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Breed History

A Tribute To History

The commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Deerhound Club evokes memories of a noble, sometimes tragic, and always fascinating breed history.

by Cecilia Arnold

"This article first appeared in the December, 1986 AKC Gazette and is reprinted with permission."

It was off to Scotland for me the blustery-cold first week of April, and though it rained and hailed when we arrived in London, the sun shone on the Scottish Highlands where the Scottish Deerhound fanciers converged in the small town of Pitlochry, a beautiful place of woods, rivers and loch - the beginning, some say, of "the road to the isles," the heart of Scotland, the locals claim. We were marking the 100th anniversary - the centenary - of the Deerhound Club!

The Atholl Palace Hotel, situated on high ground overlooking the town, is a splendid Victorian stone mansion converted into a latter-day hostelry with all the modern conveniences, not the least of which is a helipad. This did excellent service for the Breed Show; perfect, commented an old-time breeder, to show up faulty feet. The entry of over 200 Deerhounds, shown to the applause of hundreds of guests from every corner of Britian and from three continents, was a demonstration as much as a celebration of this ancient breed's vigor in the 1980's. A sense of history prompted the decision to hold the celebration in the Scottish Highlands, thought to be the Deerhound's native ground since time out of memory, and Pitlochry, in point of fact, is almost at the very heart of what was once Pictish territory, not far from Scone, the sacred center of the Picts. It is among the ancient Pictish monuments that the breed's ancestral memories are to be discovered.

Earliest Records
The most famous of these is the Hilton of Cadboll stone found on the north shore of the Moray Firth and dating back to the eighth century A.D. The lower half of the stone shows a hunting scene, including the figures of two hounds attacking a deer. A woman is riding side-saddle, her husband alongside her, and because of the prominent mirror and comb symbol, it is believed that the stone was put up for her. Another stone fragment, known as St. Vigean's, though far less known than the Cadboll monument, is perhaps of more interest in that it shows dogs of the eighth century with clearly recognizable Greyhound form.

These and numerous other Pictish stone monuments displaying deer hunting scenes with what appear to be large dogs have been found in places forming a wide arc to the north and east of Pitlochry. We can not surmise from these how large the dogs were, if they were smooth or long-coated, or if they were Pictish or Celtic origin or both. By the ninth century the Picts of the hunting scenes had disappeared, conquered and absorbed by the Celtic people who had come across the sea from Ireland, settled and founded a kingdom in Argyll and eventually ruled all of Pictland. To their new land the Irish gave their name which endures to this day, Scotland, for in those days when men spoke of the Scots they spoke of the Irish race. Migrating peoples bring their stock with them and we can assume that the Scots brought over from Ireland their Celtic hounds.

It would be resonable to deduce that as the Picts and the Scots became assimilated, one race into the other, so did their domestic animals. The only certaintly is that from a very early age, going back at least a thousand years, dogs were used by the people of northern Britian to hunt deer.

That the practice survived into modern times is a well-documented fact, and as in the period of the Picts, the record for later ages is to be found on stone monuments. On the Hebridean isle of Oransay lies buried the clan chief Murchard MacFie of Colonsay, who died in 1539. His tomb slab, though Celtic in concept and design, harks back for its subject matter - large dogs attacking deer - to the hunting scenes of the Pictish monuments.

Written Accounts
History recounts that in 1528 King James V of Scotland mixed business with pleasure in ordering his nobles to ride with him against the Border outlaws and, by the way, to bring along their hounds. The Earls of Argyll, Huntly, and Atholl answered the call and the king's party harried the thieves and hunted the deer. The next year the Earl of Atholl, third of that title, staged a "tainchell" or deer-drive for the entertainment of the king and the papal nuncio; and in 1563 the fourth Earl did likewise for James' daughter, Mary Queen of Scots.

The English author, John Taylor, wrote an account of the highland hunt - another term for tainchell - he had witnessed as the Earl of Mar's guest in 1618. He described the highlanders' costume consisting of a "warm stuffe of divers colours" called tartan, and noted that the guests had to be dressed like their hosts, otherwise the highlanders refused to go hunting or "willingly to bring in their doges." Of the deer-drive Taylor related how the deer appeared on the hills all around, a hundred couple of strong hounds waiting on each side of the valley were let loose.

A hundred couple - that is about as many Deerhounds as were present at the centenary celebration in Pitlochry, and in a sense they had come home, for Pitlochry is in Atholl territory, being but a few miles down the road from Blair Atholl, home of the Dukes of Atholl, and Atholl Forest, where their kind had hunted so successfully in earlier days. Such a large number of Deerhounds gathered in one place, whether taking part in a tainchell in the 17th century or in the Breed show in 1986, indicates a thriving, prosperous breed. However, the intervening three hundred years and more had seen the breed decline so precipitously as to become almost extinct.

