Posts Tagged ‘Guisachan’

As an addition to my post on the clearances of Guisachan, I think I should give you an idea of what these farmers thought about their lands being turned over to shooting estates.

Robert Burns, who worked as a tenant farmer in South Ayrshire, penned these words that probably perfectly captured the sentiments of these poor evicted crofters:

Now westlin winds and slaughtering guns
Bring autumn’s pleasant weather
The moorcock springs on whirring wings
Among the blooming heather
Now waving grain, wild o’er the plain
Delights the weary farmer
And the moon shines bright as I rove at night
To muse upon my charmer.
The partridge loves the fruitful fells
The plover loves the mountains
The woodcock haunts the lonely dells
The soaring hern the fountains
Through lofty groves the cushat roves
The path of man to shun it
The hazel bush o’erhangs the thrush
The spreading thorn the linnet
Thus every kind their pleasure find
The savage and the tender
Some social join and leagues combine
Some solitary wander
Avaunt away! the cruel sway
Tyrannic man’s dominion
The sportsman’s joy, the murdering cry
The fluttering gory pinion
But Peggy dear, the evening’s clear
Thick files the skimming swallow
The sky is blue, the field’s in view
All fading green and yellow
Com let us stray our gladsome way
And view the charms of nature
The rustling corn, the fruited thorn
And every happy creature
We’ll gently walk and sweetly talk
Till the silent moon shines clearly
I’ll grasp thy waiste and, fondly pressed
Swear how I love thee dearly
Not vernal showers to budding flowers
Not autumn to the farmer
So dear can be as thou to me
My fair, and lovely charmer.

Here’s Dick Gaughan performing these lyrics of the Bard of Ayrshire:


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Guisachan House in the 1890's.

Guisachan in the 1890's.

Virtually all breed books discuss the prominent individuals within a given breed’s history in a positive light. Negative facts are usually left aside, for the focus is more on how the breed developed, not a discussion of the social, economic, and political history that made the breed possible. Granted, people do not buy dog books to understand these issues. Most people just want to read about the creation story of their dog, and the breed fanciers like to bask in the glory of the past.

However, it important to at least consider some of the negative parts of a breed’s history. As someone who prefers history to hagiography, I think it is a good idea to understand that the golden retriever would not have been possible had their not been some human suffering.

What do I mean by “human suffering”?

First of all, we have to start with who the founders of the golden retriever were.

The golden retriever’s founders were part of the economic and political elite of British society. The reason why we know so much about the dogs is that only people with considerable means would ever bother to keep such meticulous records of the dogs in their lines, and only people with that sort of wealth would even dream of keeping a dog with such a limited utility.

A dog that picks up shot game is certainly useful, but the average person could not bother with keeping or breeding such dogs. Working people needed dogs that could earn their keep. Dogs were bred according to their utility, not their pedigree, and after many generations breeding for utility only, tracing these bloodlines becomes next to impossible.

However, if one has money, time, and employees to maintain kennels, one can keep close records on the dogs. That is why we have such a complete record of the dogs at Guisachan.

Dudley Marjoribanks was not a poor man. Dudley had made a considerable fortune as chairman of the Meux Brewery Company, and he had inherited a lot of money from his father’s estate. He had a posh mansion in London’s Park Lane called Brook House. He also had holdings in the Scottish (now registration) county of Berwickshire, which was where he was born.

A Border Scot who had done well in this world, Marjoribanks began to look for new real estate. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Scottish Highlands had experienced a total image makeover. In the eighteenth century, it was seen as a backward place, full of Gaelic-speaking insurgents called Jacobites who were too busy raising hell and livestock to be recognized among the civilized.

The work of Sir Walter Scott had totally changed that popular perception. In his writings, Scotland became a romantic place, where the last vestiges of wild Britain existed alongside a turbulent history.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert also helped changed this perception. They began visiting Balmoral in 1848, and eventually purchased the estate in 1852. This purchase set off a land boom in Scotland. All sorts of wealthy aristocrats began buying up land in Scotland.

