Working dogs, careless of their own safety, ignore danger on the roads.
It’s always with an immense pleasure that we receive a new Letter from Scotlandso kindly written by Iain and Margaret. Each ‘letter’ is a wonderful gem, a true gift we’re always eager to share with you. Iain and Margaret have told us many fascinating stories about Scotland since they’ve joined us on Scotiana a few years ago and today they have a big surprise for us. They have invited George, a retired shepherd who happens to be a member of their family, to write a few lines about the life he shared with his beloved, talented and courageous border collies. George is not only a great expert in his work which he has taught at the university but also a remarkable story-teller and I’m sure you’ll enjoy as much as we did this moving story which would certainly not have displeased James Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd who also loved his dogs so much! Many many thanks to Iain & Margaret and to George for having shared with us this wonderful story. We’ll certainly be more careful on the Scottish roads during our next trip to Scotland for sheep have a mind of their own and they are often there with sometimes, as George underlines, a dutiful dog looking after them…
Ca va? Hello again from Scotland! We’re very pleased that winter is over, and that we can now look forward to longer, brighter and warmer days. Spring is by far our favourite season of the year! (I must have been rather a melancholy child, for I can remember once writing in a school essay that I preferred autumn. For all its still days of golden sun, though – and these can be beautiful – autumn now has for me a mood of wistful sadness about it.)
Country people, we find, measure the progress of the year not by the calendar alone, but by such events as the appearance of the new lambs, the sowing and harvesting, the bringing-in of the sheep from the hills and outlying fields. Don’t the newborn lambs, running and jumping for the sheer joy of being alive, tell us most surely that Spring is here?
Yet Margaret noticed an earlier sign this year. “The crows are back!” she said suddenly, about three weeks ago, pointing to the birds circling our Scots pines. Soon they were busily repairing and lining their old nests in the tops of the tall trees.
Coming from city backgrounds, neither of us knows much about country matters. Just a few years ago, I was invited to have a look inside the lambing shed when visiting the farm that supplies our milk. It would probably take a book to explain fully all that had been happening that day, but my abiding memories are of the size of the place, of the vast crowd of ewes and lambs covering every inch of straw on the concrete floor; above all, of the noise, the plaintive bleating of so many small voices!
‘Lambing’ is planned to stretch over several weeks, for the human helpers can cope only with a limited number of births each day (or each night – the work continues, of course, around the clock.) I would guess that our farmers here in SW Scotland aim to have their first lambs outdoors by mid-March, just as soon as the weather is warm enough.
There’s an awful lot I don’t know about sheep and lambs, but fortunately we have an expert in the family. My brother-in-law, George, a native of Galloway, has had a lifetime’s experience of sheep, first as a hill-shepherd himself, then, after university, as a teacher of young shepherds, male and female. In spare moments, he enjoys writing and has had many pieces published. George has kindly contributed the following tale, which we think readers will like very much. It is not set in Spring, but has been inspired by a shepherd’s love of his most loyal friend, his faithful dog:
With heart in mouth I ran down the brae (hill) towards the main road. My beautiful wee grey bitch had shot off to bring back two yowes (ewes) broken away from a group; down the track they had gone, and the wee bitch was after them, despite my frantic whistling. Remembering how her great grandmother had been killed on a road, fear gripped as I ran.
Emerging on to the road, there she was, clapped down on the white line, keeping the yowes against a house wall, right in the middle of Scotlandwell. Behind her a Range Rover was standing, holding other vehicles back; my heartfelt thanks must go to that driver. (Like many other villages, Scotlandwell has become very suburban in recent years – accretions of new houses, gardens with non-shutting gates, horsey paddocks with ‘slack’ fences – altogether a difficult place to drove sheep.) The A919 which passes through has a bend on the hill coming from the North; vision from the South is also obscured. The wee bitch had been in mortal danger.
Oddly enough, some days previously I had been in much the same position as the driver of the Range Rover. My wife and I – complete with the bitch – having motored over that rather beautiful road sometimes known as the ‘Lang Whang’ (or, more prosaically, the A70), were driving on the twisting road from Carnwath towards Biggar. Ascending a hill, we were surprised to see four sheep trotting over the brow ahead, coming towards us. Immediately stopping, we considered the situation. A few yards past us, the sheep stopped and looked back – then over the brow came the dog (or, more likely by the look of it, the bitch). By all appearances she was not young, and had a hard day’s work behind her. Glancing at her sheep and then at us, she took the grass verge between the car and the dyke (stone wall), passed her sheep and firmly ‘lifted’ them, as the saying goes. Calmly, all five reversed their direction. Once they were over the brow we slowly drove on behind, and there, some three hundred yards ahead, was a man with a drove of sheep.
Keeping to the middle of the road to prevent other cars from passing, we followed the dog at a safe distance, our own bitch taking a keen professional interest in the proceedings. When she reached the drove with the errant four, the shepherd patted the bitch; well I know the feeling of relief he must have had when she returned safe and sound. To those who have never owned a dog, this may sound like maudlin sentimentality, but to the decent dog-owner, the dog is a member of the family. When a dog dies, or worse, is killed, the grief is real and lasts for some time. For a dog to be killed in the line of duty is tragic.
