History of the Working Border Collie.



  Reprinted with permission from the

Border Collie Museum.


Centuries before the industrial revolution, Britain's wealth was built on wool. Domestic sheep were herded by Neolithic man and likely sheepdogs were associated with him as well. The Romans brought pastoral dogs to Britain as they did sheep.

Johannes Caius a doctor writing in the 1500s, mentions the "shepherd's dogge". His book, De Canibus Britannicus (Treatise on Englishe Dogges), may in fact be the earliest reference to the way British sheepdogs worked.


In Scotland, when a sheep economy took hold, the sheepdog was absolutely necessary.

James Hogg (1772-1835), a shepherd and poet from the Ettrick Valley in the Scottish Borders wrote, "without [the sheep dog] the mountainous land of England and Scotland would not be worth sixpence. It would require more hands to manage a flock of sheep and drive them to market than the profits of the whole were capable of maintaining."

Sheepdogs varied more in the past than they do today. There were as many types of working dog as there were types of sheep. Most of Britain's types of pastoral dogs have become extinct. Some vanished along with the need for specialized working abilities. Others disappeared when sheep and cattle were no longer being driven to market and were taken by rail, and later truck, obviating the need for a strong driving dog capable of moving large flocks long distances.

In Australia and New Zealand, and in parts of the United States, where there are still huge flocks of sheep and sometimes exceptional conditions, specialized types of sheepdogs have been developed and are still used--heelers, barkers, dogs capable of going over the backs of closely packed sheep or driving them long distances. But in Britain, and in parts of the United States as well, the Border Collie has emerged as the dominant herding dog.

Dogs like the Border Collie existed centuries ago. Old paintings and lithographs show the shepherd's dog as one resembling the Border Collie. Sheila Grew, in her book Key Dogs from the Border Collie Family, Volume II (1985), said "a century ago many of the [working] collies were hard, powerful...dogs, difficult to control and rough with...stock; but their keen...instinct,... concentration and great power over...sheep or cattle were such useful assets it seemed worth trying to find a milder natured type of working collie to cross with [them]." A Northumbrian farmer, Adam Telfer, "succeeded," Grew says, "in finding the right blend of the two types of dog" in 1894. The Border Collie as we know it today is descended from that dog, Hemp 9 (or Old Hemp, as he was known).

Old Hemp is considered the progenitor of the Border Collie breed. The reason he isn't number one in the ISDS stud book is that he was added after the book began and early numbers were already given out.




It appears to be one of the great mysteries of the collie breeds, but where did the word "collie" come from?

In her book, Herding Dogs, Their Origins and Development in Britain (Faber & Faber, 1987), Iris Combe says "'Collie' is a Gaelic word meaning useful." However, Mackenzie, in his English-Gaelic Dictionary (Gairm Publications, Glasgow, 1975) gives these words as definitions of the word "useful" (the translation, in parentheses, from Gaelic to English comes from Dwelly, The Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary, Gairm Publications, 1901-1911): feumail (necessary/useful), iomchuidh (convenient/necessary), freagarrach (suitable), stamhor (useful), tarbhach (beneficial), and math (good/useful). These words do not bear any resemblance to the word "collie". (Combe was speaking of Irish Gaelic, which is usually called "Irish", as opposed to Scottish Gaelic, which is usually just called "Gaelic". There are differences in the two languages, but both derive from the same Celtic strain and have many words in common.)

Combe goes on the say that "some say that the collie, or colley in its early English spelling, got it's name from the breed of sheep it herded." She posits that the black-faced sheep may have been called "coaley" for black. This idea is also promoted by the often quoted reference in Chaucer's Nonnes Tale "Ran Colle our dogge...", the implication being that he was a black dog, and that's why his name was Colle (like "Blackie").

Merriam-Webster online dictionary seems to agree with Combe. Their entries for "colly" and "collie" seem to support the idea of a coal-black origin:

Main Entry: colly

Function: transitive verb

Inflected Form(s): collied; collying

Etymology: alteration of Middle English colwen, from Old English colgian, from Old English col (coal)

Date: 1590

Definition: (Dialect chiefly British) to blacken with or as if with soot.