In 1853, Dudley Marjoribanks was elected as the Liberal MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, and it is very likely that he was caught up in the Scottish euphoria the had swept through these elite circles. His lands in Berwickshire did not count for much. He needed an estate deep within Caledonia, and you can’t get much more Caldeonian than a shooting estate in the Highlands.

Marjoribanks purchased Guisachan (“Place of the Firs”) in 1854. It was the perfect place to go grouse shooting and deer-stalking. It was also not a bad place to bring his fellow politicians for deal-making and negotiations.

Now, our popular perception of the Highlands is of a sparsely populated place with spectacular landscapes.  The land is inhabited by a few shepherds and some rare wild creatures, like the Scottish wildcat.

The truth of the matter is that Highlands were not always so empty. There was once a rather large population that lived there.  In Scotland, the lands were enclosed rather similarly to the way they were enclosed in England and Wales. However, these enclosures happened a little later, and they were based upon a different set of economic pressures.  The tenant farmers of Scotland had lived on these estates for centuries as part of the ancient clan system of Scotland. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, these farmers were driven off these lands to make way for sheep grazing. Many Scottish farmers were without land to work, and they were forced into a level of economic insecurity that  forced them to fight for a chance to labor as virtual slave on estate or join the army (see the song “Twa Recruiting Sergeants.“)

The process of driving these large numbers of small farmers off the land to make way for sheep and cattle grazing and later for setting up posh estates for the wealthy was known as the Highland Clearances, and that is a good description for what happened. The Highlands were literally cleared of people, many of whom emigrated to other parts of Britain, as well as North America, Australia, New Zealand, and other parts of the British Empire.

In the 1850’s, there were still some estates that had tenant farmers working on their lands. When Guisachan was purchased, there were tenant farmers living there. These farmers were forced to leave.

Alexander Mackenzie (not the Canadian prime minister or the explorer) wrote the history of these clearances and worked hard to bring about reform to give these people rights. Mackenzie wrote about the Guisachan Clearances:

The modern clearances which took place within the last quarter of a century in Guisachan, Strathglass, by Sir Dudley Marjoribanks, have been described in all their phases before a Committee of the House of Commons in 1872. The Inspector of Poor for the parish of Kiltarlity wrote a letter which was brought before the Committee, with a statement from another source that, “in 1855, there were 16 farmers on the estate; the number of cows they had was 62, and horses, 24; the principal farmer had 2000 sheep, the next 1000, and the rest between them 1200, giving a total of 4200. Now (1873) there is but one farmer, and he leaves at Whitsunday; all these farmers lost the holdings on which they ever lived in competency; indeed, it is well known that some of them were able to lay by some money. They have been sent to the four quarters of the globe, or to vegetate in Sir Dudley’s dandy cottages at Tomich, made more for show than convenience, where they have to depend on his employment or charity. To prove that all this is true, take at random, the smith, the shoemaker, or the tailor, and say whether the poverty and starvation were then or now? For instance, under the old regime, the smith farmed a piece of land which supplied the wants of his family with meal and potatoes; he had two cows, a horse, and a score or two of sheep on the hill; he paid £7 of yearly rent; he now has nothing but the bare walls of his cottage and smithy, for which he pays £10. Of course he had his trade than as he has now. Will he live more comfortably now than he did then? “It was stated, at the same time, that, when Sir Dudley Marjoribanks bought the property, there was a population of 235 souls upon it, and Sir Dudley, in his examination, though he threw some doubt upon that statement, was quite unable to refute it. The proprietor, on being asked, said that he did not evict any of the people. But Mr. Macombie having said, “Then the tenants went away of their own free will,” Sir Dudley replied, “I must not say so quite. I told them that when they had found other places to go to, I wished to have their farms.”

They were, in point of fact, evicted as much as any others of the ancient tenantry in the Highlands, though it is but fair to say that the same harsh cruelty was not applied in their case as in many of the others recorded in these pages. Those who had been allowed to remain in the new cottages, are without cow or sheep, or an inch of land, while those alive of those sent off are spread over the wide world, like those sent, as already described, from other places. (291-93).

So to make way for his shooting estate, 235 people had to leave. We do not know their names, and we certainly do not know the names of their dogs or even what kind of dogs they owned. However, they were probably collie-types and terriers. They had an actual economic utility, but once their owners were deemed unnecessary for profit, progress, or prosperity of the elite, both the working dog and working man were sent packing.

