Posts Tagged ‘Skye terrier’

Skye terrier

I am not fan of journalism by press release.

It’s not really “journalism” anyway. It is simply media relations, and media relations might as well be called spin. Spin is not really about the truth. It’s about advocacy, and it’s often about deception.

There is so much of this in the world of journalism about dogs that it is very hard to tell if something is true or not.

And if you want to see a very good example of it, take this puff piece that appeared on the BBC’s website last May. It is called “Why is the Skye terrier is an endangered breed?”

It discusses how popular Skye terriers were for a time. For a period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, It was a breed that was quite fashionable to have, especially in the burgher classes in Scotland.  Indeed, I’ve written about how the Marjoribanks family, who started the strain of yellow wavy-coated retrievers that are the basis for the golden retriever, were actually better known for the Skye terriers than their retrievers.

But now their retriever has taken the world by storm, and their terrier is a breed on the verge of extinction.

The BBC piece could have done some really good homework on this breed. The question of why breeds become popular and then become extinct is a very fascinating question to me.

Instead, the reporter who wrote the piece decided to do the laziest thing possible:  Go to the Kennel Club and get their media relations expert to spin a tale for the presses. It goes like this:

Caroline Kisko, secretary of the Kennel Club, says Skye terriers are good house dogs with a very loyal and friendly character.

She says: “They are very glamorous. Their coats are very attractive. They are a very friendly, nice dog to have around and they are certainly very weather-proof.

“If you are out and about they will not get cold.”

So why has the breed fallen out of favour?

Ms Kisko says: “Much of this is about the profile of the dog, whether or not people are aware that the breeds exist.

“Some of the problems we have with the vulnerable breeds is that people have simply forgotten that they are there.”

Well, that actually didn’t answer the question at all. People just don’t know about them.

Except that they do.

I grew up on the story of Greyfriars Bobby. Disney made a movie about this dog, a Skye terrier that stayed at his master’s grave for fourteen years.

Too bad the entire story was a hoax. The truth is it was an elaborate hoax to promote tourism and business in that part of Edinburgh.

People know about this breed. They just don’t want them.

Now, I thought we could delve into why this breed’s popularity collapsed, but the Kennel Club representative decided to use this opportunity as a chance to smear Labradoodles, a dog that has nothing to do with Skye terriers at all. Although in fairness, it is a representative with the parent club of the Skye terrier in the UK who starts down this bizarre comparison.

Designers breeds such as the labradoodle – a crossbred created by crossing the Labrador Retriever and the Poodle – have become very fashionable.

Mrs [Gail] Marshall [of the Skye Terriers Club] says this is another reason why traditional breeds such as the Skye terrier are being marginalised.

Ms Kisko, whose organisation does not register cross-breeds, says: “The designer crosses such as the labradoodle and the cockapoo (a Cocker Spaniel and a miniature poodle) are proving to be very popular these days and that is all on the pretext that they will be automatically healthier than the breeds they come from, which is patently untrue.”

She says people should do more research before buying a dog, checking out some of the British native breeds which have been popular pets for centuries.

I was not expecting this to be the reason why Skye terriers are becoming rare!

First of all, the purebred Labrador retriever is by far the most popular native British dog breed. It was actually developed in its present form from the St. John’s water dog of Newfoundland on a few select estates in England and Scotland. It is an easily trained dog, noted for its versatility in helping guide the blind, assist the handicaped, and sniff out bombs and contraband. It is also docile as can be.

Skye terriers, by contrast, have very hard to care for coats. They known for being difficult to train, and they do not have a reputation for being good family dogs.

The Labrador requires more exercise than the Skye, but if you’re in a world in which dogs with Labrador-type temperaments are more practical and desired, why would you expect Skye terriers to be able to compete?

Futher, the big reason people get Labradoodles is because they want the Labrador temperament, but they don’t want the Labrador hairs all over their houses. So they get Labrador/Standard poodle crosses, which are lower shedding than pure Labradors.

Now, there are a lot of claims about Labradoodles that are not true:

They are not hypoallergenic because people are allergic to dog dander, not dog hair.  Also they do get the health problems associated with both Standard poodles and Labradors, but because the cross has been around for only a short time there have been no good studies to see if there is a heterosis effect (though there probably is).

