A friend of mine, who apparently knows my taste, recently gave me an original, 1898 edition of the classic dog story, Bob, Son of Battle, by Alfred Ollivant. I hadn't read it since I was child, but I remembered the story exactly. For those who haven't or don't, it concerns the rivalry between two sheepdogs in Cumbria (a region of northern England) in the 19th century, the parallel rivalry between their masters, the mystery of what sheepdog is killing local sheep by night, and the coming of age of the boy who is emotionally caught between the two men, one of whom is his father, the other, his mentor.
Several experiences have given me a different perspective on this book than when I first read it at about age eight or ten, including a degree in English Lit, a tour of the Lake Country of which Cumbria is a part, and, of course, working sheep with a dog.
It's still a great read. It is a typical Victorian novel; the women are all "angels in the house", and both the nobility of the Master of Kenmuir who owns Owd Bob and the insane and evil passion of Adam M'Adam, who owns the rival sheepdog Red Wull are a wee bit over the top. Still, an 1898 novel that continues to hold the attention of children in the United States a century later is not a small achievement, especially considering that all the dialogue is written in Cumbrian dialect.
The descriptions of the dogs and their work seem essentially accurate and well-informed, with a lot of insight in the psychology of sheepdogs. Though the sheep culture of the dales seems timeless, actually it is historically recent. One of the earliest fruits of the Industrial Revolution in England was the invention of large-scale carding, spinning, and weaving machinery, which created in its turn an unprecedentedly huge demand for wool. This changed the way of life of the subsistence farmers in the areas of England like Cumbria which had a great deal of land only usable for grazing, and was the impetus for the development of the single-purpose 'hill' sheepdog, which did not exist in the form we are familiar with before the 19th century.
One chapter I found especially fascinating was the description of the competition for the regional herding championship, the Shepherd's Trophy. At that 19th century event, every dog was a different breed, specific to its dale or even its farm. Red Wull was a huge red dog, possibly one of the "famous Red McCulloch" line, Owd Bob, a slim blue merle farm collie, is a "Gray Dog of Kenmuir", while the others competing were completely different in appearance from these two. There is no mention of "eye", and from other descriptions of herding competitions at this time, one may gather that strong-eyed dogs were either unknown or uncommon.
Like competitions still are held, of course, but now every single dog competing will be a black and white low-slung Border Collie — the "Border" being this very border, the one between England and Scotland. Probably every dog will be related, at some point in its ancestry, to almost every other dog there.The ancient farm which was the model of Ollivant's fictional Kenmuir might still raise sheep, and if it does, it surely has dogs. But they won't be Gray Dogs of Kenmuir, or any other breed specific to that dale. They'll be Border Collies.
Virtually all the local breeds are now gone, along with the poverty and isolation of the rugged sheep raising counties of England which created them. If you have to watch your sheep all day, every day, and you have only your own feet to carry you, you aren't going to be breeding to the champion sheepdog a hundred miles away, or even twenty miles away.
Australian Shepherds have followed a similar pattern, against the far vaster backdrop of the American West. At first they were a collection of localized landraces. The degree to which they resembled each other came from being selected for similar jobs and having a generally similar origin, not from being closely related. The moment a group of people got together and decided to call their dogs Australian Shepherds and register them, the gene pool began to both consolidate and to constrict, directions that are still continuing today. As in the British Farm Collies which gave rise to the Border Collie, much of the original genetic material which went into the creation of the Aussie is already lost, because people did not understand its value when it could have been saved.
Bob Son of Battle was really what was known in the north of England as a "shepherd's cur", the word cur deriving from the Old Norse kurra, to growl— remote Cumbria retained Norse influences on its language much later than most other parts of Britain. A cur was a dog of low repute; a workingman's dog, not a gentleman's dog. Shepherd's curs, also known as collies, or coalies, had just been taken up by Queen Victoria, who, together with romanticizers like Ollivant, popularized the farm collie to the rising middle class. The show Collie we know today is the direct result.
If these three descendants of the British Shepherd's Cur, that is the show Collie, the working Border Collie, and the working Australian Shepherd, are placed together, it's the last one which bears the most resemblance to the dogs the 19th century shepherds in Cumbria were familiar with. Owd Bob, who kept watch over the farmstead and everything and everyone in it, was an all-purpose farm dog very much like an Aussie. He was of a breed destined to be soon superseded by the high-efficiency Border Collie on the sheep farms, and the high-fashion show Collie everywhere else. Perhaps that is why Ollivant titles him "the Last of the Gray Dogs of Kenmuir."
Update/addition via the Border Collie Museum: Carole L. Presberg, in the magazine The Shepherd's Dogge , Fall 1997, presents the case that Owd Bob was probably a Welsh Grey, a breed related to the Welsh Sheep Dog and the Bearded Collie, and now extinct. Photograph is titled, "The Grey Knight", from a 1904 edition of Bob, Son of Battle, published by Doubleday, Page & Co., New York, and photographically illustrated by A. Radclyffe Dugmore.