To make way for Marjoribanks’s shooting estate and eventual development of his strain of yellow wavy-coat, people had to suffer. People lost their livelihoods and the ancient way of life.

This is the dark side of the Guisachan story that has always gone unmentioned in golden retriever histories. I apologize for not mentioning it earlier in this blog. The truth of the matter is that such facts do not often appear within the context of the story of the golden retriever.

However, the story does not end there. Dudley Marjoribanks’s daughter, Ishbel, married John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon, 1st Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair, who served as  Governor-General of Canada from 1893 to 1898. They were early Social Liberals who worked very hard to improve the conditions of working people in Canada, many of whom were either immigrants or descendants of immigrants who had left Scotland as a result of the clearances.

One wonders if Ishbel (Lady Aberdeen) felt a certain amount of guilt over her family’s clearance of Guisachan. Maybe she was trying to make amends for that injustice.


Lord and Lady Aberdeen purchase the Coldstream Ranch in the Okanagan Valley, which they renamed Guisachan. On that estate, they kept some yellow wavy-coats that were of her father’s strain. These were the first goldens to be imported to North America.

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The four bitch puppies that were born from crossing Nous to Belle formed the foundational for the strain of yellow retrievers at Guisachan. The line was maintained through some outcrossing to the top black wavy-coated retriever lines of the day, at least one red setter (of some breed), and another Tweed water dog.

If one takes a look at the pedigree of the Guisachan dogs, the names of famous dogs early days of the standardized flat or wavy-coated breed are rather obvious. Zelstone, Tracer, and Jenny/Wisdom, stand out  as founders of the line. That tells us that the Dudley Marjoribanks, though a Liberal, was close enough to Sewallis Shirley, an MP from a prominent Conservative family and founding president of the Kennel Club, to breed from their dogs. The two men probably saw each other in Parliament, and although they probably were not in agreement in politics, they were both ardent retriever people.

I find this part of their history rather fascinating.  The foundational lines of both the golden and flat-coat involve many of the same dogs. It also shows us that the strain developed at Guisachan was not intended to be a separate breed. It was intended to be a yellow variety of wavy-coat.

Now, in the early days of the fancy, wavy-coats had to be black. It was nearly impossible to win at show with a liver dog, and it would be nearly impossible to win with a yellow or red one. However, this yellow or red strain existed very early on in the history of the standardized wavy-coat.

Even though the strain that developed at Guisachan had some of the best wavy-coated dogs behind it, it was virtually unknown.  Even when Dudley Marjoribanks, MP, was elevated to the peerage of 1st Baron Tweedmouth in 1880, no category was developed for yellow wavy-coats in Kennel Club shows.

One of the reasons for the breed’s obscurity during this time is that the dogs were kept solely for working purposes and were kept by only a few individuals. The same can be said about the Malmesbury/Buccleuch line of smooth-haired retrievers, which began developing in the 1880’s.

In the 1880’s, who would have thought that the most numerous retrievers in the twenty-first century would be derived from those two obscure strains!

Like all wavy-coats of that day, the Tweedmouth strain varied from Newfoundland-type to setter-type.  The dog named Jenny/Wisdom would be the first dog to have something like a modern flat-coat’s head, and in the show-line of flat-coat, it became very important to breed away from the Newfoundland head and body type.


It should be noted here that the Tweedmouth strain was not particularly inbred. The fact that setters and Tweed water spaniels were used as outcrosses suggests that he was much more interested in producing a performance line of dogs.

The same cannot be said about Shirley’s line of wavy-coats. Ch. Moonstone, Tracer’s brother, was bred to his mother, and a red or golden puppy named Foxcote resulted from the Oedipal relations. There were  also several cases of full brother-sister matings.

I find it very interesting that flat-coats and goldens are well-known for their high incidence of cancer. I wonder if this rather high amount of inbreeding early on in their standardization might be a cause of it. After all, inbreeding tends to weaken the immune system, and the immune system is an important in fighting cancer.


The Tweedmouth strain did not develop separately from the other strains of wavy-coat. It developed in concert with them.

