Westies as Drovers

by Leslie Lowes

Crofting Country at Assynt
- a hard land dotted with abandoned croft houses.

Photo Credit: STB
(Click here for more photos and photo credits)

One of my favourite Westie walks is along Velvet Valley. I named it so because the grass grows rich and dense at this place. The hill sheep come down here regularly, attracted by the milky sap that rises rich in the grass stalks. The greensward is so closely nibbled by the Shetland sheep that it ends up looking like card-table velvet. The valley is flat along the bottom, with fairly steep sides. It makes a natural funnel down from the heather hills to the loch. The sheep pass back and forth along this corridor to feed on the high ground above or descend for a cool drink and some lush meadow grass down below.

When there are no sheep about, this is a place where I can let the Shetland Westies roam off the lead. We try to run off some of that boundless energy and, maybe, satisfy a little of that insatiable curiosity that makes every loose stone worth investigating. We can be quite a pack, with up to four dogs and two or three people ambling through the valley. Tess, the grand mere of all our dogs, likes to get up front as always, but she keeps a careful eye on the rest of us and if one of her pack should stray too far up the valley sides, or linger too long over a curio discovered on the ground, Tess sees it as her job to bring them back into line, and she does. Forsaking her position as pack leader, she gallops at a furious pace to where the problem is, sorts out the miscreants until they are once again on the move and then reclaims her place up front again.

Tess is herding us through the pass, as it were, because she is a natural drover. One of her granddaughters, Meggie, loves to get among the neighbouring sheep if she escapes from our garden. She does not terrorize them, as in a sheep worrying attack, but loves to keep them moving along in front of her. I have spent several anxious moments watching her carefully crossing from left to right behind her flock to cut off a meandering mutton or two that she thinks are headed the wrong way, and she ignores my command to come, because this is much more fun.

I am anxious because the crofter who owns the sheep is not likely to see this as a display of Meggie's herding ability. To him, all sheepdogs are black and white and look like Border Collies. That is all he has ever used for sheepdogs, so who could blame him? Of course, he is also entitled under British law to shoot any dog he considers to be worrying his livestock. That is why I get anxious! Meggie has a great time of course, but tires of the excitement eventually and decides that she might as well do as I want and come.

So why do these feisty little dogs, that everyone says are bred to kill vermin, try to act like sheepdogs and start giving the local mutton supply the eye? The answer is in their genetic makeup, because their ancestors were commonly used as stock dogs -at least until railways reached the Highlands. To find out more, we need to consider the early development of dog breeds in Britain.

The British Isles are perhaps wrongly named. Because they are home to so many different breeds, Britain could well have been called the Isle of Dogs. Many of these are terriers. Some terrier-type dogs are found in other countries, but "real" terriers are true Brits. Westies of course, and also Cairns, Fox Terriers, Dandie Dinmonts, Welsh Terriers, Wheatens, Norfolks, Bull Terriers and more. This amazing variety of over two dozen tenacious terrier breeds in one small country is unique in the world. So how come?

Working dogs can be readily classified according to capability. The hounds of pursuit, scent hounds and sight hounds, hunt by their respective means. Later, the use of the gun required different canine hunting skills, so pointing, flushing and retrieving dogs were developed. These large dogs have become "noble" breeds, by through their association with Britain's landed gentry who developed them through their "noble" sport of hunting. The legacy of this patronage are breeds like the Gordon Setter developed by the Duke of Gordon and the Clumber Spaniel bred on the Clumber Estate of the Duke of Newcastle. Similarly, toy breeds like Cavalier King Charles Spaniels became ennobled by sitting on the laps of dukes or duchesses.

Meanwhile, down on the farm, a different agenda demanded different dogs. Herding and droving instincts of some breeds were gradually perfected, producing cattle dogs like the Corgis of Wales or the Lancashire Heeler, and collies and sheepdog breeds like Bobtails and Beardies for sheep herding. Gentlemen now had their dogs and gentlemen farmers had theirs. The common man developed his own dog, to suit his own agenda. He too used selective breeding, just like his feudal superiors. The result was the terrier, found in many local varieties.

One difference between noble and common breeds is that there is a lack of historical records concerning common breeds. The common dogs were all developed in their individual localities by people who did not travel, who could not read or write, but knew the strengths and weaknesses of their own dogs and those of their neighbours. They also knew how to breed them to bring out the best of both in the working dogs of the next generation.

They wanted a game dog, usually small, that would sleep by the fire and not get under the feet in the house. It could live on kitchen scraps if need be. This dog needed instinct and determination to hunt and kill vermin like rats or mice, but it had to be able to flush rabbits out of their warrens and into the hunter's net for the family table. When his lordship's gamekeepers were not looking, it might also seize a well-camouflaged woodcock or two, sitting tight in his lordship's woods, to enrich the stewpot at home.

