Magic Boxes, Horns, Thieves and Warriors

Ruskin has gone now, his earthly physical life ended. But in our time together he taught me many things. As one of the skills he never mastered was writing, perhaps it is left to me to write down his teachings for others to read. One trick he showed me was with the horn of a car. This was around 9 years into our journey together. Much further into his story than were we are now in The Song of Ruskin.

 With news of Bearded Collies missing or lost, at the risk of spoiling the plot, this may be a good time to bring forward some of his ideas. Some of Ruskin’s greatest virtues were his concern and care for all living things. If he could help or prevent another animal or person’s distress he would make that his priority. So I believe he would want, in his way, for me to share his knowledge.

For a while I was working at a small industrial estate. Ruskin would be off visiting the other units, possibly sitting in an office eating sandwiches or doing whatever he did when I wasn’t about. At times he would quite simply wander off.

Sometimes I would want to leave early or have to go somewhere and need to take him with me. From a game we started playing Ruskin knew the sound of our own car horn. (He used to help out with MoT testing, but only horns, exhausts and sometimes washers, were his area of responsibility).

It would have been time consuming looking in every unit, checking offices, wandering about at random shouting his name etc. So all I had to do was operate the car horn. In play we had developed a simple short ‘signature Morse message’. This meant I am at the car, we are leaving and I want you here. NOW. Ruskin knew the sound of his cars horn, but when it was used to play our tune, whatever else he was doing was dropped immediately, because I was at the car and we needed to leave.

Does your dog know the sound of your car horn playing a simple message they recognise?

Cars can have good associations for dogs. To them they can be ‘magic boxes’ which take them to exciting places for adventure. They may take them to a shop=food, or just going home after a long day again = food time. A dog can walk out of it’s house, get into a car. Without further effort from them, get out again, at a beach or in the woods, for a day of full on fun.And at the end of the day get back in, after a drink of water, from a bottle at the back, fall asleep then wake back up at home. Quite simply in the unquestioning accepting world of a dog, that is truly a magic box.

From this simple accepting concept we might be able to go further into the associated world of Bearded Collies and cars. Though the modern Beardie is associated with, at the most familiar, the herding of sheep, this is not the full story. Part of the lineage and story is as a droving dog, a droving dog concerned with the movement of cattle.

This is a photograph looking north westish towards Blairgowie. Blairgowrie is in the centre of the picture just before the land rises to the hills. The hills rising in the immediate backgrounds are the foothills of the Grampians, the start of the Highlands. From Blairgowrie the Cateran Trail starts. A walking footpath which follows the routes of ancient cattle droves. What you are looking at is probably a prime example of part of the Beardie Collie story. Here the cattle droving ancestors of your dog probably did their work. Though in the case of the Cateran Trail these are routes used by cattle thieves and rustlers, from the 1300-1700s, but did they also use dogs?

 Blairgowrie from Kilpurnie

Ordnance Survey Map

Ordnance Survey Map


The map is that of the Cateran Trail. It is not to difficult in the mind to lay the map down and overlay over the topography of the top picture. Using Blairgowrie as the common point of reference. The photograph is looking north west but the map has north at the top.

Two key imports into to gene pool and evolution of the Beaded Collie are often given. Dogs brought by the Magyar people from Hungary and central Europe in the 1200s and the later introduction of the Polish Lowland in the 1500s. What is clear is that both these took place when cattle movements were a major part of Scottish trade. Sheep becoming a larger contributor to the economy as part of the Highland Clearances, mid 1700s onwards.

Putting in a little more context, just off the right of the picture is the town of Kirriemuir. The birthplace of J M Barrie. Who wrote Peter Pan. The dog in the book, Nana, is thought to be..a Bearded Collie.

The second image, Estuary of the Tay, is turning and looking over your left shoulder, from the first photograph. This is the city and port of Dundee. From here the East Coast of Scotland sweeps out and northwards to Aberdeen, with other harbours on the way such as Arbroath. The East Coast harbours involved in the trade between the Highlands and Europe.

