Queen Victoria’s Border Collies

18/07/2010 11:46

Queen Victoria’s Border Collies

For well over a century the “Collie” name has been co-opted by show breeders who have created a monster whose face looks like a door stop with beady eyes set in triangular slits. These same people have co-opted the notion that Queen Victoria was deeply infatuated with their flavor of Collie. But she wasn’t.

The three dogs you see above are the collies the Queen was infatuated with, her favorite dogs, her constant companions from the death of Prince Albert in 1861 to the Queen’s own death in January of 1901. Not one of them looks either like a Victorian Collie nor the wedge-headed beasts we call Rough and Smooth Collies today. The above dogs are clearly Border Collies.

The large photo to the left is of Noble, the center Border Collie in the photo above. Even though he lived decades before the name “Border Collie” came into being, his photo in the Royal Collection is labeled “A Collie of the Cheviot Breed.”

This alone is sufficient to classify him a proto-Border Collie as the Cheviot hills were the epicenter of the Border Collie’s creation. It also indicates that even in the 1870s the Border Collie type was a cohesive and ample subgroup within Collies to merit its own name.

The comparison clearly shows that Noble looks most like a modern Border Collie (my Dublin), versus the least Borzoi-headed Victorian era collie I could find and the quintessential Lassie collie. While many of the sable Scotch collies of the era were already more angular, with less stop and high set ears (before the supposed Borzoi blood), some still had a more natural look. Dublin and Noble share an even greater similarity now that Dublin is full grown, but his puppy photo above was the first I found that matched the full on gaze of Noble for comparison.

Sharp, the Queen’s favorite collie before Noble, and Roy, her constant companion after, are much the same type as Noble and clearly nothing like either the Victorian collie, the Borzoi-headed collies, or the Rough and Smooth collies we have today. And they’re amazingly unchanged over the three decades from Albert’s death to the Queen’s own. By 1901, the show collie was already another beast entirely, and although the Queen is known to have had all sorts of collies, some of whom were shown, the special ones were Border Collies.

For a woman who owned hundreds of dogs of different types which lived in the various kennels of her estates, it says a lot about the excellent companions Border Collies make that Victoria would chose them consistently over the many other collies and other breeds she owned to be her most intimate pets.

Two dogs that featured strongly in the queen’s life were the collie dogs, Noble and Sharp, that always traveled with her to and from Balmoral, whom Victoria described with great affection in her Highland journals. Sharp, however, had a reputation for being bad tempered and was always spoiling for a fight with other dogs. He frightened most of the royal entourage, except the redoubtable John Brown. Noble was far more sweet natured and had the special role of guarding the queen’s gloves.

- The Personal Life of Queen Victoria by Sarah Tooley 1896, p. 108

Here’s the journal entry where she describes how “Sharp” was a good name for a dog that was both intelligent and pointy:

Misty early, then beautiful and clear and very hot. Got up with a bad headache. At five minutes to eleven rode off with Beatrice, good Sharp going with us and having occasional “collie-shangies”–A Scotch word for quarrels or “rows,” but taken from fights between “collies.”–with collies when we came near cottages.

- Queen Victoria’s Journal of a Life in the Highlands, September 6, 1869

The photos of Queen Victoria and Sharp that were taken at Balmoral in 1867 show a dog that could be mistaken for a Lab at first blush. Mostly for the traits that distinguish Border Collies from Victorian/show/Lassie collies: predominantly black and white, a clear stop, a rounded skull, large friendly eyes. The photo taken two years before, however shows that Sharp has a moderate smooth coat, keeping plenty of hair around the collar and face, and those ears and facial structure are very Border Collie.

The Queen’s pet dogs accompany her wherever she goes, and are not distinctively Balmoral pets. In the “Leaves” of her “Life” here, however, she makes special mention of two, Sharp and Noble, and their photographs are given in that book. A slight reminiscence of Sharp may not be out of place. We have countless reminiscences of bipeds of far less noble nature.

Sharp was a loyal dog, though discriminating in his loyalty. He gave allegiance to a limited number only, and one of those was John Brown. He guarded his room and his properties. One day, two of the maids at Windsor Castle, Deeside lassies, went to John Brown’s room for a “crack” with their compatriot concerning some matter of mutual interest, but did not find him in. They, therefore, availed themselves of his pens and paper to write a note to leave behind them. This done, they turned to go. But Sharp, who had been lying quietly by the bed, instantly sprang between them and the door, and intimated unmistakably that they would not be permitted to leave. In vain they coaxed. Sharp was incorruptible; and they understood his nature sufficiently to know that an attempt to pass him without his assent would be dangerous. There was nothing for it but to sit down and wait till some one came for their relief.

They waited an hour, Sharp lying quiet but alert. At the end of that time a page came along, also looking for John Brown. To him they appealed for help. He suddenly seized the dog by the collar, called out to the girls to run, and then throwing Sharp from him with all his force, sprang through the door and closed it, Sharp meanwhile howling with rage. Had they not touched anything in the room, said John Brown, Sharp would have allowed them to go. But having meddled with the writing materials, argued the sagacious dog, what properties might they not be conveying away.

- The Queen at Balmoral by Frank Pope Humphrey – 1893, p. 182-184

Following the death of Albert, the Queen became a very sentimental and secluded woman. She documented her travels, her life with her pets, and even memorialized them in numerous ways. It is this shift in her lifestyle that created the documentation of her favorite dogs, the Border Collies.