On "high" days and holidays this same dog had to be prepared to hunt, and perhaps confront, bigger game for fun. Badgers, foxes and otters could be pursued to earth by terriers and dug out to be exposed and killed. This may seem brutality, rather than sport today, but it was acceptable then. This was the era where people held a powerful image of "nature red in tooth and claw" that the nineteenth century poet Alfred Lord Tennyson described. They would never have considered what they did cruel, or barbaric, for it was natural. This naturally demanded a dog that responded to an adrenalin rush by being prepared to fight rather than take flight, a quality that was exploited to even greater degree in terriers like Staffies and Pit Bulls. It guaranteed that terriers of all kinds developed plenty of sharp ivory and knew how to use it. Today, of course, we look for softer temperaments in breeds like the Westie, but if a breed were to lose that "game for a fight" quality, it would cease to be a terrier.

Even the shape of a terrier was dictated by function. Run your hands over any of the bull terrier breeds and you will find a barrel shaped chest. Give a Westie the same once-over and you will feel the difference in chest construction immediately. The barrel-chested breeds would be of little help going underground after their quarry. They would wedge too easily between the earth walls of a badger set or jam in the spaces between a jumble of boulders where a hill fox has chosen to make his lair.

Terriers are designer dogs, carefully crafted to do a specified job, often closely connected to the area they come from. My own Westies always amaze me at the tiny spaces they can squeeze into. Once, whilst preparing a fruit salad, I lost a grape off the worktop and it rolled over the edge and landed at the back of the narrow space between the kitchen unit and the refrigerator. The Shetland Westies, always happy to dispose of any grape that happened to stray from the bunch, watched it descend to the floor with interest. After an initial exploratory sniff, they gave up trying to rake it out of its narrow canyon. Their paws lacked the reach to get back there so they all sat back to see if an easier grape might appear. Except for Meggie. She adores grapes and no tight little gap was going to stop her. She wedged herself in, and in, and in, pushing her body ever closer to the desired target. Finally, the grape went down her throat. Triumphant, Meggie eased herself out again, inch by solitary inch until free, then sat down to await the next fugitive grape. I could not believe how easily she got herself in and out of that tiny space, but that was what West Highland White Terriers were needed for, to get through the impossible space.

Now we need to consider what influences were at work to produce the differences between dogs comparing one district and another, the factors in dog design. Some people might doubt that a plan for a particular dog might be devised. They should look at the Doberman Pincher, or the Leonburger, both credited to a single "designer" within his lifetime. It should be remembered that a dog generation of say, two years, is much shorter than a human one of twenty five. That means that in one man's lifespan, perhaps forty years of maturity, he can breed twenty successive generations of dogs. It takes five centuries to achieve twenty successive generations of people. In other words, dog designers get to see their results fast.

The British Isles are compact, but diverse in terms of terrain. Within a short distance sandy estuaries change to rich pasture, then to woodland, to hill land, to heather moor, and finally into mountain range. The various hill ranges divide up the country into distinctive regions, each with its own character, accent or dialect, its own architecture and culture and often, with its own dogs.

Until the industrial revolution created an explosion of urban growth, Britain was an essentially rural society. People rarely left their home area. Their dogs never went far, either. This helped to establish type in the local dogs. That is why Britain has such a diversity of terriers. A breed would be developed in one locality and simply never cross the hill into the next region.

Alongside these "collective" breeders, there were always some individuals who do not follow local consensus. A Devonshire clergyman for example, supposedly wanted a terrier that could run with foxhounds, so concentrated his efforts on a long-legged terrier that bears his name today; Parson Jack Russell.

The Malcolms, a well-to-do Highland family, of Poltalloch, in Argyllshire, were also dog breeders of vision, popularly credited as some of the founding fathers of the West Highland White Terrier. Colonel Edward Malcolm was founding chairman of The West Highland White Terrier Club, but always gave credit to his grandfather Neill Malcolm (1769-1837) and his father John Malcolm (1805-1893) for having developed the breed.

Another founding credit is given to a member of the Scottish nobility, the Duke of Argyll, who took a rare aristocratic interest in sporting terriers. He bred white terriers on his estate at Roseneath, believed to be close in type to those of the Malcolms.

It is said, the accidental fatal shooting of a favourite terrier during a fox-drive at Poltalloch spurred the Malcolms to develop their white terriers. The Highland Terrier, from which Cairns and Westies descend, came in a variety of coat shades. The dog shot in error was reddish coloured and was mistaken for a fox when obscured by cover. At that time, white or light-coloured pups were thought undesirable as working dogs. They would be easy to lose sight of in snow, so were eliminated from the litter. The death of this red favourite inspired the Malcolms to produce a terrier that could never again be mistaken for the fox. At Poltalloch, dark pups were now rejected and only white or lightly coloured dogs were bred from in the years that followed.