Towards the Tay Estuary

Though the Cateran Trail is associated with cattle stealing, there is no reason to deny the routes were also used for the more lawful movement of livestock. In just two photographs we can see part of a potential scenario. Cattle and sheep being brought by dogs from the Highlands to lowland markets, and trade with the continent, possibility of European dogs being brought to Scotland. A mix of ecology, economics, genetics, social change, trade. Crucial to, and part of the interplay, hairy dogs that made all this possible, by being the most effective managers of the movement of livestock. The trucks and railways of the medieval period onwards.

Just to put this in some more localised geographical context. The river of the valley which flows right to left in the first picture is the Isla. This picture is the joining of Ericht with the Isla. A mile or so back on the far bank and going to the right was the place where Ruskin’s cremation took place. This was not far from the crossing place where for 100s of years or more, his ancestors had moved cattle over the river. This is the last crossing place, the river upstream of Blairgowrie evolving into an upper course one, passing through steep sided high gorges there after.

The River Ericht joins the Isla, the Isla then joins the Tay. Just me and the bird in the middle. No small black dog wading in to see what it's doing.

The River Ericht joins the Isla, the Isla then joins the Tay. Just me and the bird in the middle. No small black dog wading in to see what it's doing.

Chance, coincidence or was it the winds of Karma, that brought a small puppy from a back street in a English industrial town to a final resting amongst the spirits of his ancestors.

Just to tie the geography down a little more. The title picture of this site is from near the summit of Schielhallion, a mountain on the horizon and centre of the first photograph. If I had tilted the camera up slightly, the view would have looked across and towards the right of the mountains of the first picture. If when taking the title picture, I had been slightly nearer the summit and started panning the camera to the left, first it would have pointed north, then next across the remote Rannoch Moor. This is another droving route.

Beyond Rannoch Moor is Glen Coe, north from here leads to the Nevis Range and then to the west, the coast and the islands. In the tribute to her dog Cabo, Annie Hughes used the instrumental piano version of Who Wants to Live Forever, by Queen. The original version being part of the soundtrack for the film Highlander. The locations for the Scottish scenes being shot at these places.

For chronology. The first scenes and battle are set in 1536, around two decades after it is suggested the Polish Lowland, or as I know them, the Nizinny, was introduced to the Beardie bloodline.

Whether we are discussing the Beardie’s role in sheep herding or cattle droving, I am suggesting they may have a natural affinity, an instinct or a race memory, whatever they do, for “big things that move”. In the absence of an animal focus, do they transfer this in some way to an interest in our cars and motor vehicles? Only you can answer this for yourself.

Sometimes even the most streetwise and intelligent dog can occasionally ‘do one’ on a walk in the country or having been taken on holiday etc. Here I think it is important to consider the situation from the perspective of the dog. The dog may not be lost. Dogs can get into many situations. For example jumping down the bank of, and into a stream or small river, then out the other side. Only to find on trying to return it is too slippy or steep. They of course must then find an alternative route back to you. Which takes time. During which you may have moved trying to find them.

At some point it is not being lost that may be the problem. It is the associated indecision and confusion. They cannot find you, but they may know roughly the route back on the walk to where the car was parked. Which strategy is the dog to employ? Continue looking for you or return to a known fixed point.

If you have given up looking in the area you were last together and returned to the car, the next solution is simple. Just give them their signature message on the horn. Then repeat it. Wait 30 seconds then again. The first gets their attention, the second confirmation and the 3rd the homing beacon. Just repeat every minute or so. Though you may not realise it, you have already told your dog something you have not taught them. Something they already know.

What ever their interest in ‘magic boxes’ or ‘big things that move’, they know one thing. It never ever makes a noise without you either sitting in it or standing by the window. It only makes the noise with you there. When you sound the horn, you not only tell your dog where the car is, you also tell the dog where you are. The dog nolonger has any indecision or confusion. It nolonger caught betwen the backwards and forwards goals of looking for you and the fixed point of security, their car. Both are now the same goal in the mind of your dog.