And Labradoodles are mass-produced, often in deplorable conditions. After all, there is a big market for a Labrador that doesn’t shed as much and looks like a bigger version of Benji.

And that’s precisely what doesn’t exist for the Skye terrier.

Further, the terrier and retriever markets are entirely different demographics, so this claim that people wanting Labradoodles is the reason why no one wants a Skye terrier might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever read on the BBC’s website.

I’m stunned that the answer to the question about why the Skye terrier is going extinct gets reduced to something so completely impossible.

This is actually a question for which I don’t have an answer.

I know that Skye terriers have not been used as actual earth dogs in many, many years, but that alone wouldn’t ruin their value as pets. Yorkshire terriers, which are also silky-coated terriers of Scottish ancestry and are almost never used as anything but pets, are quite popular little dogs.

Why would people be so Yorkie-crazed but so dismissive of the Skye?

There must be a good reason, and the answer absolutely is not that people want Labradoodles.

All that was done in this piece was to deflect what is a very good question into a hatchet piece on intentionally-bred crossbreeds.

Not all is perfect in the world of the doodles, but just because they are intentionally-bred mixes does not make them illegitimate. If done right, doodling is an entirely harmless activity, and if really done right, it could be a source for increasing genetic diversity in established retriever and poodle strains.

It just makes them a convenient scapegoat.

The Kennel Club has no answer for why the Skye terrier is in such dire straights.

I think the real reason it has no answer is the real answer is that this dog is a fanciers’ dog. It became a plaything of the dog pageant set. The dog pageant and freak show people are at the heart of the Kennel Club’s mission. It is their base in the same way the religious right is the base of the Republican Party. In politics, one does not go out of the way to insult one’s base. (Only Bill Clinton could ever get away with it!)

When a dog breed becomes something that can only be admired by a very narrow set of fanciers, then it is on its way to becoming rare already.

I also think there is a distinct possibility that the fanciers of this breed intentionally bred “one mannishness” into this dog after buying wholeheartedly into the Greyfriars Bobby hoax. If you breed a dog that naturally tends to bond with only a few people and then is reactive toward strangers, you might be asking for its popularity to drop rather quickly.

So if you breed a dog with a coat that is hard to groom and temperament that requires lots of work and socialization to make the dog docile and tractable, why would you be surprised that very few people want them?

You cannot blame the public for wanting Labradoodles.

The real blame is on dog fanciers who allowed a romantic story– one with huge gaping holes in it– to cloud their judgment on how to breed a dog for the twentieth century.

And because they allowed that story cloud their judgment, the breed won’t likely see the end of the twenty-first.

That’s definitely not the Labradoodle’s fault.






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But it wasn’t a bad Disney movie.

Yep.  For me, this is up there with finding out the truth about Santa Claus, but the story of Greyfriars Bobby was publicity stunt to promote tourism in Edinburgh.

Reuters reports:

The most faithful dog in the world, which kept a 14-year vigil at his master’s grave in Edinburgh, Scotland, was nothing but a Victorian business stunt, according to historian Jan Bondeson.

The 140-year-old story of Greyfriars Bobby continues to draw tourists to the graveyard that was once inhabited by the Skye Terrier commemorated by a bronze fountain erected in his memory in the cemetery and immortalised on the silver screen by Walt Disney in a 1961 film.

But Bondeson, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, claims that Bobby was far from the dependable dog portrayed in the tale of undying Scottish devotion.

He says the story was a fabrication, created by cemetery curator, James Brown, and restaurant owner, John Traill, to drum up custom for local businesses — and that Bobby was a stray mutt, bribed with food to stay in the graveyard.

“The entire story is wrong –the account of the dog on the drinking fountain who supposedly kept vigil at his master’s grave in all kinds of weather is not accurate. Bobby would go out hunting rats in the church and was kept well fed by the locals. He was not a mourning dog at all — he was a happy little dog,” Bondeson told Reuters.

The trusty terrier – as the story goes- kept watch over the grave of his beloved master, Edinburgh policeman John Gray, from his death in 1858 until the animal died in 1872.

However, after studying drawings and contemporary accounts of Bobby while researching his book, “Amazing Dogs,” Bondeson also realised that he was looking at two different pooches.

