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The Graham Nicholson Page

On The Working Beardie

Through the Internet,
we meet some of the most interesting people.
One of them is Graham Nicholson.

Graham has a natural love of dogs that has led him on a search
that has taken him out to the Highlands of Scotland and the Isle of Skye,
on a journey to find.... THE WORKING BEARDIE



Part One: The legend
Part Two: The Working Beardie It's Origin and Development


The Legend

Legend has it that shortly after the Hanseatic League was formed a Polish ship out of GDANSK arrived in Scotland to trade for Black-faced sheep, the wool of which was prized by cloak makers. The captain of the trading ship, one KASIMEREZ, noticed that local shepherds found some difficulty in driving the half-wild sheep up the swaying gangplank leading to the ship.

Kasimerez promptly produced a pair of long coated mean natured collies, which set about the sheep with a vengeance driving them into the holds of the ship. The local shepherds were very impressed by the dogs and traded a pair of fine horned rams for the collies. These supposedly were the ancestors of the Bearded Collies of today.The tale is clearly apocryphal, but there is certainly the strongest of resemblance between the working Bearded Collies and the Polish lowland sheepdog.

A more likely explanation for the breed type is that during the second century before Christ, political movements in the centre of Europe started the migration of the Celts who took with them a variety of dogs, varying from giant hounds to rough coated collies. Virtually everywhere the Celts settled has produced herding dogs similar in type to the Working Bearded Collies of Britain. Central France produced the Chien De Berger, the Meseta of Spain the sandy and blue fawn unregistered herding dogs. Even the Atlas mountains of North Africa the boundary of the Celtic migration, according to QUINTUS ARRUS SYMARCHUS- produces pale grey herding dogs not to dissimilar to the Polish Lowland sheepdogs of today.

At the start of the Industrial Revolution, a period which saw the migration of country craftsmen and labourers to the fast growing towns of Britain, the majority of the droving dogs which drove mixed flocks of livestock were Bearded Collie types. The so called Smithfield Collies, the fabled companions of the drovers, were types of Bearded Collie. These dogs were taller animals than seen today and fiercely hostile to strangers. So protective were these giant collies that drovers sewed money into their jackets and used the garments as night beds for the collies, for few of these collies would allow a stranger to approach them.

These collies drove mixed flocks to market. Sheep and long-horned cattle mingled with turkeys whose feet were clad in a curious leather turkey boots which buffered their feet from the vigours of the cobbled roads. Geese were perhaps less fortunate. These wretched birds always the worst treated of farmyard animals and birds had their feet dipped in hot tar and dusted with sharp sand to protect them from damage during the drive. However, the lot of these wretched animals did not improve when they arrived in the towns.

In the nineteenth century various types of Bearded Collie existed in Britain. East Anglia and Kent produced a fox-red type of herding dog, while Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire used a very hairy coated dog, known as the Blue Shaggy Sheepdog. These Beardies were often taken to New Zealand by shepherds and became the ancestors of the New Zealand Smithfield Collie, while Scotland continued to produce a variety of Bearded Collie types, ranging from full leggy Beardies which almost certainly had deerhound blood, to the smaller almost corgi sized Beardies which were used in the cattle markets of Edinburgh.

The ever faithful Greyfriar’s Bobbie which is always predicted as a type of Skye terrier, was undoubtedly a small Bearded Collie which helped its owner in the cattle stalls of the city.

The onset of the twentieth century saw not only the decline of the Bearded Collie, but also the extinction of many of the localised breeds of collie. The border collie which replaced many other breeds of herding dogs, started work sooner, were compulsive herders and had easily –managed coats. Beardies were slower starters, showed less eye or “Style” and had coats which balled up in winter, becoming a tangle of straw, mud and filth.

Hence by the 1950`s the Bearded Collie was something of a novelty in Scotland and England and it was left to shepherds such as Tom Muirhead to continue the bloodlines of The Working Bearded Collie.