For some years the names Poltalloch Terriers, Roseneath Terriers and White Terriers or West Highland Terriers, were applied to all these white dogs, no matter what their origins. Finally, the name West Highland White Terrier was settled on in 1906. The breed was recognised within a few months by The Kennel Club and exhibited for the first time at Crufts in 1907. It is now the fourth most popular breed of dog in Britain, with more UK registrations annually than any other terrier breed.

So, the West Highland White Terrier is a relatively recent development in terriers, developed over the last two centuries or so. If we want to discover more about the Westie's character and what shapes him, we have to delve a little deeper to those original terriers of the Highlands of Scotland from which our Westie sprang.

Undoubtedly, the Scottish climate played its part in developing the breeds native to northern Britain. Keen winds, driving in straight off the Atlantic and the Arctic Oceans keep temperatures down and demand insulation from wind chill. A thin, smooth coat would be no help to a dog expected to work outdoors in all weathers in this climate. At the same time a thick, but soft coat, would be pulled out easily by a dog forcing its way through tough hill heather. A thick but hard coat was required, to keep the dog warm, to repel rainwater and to slide easily past snags and tangles. So it was that the terriers of Scotland were bred to have dual coats, consisting of a warming, soft undercoat and a hard repellent topcoat. These were not show dogs remember, but working animals. This was a working coat.

The name, terrier, means "of the earth" and is descriptive of the digging and underground exploratory activity terriers delight in. Every Westie owner knows how important it is for their dog to explore any hole it comes across when out "hunting" round the neighbourhood. It was this terrier behaviour that King James was aware of after the Union of the Crowns when he ascended the English throne to unite the kingdoms of Scotland and England almost four centuries ago. Needing a gift for the King of France, James wrote back to his old Scottish capital, Edinburgh, ordering his courtiers there to send six "earthe dogges or terrieres" from Scotland to the French court. He obviously prized these dogs highly, since they were intended as a royal gift. But he also gave specific instructions that they should cross the English Channel to France in threesomes, in two different boats, just in case. James was taking no chances with the unpredictable rough weather for which the Channel crossing is notorious.

Westies as we know them today are the direct descendants of the terrier dogs found in the Scottish Highlands of those times. They share common ancestry with today's Cairn, Scottish and Skye terriers. Although some members of the nobility took an interest in sport using these dogs, in truth they were the dogs of working highland men, the gamekeepers and foresters, and they were the dogs of the crofter, the subsistence-level peasant farmer of the period. The crofter is still to be found in northern Scotland, but today he is a part-time, small-scale farmer and probably delivers the local mail and looks after the school heating plant as well. He may even be the school's teacher.

A croft is a small house with a couple of small fields attached, known as inbye land. Here the crofter plants his tatties and neeps (potatoes and swede turnips), bere (a kind of oatmeal), cabbages and kale. These fields were cultivated by hand traditionally, though crofters now have the benefit of the small Ferguson tractor, introduced to the Highlands fifty years ago, a surprising number of which are still going strong. The croft house itself was a but and ben with most activity taking place round the fire in the but end of the house. The ben end was where you went to sleep, inside a box bed that kept out all the drafts. There was also a byre, home to a couple of kye, that could be entered along an indoor passage in winter.

The kye were turned out to graze the outbye land, the land beyond the dry stane dyke, the cementless wall of carefully laid stones which surrounded the croft land. The outbye was grazed in common, that is, by all the crofters of the crofting township turning their cattle out onto it.. Inbye land had to be good cultivable land, but Outbye was generally rugged. It might even be a mountainside. Grazing was harsh and patchy, so the kye wandered wide to find the best forage. The native cattle breeds of the Scottish Highlands are expert at living on poor pasture. They are small, lean, hardy cattle, with long shaggy coats for warmth. They milk well on nothing, with quality milk good enough to churn into butter or curd into cheese, though quantity was small compared with yields of today's specialised dairy breeds. The Highland cow is a dual purpose animal. It supplies daily needs for the family and requires few resources for the job. When the time is right, the cow can be turned into cash at the beef market...

The markets for this meat were in the Lowlands of Scotland, in cities like Edinburgh, or even across the border in England. The kye were in the Highlands. In pre-railway days, they were driven to market along the rough drovers' roads. Though little used today, these drovers' roads still exist, crossing from one glen to another through natural passes between the hills. Even when cattle were largely replaced by sheep, the animals travelled the same traditional drovers' routes to get to market.

Crofters would herd up their kye together and walk them perhaps fifteen or twenty miles per day, starting out at first light and stopping well before dark at a place where the kye could forage for the remaining daylight hours. At night the kye chewed cud and rested, ready to face the road next day. Once they were close to market, the men would rest up their charges for a few days to recover condition. The kye grazed on whatever they could find for fodder.

