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Collie Origins

The ancestral relationships of contemporary British herding breeds

by Iris Combe & Pat Hutchinson 2004

During 2003 and 2004 Dr Mark Neff, from the Department of Veterinary Medicine, California, was researching Ivermectin sensitivity in dogs, DNA-sampling several hundred buccal swabs from British and American Collies and associated breeds. The drug Ivermectin is not registered for use in canines but has occasionally been used by veterinary surgeons for the treatment of mange and worms in dogs. Most breeds have no side effects but there have been fatalities, especially in Collies and other breeds with known collie ancestry.
(see web site: www.vetmed.wsu.edu/depts-VCPL/#Breeds or the actual research paper on http://www.pnas.org/cgi/reprint/0402374101v1)

During Mark's research he contacted us for advice on the likely origins of some of Britain's contemporary herding breeds, and as Iris has been researching British Herding Breeds in excess of sixty years ('Herding Dogs: Their Origins and Development in Britain' by Iris Combe 1978, Faber & Faber), it was obvious that she be approached for advice. By way of illustration we drew up a 'family tree' and prepared a short treatise which we feel might be of use to other breed genealogists.

Great Britain - The Collie 'family tree'

The 'family tree' illustrates contemporary pastoral breeds that possessed British 'collie' ancestry. Initially dogs bred indiscriminately but livestock owners, realising they required dogs with specialist skills, began to select for stamina, endurance and intelligence to enable them to cope with the tasks they were expected to perform in inhospitable terrain. Such dogs also required water-proof coats as protection against adverse weather conditions.

'The Roots'

Between the third and first centuries BC three Celtic tribes, from the Iberian peninsula of Spain and Portugal, invaded the British Isles, settling mainly in Wales and Ireland. The word 'Celt' or 'Keltoi' is Greek for 'barbarian' but, although they were warriors, Celtic society was primarily based upon pastoralism. Hunting and herding dogs were of great importance as wealth was dependent upon stock ownership. Any dog used in livestock management was referred to as a 'collie' (the Celtic word for 'useful'). Descendants of one of these Celtic groups migrated to the western islands of Scotland, accompanied by livestock and 'collie' dogs. The name 'collie' dog has always been synonymous with the Scottish highlands and the lush Irish pastures.

In AD43 Britain was invaded by the Romans, followed by the Angles and Saxons in AD410, and the Vikings during the eighth and ninth centuries. Each invasion brought with it new types of herdsmen's dogs and livestock, the Romans in particular introducing improved types of sheep to Britain. As the wool industry was essential to the British economy they selected, bred and trained their 'collies' or useful dogs as sheepdogs, to be used for either herding, guarding or droving.

'The Trunk'

Occasionally it was deemed necessary to replenish sheep stocks, which were imported from other countries of the Roman Empire, bordering the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea. The flocks were accompanied by herdsmen (probably slaves) and 'bear-skinned' dogs (later corrupted to 'bare-skinned') which possessed short, dense, and harsh waterproof coats, essential for protecting them in all weathers. These 'bare-skinned' or smooth-coated 'collies' (forerunners of what we recognise today as Kennel Club registered Smooth Collies) had strong temperaments, great intelligence

and loyalty, endurance, stamina, and independence. They were selected to guard cattle, horses and large flocks of sheep and proved useful as drovers' dogs. Livestock was driven to and from the ships, farms and markets by drovers, working either on foot or on ponies. As they often worked in bands the term 'bandogs' was collectively used to describe the assortment of herding/droving 'collies' that accompanied them.
Closely associated with the drovers and bandogs were the 'poachers' dog, or lurchers, which provided food for the pot on the long journeys. Lurchers were invariably produced as a result of the interbreeding of a collie type dog with a deerhound or rough-coated greyhound type, and it is easy to imagine that some of their collie-type puppies would work their way back into the gene pool.

An assortment of long and smooth-coated useful 'collie' types gradually evolved and, from these, livestock ownerslearned to select and train their dogs for the specialised skills they required, working with different types of livestock in adverse climatic and environmental conditions.

Throughout history pastoral life in Britain has seen dramatic changes. During the Middle Ages, the destruction of large tracts of Royal forests allowed for the opening up of large areas of common grazing land, much of which was subsequently divided up into separate, privately owned farms and small-holdings. Such changes in agricultural practices brought about the gradual demise of many early types of herding dogs but not before they contributed to the genetic make-up of contemporary pastoral breeds. Smithfields, Beards and Shags, Dorset Sheepdogs (or Old Downlands), Galway collies (of which the famous Trefoil was one), Highland Collies, Manx Sheepdogs, Rutherford North country collies, Welsh Hillman, and Welsh Grey collies were all localised 'collie' types which suffered as a result of these changes.