Mementos of the past surrounded her in serried accumulations. In every room the tables were powdered thick with the photographs of relatives; their portraits, revealing them at all ages, covered the walls; their figures, in solid marble, rose up from pedestals, or gleamed from brackets in the form of gold and silver statuettes. The dead, in every shape–in miniatures, in porcelain, in enormous life-size oil paintings–were perpetually about her. John Brown stood upon her writing-table in solid gold. Her favorite horses and dogs, endowed with a new durability, crowded round her footsteps. Sharp, in silver gilt, dominated her dinner table.

- Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey, 1921

Following the reign of Sharp as the Queen’s favorite, another Border Collie ascended to the throne, the handsome Noble:

My favorite collie Noble is always downstairs when we take our meals, and was so good, Brown making him lie on a chair or couch, and he never attempted to come down without permission, and even held a piece of cake in his mouth without eating it, till told he might. He is the most “biddable” dog I ever saw, and so affectionate and kind; if he thinks you are not pleased with him, he puts out his paws, and begs in such an affectionate way.

- Queen Victoria’s Journal of a Life in the Highlands – Sunday, September 14, 1873

The photos are convincing based on looks, but if there was one, just one, trait that would distinguish the Border Collie from all other breeds, let alone the other collies, it’d be “most biddable.” That the Queen puts the word in quotes suggests that she had been talking with the very shepherds who bred the Border Collies, as it is–even today–their favorite word.

The queen was heartbroken when [Noble] grew sick at the age of sixteen. She called in her own personal physician, Sir James Reid, to administer the medicine to the animal, and when the dog died the queen was so distraught that Reid had to sedate her. Noble too received a ceremonial burial at Balmoral, for the queen fervently believed that the higher animals had souls and when they died would go to a future life; they should therefore, in her view, be mourned just like humans.

- Queen Victoria by Helen Rappaport p. 36

Like Sharp, Noble too was given a funeral and a statue to memorialize him. And, like the photos and statue of Sharp, Noble is clearly unlike the Victorian Collie and a perfect cast of what is still today recognizable as a Border Collie.

In the park, west of the Castle, beside a path, stands a life-size bronze of “Noble.”

Noble was a “biddable,” affectionate dog, says his Royal Mistress, and he looks it. Like Matthew Arnold’s “Geist,” and many another less famous dog, he was:

“That liquid Melancholy eye
From whose pathetic soul-fed springs
Seemed surging the Virgilian cry,
The sense of tears in mortal things.”

This finds admirable expression in the bronze. Upon the pedestal supporting the figure is the following:–

For more than 15 years the favourite collie
and dear and faithful companion of
Queen Victoria,
Died at Balmoral, 18th Sept., 1887.

“Noble by name, by nature noble too,
Faithful companion, sympathetic, true.”

His remains are interred here.

- The Queen at Balmoral by Frank Pope Humphrey – 1893, p. 184

The successor to Sharp and Noble was Roy, also a clear Border Collie, and also a constant companion and favored dog to Queen Victoria.

Her Majesty’s love for dogs is so well known that it would be superfluous to dwell upon such a topic. Wherever the Queen goes, she is accompanied by “Spot” (a fox-terrier), “Roy” (a black and tan collie), and a lovely little brown Spitz called “Marco.” Her favourite dogs are collies…

- The Idler Magazine, Volume III, April 1893

One of the Queen’s attendants writes about Her Majesty’s adventures later in life, adventuring about in the country pulled by a donkey with Roy in tow:

Villa Victoria, Grasse, Alpes Maritimes, April 1, 1891

… We had had a delicious morning, with air like crystal; part of it I spent on the mountainside, painting after H.M.’s donkey chair. Off goes the donkey at a good firm pace, led by the groom, Randall. H.M.in a grey shall, with a mushroom hat, a large white sunshade, sits comfortably installed in a donkey chair; then come the two Princesses close behind, walking like troopers; the two Scottish servants not quite so active; beside them romps the collie ‘Roy.’ Lady Churchill and I close up the procession, and the little pug belonging to Princess Beatrice toddles last of all. The Queen never stops, but goes steadily on.

- Reminiscences by Candace Battersea, 1922

This brings us full circle back to the first of the Queen’s Border Collies that we know of in detail, Sharp:

The Queen now goes about the grounds in her garden chair–a basket chair, with thick rubber bands on the wheels for ease and smoothness of motion. Francie Clark leads the pony or donkey, and the dogs go with her in charge of the dogmen–”Roy” and “Marco” and the rest. The little beasties do not accompany her in her long drives, though “Sharp,” I believe, used occasionally to break away and follow till he caught up her carriage, to return sitting proudly by his royal mistress’s side.

- The Queen at Balmoral by Frank Pope Humphrey – 1893, p. 77-78

They don’t come more rich or more famous than Queen Victoria, the premiere member of the Border Collies of the Rich and Famous club. Her tastes became England’s tastes and she is perhaps the most significant cultural trendsetter of the era. Luckily for us Border Collie fans, the true identity of her favorite pets remained obscured by the imprecise “Collie” title and the corruptors in the show world took the loose eyed, dim witted, and pick headed Collie as their ideal and left the Border Collie alone.