Where did the Border collie come from?

Sheepdog collection, black and white, tricolour and merle

We’re often asked how and where the Border collie breed was developed.

It seems that everyone has a theory, and there’s an undercurrent of dispute as to whether the Welsh collie is/was the Original and Best, or if the collie was developed in the Scottish/English borders.

Border collie puppies in a basket
At a household auction, this would definitely be described as "a mixed lot"

Here are my thoughts on the origins of the Border collie (to save time writing and re-writing similar email replies).

I doubt there’ll be anything controversial, it’s based on what I’ve read and heard, but for anyone with a passing interest in the breed it might make a useful jumping off point.

For as long as shepherds have been using dogs to move or restrict sheep, they’ve needed a consistent supply of useful, amenable dogs. I imagine that, being farmers at heart, the less they had to spend on these replacement dogs the happier they were, so it made sense to ask around and find out who amongst their neighbours had a good dog or bitch, and would be prepared to breed from it.

Prick-eared female working sheepdog
Amongst the best pricked ears I've known. Tess was bred here, but I don't know where her ears came from...

The dog’s working ability would be only one of the criteria when choosing a mate. Health, stamina, soundness and tractability would all be important considerations, and the last is by no means the least. At this time (certainly pre-1860s) shepherds spent a good deal of time with their dogs, in all weathers and for long hours, and the dog needed to be a good companion as well as a good worker.

The sheepdog who sloped off to find sheep when his master was resting, for example, shows at best a lack of commitment to its handler, and at worst a seriously misplaced predation instinct. The line is thinly drawn between predation and herding.

The instinct that makes a sheepdog is simply the instinct to hunt, but it’s been modified and controlled across the generations. It has to be there, but without discipline it can be fatal to sheep and, ultimately, to a dog too.

The dog that became the Border collie was probably never bred primarily for its looks, and even today they can seem a miscellaneous bunch.

Rough coated red and white collie dog
After his first moulting, Roy proved to be a traditional black tricolour!

A good dog is never a bad colour or poorly marked, and short or smooth coated (often referred to north of the border, as bare-skinned), rough coated, medium, straight or curly coated, long legged, short legged, long bodied, short bodied, short tailed, long tailed, prick eared, tip eared or one of each, everything is acceptable so long as the dog itself is a sound worker.

There is no Breed Standard for a working collie. Sickly specimens with poor conformation would lack the stamina and hardiness (and hence, possibly, the will) to work for long hours in harsh conditions, and wouldn’t be chosen for breeding.

So sheepdog breeding was active in the UK during the nineteenth century. The first organised and recorded sheepdog trial was held at Bala, in Wales, in 1873. It was won by a Scotsman. Thirty years later, in 1906, the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS) was formed.

The ISDS website describes its foundation as “following a meeting of English and Scottish sheepmen” in East Lothian, and the society’s activities were clustered around the Borders region between Scotland and England.

Whether or not the name Border collie stems from the breed’s origins in the border country can only be speculation now. It’s a fact that the majority of the first 100 dogs in the Stud Book come from the Borders area but, given the original demographic, hardly surprising and probably not significant.

Tricolour collie female with one blue and one brown eye
And for a little extra variety, let's throw in a blue eye or two

Trialling was active elsewhere, of course (the Welsh must have had a collective eye on putting the Scots in their place after 1873) and in 1922 the ISDS was invited to hold its next International trial at Criccieth, with Wales becoming the third nation of the society.

Still Wales couldn’t win, and the trial was won by the whispering, whistling William Wallace who’d already made a name for himself.

Mr William Wallace is said to be the first shepherd who handled his dog in a way that modern handlers would recognise (or at least aspire to).

Apparently, while competing at Hawick Trials in 1883, he commanded his dog using “a mere hiss at hand [close work] and a low whistle at distance”, whereas shouting and gesticulating were common features of dog handling at the time (and not uncommon now).

Trialling was a result of the aim of the society, not the aim itself. The aim was the establishment of a Stud Book and the improvement of the shepherd’s dog. Trials served as, and still are, a test of the dog, but it’s arguable whether they’re not really a more rigorous test of the handler.

Smooth coated, traditionally marked Border collie
In looks at least, Max is my ideal of a Border collie but I know he wouldn't be to everyone's taste

It was (probably) never the intention of the good founders of the ISDS that an entire breeding population would trace its roots back to a single dog, but that’s what we have today in the registered dog gene pool. Adam Telfer’s Old Hemp, born in 1893, was a popular stud dog who fathered over 200 puppies.

Later, Wiston Cap, born in 1963 won the International just once (in 1965) but became a popular, dare one say fashionable, stud dog to the near exclusion of other available registered working dogs.

He fathered so many litters that certainly most, if not yet quite all, ISDS registered collies today can trace their ancestry back to him. Better resourced handlers than I have tried to find a Wiston Cap-free dog since 1995, and failed, but I believe there are one or two still around.

Wiston Cap died, a husk of his former self I imagine, in 1979.


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