Had these dogs been black, they would have been absorbed into the modern flat-coated retriever. Indeed, as we shall see, the golden retriever that developed in the early twentieth century was developing along the lines of dogs we would recognize as flat-coats. The heavier-built dogs in both golden and black wavy-coats were bred away from.

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A depiction of a Tweed water spaniel or water dog. It may be a true liver or a yellow to red with brown skin.

By 1868, Nous had been an established working retriever at Guisachan for three years, and his owner, the 1st Baron Tweedmouth (Dudley Marjoribanks), decided that he wanted to use Nous to found his own breed.

Dudley Marjoribanks had grown up in Berwickshire, the former county in which Berwick-upon-Tweed had been its shire town. He also represented Berwick-upon-Tweed as an MP, and thus, he was familiar with that region’s peculiarities.

He knew of the local water dog, which was a cross between the indigenous water spaniel of the region and “the Newfoundland.”

Richard Lawrence wrote about them in The Complete Farrier and British Sportsman in 1816:

Along rocky shores and dreadful declivities beyond the junction of the Tweed with the sea of Berwick, water dogs have derived an addition of strength, from the introduction of a cross with the Newfoundland dog, which has rendered them completely adequate to the arduous difficulties and diurnal perils in which they are systematically engaged (405).

These dogs were a landrace type, which means they varied greatly in appearance. In Hugh Dalziel’s British Dogs, J.S. Skidmore’s description of the Tweed water spaniel goes as follows:

They were very light liver colour, so close in curl as to give me the idea that they had originally been a cross from a smooth-haired dog; they were long in tail, ears heavy in flesh and hard like a hound’s, but only slightly feathered – fore legs feathered behind, hind legs smooth, head conical, lips more pendulous than M’Carthy’s strain. The one I owned, which was considered to be one of the best of them, I bred from twice, and in each litter several of the puppies were liver and tan, being tanned from the knees downward and under the tail. I came to the conclusion that she, at any rate, had been crossed with the bloodhound.

It is possible that his dog had been crossed with bloodhound or maybe Gordon setter, but  at least one account of the dogs suggests that at least some of these dogs were more of the retriever-type Stanley O’Neill was a well-known flat-coat expert who he had encountered Tweed water dogs as a boy in the 1890’s. His description is of a more retriever like than that of J.S. Skidmore:

Further up the coast, probably Alnmouth [in Northumberland, south of Berwick-upon-Tweed], I saw men netting for salmon. With them was a dog with a wavy or curly coat. It was a tawny colour but, wet and spumy, it was difficult to see the exact colour, or how much was due to bleach and salt. Whilst my elders discussed the fishing I asked these Northumberland salmon net men whether their dog was a [St. John’s?] Water-Dog  or a Curly, airing my knowledge. They told me he was a Tweed Water Spaniel. This was a new one on me. I had a nasty suspicion my leg was being pulled. This dog looked like a brown Water Dog to me, certainly retrieverish, and not at all spanielly. I asked if he came from a trawler, and was told it came from Berwick.

From that description, the dogs looked like a tawny curly-coated retriever. This suggests that at least some of the dogs were not true livers but were brown-skinned yellow to reds. The “light-liver” color in the Skidmore description sounds more like a deadgrass Chessie than a true liver-colored dog.  (Deadgrass Chessies are light yellow dogs with brown skin.)

Now, from my reading of all of these texts, a Tweed water dog or Tweed water spaniel was actually a derivative of the St. John’s water dog. That is why it looked so much like a retriever.  The fact that the dogs had such short hair suggests that they were derived from that “Newfoundland,” rather than the big one. It is likely that the native water spaniel in Northumberland and the Borders was red or yellow in color, rather than truly liver.

Also, in the O’Neill description, the dogs were being used to net salmon. That particular job is the exact task that the St. John’s water dogs performed in Newfoundland.

The dogs were celebrated waterfowl dogs, retrieving shot birds from the chilly and rough waters of the North Sea coast. Because this was a regional breed, it was not well-known in rest of Britain. Dudley Marjoribanks most likely knew about them and their reputation as superior retrievers.

