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What A Collie Is: Origins and Background

Throughout years of owning collies one question seemingly pops upon time and time again: What is a Collie? This series aim to answer that question and more.

Two smooth collies, one sable one tri sitting for a photo
Clearvu Collies - Tango and Lil

In the following sections I will go over a brief history of the collie breed from the earliest known mention to being our lovable pets in today's society.

The sections are as follows:

The Collie's Main Origins

According to the Collie Club of America, the Collie's exact origin is unclear. The origin for the term "Collie" is as unknown as the breed itself. The name has been spelled several ways, including Coll, Colley, Coally, and Coaly. The most widely recognized spelling comes from the word "Coll" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for black. Another belief is that the name "Collie" came from the Scottish black-faced sheep—Colleys—the breed was assigned to watch.

Some say the breed accompanied the Romans across what is now Britain, around 500 B.C. Collies; however, were not truly recognized as a distinct breed until the 18th century. At that time, they lived in the highlands of Scotland where they were carefully bred to assist their masters in herding and guarding sheep.

The first believed written mention of the collie is in the Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400, which read “Ran Colle oure dogge”. The identifier of this, Gayle R. Kaye, notes that this term is often mentioned after throughout the book, but she notes that “there is no consensus on its derivation”.

Definition of Collie name origin
Source - AKC - Collie History

To fully understand the history of the collie I must briefly explain the history of Scotland as well. In the centuries preceding any appearance of the Collie in written history, Scotland was subject to conquest, invasion, and immigration by many peoples. Celts, Romans, Norse, Irish, and English were among those who arrived in Scotland, accompanied by their dogs. Dogs from all of these peoples undoubtedly contributed to the genetic material of today’s known breeds.

Due to this, Scotland is home to many diverse dog breeds, many of which are quite different from one another. Some of the most commonly known Scottish dog breeds include: Collies, Golden Retrievers, Gordon Setters, Scottish Terriers, Scottish Deerhounds, and Sleuth Hounds to name a few.

By the 1700s breeds started being defined by job types. The Scottish Deerhound, for example, was used to hunt deer and track down stags, the Scottish Terrier to hunt smaller animals such as badgers and foxes, the Gordon Setter to hunt birds, and the Collie to herd sheep.

Centuries passed and they became part of the landscape, long-haired or rough Collies guarding flocks in the Scottish Highlands and a short-haired variety working as drovers’ dogs in the harsh lowlands in Northern England.


Breed Migration

The Highland clearances (1760–1860) resulted in the eviction of many Highland tenant farmers, forcing them to relocate and establish new lives elsewhere. Some of them went to the New World, while others went to Lowland Scotland and England. Some of these displaced Highland shepherds brought their dogs with them; this was deemed the first major wave of Collies to arrive in England and America. 

Written accounts of Collies in the early nineteenth century typically praise the breed's intelligence and devotion. This can tell us two things: the breed was highly valued in England at the time, and it was growing more widespread there. The breed is first referred to as “Scotch Collie” during this time period.

Richard Ansdell's paintings (picture above) are an excellent source of early Scotch Collie knowledge from this era. He painted heavily on rural Scottish subjects, and several of his works from the 1840s and 1850s include Collies prominently.


Rise in Popularity

In England

The first known dog show in history, held in Newcastle, England in 1859, featured only pointers and setters. Classes for collies were first introduced at the Birmingham show the following year, 1860, though records do not indicate whether any were exhibited at the time. However, six Collies were entered and shown at the Birmingham show in 1863.

Following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, Queen Victoria acquired her first Collie. It is said that the Queen took a trip to Scotland and after spotting collies working she quickly fell in love with the breed. The queen loved the breed so much that she established a "Collie Court" in a portion of her Royal Kennel.

The Scotch Collie swiftly acquired popularity since Queen Victoria favored the breed. Combine this with its recent entrance at dog shows, and the Scotch Collie was poised for a tremendous boom in popularity in the late 1800s.

Old Cockie - A sable collie born in 1867

Old Cockie was the first true star Scotch Collie to receive awards and be widely bred. Old Cockie, born in 1867, had a sable coat while most Collies were black. He had a huge influence on the breed and is now found in almost every Collie pedigree. Charlemagne, Old Cockie's grandson, was also a focus sable-colored Collie who was extensively bred and can be found in most Collie pedigrees.

Scotch Collies were at the time a landrace breed with a variety of appearances and habits. However, Englishmen were laying the groundwork for purebred Collies by buying, trading, showing, and breeding Collies in order to achieve a uniformed type look. From all around the British Isles, these men discovered and gathered Collies with the types of appearances that were winning shows, and they were aggressively bred and crossbred to generate more with the same appearance. In the late nineteenth century, a purebred breed gradually developed.

S.E. Shirley (an early Collie breeder) and 12 other men created the Kennel Club in 1873 to assure fair and consistent dog show standards, as well as to record and trace pedigrees.

In America

A queen may have taken Collies from farm to show ring, but a captain of industry, John Pierpont Morgan, (J.P. Morgan) brought them to America. 

Morgan, like Victoria, saw the dogs working in the Scottish hills and instantly knew he wanted to get one. In 1888, he purchased an English champion and established the state of the art Cragston Kennels on the Hudson River's banks. Morgan was coined the "King of the Collieworld" in the late 1800s. "The first thing anyone heard at any big canine gathering would be, 'Where are the Morgan Collies?'" wrote the Collie Folio in 1913 in an obituary of the commercial titan.

By the time Morgan passed Sheep herding remained popular in America at the end of the nineteenth century, and many settlers brought Collies with them. The American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1885, and in 1886, the breed's standard height, weight, and physical features were defined.

Morgan's enthusiasm pushed the breed to the forefront of the American scene. However, it took two writers—Albert Payson Terhune and Eric Mowbray Knight—to drive the country Collie insane.


Height of Popularity

The Collie's popularity skyrocketed in 1940, when Eric Knight's book Lassie Come-Home debuted to critical and financial acclaim. Three years later, the book was adapted into a blockbuster feature picture, which was followed by six additional Lassie films, a radio series, a television show, books, comics, toys, and other goods. All of these increased the Collie's appeal to unprecedented levels.

Toots, Eric Knight's smart and loving old-fashioned Collie, served as the inspiration for Lassie. However, Lassie in the novel was depicted as a modern Collie, despite the fact that her actions were clearly those of an old-fashioned Collie; similarly, in the film, Lassie was also cast as a more modern-looking Collie. 

Lassie helped make the 1940s and 1950s a golden age for the Rough Collie. Following the movie's popularity, breeders and dogs proliferated, and the American Kennel Club reported a 40% rise in collie registrations in the years that followed.

While Lassie was extremely popular in the 1950s and 1960s, she and her lessons of courage, loyalty, and decency did not fair well as attitudes became more cynical. A 1990s commercial depicts Lassie, bored of repeatedly saving mishap-prone Timmy, sitting at a computer keyboard, reading a pet-adoption website. In the final scene, she's relaxing on a couch when a woman with a French accent says, "Lassie, finish your caviar." After this the popularity of the collie started its downfall, which was never fully recovered from.


Today's Collies

During the 20th century, collies become a more commonly known as family dogs than as herders. Many Americans in the mid-1900s recognized the rough variety of the breed from the Lassie series. 

Two sable smooth collie puppies
Clearvu Collies - Bond and Delilah

Today, collies make excellent family pets. They are sensitive, eager to please, and thrive in obedience training. Collies are kind to youngsters, family members, familiar adults, and other animals. Despite being part of the herding breed group, they do not require strenuous activity. A brief walk or game of fetch for 10 minutes per day is sufficient.




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