by   David Hancock

For centuries, Scotland has had small rough-haired terriers, reference being made as far back as 1436 by John Leslie, in his ‘History of Scotland’, to a ‘dog of low height, which, creeping into subterraneous burrows, routs out the foxes, badgers, martens, and wild cats from their lurking places and dens.’ HD Richardson, writing in 1853, refers to three varieties of Scottish terriers, one ‘sandy-red and rather high on the legs’ and called the Highland Terrier; a second, the same size but ‘with the hair somewhat flowing and much longer, which gives a short appearance to the legs. This is the prevailing breed of the Western Isles of Scotland’; and a third ‘the dog celebrated by Sir Walter Scott as the Pepper and Mustard or Dandie Dinmont breed’. The contemporary equivalents of these breeds could all disappear in the next fifty years.

In The Review of the Year 1891 for Skye Terriers, published in The Kennel Gazette of January, 1892, the reviewer wrote: Many of the winning dogs this year are bred simply for money-making purposes, their owners not careing for the list of points in any way, so long as they bring money into the coffers. They are only large, coarse brutes, with donkey heads and ears, and cannot boast of one single drop of Skye blood in their veins. I, and others, well know this. Some of their ancestors are supposed to boast of good pedigrees – but do not, and they are no more Skye Terriers than is a Clydesdale. Ask any aged Highland gentleman or gamekeeper if they ever saw in the West Highlands, 40 years ago, such dogs as were awarded the prizes at most of the shows held this year? I say we have not improved these dogs as working terriers.” Since those times, and throughout the last century, the show breeders have done what they like with the Skye Terrier, once such a distinctive breed and a widely-respected working terrier.

A year later in the same publication, Thomas Nolan was writing: “There are no doubt certain good old breeders who really believe that the Skye Terrier ought to be a largish dog of 20lbs to 25lbs or more in weight…No doubt also the huge ugly Skyes that we are complaining of are to some extent a recoil from the pretty little ‘toys’ that sometimes disfigure the show bench…Most certainly we do not want any little toys on our Skye benches. But still less do we want any big toys, - those great soft shapeless masses that a genuine little terrier of 16lbs. or 18lbs., would demolish in a moment.” If an enthusiast wanted to re-create the Skye Terrier - and I think he would have to involve at least one different breed - what weight, or height, should the refashioned breed be? In its extant Breed Standard for the Skye Terrier, the Kennel Club stipulates: "Ideal height: 25-26 cms (10in); length from tip of nose to tip of tail 105 cms (41 and a half inches)" No weight is prescribed. It is rare for the length of back in any breed to be laid down in measurements. Is this to obtain length or deny it? Earth-dogs need length of back to operate underground but why specify back-length in one terrier breed and not others? It could of course be there to stop show breeders from elongating their backs even more!

Other shorter-legged sporting breeds include the Basset varieties, the Dachshund or Teckel breeds and a number of terrier breeds and types. The chestnut Basset of Brittany (Basset Fauve de Bretagne) and the wire-haired Teckel might provide breeding material in any recasting of the Skye, but the terrier instinct would have to be bred-in too. What would have to be avoided at all cost would be the long silky coat, no daylight under the brisket or keel and too long a back, leading to weakness and a handicap to an earth-dog. The other Scottish terrier breeds have a different phenotype, as the Westie, the Scottie and the Cairn exemplify, but the Dandie Dinmont is closer to the Skye in overall dimensions if further apart from all the others through the seeking of a fluffy coat, big head and absurd 'topknot' (absurd because of the high priority given to this cosmetic feature by show ring exhibitors).

Coat texture in a sporting dog is much more important than colour, but if white is undesired in a reconstructed Skye terrier, the chestnut red of the Brittany Basset and the range of colours available in the Teckel varieties could provide one answer. Any self-colour, with shading, should be permissible but the over-long, ground-hugging, vision-denying coats of the show-dogs are wholly undesirable in what was once a respected working terrier type. But establishing a recast phenotype is less of a problem than the installation of the 'terrier-motivation', the desire to work, to take on ground vermin and hunt. It would be a noble quest for a terrier enthusiast to embark on a 'save the Skye Terrier campaign'; before we lose another British breed out of our lack of interest or fascination with 'all things exotic' we could so easily lift this ancient Scottish breed out of its 'vulnerable' category into a well-protected, newly-formatted breed and what a patriotic achievement that would be.