Legend has it that shortly after the Hanseatic League was formed a Polish ship out of GDANSK arrived in Scotland to trade for Black-faced sheep, the wool of which was prized by cloak makers. The captain of the trading ship, one KASIMEREZ, noticed that local shepherds found some difficulty in driving the half-wild sheep up the swaying gangplank leading to the ship. Kasimerez promptly produced a pair of long coated mean natured collies, which set about the sheep with a vengeance driving them into the holds of the ship. The local shepherds were very impressed by the dogs and traded a pair of fine horned rams for the collies. These collies supposedly were the ancestors of the bearded collies of today. The tale is clearly apocryphal; however there is certainly the strongest of resemblance between the working bearded collie and the Polish lowland sheepdog.
A more likely explanation for the breed type is that during the second century before Christ, political movements in the centre of Europe started the migration of the Celts who took with them a variety of dogs, varying from giant hounds to rough coated collies. Virtually everywhere the Celts settled has produced herding dogs similar in type to the working bearded collies of Britain. Central France produced the Chien De Berger, the Meseta of Spain the sandy and blue fawn unregistered herding dogs, Holland the Schapendoes, the working stains of the Schapendoes holding still to this day the strongest of resemblance to that of the working beardie. Even the Atlas Mountains of North Africa the boundary of the Celtic migration according to QUINTUS ARRUS SYMARCHUS- produces pale Grey herding dogs not to dissimilar to the polish lowland sheepdogs of today.
At the start of the Industrial Revolution, a period which saw the migration of country craftsmen and labourers to the fast growing towns of Britain, the majority of the droving dogs which drove mixed flocks of livestock were bearded collie types. The so-called Smithfield collies the fabled companions of the drovers were types of bearded collie. These dogs were taller animals than seen today and fiercely hostile to strangers. So protective were these giant collies that drovers sewed money into their jackets and used the garments as night beds for the collies, for few of these collies would allow a stranger to approach them.
These collies drove mixed flocks to market. Sheep and long-horned cattle mingled with turkeys whose feet were clad in a curious leather turkey boots, which buffered their feet from the vigours of the cobbled roads. Geese were perhaps less fortunate. These wretched birds always the worst treated of farmyard animals and birds had their feet dipped in hot tar and dusted with sharp sand to protect them from damage during the drive. However, the lot of these wretched animals did not improve when they arrived in the towns.
Kellow Chesney in his fascinating book “Victorian Underworld” states that the abattoirs of Smithfield (a-corruption of smoothfield) were set some twelve feet below the level of the roads, so that when sheep were driven into these pens broke their legs, which rendered them easier to kill.
In the nineteenth century various types of bearded collie existed in Britain. East Anglia and Kent produced a fox-red type of herding dog, while Dorset. Wiltshire and Hampshire used a very hairy- coated dog, known as the Blue Shaggy Sheepdog. These beardies were often taken to New Zealand by shepherds and became the ancestors of the New Zealand Smithfield collie , while Scotland continued to produce a variety of bearded collie types, ranging from full leggy beardies which almost certainly had deerhound blood, to the smaller almost corgi sized beardies which were used in the cattle markets of Edinburgh.
The ever-faithful Greyfriars Bobbie which is always predicted as a type of Skye terrier was undoubtedly a small bearded collie type, which helped its owner in the cattle stalls of the city.
The onset of the twentieth century saw not only the decline of the bearded collie, but also the extinction of the many of localized breeds of collie. The Border collie that replaced many other breeds of herding dogs, started work sooner, were compulsive herders and had easily- managed coats. Beardies were slower starters, showed less eye or “Style “ and had coats, which balled up in winter, becoming a tangle of straw, mud and filth.
Hence by the 1950’s the Bearded collie was something of a novelty in Scotland and England and it was left to shepherds such as Tom Muirhead to continue the bloodlines of The Working Bearded collie. Tom, who lived in Dunsyre at the time, traveled to Skye and purchased a muddy Grey bitch from a shepherd called Ewan Mc Donald whose dogs had driven cattle from Skye to Falkirk market often in mid winter. Tom eventually mated his bitch Nan to Anderson’s Robbie, a heavy coated dog, which certainly had border collie ancestors, however the union of the pair produced a hard working line of Bearded collie which was exported all over the world. Some of Muirheads dogs were sent to New Zealand and these too entered into the bloodlines of the New Zealand Smithfield collies.
Tom Muirhead sadly died in the early 1990’s and for a while “ the former working bearded collie association’ continued to breed Muirheads bloodlines, however bad organization, and the sometimes inevitable and strenuous, power struggle found in committee’s brought about the cessation of the association. There is an old saying that springs to mind, A Camel, was the result of a committee’s attempt at breeding a Horse?