Posts Tagged ‘Lady Aberdeen’

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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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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