'The Branches'

Australia and America

The opening up of the 'New World' during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provided opportunity for the spread and diversity of herding dog types. McNab sheepdogs and Australian Shepherd dogs are descendants of British 'collies' which accompanied the first American settlers in 1620.

In 1770 Captain James Cook's First Fleet landed in what is now Sydney, Australia, depositing the first wave of British pioneers (mainly convicts and their guards) and their livestock. Koolies, Kelpies, and Australian Cattle dogs have evolved from those 'collie' dogs that accompanied the first pioneers. 


More recently the industrial revolution, during Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901), brought about huge improvements in transportation and commerce. Sweeping socio-economic changes again dramatically altered British life, dog ownership no longer being confined to the huntsmen and herdsmen. As Victorian society had more leisure time the role of many types of dog altered, as it became fashionable for Victorian Society to own them as domestic companions.

The gradual emergence of dog shows in the mid nineteenth century, initially confined to hounds and gundogs, escalated and the Birmingham show of 1860 classified 'non-sporting' dogs for the first time. This included a class for 'sheepdogs, colleys, yard or keepers' dogs', the dogs being handled by kennel-men, shepherds and stock men.

The Kennel Club and the official recognition of specific breeds

The Kennel Club was established in 1873, introducing its inaugural Stud Book the following year. Dogs of similar type were classified according to their working roles and appearance, and were registered by the Kennel Club as specific breeds. The recording of pedigrees began in earnest, and Breed Clubs were established which drew up Breed Standards as guidelines for breeders. Since then it has been the responsibility of breeders and exhibitors to maintain the purity of Kennel Club Registered breeds, whereas the International Sheepdog Society, established in 1906, strives to maintain the purity of both working collies and Border Collies.

It has only been possible to accurately trace a breed's ancestry in more recent times, that is, since the introduction of the Kennel Club Stud Book in 1874. Prior to this date information is somewhat sparse, reliance being placed primarily on information being handed down from generation to generation. The origins and precise ancestry of British herding breeds are therefore largely conjecture.

Origins of the Herding Breeds of British descent
(see 'family tree' above)

a) Britain

Shetland Sheepdogs were alternatively known as 'Peerie' or fairy dogs, or 'little bear' dogs. During the eighth and ninth centuries Vikings from Norway invaded Britain, the Shetland Isles, Iceland and Greenland in search of land and treasure. They were accompanied by horses, sheep, cows and spitz-like herding dogs, from which it is believed Greenland Yakki dogs, Icelandic dogs and Shetland Sheepdogs have evolved.

These small, spitz-like dogs, of Scandinavian origin, formed the mainstay of the Shetland Islands' working dogs as Shetlanders required a small agile and biddable dog to work with the indigenous breeds of small sheep, cows and ponies, in harsh conditions on a minimum of food. It is believed that when tourists discovered the Shetlands in the 1800's, at a time when demand was high for small, hairy lap dogs, the islanders interbred their little dogs with any small hairy dog such as Pomeranians, Scottish Terriers, Prince Charles Spaniels and corgis, with the
disastrous result that the working abilities of any progeny were disastrously reduced.

By the end of the nineteenth century the Island livestock farmers were therefore desperate to revive type and,as more sheep were imported from Scotland, they were often accompanied by working collies related to the ancestors of modern Rough Collies. The crossing of these collies with the islands' spitz-like dogs had the greatest influence on the Shetland Sheepdog's more recent development. As their popularity grew they were exhibited at agricultural shows, primarily on the islands, then in Scotland and eventually England. During their evolution as show dogs they were crossed with rough-coated show collies
(interestingly the second ever English Champion Shetland Sheepdog, Champion Woodvold, had a collie named 'Gesta' as his dam). In 1906 Shetland Collies made their debut at Crufts, and as Collie fanciers objected to them being referred to as 'collies', they were renamed Shetland Sheepdogs.

Border Collies
Prior to the establishment of the International Sheepdog Society (ISDS) in 1906, any black or brown dog with white feet and white tip to its tail was referred to as a sheepdog or collie. Shepherds and livestock owners of the 'border' counties, between Scotland and England, developed an ancient strain of versatile herding dog with a unique method of working. Border collie types worked silently and low to the ground, using the power of their eyes to control the sheep, and were generally known as 'eye' dogs. The border collie type has been kept pure for generations.

Iris Combe believes these dogs were descendants of the old forest dogs of mediaeval times. Much of Britain was then covered with crownlands or royal forests, interspersed with dense woodland, arable land and common grazing land. Scottish foresters used small, smooth-coated 'collies' to manage the deer and so they were trained to work silently much as the modern Border Collie.

