History of the Bearded Collie

“Of MacKensie:

He was a mongrel collie of the old Highland type known as ‘Beardies’, and his towzled head, not unlike an extra-shaggy Dandie Dinmont’s was set upon a body of immense length, girth and muscle. His manners were atrocious to all except his master, and local report accused him of every canine vice except worrying sheep.”

— John Buchanan, John McNab. 1898

So where did the Beardie come from?

James C. Logan, in Suzanne Moorhouse’s book, Talking About… Beardies, says:

“The safest thing that can be said about the origins of the Bearded Collie is that they are lost in the mists of antiquity. This is a breed which has evolved naturally over the centuries and not one created in the relatively recent past, such as the Golden Retriever and the Doberman, whose pedigrees can be traced right back to the original stud books.”

Undeniably, there have been working dogs with shaggy coats and hairy faces in Scotland and in other parts of Europe for many centuries. In Scotland, they existed under names such as Scotch Sheepdog, Mountain Collie, Highland Collie, or Hairy Mou’ed Collie, and probably had many equally distinctive names in other lands. Major Logan feels it would be very hard to claim a specific specimen or place as the dog or country of origin for the breed we have come to identify as Beardies.

Many conjectures as to origin are made, however; Mrs. Willison herself, in her book, The Bearded Collie, traces them back to 1514 when three Polish Sheepdogs were brought to Scotland for Roman herders. Major Logan reminds us, however, that most of our conjectures, including Mrs. Willison’s, are sheer speculation and that:

“All that can really be said is that over the years a longhaired, hairy-faced dog developed in Scotland, valued for its hardiness and its ability to work sheep and cattle.”

Lawrence Levy’s early research into the breed supports Major Logan, noting that:

“The shepherds and drovers of Scotland bred their Beardies to help with their work, and were most concerned with the dog’s ability to do the job and stand up to the weather in which they worked. They found a tractable, smart dog with a harsh, longish coat suitable to the adverse working conditions. Over centuries, they stabilized the breed through selective line breeding.

…Over many centuries, the shepherds in each area developed similar looking dogs to do similar jobs under similar conditions. There is a high probability that these different dogs were originally not related until more recent attempts at standardization for showing led to some interbreeding . . . .”

It is thought that the Beardie was used in cattle drives from 1707 through the early 1880s, driving cattle from North and West Highlands to market. Oral histories recount that Beardies were used in these drives, although they were particularly valued as workers once the cattle had reached market.

The Beardie was evident in art as early as 1771, when Gainsborough painted the Duke of Buccleuch with his dog, a dog that greatly resembled a Bearded Collie as we know it. Several years later the same dog appeared with the Duchess in a painting by Reynolds. Through the years, the Beardie reappeared in art, in Reinagle’s 1804 painting of ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’ and Herring’s ‘Bearded Collie and Hound’ in 1855.

Proceeding to the comfort and relative certitude of written history, in 1891 D.J. Thomson Gray wrote the book, The Dogs of Scotland. Here, he referred to the Bearded Collie by name. He described the dog as “A big, rough, ‘tousy’ looking tyke, with a coat not unlike a doormat, the texture of the hair hard and fibry, and the ears hanging close to the head.”

Gray further states that at the time the Bearded Collie was not common in Scotland, but neither was it particularly scarce; there were many entrants at dog shows in Glasgow and other West Country shows.The first show at which the breed was classified, however, is thought to be the 1897 Edinburgh Show of the Scottish Kennel Club. In that show a separate class was provided for working dogs, where the entry was confined to shepherds and drovers.

In 1898, Mrs. Hall Walker, using information from Beardie enthusiast and judge H. Panmure Gordon, wrote an article for Our Dogs which codified the standard for the Bearded Collie, refining and clarifying one offered earlier by Gray. Mrs. Walker’s ‘standard’ has remained, with few alterations, relatively intact in current standards in England and abroad to this day.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Beardies continued to be shown, though in very limited numbers, in Scotland. A move toward a breed club and Kennel Club registration was curtailed by the outbreak of the first World War in 1914. By 1923, following the war, registration efforts had resumed and three dogs made five entries at the Edinburgh show. Best of Breed was Ninewells Nell, who was to become dam of Mrs. Cameron Miller’s well-known dog, Balmacneil Jock.

Scott, The Shepherd's Dog, engraving after the painting by Reinagle.

Scott, The Shepherd’s Dog, engraving after the painting by Reinagle.

With Mrs. Miller, we come to more familiar ground. Mrs. Miller’s dogs have been mentioned in many books that chronicle the history of the Beardie. Major Logan states that though Mrs. Miller made a great effort to promote the breed as a showdog, registering 55 dogs and breeding ten litters between 1929 and 1934; by 1936 the Beardie classification had been discontinued for the Edinburgh shows. Mr. Logan postulates that difficulties in competing with Mrs. Miller’s dogs and her unwillingness to part with breeding stock were major influences in thwarting her effort to reinforce the Beardie’s place in the show ring. Then, another War brought further turmoil and discontinuity to breeding efforts, and the last Beardie for nearly nine years was registered in 1938.