“I noticed that the two dogs looked quite different. The first Bobby was quite an ugly dog but in later paintings he looks just like the statue on the drinking fountain,” Bondeson said.

The first Bobby, an old mongrel, died in 1867, leaving Brown and Traill with a problem on their hands, Bondeson said.

“A dead Bobby was no good for business, so they replaced him with a pure-bred Skye terrier who lived for a further five years until 1872 — after which it time did not take long for the fountain to be erected,” said Bondeson.

It’s an amazing hoax.

Oh well.

There’s always Hachiko.



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More “Skye terriers”

I found some images of some “Skye terriers” from the later part of the nineteenth century.

Here is J. Gordon Murray’s Otter– named after its main quarry. It appears in Hugh Dalziel’s British Dogs, which came out in the late 1870’s.

This dog looks very little like the Skye terrier we know today! This animal could pass for a Scottish terrier with a strange tail or a very unusual Cairn terrier. It appears to wire-coated.

Another Skye terrier from the 1870’s was Flora. This particular image comes from 1872. She was owned by a Mr. Shaw, and she was described as a good example of a working Skye terrier in Robert Leighton’s The New Book of the Dog (1907).

This dog may be a soft-coated working Skye, and she had drop ears.

Such dogs were very different from the pet class and show-type dogs that were more common in the institutionalized fancy.

See related post:

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This image comes from the Isle of Skye and dates to about 1900.

The dogs on the right are Patterdale/Fell types, but the ones on the left are far more interesting.

On the Isle of Skye,  two terrier breeds were developed– probably from the same landrace.

One of these is called the Skye terrier today, and it’s quite rare. It has a soft coat, and the dog on the far left appears to have something like this coat, although it could be an unstripped wire-coated dog. But wire-coats were never that extreme in actual working terriers, so I think it is that of a soft-coated terrier on Skye.

The other terrier that was endemic to Skye was called the “Short-haired Skye terrier,” but we now call it the Cairn terrier. It was very similar to what was called the Highland terrier, which is why Cairns and Westies are so similar. (I’ve always thought Westies and Cairns were more similar than Westies and Scotties.)

These working Skye terriers have a mixture of features we’d associate with both Cairns and Skyes. One dog, as I mentioned, appears to have a soft coat, but two of the wire-coated dogs appear to have drop ears and are larger in size– features that have historically been associated with Skye terriers. (There still are drop-eared Skyes, but they are quite rare.  It is a bad situation to be rare in a very rare breed!)

The soft-coated Skye became a popular pet among the nobility relatively early on. Many nobles from the Scottish lowlands and town kept them as pets, as Caius wrote that the Scottish nobles took these dogs from “barbarous borders from the uttermost countryes northward” as lap dogs.

So it is very likely that there were actually two types of Skye terrier:   the landrace that gave us modern Skye and cairn terriers and the pet Skye terrier that always had a soft-coat. The people around the Clyde Valley in Scotland also developed a version of the Skye that was a bit smaller, which is sometimes referred to as a Clydesdale or Paisley terrier. That breed is the ancestor of the Yorkshire terrier and its kin.

Rawdon Lee notes that there was some  intense debate as to which coat was correct in Skye terrier. One school believed that the soft-coated dogs were Paisleys and the wire-coated dogs were the “true Skyes.”

I think the dog on the far left is a working soft-coated Skye terrier. They may have never been popular on the island as actual working dog. It is likely that the actual terriermen of Skye, who used their larger terriers on otters, wanted to get rid of these soft-coated dogs and readily sold them to those people with money on the Scottish mainland. Over time, these soft-coated dogs disappeared from the island almost entirely, but when it came to set a “Skye terrier” standard, the vast majority of these dogs were hard-coated– and many had more of what we’d consider cairn terrier features.

And that is a good way to get a hell of a fight going about what the “true Skye terrier” was.

It is likely a very similar situation to the commonly held assumption that all St. John’s water dogs were smooth-coated, when the simple laws of population genetics and the images of English retrievers derived from the water dog clearly suggest that at least some of the dogs imported to England were feathered. (And we have good historical evidence that the Newfoundlanders exported them to England in the nineteenth century. The smooth-coated dogs were more useful in their native land. The golden retriever and the flat-coat are derived from these long-haired dogs).