In 1769 an Englishman, Thomas Pennant, visited Gordon Castle, once the home of the Earls of Huntly, and observed: "I saw here a true highland greyhound which is now very scarce: - it was of a very large size, strong, deep-chested, and covered with very long and rough hair. This kind was in great vogue in former days, and used in vast numbers at the magnificent stag chases by the powerful chieftains." This falls in line with the earlier references to the nobles who brought their hounds to hunt with James V, the Earls of Argyll, Huntly and Atholl chiefs respectively of the clans Campbell, Gordon and Murray; and particularly to the deer-drives hosted by the Earl of Atholl and by the Earl of Mar, chief of the Erskins.

Watching their decendants go through their paces on the tarmac of the Atholl Palace Hotel, one could not help being drawn to the still snowpatched hills circling Pitlochry, and remembering that the highlanders, almost 300 years ago, had defended their way of life and routed the English at the Pass of Killicrankie just beyond the rim of these hills. But the highland way of life, the expression of the clan system, was doomed at Culloden, where the highlander shed their blood fighting the English for the last time in 1746.

Little wonder then that the highland hounds suffered attrition, as the highland huntings were suppressed by legislation even before Culloden. The Englishman Pennant would find only one "highland greyhound" at Gorgdn Castle barely a generation after Culloden, though a fair number seemed to have survived in the western highland and the isles. And if the Political, social and economic upheavals of the 18th and early 19th centuries did not entirely do away with them, the technological advance of a much improved sporting rifle very nearly did the job.

Even the occasional deer-drive staged by the fourth Duke of Atholl, who was reputed to be "the greatest deer killer in Scotland," bore little resemblance to the sport of his forbearers. The highlanders would drive the deer in the old way, but these were herded to where the deerstalkers could shoot them and then couples or lurchers or other mixed breeds were slipped to run the wounded stags to bay. By that time - the 1820's - the Atholl dogs were described as "miserably degenerate," unable to overtake and pull down a full-grown stag in flight. The true ancient breed of highland hounds came close to disappearing entirely.

Ironically, it was at this period of the breed's lowest ebb that its recorded history may be said to have begun. The word "deerhound" appeared in print for the first time in 1814, though it must have been current in speech before then, in the normal course taken by a word working its way into the language. Prior to 1814 and even much later the deer-couring hounds of the highlands were referred to as "Irish Wolfhound," "highland greyhound," or "Scotch greyhound." Sir Walter Scott, who admired the breed and kept several Deerhounds at Abbotsford, used the words "staghound," "deerhound," or "Irish wolf-dog/wolfhound" when he spoke of them. Interestingly enough, the earliest citation for the word "deerhound" in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from Scott, though in a transitional form, "two grim and half-starved deer greyhounds."

Notable Breeders
Maida, Scott's favorite and most famous Deerhound of all, was a gift from Alasdair MacDonell, chief of the Glengarry branch of the Clan Donald, Glengarry, as he was known, was a great romantic who, had the Celtic revival not occured historically, would have invented and carried it off single-handedly. He was known as the "Last of the Highland Chiefs" because in everything he did he was conscious of his highland heritage and his lifestyle reflected the old ways. On occasion Glengarry, dressed in kilt and accompanied only by his Deerhounds, would go out and follow the deer for days, sleeping in his plaid during the night.

The Glengarry strain of Deerhounds was a very old one and the chief's interest in his Deerhounds may have been fueled by his romantic ardor, but he had a practical turn of mind as a breeder. He tried crossing the Deerhound with a number of breeds, but found the results unsatisfactory and returned to breeding pure. When he was fatally injured in a shipwreck on Loch Linnhe, two of his Deerhounds were with him, one a pure-bred Deerhound, described by Glengarry's old keeper as the best he ever saw. The name Glengarry is important in the history of the breed, the flambouyant chief being the most prominent among a handful of highlanders who were still breeding pure Deerhounds, and the year of his death, 1828, coincided with the breed's darkest days.

By every indication the pure highland hound of old had all but disappeared when, in 1831, Archibald and Duncan McNeill of Colonsay began collecting the few remaining pure specimens with a view to restoring the breed. The "Colonsay revival" was the renaissance of the Deerhound. Had they never turned their attention to Deerhounds, there may very well not have been a centenary to celebrate in Pitlochry, but Duncan McNeill, the eminent jurist would still leave his mark on history. His portrait - he was Lord Colonsay, Lord Justic General, when it was done - hangs in Parliment Hall.

Indeed, another Edinburgh lawyer had done much to keep the Deerhound in the public's mind years before the McNeills took up its cause, and when the time came to build a memorial to Sir Walter Scott, author and erstwhile advocate, his special bond with the breed was well-remembered. The statue of Scott and his beloved Maida on Princess Street speaks to everyone who has ever loved a dog; to anyone even mildly interested in the Deerhound it says volumes about the course the breed has taken since the time, almost 150 years ago, when Lord Colonsay's dog, Torm, sat for the portrait of Maida.