Major Logan writes:

“Although Bearded Collies had ceased to be registered, they had by no means become extinct, nor were they in any danger of doing so. Writing in ‘Working Dogs Of The World’ in 1947 Hubbard describes the breed as almost extinct except in Peebleshire. In fact, Beardies were at that time to be found, admittedly in small numbers, all over Scotland, and none of the dogs which were to form the foundation of the modern registered breed actually came from Peebleshire. Hubbard writes that despite the small numbers, the best specimens were to be found working with the flocks instead of parading the exhibition rings, and Beardies are still to be found working today which owe absolutely nothing to the registered breed.”

The present era of the Bearded Collie began by happenstance. Mr. Logan recounts:

“Mrs. G.O. Willison, of Bothkennar Grange in Middlesex, was interested in training and working Shetland Sheepdogs. In January 1944 she decided that her next dog would be a Shetland Sheepdog of working stock, so she somewhat optimistically booked one from a farmer’s agent in Scotland. Fortunately, but scarcely surprisingly, no such Shetland Sheepdog was available, but the agent, showing commendable initiative . . . sent her instead a Bearded Collie puppy which his own dog had recently sired from a bitch owned by a Mr. McKie of Killiecrankie. It was upon this happy accident that the revival of the Bearded Collie as a show breed depended, for Mrs. Willison was captivated by the puppy’s temperament, intelligence and working instinct, and she was the very person who had the enthusiasm, persistence and opportunity to undertake the revival of the breed.”

And so the breed progressed. That puppy, the now-famous ‘Jeannie,’ was approved by the Kennel Club and registered, the first Beardie registration since 1939. Mrs. Willison, seeking a suitable mate for Jeannie, enjoyed a second stroke of amazing good fortune. While strolling on the beach in Brighton, she encountered a Bearded Collie. His owner was about to emigrate and was seeking a home for the dog, which was immediately provided by Mrs. Willison. The dog was subsequently registered by Mrs. Willison as Bailie of Bothkennar.

And thus began the Beardie, or at least thus began the documented history of the modern day show Beardie.

But the Beardie was never a dog whose major role played only in showrings. Through the years, the Beardies maintained their fine working tradition. The shepherd dogs continued to perform the work they were bred to do, unrecognized, and, most often, unregistered. Major Logan recalls:

“During the 1970s and early 1980s advertisements regularly appeared in newspapers such as the Oban Times for Beardies to work as ‘hunters’ (a term now often replaced by the New Zealand term ‘huntaways’). These dogs are required to have ‘plenty noise’ and they use their voices to drive the sheep to and from hill grazings. Beardies are, however, quite capable of working in a more orthodox manner… Nor are Beardies incapable of finer work required for sheepdog trials. In 1984 Mr. Paul Turnbull’s dog Blue, working in the North of England but bred in Dumfriesshire, qualified on merit for the International Sheepdog Society Register.”

So the Beardie tradition continues, on the bench and in the field. While statistics about herding Beardies in the U.K. are hard to come by, the count for entries at a single U.K. Championship show always exceeds 100 and occasionally exceeds 300 Bearded canines. In fact, the Bearded Collie entry is often one of the largest of any breed at these shows. The Beardie has indeed become a popular show breed in the United Kingdom.


In the UK: For a breed whose history begins so far back in the annals of time, we have precious little of it committed to paper and human memory. Ancient shepherds in the hills of Scotland, indeed, have appreciated the wisdom and skill of the Bearded Collie and enjoyed their company far longer than modern aficionados either here and abroad. It’s amazing to realize that though Crufts recently celebrated 100 years of shows, the first Bearded Collie Challenge Certificate and BOB was awarded to Ch. Beauty Queen of Bothkennar at Crufts as recently as 1959, hardly the ancient past. After her success at Crufts, Beauty Queen went on to gain two more CCs that year and became the first British Champion.

Outside the UK: In September of 1910 two Beardies were benched at a show in Calgary, Alberta. These two Beardies had been exported by a British breeder and enthusiast, Bailie Dalgliesh. The second known Bearded Collie export didn’t occur until August of 1957, and this was Ambassador of Bothkennar (the only Bothkennar to carry a name beginning with a letter other than ‘B’, a testimony to the perceived momentous occasion of the introduction of the breed to ‘foreign’ soil by Mrs. Willison), by Britt out of Bra’Tawny, who was exported to Norway. Several months later, a second export certificate was issued for a Bearded Collie who was being sent to Belgium.

Since that time, Beardies have been exported to South Africa, Australia, Europe, North and South America, and other, remoter corners of the globe. Our particular interest, on this our 25th Anniversary of the BCCA, concerns the Beardie’s discovery of the New World.

A review of American Beardie history would be incomplete without some special recognition of the illustrious early dogs that led the way for us all. The ‘First Lady of Beardiedom,’ Brambledale Blue Bonnet, is certainly an able representative. ‘Bonnet’ (April 15, 1972 – October 6, 1984) was bred by Lynne (Evans) Sharpe and imported by J. Richard Schneider, who initially co-owned her with Henrietta and Robert Lachman. She was later owned and shown exclusively by the Lachmans. She was indeed, one of the most eminent Beardies in America. Bonnet, the first American Champion, was also the first CD, the first Bearded Collie to win a Working Group, and was the first Bearded Collie in the history of the AKC to take a Best in Show.

Reprinted by permission from 1994 BCCA Yearbook, Silver Anniversary Commemorative Edition (edited by: Judith LeRoy, Cynthia Mahigian Moorhead, Roberta Stuart). This article may be copyrighted — do not duplicate without permission.