Resulting from the experimental breeding of border collies portraying keen herding instinct and great power over sheep, with milder-natured dogs, Northumbrian farmer Adam Telfer produced 'Hemp' in 1893. Hemp was a fantastic trialling dog and his blood-lines are behind most of today's New Zealand Border Collies.

In 1976 the Kennel Club registered Border Collies as a pure breed and, whilst still registered as working collies (Border Collies) with the International Sheepdog Society, they entered the show ring.

Smithfield 'collies'
The 'smooth fields', an area of flat pastureland outside London, was the original site of the British fat-stock show and market, which was rebuilt in 1860 and renamed Smithfield. A band of drovers were specially licensed and employed by the markets to bring the cattle in and for this they required the assistance of large, strong dogs known locally as 'Smithfield collies'. Although fantastic droving dogs they were rather prone to biting and were somewhat noisy workers. They had square bodies and pendulous ears, and were generally white or black and white, with either smooth or long, shaggy coats. Their tails were customarily docked, giving them the nick-name of Bobtail or Black Bobtail (livestock owners docked their working dogs' tails so they could be exempt from the luxury pet tax levied in 1878). Although known primarily around London, Smithfields were also used in
Suffolk to drive the cattle from the railway yards to the slaughterhouses around Ipswich.

A Smithfield type

Australian settlers, in the late eighteenth century, required a strong dog with great stamina and the ability to bite, to control, muster and move the huge herds of wild cattle that grazed on vast, unfenced properties and open bushland. It was believed Smithfield dogs would prove suitable, but when some were imported from Britain in the early 1800's, they were found to be too vociferous, very awkward on the move and had difficulties coping with the Australian heat. These Smithfield types were crossed with other British and German imported working collies and the Koolie gradually evolved, which was better suited to its working environment.

Bearded Collies were originally referred to as beards, hairy hillmen, hairy moulds or mouleds, depending in which area of Britain they were found. It is believed that in 1514 a Polish ship's captain traded three Lowland Polish Sheepdogs for a pair of valuable Scottish sheep. These Polish dogs interbred with local collies to produce the Beardie type, which proved a most successful drovers' dog, used primarily to move Galway cattle and sheep down to the lush pastures of Norfolk and Suffolk where it is believed they interbred with the Smithfields.

The Bearded Collie is possibly one of the oldest strains of droving dogs in Britain, kept reasonably pure because of its specific working methods with cattle and sheep. Beardies work 'far and away', searching for lost sheep, and do not intimidate stock with their 'eye' like the Border Collie. Their size, colouration and 'voice' are their main advantages, the latter trait possibly inherited from their Smithfield ancestry.

Initially Bearded Collies were kept only by farmers and stockmen, but during the mid 1940's Mrs Willison (Bothkennars) began to breed them in England and entered the show ring during the 1950's.

Old English Sheepdogs were alternatively known as Bobtails, Sussex Sheepdogs, 'shags' or 'shaggys'.

                               'Sir Cavendish', an early OES by Arthur Wardle

It is believed this drovers' dog developed from early Beardie types and the Russian Owtchar, in the south of England, by farmers who required a large, durable and hardy dog for the rugged terrain. They did not require a fast, agile dog, like the border collie, but one which would drive sheep and cattle to market at a slower, steadier pace.Their tails were customarily docked, primarily for hygienic reasons but also to prevent the owner having to pay the 1878 luxury tax. Without a tail to act as a rudder the dog would also be less agile.

b) North America

Australian Shepherds are alternatively known as Australian bobs.
In 1620 the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, England, with 115 people on board who wished to cross the Atlantic and colonise America for both religious (the Pilgrim Fathers) and commercial reasons. These early settlers landed at Cape Cod, New England, colonising the area known as New Plymouth. They were accompanied by provisions and livestock, which included multipurpose 'collies'. Descendants of these British Collies gradually dispersed throughout the continent and during the Gold Rush of the 1840's, when there was huge demand for wool and mutton, large flocks of sheep were driven from the mid west to the Spanish
Missions in California and New Mexico.

Additional stocks of Merino sheep were imported from the Basque regions of Spain and Portugal, each influx accompanied by the local herding dogs. The Basque dogs were reputed to have docked tails and had an upright method of working and a 'looser' eye than their British counterparts. The interbreeding of the descendants of the British 'collies' and the Basque dogs eventually gave rise to the Australian Shepherd, so named because of its connection with the Australian sheep-hands who, as ex-convicts, had worked their passage to America to find new lives. The blue merle colouring of many Australian Shepherd dogs has obviously been inherited from its British 'collie' ancestors (sable puppies do occasionally occur but are strongly discriminated against).

