Where did the Border Collie come from?

Photo of a group of Border Collies sitting in a thistle patch

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. Being farmers at heart, probably the less they spent on these replacement dogs the happier the handlers were, so it made sense to ask around and find out who amongst their neighbours had a good dog or bitch, and were 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.

The origins of the International Sheep Dog Society

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 and was won by a Scotsman. Thirty years later, in 1906, the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS) was formed.

The ISDS was founded in East Lothian, “following a meeting of English and Scottish sheepmen”, 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

Sheepdog Trials

Trialling was active in Wales, and in 1922 the ISDS was invited to hold its next International trial at Criccieth. Wales became the third nation of the Society. The 1922 trial was won by William Wallace, the first shepherd to handle his dog in a way that modern handlers would recognise (and aspire to).

While competing at Hawick Trials in 1883, William Wallace was described as commanding his dog using “a mere hiss at hand [close work] and a low whistle at distance”. At that time, shouting and gesticulating were common features of sheepdog handling (and are not uncommon now).

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

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.

The Border collie gene pool

It was (probably) never the intention of the 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 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 there may be one or two around still.

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




Watch Pearl and our other dogs in action on this preview of our first DVD Border Collie Sheepdogs – Off Duty! (You’ll love it.) The DVD is available from our Online DVD Store. The price includes shipping worldwide – and we automatically ship the correct format for your country. More info.


2 responses to “Where did the Border Collie come from?”

  1. Sandra Lynch avatar
    Sandra Lynch

    Hi beautiful my daughter has a 13month collie but she has been shown very aggressive signs she might have to send back to the owner to see if willow can be rehomed she is heart broken thinking she has done something wrong any help

    1. Gill Watson avatar
      Gill Watson

      Hello Sandra. You don’t give much detail so my reply is based on the typical scenario that we’re often presented with, where a dog of this age is undisciplined. A 13 month old collie is an adolescent and sometimes, unfortunately, adolescents will push their boundaries and see what they can get away with. It’s very easy to misinterpret the signs an adolescent dog is giving you, but of course anything that your daughter is interpreting as aggressive needs to be addressed quickly.
      Whatever the dog is doing has almost certainly developed over time, but it’s perfectly possible to change this behaviour while the dog is young, and if your daughter is committed to changing the regime and putting in some work to build a better relationship with the dog. I recommend that you both watch Jan Fennell’s “The Dog Listener“. It’s not the most recent dog training DVD on the market, but it’s the one we sell and recommend. Jan Fennell’s approach is well explained, dog-friendly, and her techniques are easy to fit into everyday life. It’s always worth getting in touch with a local dog trainer too, and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers should be able to help you with that.
      Good luck! Gill

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