Thanks to television (and especially, the long-running programme ‘One Man And His Dog’), the work of collie dogs is well known, but rarely does the small screen show the things that can go wrong. Although sheep will usually congregate together when a dog runs around them, they do not always submit calmly. On occasion some will try to break away, especially when man and dog come close to carry out a task. Individual yowes here and there will make gallant bids for freedom. Once, when gathering in Shetland, I had a Shetland yowe and her lamb jump off a low cliff into the sea, rather than turn for the dog. When last seen, they were swimming strongly for a nearby shingle beach. Similarly, I once had a Blackface yowe jump into the River Tweed. She swam well, but the current started taking her downstream; my dog, sizing up the situation, without command ran along the river bank until well past the yowe, launched himself into the water, swam towards her, turning her, and so forcing her to swim to where I could grapple with my crook.
The crook, of course, is a standard part of a shepherd’s equipment, usually no longer than to reach the waist, and without ornamentation. To catch a sheep with it requires the active co-operation of your dog; the dog soon knows which sheep you want, and many dogs will learn the trick of extracting the wanted sheep from a group without any special training. Some dogs will even catch the sheep for you, if you should miss with the crook; but this is not a good idea, as it can cause injury to the sheep and may encourage the dog to ‘grip’.
For centuries, collie dogs have been selected on the basis of their willingness to work with man, their temperament, their mental capacity and their instinct to ‘kep’ (to run past and stop) any running thing. Size, colour, hair length, etc., have not usually been considered. Thus there are bare-skinned collie dogs, rough haired collie dogs, white ones, red ones, chocolate ones, grey ones, as well as the familiar black and white. There does not appear to be any correlation between colour and working ability, although it has been said that sheep pay less attention to white dogs, and, for the hill shepherd, a red dog can be difficult to see at times. For those who are interested in trialling (competing), the pedigree system operated by the International Sheep Dog Society may offer a more dependable choice of pups than buying from an unknown source, but the majority of working dogs are not pedigreed.
As long as there are sheep kept in Scotland, there are likely to be collie dogs to work them. True, some people now use all-terrain vehicles, quad bikes, tricycles, Land Rovers even, to round up sheep, but they really are not as efficient as a dog. A dog, of course, must have regular good food, a decent dry bed and a modicum of affection, none of which are required by an ATV – but could you trust a machine out of sight to return wandering yowes?
In the meantime, until mechanisation attains its full flowering and collie dogs are relegated to history, will all the car drivers out there please keep a sharp lookout for a scrap of flesh and blood hurling itself around its charges, paying not the slightest heed to your impatient tooting, but in imminent danger from your thundering wheels?
Thank you for that, George. We enjoyed especially the two examples you gave – from real life – of sheep defying the dog. We join you in appealing to all drivers of vehicles on the road to beware of sheepdogs at work, for these faithful helpers are so focussed on the task in hand that they can be quite careless of their own safety.
Janice, Marie-Agnès, Jean-Claude, you will have noticed that George used one or two Scots words (brae, dyke) as well as a few special words to do with handling sheep. We find it sad that these old Scots words are used less and less today, but they can all be easily found in such books as Chambers’ Scots Dialect Dictionary(1911), now out of copyright and much reprinted.
George brought his own sheepdog to work at the College each day. During the lectures that he gave in the mornings, the animal would lie quietly under his desk, looking forward to the practical outdoor work he would take part in after lunch with his master and a group of about six students. Over the years, several of George’s students have done well in the competitions that were often part of the TV programme ‘One Man And His Dog’.
Male Border Collie Wikipedia
George and his wife are retired now, of course. They have lived in Fife for many years, so we don’t see them often, but their last visit was just a few months ago. George cannot imagine life without a dog – currently he has Fen, a 12 year old bitch (female), his first ‘non-working’ collie, who came along to see us too. “Are female dogs better for working with sheep – are they gentler?” I asked. “The choice really depends on how much work there is to be done. Male dogs become bored and lose interest if they are not kept sufficiently busy.”
Border Collies 1 Dark red 2 Brown and white 3 Blue merle Wikipedia
It was truly a delight to hear piper Alec McGuckin from the 78th Fraser Highlanders play ‘Scotland The Brave‘ to mark the start of the event on March 19th, 2015 at the Atwater Library Lunchtime Series featuring Scotiana.com, a Scottish travel and literature blog, co-authored by Mairiuna and Jean-Claude from France, Iain and Margaret from Scotland and yours truly, Janice from the Province of Quebec in Canada.
We wish to extend our most appreciative thanks to Mrs Lynn Verge, Executive Director of the Montreal Atwater Library and her team for having made this event possible, following her “googling away” about Scottish themed subjects. Many thanks also to all the attendees for being so enthusiastic during the presentation and to Kerry Beauchamp for capturing these great moments on photos and videos.
It gave us a great opportunity to meet with very interesting people (unfortunately we do not have all their names) sharing their love for Scotland and amongst them Carole Thorpe and Alexander Craig for their generous sharing of information relating to Scottish history and literature.
As mentioned by Mrs Lynn Verge in the video, the Atwater Library houses a Scotland Collection of books, CDs and DVDs built over many years with the support of the St-Andrews Society and volunteer work by famous and popular former librarian Agnes McFarlane.
This special Scottish Heritage houses more than 1,550 volumes inclusive of rare books that were part of the Mechanics’ Institute’s original collection, as well as many acquired over the years through generous donations.
Browsing through the collection is like looking at a snapshot of Canadian history. Interested members can find any item in the collection inside the online catalogue, but the items are available for consultation only. Please enjoy this one-of-a-kind collection.
Stay tuned for an upcoming article in which Mrs Lynn Verge will share with us the story of how this great Scottish Collection came about!