Definition: any of a breed of large dogs developed in Scotland that occur in rough-coated and smooth-coated varieties and have erect ears and a long muzzle

In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Lysander says "Brief as the lightning in the collied night," further advancing this origin for the word collie.

Salopia Antiqua (or An Enquiry From Personal Survey Into the Druidical, Military, and Other Early Remains in Shropshire and the North Welsh Borders with Observations Upon the Names of Places and A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Salop) by the Rev. Charles Henry Hartshorne (John W. Parker, London, 1841), also supports this root for the word collie in the section on "A Glossary of Words Used in Shropshire":

Coller, Colly. s. the black incrustation of smoke and soot which adheres to the outside of a pot or kettle. Anglo Saxon, col; Swedish, German, kol; Danish, kul; Teutonic, kole.

Colly. v. to dirty, to smut. Examples "collied his face all o'er"; "passion having my best judgement collied" (Shakespeare, Othello, ii. 3.).

A Dictionary of English Etymology by Hensleigh Wedgwood (Third Edition, 1878 by Macmillan & Co., New York), gives a different and more interesting derivation of the word:

Colly. A shepherd's dog, from having its tail cropped. Swedish, kullug, lollig, without horns or wanting some member that ought to be there. Scots, to coll, to poll a polled sheep, for example, means one without horns. In Hesse, a shepherd's dog is often called Mutz, from muta, a stump; kullmutz, kullarsch, a tailless hen.

However, in Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (Alexander Gardner, Paisley, 1889), another definition is put forth that seems to make more sense, and also proves that Combe was not so far off the mark in wanting to attribute the word "collie" to the Gaelic:

COLLIE, COLLEY. s. 1. The vulgar [meaning "common"] name for the shepherd's dog...Gael. culean, a grown whelp, has for its vocative culyie, which is the term used when one calls to a whelp. In Gaelic Coo or cu signifies a dog.

Just to carry this a bit further, Dwelly (considered by some to be the Gaelic-English dictionary) gives the definition of cuilean (a slightly different spelling from Jamieson, the vocative being a chuilein!) as "1. Whelp. 2. Puppy...5. Frequently used for a dog of full growth or any age. "

To me, this is fairly conclusive. If you should come across any other explanation to where the word "collie" comes from, please contact me Carole Presberg.  


What is a Border Collie?  

The Border Collie is defined by its working style. Herding dogs are bred for working ability, and genetic makeup is the biggest factor in determining working characteristics. Each herding breed has somewhat different working behavior depending on the stockmen's needs at the time the breed was being developed. It is the working characteristics of the breed that essentially makes it different from other breeds.


Ability to "Gather"  

Bred for hill conditions, the Border Collie is outstanding when it comes to working sheep. Unlike "specialists" of the past, the Border Collie is able to perform a variety of tasks. He is born with the instinct to "gather" the sheep to the shepherd and this trait makes him most useful on the hill. In Scotland, where the sheep spend a good part of the year scattered widely on high pasture, a dog must be able to circle around and gather the entire flock for routine management like dipping and shearing.

In sheepdog trials, the gather is broken down into three parts. The "outrun" is the first part. The dog is sent by the shepherd or handler to gather the sheep. The dog makes a wide circle around the flock so as to "gather in" the entire flock. In sheepdog trials, there will be only a few sheep, but on the hill it may be the entire flock of hundreds of sheep that needs gathering. This wide circle is called the "outrun". The direction (clockwise or counterclockwise) is determined by the handler and depends on the terrain, the distribution of sheep, and what the handler knows of the dog's strengths and weaknesses (for example, some dogs more naturally go in one direction than the other). While different handlers sometimes use different directional commands, most often "Come-bye!" is the command for clockwise, and "Way to me!" is used for counterclockwise.

