Nostalgia - Paws to remember the Western Isles’ great canine characters
In 1932 the writer and journalist Henry Vollam Morton undertook a tour of the Islands and provided the Daily Herald with an insightful series of features on Hebridean life. But, in a brief literary ‘detour’, he turned his attention to those loyal but oft-overlooked residents – our dogs.
In his day Henry Vollam Morton (1892-1979) was hailed as “the world’s greatest descriptive writer”.
And indeed his legacy is a fascinating collection of observations and books, with those on London and his travels through Britain and the Holy Land perhaps the most celebrated.
And under his byline of HV Morton, he was commissioned by the Daily Herald to journey through the Western Isles in the early 1930s.
That travelogue would eventually become part of Morton’s ‘In Search Of...’ series and the ‘In Scotland Again’ journal.
Of course, the characters, history and landmarks of the Western Isles have long been a subject and source of fascination for writers.
Even the flora and fauna have graced the pages of magazines and scientific journals.
But the domestic dog has made but a rare appearance in the chronicle of Island life.
However, in 1932, Morton addressed that.
And given this was the travel writer and journalist who secured the 1923 scoop on the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun this was a surprising detour.
His interest of the Hebridean canine characters is surprising and interesting, as it is welcome.
Writing for the Daily Herald in October 1932, it is one of the more unusual insights of Island life and it is hoped it whets readers’ appetites to seek more of the writer’s works.
As his columns grew in number, Morton felt comfortable enough to proffer his views on those less chronicled residents.
“In Lewis, the most northerly Island, Mr Cruft would either have a fit or discover something new and reckless in breeding,” he wrote.
“The prevailing, normal dog, however, is the sheep dog, a collie of outstanding intelligence, small, prick- eared, sharp-nosed, generally black and white and always as sharp as a needle.
“I have paid the Hebridean many sincere tributes but I think the highest is the fact that he loves the dogs which help him to earn his daily breed.
“Never once have I seen him cruel to a dog.
“Never once have I met a dog that behaved as though it had been beaten into obedience.”
From his travels Morton went on to compare the temprament of the Lewis sheep dog with that elsewhere in rural Britain, declaring the Lewis version as the friendliest.
But he added: “Sheep dogs are apt to be rather stand-offish. You always lay yourself open to a snub from them.
“It sometimes seems patronising to pat them – worse than that, it seems like offering a stick of chocolate to a senior wrangler.
“But the dogs of Lewis will perform the most incredible feats with a flock of sheep and then run to the stranger for admiration When they are off duty they become ordinary friendly, cheerful dogs.
“They have one ambition: to startle a motor-car over a stone wall.
“They do not actively hate motor cars as the dogs of Achill Island, in Ireland, hate them. They would not tear a motor car to pieces as these dogs would do.
“The motor-car is, to the sheep dogs of Lewis, merely a challenge to their professional pride
“It annoys them to think that things can go galloping about the country without proper supervision. It irritates them to think that anything can go so fast without a dog to look after it.
“So you will see the sheep dogs of Lewis preparing to give a motor car a tremendous send-off long before it reaches them. They leap on the walls, and look towards it, waiting.
“As it approaches, they bark. This does not deter the motor car or change its course, which seems to the dogs quite unnatural, so they leap to the earth, and begin running ahead of the car, but in the direction which it is travelling.
“The idea is that, in some unaccountable way, a party of excellent human beings have been swallowed by a motorcar which is running off with them, taking them to an unknown and un- pleasant destination. And it is, therefore, the duty of every well brought up sheep dog to come to the rescue and try to turn the car to right or left, just as you do with a mad bull.
“Some dog lover with an old motorcar would be giving great pleasure to the dogs of Lewis if he allowed himself to be herded.
“The news would go right round the Islands:
“You see we were right after all!” the dogs would say. “And it can be done!”
Morton then turns his attention to some of the more peculiar cross breeds that could be found in Lewis.
This brought him to one particular character who may have earned his place in local legend, a collie-Dachshund cross who the writer dubbed ‘ the Provost’.
Morton wrote: “I never had the nerve to speak to him or to make any advances. That, perhaps, is not strictly true.
“The first time I saw him walking, as usual, right in the middle of the road, I thought that he was a very jolly little Cairn terrier, and I whistled.
“But the Provost, half-turning his head, as a man of affairs might turn towards the jibes of a vulgar street urchin, trotted onward.
“Every time I saw this dog he seemed to have an urgent appointment. He seemed to be running Stornoway.
