The Queen and the Collie

The old wisdom on the rise of the show Collie is that Queen Victoria met them on a trip to Scotland in the 1860s, became infatuated, acquired them, sponsored them in shows, bred them, and her abundant trend-setting prowess lead to their bountiful rise to prominence in the show world and as pets.

This wisdom is false.

Queen Victoria was born in May of 1819. Are we really to assume that the richest, most traveled, most cultured woman of her era didn’t come across the most ubiquitous dog on her little island until she was in her 40s? Rubbish!

Victoria first visited Scotland in 1842, a full twenty years before the creation myth would have us believe.  Without a doubt, the Queen most certainly knew of the working collie by 1847 when she toured the Scottish hill country for over four weeks, becoming enamored with the rugged beauty and pastoral quaintness.

The next year she bought Balmoral Castle in Scotland and began writing about her many sojourns there in a diary called “Journal of Our Life in the Highlands.”

Unlike the seclusion and aloofness that would mark her later life, during the late 40s and 50s the Queen particularly relished in her incognito visits to the modest and poor villagers who neighbored her estate.

It is pretty inconceivable that her intimate visits with Scottish working men and women would have excluded Scottish working dogs.

I propose that the Collie history was revised to emphasize the 1860s because that date would suggest a more intimate connection between the Queen, the dogs, and the burgeoning show culture.

The 1860s marked a major decline in the Queen’s popularity and cultural influence on the British people. Both her mother and her husband died in 1861 and Victoria entered a period of seclusion and mourning. She wore black every day until her death, avoided public appearances, and sequestered herself away from London in her royal residences in Balmoral Castle Scotland, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, and Windsor Castle in Berkshire County.
This seclusion diminished the public popularity of the monarchy and fueled the republican movement. Victoria’s rare appearances at London’s Buckingham Palace earned her the sobriquet, “The Widow of Windsor” which emphasizes both her perpetual mourning and absentee status.
The Queen was in no position to spark a fad, let alone a surge in popularity among the Fancy socialites in London, when she was neither social nor in London. Nor was there much of a Fancy to be persuaded. Dog shows were in their infancy and had yet to crown themselves the-all-and-end-all of the dog world.
The alternate notion that the Queen would have had any effect over the use of the dogs in the country is also rather laughable as no other breed has had a serious claim on being more widely or effectively used as the collie, before or after the Queen.

Given the above observations, it’s no surprise that not only did the Queen not ignite a collie fire, no “marked surge” in the breed’s popularity even happened.

Despite the popularity of all things Scottish, and Queen Victoria’s attraction to the Collie, Sheep-Dog entries, which included Rough, Smooth, and Shaggy Collies as well as Old English Sheepdogs, were not numerous.
The first decade of formal canine exhibitions producing only 26 known opportunities to promote the breed, although there may well have been occasions where records failed to survive the passage of time. 1861 saw just three shows, at Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester, scheduling suitable classes. The situation remaining unchanged at the end of the decade, with Sheep-Dog classes confined to Crystal Palace, the first show to schedule separate classes for Rough and Smooth Coated Sheepdogs, Birmingham and Manchester in 1870.
With infectious disease rife amongst the canine population, and a readily available pool of suitable stock for very small monetary outlay via the many country markets, breeders, as we understand the phrase, did not exist in the collie world.
Few exhibitors survived beyond a show season, only Mr J. W. Palethorpe, of whom we know nothing, proved a consistent winner throughout the early development of the Show Collie, but either his interest did not continue into the 1870s, or his stock did not improve sufficiently to compete in a more competitive age, and only two exhibitor’s, from this era, can interest the modern fancier.
– Collies Through the Ages 1861-1870

Neither of those exhibitors were the Queen or her representatives.

Of greatest interest is Mr White’s appearance at Islington in June 1869, when his un-named collie took third place under Messrs Walker and Sykes. The only collie known to have been owned by this gentleman is the world renowned Cockie, whom he was exhibiting at Birmingham’s National the following year. The second name of significance is Mr Panmure Gordon, one of the Scottish Kennel Club’s founding members and its first president, who exhibited his Hamish, at Crystal Palace’s ‘First Grand Exhibition’, June 1870, to take second prize in the Rough-coated Sheep Dog class. Could this collie be behind the strangely named bitch, Hamish III, who, as foundation bitch of the prolific family d, influenced the breed for more than forty years?

– Collies Through the Ages 1861-1870

Despite having ample evidence of the Scottish Kennel Club’s first president and the founder of the English Kennel Club showing their own Collies, the history and the stud books have no mention of the Queen’s dogs, their breeding, showing, winning, or influence on the breed.

The “rise” in popularity of show bred Collies in the 1870s traced the rise in popularity of dog shows themselves. It was not as if there was an established Dog Fancy community that did not include the Collie and suddenly the breed shot to prominence on the example of Queen Victoria’s patronage.

By the beginning of the 1870s Dog Shows were proliferating throughout the British Isles, but with no controlling body, and rules, such as they were, set by each show promoting association, the fancy would have descended into notoriety, had it not been for the foresight of one man.

The Victorian era produced many visionary men and women who became legendary leaders within their chosen field, Mr Sewallis Evelyn Shirley MP, of Ettington Park, Warwickshire and Lough Fea, Ireland, was just such a force in the canine world. His influence instrumental in the establishment of ‘The Kennel Club’ in 1873 which created a respectability for the fancy far beyond the expectations of its twelve founding members who envisaged nothing more than a show promoting society.

The Kennel Club’s founder, Mr. Shirley, was also active in Rough Collies, his Trefoil, whose short but successful show career lasted no longer than a single show season, is arguably the first collie to own a recognizable pedigree, which undoubtedly explains why he dominated future breeding programs. Today every Collie, whether Rough or Smooth, can trace its ancestry back to Trefoil, in tail male line, through the next link in the chain.

– Collies Through the Ages, 1871-1880

Founding members of both the English and Scottish Kennel Clubs bred Collies and a few select kennels (none of them Royal) dominated the early days of dog shows–not to imply that there was great competition, domination was more a matter of being there. This patronage of the breed at the highest levels of the two major kennel clubs is clearly sufficient to maintain and propel the Collie’s participation in early dog shows.

There is no indication that either Mr. Gordon or Mr. Shirley had any association with her Majesty Queen Victoria, her dogs, or her kennels.

The bold claims made in the Collie’s breed history seem to be quite unfounded indeed.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.