But because there is always an assumption that remote islands tend to have very little evolution in type and that they likely retain anachronistic forms, it is often assumed that dogs or other domestic animals from those islands are exactly the same as they were hundreds of years before.

It may be true. It may not.

The view that the wire-haired Skye terrier was the only true terrier native to Skye is likely based upon this assumption.

And it’s quite faulty.

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Jack Russell working as a retriever:


“Get dat duck, boy!”


One of the most interesting asides to retriever history is the use of terrier crosses to use for retrievers.

Stonehenge (John Henry Walsh) writes about terrier crosses doing quite well as retrievers in The Dogs of Great Britain, America, and Other Countries (originally published in the 1880s):

The Terrier cross [that is used as a retriever] is either with the beagle or the pointer, the former being that which I have chiefly used with advantage, and the latter being recommended by Mr. Colquhoun in his “Lochs and Moors.” He gives a portrait of one used by himself, which he says was excellent in all respects; and, from so good a sportsman, the recommendation is deserving of all credit. This dog was about 22 inches high, with a little of the rough coat of the Scotch terrier, combined with the head and general shape of the pointer. The sort I have used is, I believe, descended from the smooth white English terrier and the true old beagle; the nose and style of hunting proclaiming the hound descent, and the voice and appearance showing the preponderance of the terrier cross. These dogs are small, scarcely ever exceeding 10 lbs. in weight, and with difficulty lifting a hare, so that they are not qualified to retrieve “fur” any great distance. They must, therefore, be followed when either a hare or pheasant is sought to be recovered.

They are mute in “questing,” and very quiet in their movements, readily keeping at heel, and backing the pointers steadily while they are “down charge,” for as long a time as may be required; and when they go to their game they make no noise, as is too often done by the regular retriever. They do not carry so well as the larger dog, but in all other respects they are his equal, or perhaps superior. Owing to their small size they are ad* missible to the house, and being constant companions are more easily kept under command; besides which, they live on the scraps of the house, while the large retriever must be kept tied up at the keeper’s, and costs a considerable sum to pay for his food (pg.167-68).

Hugh Dalziel’s British Dogs (also dates to the 1880’s) includes a description of Scottish and Skye terriers been used as retrievers:

Many gentlemen in the north of Scotland kept a pack of terriers for otter hunting, and some do so still; and many at the present day use them for rabbit hunting, at which sport no dog can equal them, as they never get too excited, and are always ready to obey the commands of their master. In close creeping ‘whins’ or ‘ furze’ they will go through the rabbit runs like ferrets, and Mr. Bunny is either obliged to bolt or be killed. They are capable of being trained to retrieve, and it is a very pretty thing to see one of these little dogs carrying a partridge, woodcock, or snipe. They will take to the water like an otter, and give excellent sport when flapper shooting. In fact, in my day I have seen a great many, and used a few of the so-called retrievers; but give me a well-broken Highland terrier [one of the ancestors of the Scottish terrier] in preference to any retriever I know, and if there is game to be had I should have little fear in losing a wounded bird or quadruped if it kept above ground.

Rawdon Lee describes using  terriers and terrier crosses as retrievers in his A History and Description of Modern Dogs (Sporting Division) (1894), which describes a different terrier cross the Colquhoun text:

John Colquhoun, in his ” Moor and the Loch,” descants in praiseworthy terms of his wildfowl retriever, that was a cross between a water spaniel and a terrier. In appearance not unlike a modern Airedale terrier, it was, doubtless, one of the most useful dogs ever bred, and in a boat would do better than a larger and curlier animal, as he would bring less water in with him when retrieving his master’s ducks. Such dogs are, however, liable to be hardmouthed; still, I have myself owned terriers, and have one now—an Irishman—that will carry an egg in a cup without breaking either, or a piece of tissue paper without soiling it in the least. But such dogs as these have taken naturally to their work, and no amount of training would persuade or teach them to do what they like to perform of their own accord (pg. 213).