The second part of the gather is called the "lift". The dog swings around behind the flock and the flock begins to move off in the direction of the handler. And finally, the third part of the gather, where the dog brings the flock to the handler, is called the "fetch". In sheepdog trials these three parts might be distinctive, but on the hill, especially in difficult terrain, they are probably indistinguishable.



The Border Collie controls the sheep with "eye" which has a distinct meaning, referring to the amount of concentration on the sheep that the dog shows. The sheep are "held" by the strength of the dog's eye and a dog in which this characteristic is well developed is called "strong-eyed". It allows the dog to move the sheep quietly and calmly. It is likely that there were dogs with this behavior early on in the working collie, and, as it is a useful behavior, it was chosen for. James Hogg describes this behavior in his dogs. Eye is the single most distinguishing instinctual behavior of the Border Collie as a herding dog.



The Border Collie has a tendency to "clap" or go down and face the sheep with its belly close to the ground. This in combination with "eye" gives the Border Collie a singularly predatory look. Dogs were bred for clapping and strong eye for many years, but now some are being bred or trained to stay more on their feet so that they are ready to move quickly if necessary. However, even on its feet, a Border Collie still crouches forward and has a characteristic predatory appearance.

This combination of behaviors is indeed how preditors hunt and stalk their prey, and herding instinct is often described as "modified prey drive". Sometime back in the murky annals of time, dogs were chosen who could suspend their instincts to kill.



Intelligence in an animal that cannot speak is hard to define. The Border Collie is usually considered an intelligent dog. Stanley Coren (The Intelligence of Dogs, 2005, The Free Press) described intelligence in Border Collies as "trainability", but shepherds had a different definition. To them intelligence meant a dog that could think for himself. Border Collies were often sent great distances to gather the scattered flocks. Because they often had to work far away from their handlers, Border Collies had be intelligent and independent as well. They were relied upon to handle unusual situations without the assistance of the shepherd. Stories abound about how various sheepdogs handled themselves in these instances. Here is one that James Hogg told of his own dog, Sirrah:

I was a shepherd for ten years on the same farm, where I had...about 700 lambs put under my charge...at weaning-time. As they were of the...black-faced breed, the breaking of them was a very ticklish and difficult task. I was obliged to watch them night and day for the first four days, during which I had always a person to assist me. It happened one year, that just about midnight the lambs broke and came up the moor upon us, making a noise with their running louder than thunder. We got up and waved our plaids, and shouted, in hopes to turn them, but we only made matters worse...and by our exertions we cut them into three divisions.

I called out [to my dog] 'Sirrah, my man, they're away'...but owing to the darkness of the night, and the blackness of the moor, I never saw him at all...I ran here and there, not knowing what to do, but always at intervals, gave a loud whistle to Sirrah, to let him know that I was depending on him...We both concluded, that whatever way the lambs ran at first, they would finally land at the fold where they left their mothers, and...we bent our course towards that; but when we came there, we found nothing of them.

My companion then bent his course towards the farm...and I ran away westward for several miles, along the wild track where the lambs had grazed while following their dams. We met after it was day...but neither of us had been able to discover our lambs, nor any traces of them...We had nothing for it but to return to our master, and inform him that we had lost his whole flock of lambs.

On our way home, however, we discovered a body of lambs at the bottom of a deep ravine...and the indefatigable Sirrah standing in front of them, looking all around for some relief, but still standing true to his charge...When we first came in view of them, we concluded that it was one of the divisions of the lambs...But what was our astonishment, when we discovered that not one lamb of the whole flock was wanting! How had he got all the divisions collected in the dark is beyond my comprehension. The charge was left entirely to himself from midnight until the rising of the sun; and if all the shepherds in the Forest had been there to have assisted him, they could not have effected it with greater propriety.



Border Collies can be taught to herd a variety of livestock. Many will naturally herd anything that moves--ducks, chickens, sheep, cats, cars and children. Versatility also makes them excel in fields other than herding and sheepdog trials, and today there are many Border Collies winning Obedience, Agility and Flyball matches for their city and suburban owners.