However, in those days, the preferred color for a retriever was black. Other colors simply were not bred from. Perhaps Marjoribanks’s experience with Nous and his knowledge of the Tweed water dog gave him enough confidence to challenge the accepted wisdom of the day.

We do not know what Belle, the Tweed water dog chosen as Nous’s mate, looked like. We can only infer from the depictions of their offspring.

Nous appears to be rather dark-colored dog that was somewhat heavy in bone. If you saw him today, you would recognize him as a golden retriever.

Ada, Crocus, Primrose, and Cowslip, the four bitch puppies that resulted from that breeding, also looked a lot like goldens. Two depictions of those puppies exist– one of Ada and one of either Cowslip or Primrose. Ada is a rather short-haired dog. The dog said to be Cowslip or Primrose has rather wavy long hair.

Both of these dogs are lighter in color than their sire, and both are more lightly build than their sire. This suggests that Belle was a more lightly built dog than Nous and was of a pale gold color. The paler shades in the golden retriever most likely come from the Tweed water dog, for the red t0 yellow wavy-coated retrievers and red Irish and Gordon setters that were crossed into the strain are not that pale in color.

Belle was most likely a brown-skinned yellow, while Nous was a black-skinned yellow of the darker shade.

So now we have an idea about what  the two foundational breeds that helped create the golden retriever looked like. You can see some of the Tweed water dog’s characteristics in some golden retrievers, especially in the performance-bred lines. This breed disappeared by the turn of the century, mostly by being absorbed into the retrievers. Regional dogs also had a hard time competing against the “improved” breeds of retriever that were coming to the fore as the nineteenth century progressed.

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From locco1.

Golden retrievers, of course, were bred at Guisachan house. Guisachan house was built in 1755 by William Fraser 9th. The lands around the house were held by the Clan Fraser of Guisachan and Culbokie, dating to the fifteenth century. You can see a depiction of the eighteenth century house and environs here.

I remember reading somewhere that the names Fraser and Frasier refer to Germanic settlers to Britain, mainly from the Frisian Islands or from Friesland proper.  The modern Frisian language is the Germanic language closest to English and Scots.

Where is Guisachan house?  It is in the conservation village of Tomich. The whole property is now part of conservation land. The land is at the west end of Strathglass, about 30 miles from the city of Inverness.  The Great Glen or Glen Albyn runs through this region, not very far from the Guisachan lands. This whole area is considered part of the Central Highlands.

This means that the golden retriever is the most northerly of all the retrievers, although the St. John’s water dog, the Chesapeake Bay retriever, and the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever evolved in regions with much harsher winters. However, among British retrievers, the golden had the need for the thickest coat, and this environmental necessity could explain why the golden always has had issues with excessive coat.

I’ve been to England, but I’ve not been to Scotland.  However,  this golden retriever “Garden of Eden” is on my life time travel list.

Golden retrievers at the ruins of the Guisachan house.

Golden retrievers at the ruins of the Guisachan house.

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This is a photo of some early Tweedmouth dogs, perhaps at Guisachan, dating back to the 1870’s or the early part of the 1880’s.


It is pretty obvious that black dogs were a part of the Tweedmouth strain, which makes sense. After all, the many of the important dogs in the outcrosses to the line were other wavy-coated retrievers, which were almost universally black. The early Tweedmouth dogs were small, showing the strong Tweed water spaniel influence that was apparent in the breed. The yellow dog on the left is a dark golden, while the one in the middle is a mid-gold dog with what appears to be brown skin pigmentation, which is also probably the result of the Tweed water spaniel’s influence.

My suggestion that these black dogs are of the same line as the yellow ones is based on their appearance. These black dogs are of exactly the same type as the yellow ones.  Interestingly, these dogs all have straight coats or possess just a slight wave.

The small size of these dogs is quite remarkable. Today, goldens and flat-coats are large dogs, averaging 60-70 pounds for both breeds, although the golden technically can range down to 55 pounds for bitches in the American Kennel Club. A few goldens can be only 40 pounds, but these dog are a rarity.

This size suggests that the Tweed water spaniel was probably a mid-size dog, not a large one, and it was probably smaller than the modern Irish water spaniel.

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