Tom, who lived in Dunsyre at the time, travelled to Skye and purchased a muddy grey bitch from a shepherd called Ewan Mc Donald whose dogs had driven cattle from Skye to Falkirk market often in mid winter. Tom eventually mated his bitch Nan to Anderson`s Robbie, a heavy coated dog, which certainly had border collie ancestors, but the union of the pair produced a hard working line of Bearded Collie which was exported all over the world. Some of Muirheads dogs were sent to New Zealand and these, too entered into the bloodlines of the New Zealand Smithfield Collies.


Tom Muirhead died in the early 1990`s and for a while the” The Former Working Bearded Collie Association”, continued to breed Muirheads bloodlines, however bad organisation, and the sometimes inevitable and strenuous , power struggle found in committee`s brought about the cessation of the Association. There is an old saying, A Camel was the result of a committee`s attempt at breeding a Horse?.

With the break-up of the former Association, I was asked to pick up the pieces. On the 30th day of May 1997 The Working Bearded Collie Foundation was founded by yours truly and through advertisements which were placed in all the farming papers, most former members were contacted.

With the help of D. B. Plummer, who turned over to me extended pedigrees of all known lines of working beardies in the UK, I was able to put together a registration system. Luck was also with me, as my son Vincent who is one of them computer nuts, built me a program which I have now mastered, clever people them Chinese!

Also through the advertisements and the information packs which were being offered, I was coming into contact with farmers with lines of beardie not known to us. Drew Pringle, a farmer on Skye who has had beardies all his life, also put me in touch with the Mac Donald`s, a farming family also from Skye. Hopefully great fruits will come from this meeting.

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The Working Beardie Its Origin and Development

In some districts the Bearded Collie is still worked, though readers who are accustomed to the sight of exhibition bearded Collies would not recognise the working strains as being the same breed. When Mrs Willison embarked on her resurrection of the Bearded Collie in 1948, unlike today there were still quite a few working strains around despite what the book would have us believe.

Mrs Willison unpretentiously took and mated the most elegant to the most elegant, to produce her first Crufts winners. It is generally believed that perhaps some breeders, though they would probably deny it, added a splash of Old English Sheepdog to improve coat, delightful as they may be, it is sufficient to say the Old English is certainly not placed very high on the canine ladder of intelligence, plus you need to be armed with an NVQ in hair-dressing to manage these brainless balls of fur, not really what the farmer ordered.

In fact since the WBCF was founded and through the advertisements run by this organisation the working Beardie seems to be in vogue. It is also hoped that through these advertisements unrelated working bloodlines could be found, as the working Beardie in its present form cannot survive with such a limited gene pool.

Working Beardies are usually more game than their Border Collie counterparts. Indeed, many have courage enough to turn enraged bulls, or face down hostile “horned” black faced rams. Bearded Collie strains are much slower to mature than conventional Border Collies, in fact it has be known, that after the owner has given up waiting and returned his dog to the breeder, only to find out later it is working well for “someone else”. However it is also true that not all will work, but that could be said about any breed. I was talking about this very subject the other night with Kenny Dalglesh, the contract shepherd not the football player. Kenny told me one of the best Beardies he ever owned never started working until it was 3 years old, never showing any interest or eye, until this very day.

I believe there is a simple explanation for this late maturing, if one looks at the life span of the Working Beardie, Plummer has Beardies well into there twenties in his kennels. I also believe that the working strains are a very primitive breed, and it is of the utmost importance that when pups, they are socialised persistently.

Likewise bonding with your Beardie is very important if they are to train well later in their young lives; a spell of imprisonment will damage them beyond repair.

Two quite distressing eye abnormalities have appeared in the best working Border collie strains, collie eye anomaly and the more distressing progressive retinal atrophy, a disease that only manifests itself during the dogs second year. These defects are not inherent amongst working strains of Bearded Collie. Likewise, in the last few years certain otherwise good working strains of Border Collies have started to produce dogs, which are ill at ease with hostile sheep. Paul Turnbull, who owned the famous Bearded collie Blue, once advertised his Beardie Blue at stud to Border Collie bitches which were a shade short on courage, for Blue was a fearless dog who sired equally game offspring.

More to follow...

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