For the extraordinary fact is that Deerhounds today resemble the dog sitting by Sir Walter Scott in every essential feature: size, bone, overall form, moderately tapering head with beard, folded ears, strong, moderately long neck with mane, deep chest, lay of the coat, broad thighs, slightly curved tail.

The Show Dogs!
The Colonsay revival, in fact, did not assure the Deerhound a future since it was premised on a renewed interest in deer-coursing, a thing of the past. It was their great good fortune therefore, that the organized dog show made it appearance at the opportune moment, the first one in Britain taking place at Islington, London, in 1859.* Several Deerhounds were exhibited, described by a contemporary reporter as "those splendid animals, the deer-hounds, with their fine and powerful shape, and beautiful long grey hair." The transition from deer forest to dog shows was surprisingly easy and the Deerhound's saving grace.

In those first years the Deerhounds exhibited were still close to the old working strains. Lord Stamford's Bran, winner at Islington in 1859, was descended through the Duke of Leeds' breeding from the Colonsay dogs. In 1860 Col. Inge won first prize at Birmingham with Valiant, from the McDonell of Keppoch and Seaforth strains. Sir John McNeill's Alder won both at Islington and Birmingham and Col. Robertson's Oscar, Birmingham winner in 1866 and 1867, descended from the Lochaber and Glengarry strains. In 1869 the top winner was H.C. Musters' Old Torrum, bred by Donald Cameron of Lochiel whose clan had kept the highland hounds as far back as the 17th century, when a hound of Sir Ewan Cameron, "lat of the wolf hunters, " alledgedly despatched the last wolf in Scotland. Next came G. Hichman's Morni, sired by Col. Robertson's Oscar, and R. Hood Wright's Old Bevis, a prize-winner in the 1870's, descended from the line thought to be the oldest, Menzies of Chesthill.

Messrs. Hickman and Hood Wright began breeding in 1867 or thereabouts and in 1892 drew up the breed standard which remains substantially unchanged today. They and the other early exhibitors represented a trend which had begun even before the advent of dog shows. After the McNeills and the period of the Colonsay revival, ownership of Deerhounds, lately confined to a few of highland name and origin, spread southward to England. The change was a favoring wind which helped move the breed farther away from the edge of oblivion where it had hovered for so long. The time was ripe for the formation of the Deerhound Club.

Becoming A Club
Oddly enough, though we were celebrating the Club's centenary in 1986, there is no record of its actually having started up in 1886. There was a proposal for such a club in an issue of The Field magazine in 1884, and then in 1892 E. Weston Bell wrote in his book the Scottish Deerhound: "We hail with pleasure the ideas of a club being instituted for this, the most ancient, beautiful and reliable of the canine race - the Scottish Deerhound." Mr. Bell thought that the proposed club should "frame a code of rules and regulations, all amined at a certain standpoint of excellence, only to be attained by judicious breeding. Then may we hope to see the deerhounds as he was in his true state."

That very same year, at a meeting on November 26, 1892, the Deerhound Club fulfilled Mr. Bell's hopes by taking the important step of approving the breed standard drafted by Messrs. Hichman and Hood Wright. By 1901 the Club endorsed the breed standard which had been approved almost a decade earlier.

Though in 1903 the Club reported 50 members and a credit balance, a healthy state of affairs, there were difficulties ahead. A crisis was precipitated in 1908 by the resignation of the secretary treasurer, who refused to surrender the Club's books and funds; and again when a suit for defamation was brought by a suspended member, this cause celebre costing the Club damages and litigation fees amounting to alomst 300 pounds, a princely sum in 1935. but the most serious threats to the Club's continued existence were forces beyond its control - seemingly beyond anyone's control - the two World Wars and the Depression in between. No meetings were held in 1918 and 1919, and in the first years after the Great War, the possibility of the Club's coming to an end was real.

Again no meetings were held between 1939 and 1947. The Secretary reported in 1940 that despite the decision to leave annual dues up to the members to give what they could, many had written to express their determination to keep the Club alive and sent donations as well as their membership fees. As for the Deerhounds, the breed appeared to be in great peril once more. They were very hard choices to make, and what the individual owners had to face may be gleaned from the recollections of Norah Hartley whose Rotherwood Deerhounds have played an important role in the breed's history since before World War II and after (see 'A Portrait of Loyalty' which follows).

We were celebrating a hundred years of the Deerhound Club's existence, and we were also celebrating a thousand years of Deerhound history. the celebrations go hand in hand - millenium, centenary, and an individual's, Nora Hartley's, lifetime - because the Deerhound, which has been a numerically small breed since the 18th century and whose fortunes, in any case, have always been tied to the vagaries of human history, has depended for its very survival on the dedication of friends. They have, in Weston Bell's words of almost a century ago, "shown the proper spirit and perseverance necessary for the breeding of this dog." And perseverance by those truly concerned with the proper development and well being of the breed will ensure that these nobel creatures' future is secure. *Newcastle-on-Tyne also lays claim to this distinction.

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MADA February, 2003