In the Lee also describes a bull terrier named Sam in A History and Description of Modern Dogs of Great Britain and Ireland (The Terriers) (1897):

The puppy was christened “Sam,” for a long time he was my constant companion, and became an adept at hunting rats by the riverside, a capital rabbiter, and as good a retriever as most dogs. He would perform sundry tricks, find money hidden away, and could be sent back a mile for anything—a glove, a stick—that had been left behind (27).

Of course, there are many mentions of Airedale terriers as retrievers that are too numerous to mention. Airedales have a sort of multipurpose hunting dog quality to them that they have been use to hunt everything from quail to grizzly bears. The aforementioned Irish terrier, the Kerry blue,and the soft-coated wheaten terrier all have been used as retrievers. Kerry blues and the soft-coated wheaten terriers have some relationship to the poodle-type water dogs, either from the indigenous poodle-type of the British Isles or from Iberian water dogs that were left behind by the Spanish Armada  as it escaped off the coast of Ireland following its defeat by Queen Elizabeth I’s navy (a good story but one that is very difficult to prove.)

I know of at least one modern terrier, a Jack Russell, that lives to play fetch. He could have been trained to be a retriever, for he has much more instinct than my non-retrieving golden. He has a toy pheasant that he loves to carry, and because he is so easily trained, it wouldn’t take much for him to learn how to retrieve birds.

As some of these texts point out, using a smaller dogs as a retriever has advantages. However, only one modern retriever breed is of medium size. All the rest are large dogs that typically weigh in excess of 55 pounds. One wonders why these terrier-retrievers never made such a splash.

Perhaps it was the fact that wavy and flat-coated retrievers were so promoted by the doyens of the British dog fancy, most notably S.E. Shirley, the first president of the Kennel Club.

Perhaps it just became fashionable to have stylish, uniform brace or two of wavy or flat-coated retrievers working an estate shoot, and no one wanted to use some terrier or terrier mongrel for the task. It was probably fashion, rather than necessity, that stopped the terrier retriever.

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Ishbel Maria Hamilton-Gordon, Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair, was the daughter of the 1st Baron Tweedmouth. Besides their yellow retrievers, this family was also associated with Skye terriers.

Regular readers will know that I often reference the 1st Baron Tweedmouth, Dudley Marjoribanks, and his family. Because of the nature of this blog, I tend to focus on their retrievers. However, the family is also known for their patronage of another breed. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this family was known more for its Skye terriers than its retrievers.

Now, I have mentioned that it was the daughter of the 1st Baron Tweedmouth who introduced the golden retriever to North America. Ishbel Marjoribanks married John Hamilton-Gordon, the Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair. He would eventually become Governor-General of Canada from 1893 to 1898, and he and his wife purchased an estate in the Okanagan Valley. This estate was called Guisachan after her father’s estate in the Highlands near the small village of Tomich.

Now, I’ve mentioned all of this before on the blog, but it has always been within the context of retrievers.  However,  if Ishbel’s name had been mentioned in 1900, most of the intelligentsia would say something about her push for various reforms in Canada and probably would say something about her Skye terriers.

In Charles Henry Lane’s Dog Shows and Doggy People (1902), the section on “The Countess of  Aberdeen” discusses her patronage  of Skye terriers and also mentions how much her father loved the breed:

There is no need to tell any of my readers who have seen this lady at a show with her pets that she is a lover of animals, and I am very pleased that her chosen favourites are Drop-eared Skyes, as they will be all the better for her ladyship’s patronage and influence, and are not so much kept as they deserve.

I believe Lady Aberdeen’s love for Skyes, which was inherited from her father, Lord Tweedmouth, dates from the time of her childhood; but it is only during the last few years that any of them have been exhibited.

The accompanying portrait of the Countess in company with a number of her pets will give a better idea of what a typical lot they are than any words of mine. Some of their names are: Monarch of Haddo, Feuriach (meaning Little Squirrel), Coulaig (Little Darling), Chluarain (Thistle), Bheown (Mountain), Darkie, Fraoch (Heather), and Angus Grey, evidently for the most part names of Gaelic origin well suited to the holders of them.

The Countess is well known as a lady of culture and ability, which she has shown in the valuable help she has given her distinguished husband in carrying out the receptions and social functions connected with the high Colonial appointments he has held, and has accompanied him also in some of his sporting expeditions.