“One felt that if he were held up,or interrupted, probably the gas supply would fail.
“In the early morning he walked briskly round the fish market.
“In the afternoon he sometimes strode rapidly along the quayside, and, in the evening, he was always near the Town Hall.
“A most terrifying dog to own.”
If any Back in the Day readers have been passed down tales of the Provost, then we’d be delighted to hear them.
Morton then continues his journey southwards, ecountering what he described as “dog exiles or beachcombers” – dogs that seem to have appeared from nowhere and with no back story, but creatures full of idiosyncrasy who would seem to have taken up residence after independently boarding an Island-bound steamer in search of a new life and identitity.
“You might call them the stowaways of the Hebrides,” wrote Morton.
“There are also the adventurers and ‘bad lads’ who disappear, cause a deal of worry and some day calmly walk off the steamer like rich Americans.”
One mutt that particularly caught the writer’s attention was ‘Mr Wiggs’, and another dog that seems likely to be part of our history.
Morton said Mr Wiggs belonged to a Mr Hitchcock, of Lochmaddy, in North Uist, and the dog looked like a “worn and resentful doormat”.
“If you try to be pleasant to him you receive a scornful glance and a sight of Mr Wiggs walking slowly away from you, he is not a mixer,” he wrote.
“Mr Wiggs is a matted Skye terrier, a sort of Thomas Carlyle of the dog world.
“One day, when he was seeing that the Kyle boat got away to time, another and much larger dog on the jetty said something that so infuriated Mr Wiggs that a frightful battle began in a second.
“Mr Wiggs, always a master of contempt, proved himself a master of action.
“He seized the other dog by the neck and fell into the water with him. Here the battle was interrupted. It resumed itself on the jetty. Mr Wiggs flung himself on his gigantic enemy and refused to let go.
“A sailor picked up Mr Wiggs and, for the sake of peace and quiet, flung him into one of the empty bread baskets that are always stacked on Hebridean piers. In the confusion of departure, the basket, containing Mr Wiggs was put aboard and the ship sailed.
“The Hitchcocks mourned for Mr Wiggs and feared every day that the tide would wash up all that was left of his gallant but reserved personality.
“In a few days, however, he walked down the gangway with the assurance of a retired colonel. He had spent a weekend in Scotland and had caught the Loch Mor back to the Outer Isles!
“If you ask Mr Wiggs what he did on the mainland, or if he had a good time, he gets up and walks away.
“There is nothing more expressive or devastating than the slow, deliberate departures of Mr Wiggs yet I feel that if you were in real trouble he would be a staunch friend.”
Finally Morton turns his attention to the “mystery dogs”, the ones nobody knowns anything about, like ‘Jock’, Findlay Mackenzie’s West Highland terrier at Lochboisdale.
“ One dark night he walked off the mainland boat and went to the hotel. They gave him a room and he has been there ever since,” Morton recounts.
“Jock, like Mr Wiggs, is a peculiar character. He has obviously had an unhappy youth. He is morose, but at times he forgets everything, and almost overdoes his affability.
“No one In Lochboisdale would pick him up, yet, if Jock likes you, he asks you to pick him up.
“He is evidently a haunted dog.
“In the middle of a most affectionate moment he will become moody.
“He will either kick to be set down or look up at the door knob. And he will go out into the garden overlooking the still, gloomy waters of the loch, and there he will sit all by himself for hours.
“In such moments the big black dog from the Bank of Scotland can say the most irritating and provoking things to him from the other side of the fence, but Jock will turn his head wearily away and gaze out in the direction of Skye.
“He is a mystery and no one will ever understand him.
“All you can do is to be slow and kind to him. If you do anything suddenly Jock’s little mind flashes back to the time when someone thrashed him, for he trembles and falls over on his back as if to ask for mercy, or else he slinks off with a guilty tail. Poor Jock...”
Morton concludes his article for the Daily Herald with a tribute to the Islands’ sheep dogs, those loyal hard-working servants that have often featured in the pages of the Stornoway Gazette.
Morton finished with this splendid description: “The dogs that brought 300 startled cattle across the five-mile ford from Benbecula when the men were wet through and dead beat; the little fellows that, limping with fatigue and too dry to bark, herded the beasts into Clachan at dead of night and then lay down, spent, in the wet bogland, their duty done.”
* If you have any memories or stories that have been passed down about the Islands’ dogs, and cats!, send them off to [email protected]