So what is it about a car horn and the Bearded Collie. Think of quiet still nights in the countryside. Broken only by the lowing, mooing and bellowing of far off cattle. Think of a valley, the sound of sheep ba ba-ing, the only noise drifting through the evening air.

Think of the sound of the fog horn of a ship at sea. Think of the sound late at night as you lie in bed and hear a car horn blow in the distance. The sounds all have those low and media frequencies that drift through the air and are not attenuated like the shrill high pitch of a whistle.

I am not suggesting that everyday lazy beardieowners recall their dogs by sittingin their cars blaring their horns, subjecting the land to a cacophony of annoyingand confusing sound. Anymore than I would advise boat owners launch distress flares as they head for harbour to communicate they want their supper on the table in an hour. What I am suggesting is the technique is used in similar appropriate circumstances. When the shouting and looking has failed and you have returned to the car. Where before you may have been distressed and anxious. Now hit the horn and give your dog their own signature mesaage, their homing beacon to you and security.

In the countryside a dog may be able to hear their car horn, with their message for up to a mile or more. If they have got a bit lost or disorientated or are looking for you, it only means 3 things. You, security and home. In my experience the dog responds to it’s own horn and the simple familiar message. The easy skill could be the difference between a few minutes of worried inconvenience and a lost dog.

Is it a coincidence that as a cattle drovingdog one main focus of it’s attention, for survival, would be those sharp pointy things protruding from the head of a tonne or more of wild Scottish bull, as the small Beardie, by psychology only, submits it to it’s will and command, has the same name as the noisy thing under the bonnet of your car.

Would it be sensible to recommend you take a few minutes and allow your dog to hear the sound of your car horn playing a simple short signature tune.


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  1. #1 by sandysays1 on January 23, 2009 - 2:34 am

    A grand tribute to a fine canine. My respects

  2. #2 by Bob Talbot on February 9, 2009 - 2:06 am

    A fascinating dog (and blog) and a sad loss. We had golden retrievers once who were totally relaxed in the car and would doze off within minutes, however two staffs of my daughter would spend the whole journey whining and pacing around. I put it down to the fact that staffs are much less relaxed about anything, especially other dogs. I should have realised that they had never read John Masefield, unlike presumably Ruskin.

    By the way, welcome to the earthquake zone that is Blairgowrie. You would be much safer nearer the Sidlaws.

  3. #3 by celticlion on February 9, 2009 - 2:19 pm

    Thanks Bob, the blog gets read from around the world but it’s nice when people who know the area read, the pictures and orientation mean more. Alas Ruskin struggled with Masefield, although he did like going down to the sea. More John William Waterhouse, though The Song of Ruskin will cover art etc.

  4. #4 by Ken Dunsmuir on June 27, 2012 - 8:45 am

    Just “stumbled” onto this page, great read and a lovely looking dog. Must admit followed the link to Ruskins cremation,sad but lovely as well, might do that for my beardie, Skynyrd, when his time comes. Though he is only 6 so please it’s a long way off. Wish I’d done that with our last beardie, though we did get him cremated and when we moved back to Scotland, Max came home with us.
    This blog looks as if it’s going to be a good read.

    • #5 by celticlion on July 12, 2012 - 4:22 pm

      I’ve neglected the blog a bit recently but there is lots on beardies etc to read already. Have been on Facebook, but think I’ll do more on the blog and just put a link to FB. next project is an article on diagnosis and treatment of post traumatic stress disorder in rescue dogs, for Bearded Collie Club of Scotland magazine.

      Well if Max came will you I guess you didn’t have to say “if I leave here tomorrow would you still remember me…” Me and Seiben had an amazing 17 years together just adventure and fun.

      Thanks for liking the read.

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