The Ladies’ Kennel Association has the advantage of Lady Aberdeen’s active patronage and support as one of their Grand Council, and she is also one of the Committee of the Ladies’ County House Club, and a representative of the National Poultry Organisation Society.

Matters intended to benefit women in all ranks of life find in the Countess no lukewarm advocate – one who can both act and speak in their favour, frequently presiding over meetings held for such purposes, both in England and Scotland, and occasionally, as at the last show in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Regent’s Park, distributing the prizes to the successful exhibitors of the Ladies’ Kennel Association.

As I have mentioned here before, drop-eared Skye terriers are very rare today. However, the Marjoribanks family had at least one of these dogs when the first litter of yellow retrievers was born at Guisachan. Here is a depiction of Mary Marjoribanks (Ishbel’s sister) with one dogs from that first litter. The dog is either Cowslip or Primrose:

The terrier on the left is a drop-eared Skye terrier. The dogs were common pets for Scottish aristocrats, and the are actually quite closely related to the Cairn terrier, which was once considered a variety of Skye.

Skye terriers are from the Hebrides, and although they were used as working terriers to bolt otters and badgers from their holts and settes, the dogs were not often worked in the nineteenth century.

This evolution from working terrier began centuries earlier. In the sixteenth century, John Caius sent a description of all sorts of British dogs to the Swiss naturalist Konrad Gessner. In his analysis, Caius described dogs very similar to the Skye-type terrier:

[L]ap dogs which were brought out of the barbarous borders from the uttermost countryes northward [such as Skye in the Inner Hebrides], and they by reason of the length of their heare, make show neither face nor body, and yet these curres forsooth because they are so strange, are greatly set by, esteemed, taken up, and made of, in room of the spaniell gentle, or comforter [the ancestral toy spaniel].

By the 1860’s, it was obvious that Skye terriers were meant to be pets. Many of these Scottish landowners were newcomers to the Highlands. The Marjoribankses  certainly were. Dudley had made his fortune as chairman of the Meux Brewery, and although a native of Scotland, he was not a Highlander. His roots were in the Borders near Berwick. The Skye terriers were thought as part and parcel of life in the Scottish Highlands. Sir Walter Scott had romanticized Scotland’s history, and many wealthy people in Britain were searching for Scottish land to call their own. Scott also kept Skye terriers (or dogs very similar to them).

It would have made sense that a family like the Marjoribankses who had come to the Highlands in search of that Scotland immortalized in Scott’s prose. In that part of Scotland, no country noble could be without a pack of Skye terriers.

Within this narrative there lies a certain irony. You’ll notice that Lane extols the virtues of the Skye terrier and laments that they are not “so much kept as they deserve.” The breed was beginning to fall from grace by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Today’s Skye terrier is a very rare breed. The KC has listed them as a Vulnerable Native Breed. In fact, on that list, the Skye is the most endangered breed, and it is estimated that this breed could become extinct within the next 40 years.

However, in 1900, no one was talking about the Marjoribankses’ other dog. If you mentioned a yellow retriever, someone would say that they exist, but they are inferior to black ones. Today, if you mention a golden retriever, I believe most people would know exactly what you’re talking about. If anyone knows anything about the Marjoribanks family, it is about their golden retrievers and their commitment to the old Liberal Party.

It is very unusual to find a family that has become associated with two different breeds of dog. It is even more unusual to see how the fortunes of these two breeds have played out in history.

Maybe in 100 years, the golden retriever will be in the same place that the Skye terrier is today.  The golden retriever is being considered to be little more than a family pet.  It won’t take centuries for the golden retriever to become nothing more than a romantic image. The Skye terrier didn’t have competitors that could easily replace them in the popular imagination of Scottish nobles. The golden can be replaced, and that is something that all people who appreciate the breed should consider.

If the Skye terrier teaches us anything, it is that breeds must be prevented from going sideways when their numbers are high enough to actually engage in real selective breeding. Once those numbers start to plummet, it is very hard to bring them back around. The time for reform is now.

If the Skye terrier fanciers had made some changes when their dogs were at the peak of their popularity, it is very likely that this breed wouldn’t be staring at a possible extinction in the very near future.

But it seems that very few dog people really look at these things until it is too late.

And that is the real shame.

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