Another strain of collie, evolved in America during the late 1800's/early 1900's, from a combination of Scottish Collies and Basque shepherding dogs. In 1868 Alexander McNab emigrated from Scotland to California taking a border collie with him (from the border counties between Scotland and the north of England). In 1885 McNab imported two more border collies, named 'Peter' and 'Fred', and when he bred these with selected bitches of Spanish origin, the strain of McNab shepherd dogs evolved. Periodically Alex McNab imported more border collies, selecting only those with smooth or short coats that were better suited to the dry harsh land of the Californian desert.

The McNab is generally black with white collie markings, a white muzzle and blaze, erect or semi-erect ears, and a non-bushy tail. Red puppies are occasionally born, presumably descended from two red Scottish collies, 'Ready' and 'Clyde', imported into America by McNab during the late nineteenth century.

c) Australia

Australian Koolies
Captain James Cook's First Fleet (1770) landed in Port Jackson (now Sydney), Australia with convicts and their guards, together with food and provisions for starting up their new lives in the colonies. Among the livestock transported on these ships were dogs (presumably herding dogs/'collie' types), 44 sheep, 4 mares, 2 stallions, 4 cows, 1 bull, 1 bull calf, and 19 goats.

The 'collie' dogs of these early pioneers were the ancestors of the Australian Koolie, the Kelpie and Australian Cattle Dog. The early pioneers required a big, strong dog for mustering and moving huge herds of cattle and so the Koolie evolved from the crossing of German and British 'collies' with British Smithfields. The resultant offspring produced dogs with shorter legs capable of working on the cattle and sheep trucks and were referred to as either Australian Koolies or German Koolies (often spelt Coulie or Coolie which could have arisen from the derogatory term 'coolie', used to refer to immigrant workers in Australia, or to the accent that the Germans placed on the word 'Collie'). German immigrants favoured the south of the continent and in that area these working collies were referred to as German Koolies.

Koolies, like their Smithfield descendants, did not adapt well to the intense heat of the Australian outback as they were too large and cumbersome, and their vociferous nature was not conducive to their work.

A recent revival of interest in the Koolie led to the formation of the first Australian Breed Club in the year 2000. The committee agreed to delete the 'German' reference so the breed is now registered simply as the Koolie or Australian Koolie.

According to Iris Combe's research the small, prick-eared, smooth-coated, black and tan Kelpie (Kelpie is the gaelic word meaning 'water nymph' or 'water sprite'), or Kyle collie, had its origins on the numerous Scottish islands that comprise the Orkneys and Hebrides where they were known locally as sea dogs. They were used
to herd cattle over the kyles (crossing points), between the mainland and the islands at low tide, and to guard the special breed of sheep that fed on the kelp brought in by the tides.

In 1870 George Robinson imported a Scottish Kelpie dog and bitch to Australia and a bitch puppy of theirs was subsequently sold to a Mr Gleeson who named her 'Kelpie'. She subsequently produced puppies to 'Moss', an all-black dog descended from the Scottish Rutherford strain of smooth-coated collies, and their puppies were fondly referred to as 'Kelpie's pups'. The name stuck! These dogs bred true to type, and made superb cattle dogs. Despite having very strong British ancestry the Kelpie is now accepted as one of Australian manufacture. However there is no disputing that they share their ancestry with border-type collies, the McNabs and others.

Australian Cattle Dogs
are alternatively known as Blue Heelers, Red Heelers or Queensland Heelers.Although the Australian Cattle dog has reputedly evolved from crossing the progeny of imported Scottish smooth-coated blue merle collies and the Kelpie, numerous experiments appear to have taken place during the early pioneer days to produce a small, stocky dog with plenty of stamina, able to withstand the soaring temperatures of the Australian outback.

A few old cattlemen held the theory that corgis were included in their ancestry, because of their similar working methods, but this has been hotly disputed. British Smithfields, taken out by the early settlers, were excellent herders and drovers but their heavy coats and bulk meant they lacked stamina and the ability to cope with the excessive temperatures of the Australian outback.

Numerous breeding experiments appear to have taken place in an attempt to find a suitable cattle dog. A Mr Timmins crossed a Smithfield with a Dingo, resulting in red bob-tailed dogs which he called Timmins Biters. They worked silently but, as their name implied, their biting trait was unacceptable and many calves were killed.

In 1840 a Thomas Hall, of New South Wales, imported two smooth-coated blue merle Scottish collies, and it is believed he experimented by crossing their progeny with a Dingo, producing Hall's Heelers. These Heelers were either red or blue speckled and looked like thick-set dingoes. They worked by creeping up silently on the livestock, nipping them and then flattening to the ground to avoid the kick of an angry cow.

It appears that some Halls' Heelers were crossed with both Bull Terriers and Dalmations, but the results were unsuccessful as the progeny had diminished working abilities.

Thomas Hall later successfully crossed his Heelers with Kelpies and this combination was to finally set the breed type.


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