breed. The Guisachan dogs were bred to be strong working dogs hunting grouse, partridge and deer.
There are many, many books about the early breeding of both the Guisachan and Ilchester (via Guisachan) lines, the most detailed being the 2011 epic Golden Retrievers: Research into the First Century in the Show Ring by the Australian author, Marilyn Morphet. This 1064 page tome contains a detailed history of the early breedings as well as details of the Marjoribanks (Lord Tweedmouth) family.
The migration of the Golden Retriever line can be traced from Scotland to America and Canada in the 1880s, and during the period 1925-1937 to Ireland, India, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Australia, and (reportedly) Holland. After WWII, the breed was imported to Norway, Denmark, and Finland.
Every five years, hundreds of breeders and owners gather at the Guisachan Estate in the Scottish Highlands to celebrate the breed. BBC Scotland Highlands and Islands reporter Steven McKenzie has shared photos and stories of this year’s gathering here.
Like the Sheltie, today’s Golden Retriever has evolved from its original primary purpose as a working breed and has become, for many, a loyal and affectionate member of the family.