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Posts Tagged ‘Ishbel Marjoribanks’

Ishbel Maria Hamilton-Gordon, Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair, was the daughter of the 1st Baron Tweedmouth. Besides their yellow retrievers, this family was also associated with Skye terriers.

Regular readers will know that I often reference the 1st Baron Tweedmouth, Dudley Marjoribanks, and his family. Because of the nature of this blog, I tend to focus on their retrievers. However, the family is also known for their patronage of another breed. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this family was known more for its Skye terriers than its retrievers.

Now, I have mentioned that it was the daughter of the 1st Baron Tweedmouth who introduced the golden retriever to North America. Ishbel Marjoribanks married John Hamilton-Gordon, the Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair. He would eventually become Governor-General of Canada from 1893 to 1898, and he and his wife purchased an estate in the Okanagan Valley. This estate was called Guisachan after her father’s estate in the Highlands near the small village of Tomich.

Now, I’ve mentioned all of this before on the blog, but it has always been within the context of retrievers.  However,  if Ishbel’s name had been mentioned in 1900, most of the intelligentsia would say something about her push for various reforms in Canada and probably would say something about her Skye terriers.

In Charles Henry Lane’s Dog Shows and Doggy People (1902), the section on “The Countess of  Aberdeen” discusses her patronage  of Skye terriers and also mentions how much her father loved the breed:

There is no need to tell any of my readers who have seen this lady at a show with her pets that she is a lover of animals, and I am very pleased that her chosen favourites are Drop-eared Skyes, as they will be all the better for her ladyship’s patronage and influence, and are not so much kept as they deserve.

I believe Lady Aberdeen’s love for Skyes, which was inherited from her father, Lord Tweedmouth, dates from the time of her childhood; but it is only during the last few years that any of them have been exhibited.

The accompanying portrait of the Countess in company with a number of her pets will give a better idea of what a typical lot they are than any words of mine. Some of their names are: Monarch of Haddo, Feuriach (meaning Little Squirrel), Coulaig (Little Darling), Chluarain (Thistle), Bheown (Mountain), Darkie, Fraoch (Heather), and Angus Grey, evidently for the most part names of Gaelic origin well suited to the holders of them.

The Countess is well known as a lady of culture and ability, which she has shown in the valuable help she has given her distinguished husband in carrying out the receptions and social functions connected with the high Colonial appointments he has held, and has accompanied him also in some of his sporting expeditions.

The Ladies’ Kennel Association has the advantage of Lady Aberdeen’s active patronage and support as one of their Grand Council, and she is also one of the Committee of the Ladies’ County House Club, and a representative of the National Poultry Organisation Society.

Matters intended to benefit women in all ranks of life find in the Countess no lukewarm advocate – one who can both act and speak in their favour, frequently presiding over meetings held for such purposes, both in England and Scotland, and occasionally, as at the last show in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Regent’s Park, distributing the prizes to the successful exhibitors of the Ladies’ Kennel Association.

As I have mentioned here before, drop-eared Skye terriers are very rare today. However, the Marjoribanks family had at least one of these dogs when the first litter of yellow retrievers was born at Guisachan. Here is a depiction of Mary Marjoribanks (Ishbel’s sister) with one dogs from that first litter. The dog is either Cowslip or Primrose:

The terrier on the left is a drop-eared Skye terrier. The dogs were common pets for Scottish aristocrats, and the are actually quite closely related to the Cairn terrier, which was once considered a variety of Skye.

Skye terriers are from the Hebrides, and although they were used as working terriers to bolt otters and badgers from their holts and settes, the dogs were not often worked in the nineteenth century.

This evolution from working terrier began centuries earlier. In the sixteenth century, John Caius sent a description of all sorts of British dogs to the Swiss naturalist Konrad Gessner. In his analysis, Caius described dogs very similar to the Skye-type terrier:

[L]ap dogs which were brought out of the barbarous borders from the uttermost countryes northward [such as Skye in the Inner Hebrides], and they by reason of the length of their heare, make show neither face nor body, and yet these curres forsooth because they are so strange, are greatly set by, esteemed, taken up, and made of, in room of the spaniell gentle, or comforter [the ancestral toy spaniel].

By the 1860’s, it was obvious that Skye terriers were meant to be pets. Many of these Scottish landowners were newcomers to the Highlands. The Marjoribankses  certainly were. Dudley had made his fortune as chairman of the Meux Brewery, and although a native of Scotland, he was not a Highlander. His roots were in the Borders near Berwick. The Skye terriers were thought as part and parcel of life in the Scottish Highlands. Sir Walter Scott had romanticized Scotland’s history, and many wealthy people in Britain were searching for Scottish land to call their own. Scott also kept Skye terriers (or dogs very similar to them).

It would have made sense that a family like the Marjoribankses who had come to the Highlands in search of that Scotland immortalized in Scott’s prose. In that part of Scotland, no country noble could be without a pack of Skye terriers.

Within this narrative there lies a certain irony. You’ll notice that Lane extols the virtues of the Skye terrier and laments that they are not “so much kept as they deserve.” The breed was beginning to fall from grace by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Today’s Skye terrier is a very rare breed. The KC has listed them as a Vulnerable Native Breed. In fact, on that list, the Skye is the most endangered breed, and it is estimated that this breed could become extinct within the next 40 years.

However, in 1900, no one was talking about the Marjoribankses’ other dog. If you mentioned a yellow retriever, someone would say that they exist, but they are inferior to black ones. Today, if you mention a golden retriever, I believe most people would know exactly what you’re talking about. If anyone knows anything about the Marjoribanks family, it is about their golden retrievers and their commitment to the old Liberal Party.

It is very unusual to find a family that has become associated with two different breeds of dog. It is even more unusual to see how the fortunes of these two breeds have played out in history.

Maybe in 100 years, the golden retriever will be in the same place that the Skye terrier is today.  The golden retriever is being considered to be little more than a family pet.  It won’t take centuries for the golden retriever to become nothing more than a romantic image. The Skye terrier didn’t have competitors that could easily replace them in the popular imagination of Scottish nobles. The golden can be replaced, and that is something that all people who appreciate the breed should consider.

If the Skye terrier teaches us anything, it is that breeds must be prevented from going sideways when their numbers are high enough to actually engage in real selective breeding. Once those numbers start to plummet, it is very hard to bring them back around. The time for reform is now.

If the Skye terrier fanciers had made some changes when their dogs were at the peak of their popularity, it is very likely that this breed wouldn’t be staring at a possible extinction in the very near future.

But it seems that very few dog people really look at these things until it is too late.

And that is the real shame.

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