Moving cattle is a job for a droving dog and for these Highland men, the only dogs they had were their terriers. Sheepdogs only appeared in the Highlands in any numbers once the crofters were dispossessed from their crofts by their landlords and turned off the land with their cattle, to make way for sheep, which gave the landowners a better cash return than croft rents could. These were the notorious Highland clearances that helped populate countries like Canada with Highland men and their families. So the dogs which moved the cattle from Highland glens to Edinburgh's Grassmarket, were the ancestors of our Westies. The droving instinct is still there, locked in the genes of our dogs. It has just laid dormant since Britain's great railway age began in the mid nineteenth century and the spread of railway lines into the Highlands made getting stock to market so much easier and quicker.

If you observe Westies carefully, you will notice many of them exhibit droving behaviour. Young Westies, whilst walking at heel will quite often try to give human ankles a nip, especially when the pup is excited and its owner stops for some reason. We suppress this of course, because we do not want our dogs to nip our ankles. But if this young dog was helping you to move your cattle, he would be showing good working instinct and you would praise him.

Off the lead, a Westie likes to "take the lead," getting out in front, checking things out ahead of the family "pack" and constantly looking back to check that everyone is still following his lead. This is the other droving technique, leading cattle from the front as opposed to driving them from the rear. Ideally a drover will use dogs for both purposes. A lead dog, as a marker for the kye to follow behind, and a drove dog or two, to urge on any stragglers in the rear of the herd, was the typical pattern of a droving pack. And drovers always know their charges. The Reverend Charles Williams in Dogs and Their Ways, 1863, gives an interesting anecdote of how well drove dogs knew their own stock: "Lord Truro told Lord Brougham of a drover's dog whose sagacious conduct he observed when he happened on one occasion to meet a drove.The man had brought seventeen of twenty oxen out of a field, leaving the remaining three there, mixed with another herd. He then said to the dog 'Go, fetch them' and he went and singled out those very three."

Thomas Bewick, in his A General History of Quadrupeds of 1790 gave this account of dogs used in droving: "The Cur Dog is a trusty and useful servant to the farmer and grazier; and... such great attention is paid in breeding it, that we cannot help consider it as a permanent kind... They are chiefly employed in driving cattle... They bite very keenly; and as they always attack at the heels the cattle have no defence against them." The classic response of cattle in this situation is to kick out at their antagonist, but anyone who has observed Westies and their kin roughhousing can tell you how nimbly they can duck and dive. The cow may kick out, but the heeler is already gone from the scene to nip an ankle or two elsewhere.

Sheep are rather harder to handle than cattle, for a short legged drover dog. They can run pretty fast, where cattle are more likely to amble, they can run over some very rough country indeed and they are more likely to scatter, which means the drove dog has to run further and faster than the sheep to head them off. The droving of sheep in large numbers is probably easier to manage with longer-legged breeds like Collies, Beardies or Bobtails than with short legged heelers such as terriers.

A few years ago the Scottish TV company, Grampian Television, made a series of programmes about the almost forgotten history of Highland droving. The "roads" are still there. Whilst they have no bitumen, they are "roads" in the sense that they are routes. They follow a natural progress to get from one place to another, along valleys and glens, skirting problem areas like boggy ground and marsh and taking an easy, natural, pass from one mountain glen into the next. The military roads built by the English to suppress the Highlanders after the Jacobean rebellions tended to go in straight lines for speed of massed troop movement.

What the TV company wondered was, could one man with a couple of dogs move a herd from the Highlands to the Lowlands still, along these old drove roads? As the series showed, it was not only possible, but clearly accomplished with a herd of Highland Blackface sheep moved to Ingliston, a couple of miles outside the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, within a couple of weeks. Both sheep and dogs were in excellent condition and the sheep would have fetched good prices at the market. The dogs were Border Collies, the dogs that, almost universally, work sheep in Britain now.

If we draw these threads together, although it is impossible to prove that the ancestors of our Westies were droving dogs, my contention is that they probably were. Droving was just another regular job for the crofter's companion, a regular wee jock of all trades. The ancestral Westie began to lose his droving job to the Collie after the clearances, when sheep came into the Highlands in large numbers to replace those cattle. The coming of the railways sealed his fate as, in a single day, stock could be moved the sort of distance a short legged dog would need several days to cover. However, the Westie has not abandoned his droving behaviour. A couple of companions can provide a herd of charges to keep his droving eye on, and it will always be his job to move, encourage and protect them on their journey, even for a short walk to the village store rather than a long march to the cattle market.

So, when next you are roving with your pack, watch the antics of your Westie, leading the way, checking that you are following smartly and occasionally, dashing out to point out on the flank, where one of his charges is in danger of straying. Watch out for your ankles, though.


Copyright © 2003 Leslie Lowes and Westie World


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