The Dogs of Empire’s Legacy

“Shugo,” I called, recognizing him.

“Lord Sorley,” he said, coming over to me. The puppy squirmed in his grasp.

“What is that?” I asked. Shugo was one of the shepherds, and his sheepdogs were the best around. We bought young dogs from him, rather than breed our own. But the puppy he was holding was no sheepdog, although its black and white colouring suggested one of its parents was.

He spat. “Hagen came through with his hound just when Meg was in heat,” he grumbled. “This is the result. I drowned the others at birth — what good would they be? Left her this one to raise so the bitch wouldn’t pine, but I need her back with the sheep. So it’s drowning for this one, too.”

“How old is he?” I could see from how he held the pup it was male.

“Six weeks.”

“Don’t drown it,” I said. “I’ll buy it from you.”

“Buy it? What do you want it for?”

“The Comiádh’s son is ten. Just the right age for a puppy. Will you send it? I’ll write a note, if you’ll wait a few minutes.”

“Aye,” he said. “It’ll make a boy’s dog, I warrant.”

One of the advantages of writing what I write – historical fiction of another world – is that I don’t have to stay true to historical fact. I do, a lot, but in the case of Colm’s puppy (and other dogs in the books), I may not have.

This isn’t to say that herding dogs and hunting dogs were unknown in the classical and early-medieval world. They were. Dogs have likely accompanied people and their herds since long before recorded history; once domesticated and relating to people as part of their pack, dogs’ protective instincts would easily extend to the animals associated with their people. Archeological excavation of sites dated to the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE has found the remains of sheep and dogs together. But the physical separation of hunting dogs and herding dogs by breed is thought by some researchers to have occurred much later – so Colm’s dog Peritas, which I envision as a cross between a border collie and a deerhound – appears anachronistic.

File:Dog-Mosaic.jpg
2nd century BC mosaic from Alexandria, Egypt of a dog and a pitcher. Public Domian, via Wikimedia Commons

Or does it?  About 200 CE, Oppian of Apamea, a Greek poet, wrote a poem on hunting, in which he observes that, for the hunter, the black and white dogs of the farmer and shepherd (the mosaic above may show one of these) are not desirable. These may have been more guardian dogs than herding dogs – a couple of centuries earlier, Marcus Varro, in his De Re Rusticae, wrote:

As there are, then, two sorts of dogs — the hunting-dog suited to chase the beasts of the forest, and the other which is procured as a watch-dog and is of importance to the shepherd… 

By Anonymous (Roman Empire) – Walters Art Museum: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18804318

In the 2nd C Roman relief of a herdsman and his dog (above), there are no features that point to this dog as a ‘black and white herding dog’ as we know them in later centuries (and as I picture the herding dogs of Linrathe) – but no evidence it isn’t, either.

File:Mosaic of Dog Chasing a Rabbit, Roman, Homs, Syria, 450-462 AD, polychrome marble tesserae - Chazen Museum of Art - DSC01916.JPG
Mosaic of Dog Chasing a Rabbit, Roman, Homs, Syria, 450-462 AD, Chazen Museum of Art
Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hunting dogs – of the sort, perhaps, that has fathered Colm’s puppy, were praised and prized, and some of the best reputed to come from Britain.  Oppian, again:

There is a strong breed of hunting dog…the wild tribes of Britons…call by the name of Agassian…. It is by virtue of its nose, however, that the Agassian is most exalted, and for tracking it is the best there is; for it is very adept at discovering the tracks of things that walk upon the ground, and skilled too at marking the airborne scent.

Later in Empire’s Reckoning, the protagonist Sorley, after a long journey south in the role of an itinerant sheep-shearer, sends the sheepdog that has accompanied him home, a long journey on its own. I took this idea from The Drove Roads of Scotland, the author commenting on this practice among the drovers of the 17th and 18th centuries. But it goes back much further than that:  Varro, again:

Publius Aufidius Pontianus, of Amiternum, had bought some herds of sheep in furthest Umbria, the purchase including the dogs but not the shepherds, but providing that the shepherds should take them to the pastures of Metapontum and to market at Heraclea.​ When the men who had taken them there had returned home, the dogs, without direction… returned to the shepherds in Umbria a few days later, though it was a journey of many days.

This is a distance of some 300 miles, about the same distance that Haldane suggested the sheepdogs of Scotland, 1700 years later, travelled alone on their return home.

Maybe Colm’s Peritas isn’t completely anachronistic, nor is the black-and-white sheepdog Sorley sends home. In my fictional but familiar world, all that really matters is that the reader can believe in these dogs and their journeys.

References:

Varro: De Res Rusticae:  translation at:  https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Varro/de_Re_Rustica

Oppian:  translation at:  https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/oppian/home.html

Haldane, A.R. B.  1960.  The Drove Roads of Scotland (2008 edition, Birlinn).

Featured Image: A child holding a dog, detail of the 6th century mosaic floor from the Palatium Magnum (Constantinople’s Great Palace), Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul . Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Drove Dogs

We halted at mid-day for a little food. The pony, which carried my shearer’s tools and our other supplies, browsed for grass. We sat on stones that marked the meeting place of the track from the torp we had left this morning and a broad valley running roughly north to south. We’d come up this valley, a week or so earlier.

I unwrapped the offal I’d boiled the night before and tipped it onto the ground, giving the dog permission to eat. She swallowed the meal before looking up at me for its next command. “Down,” I told her. “It’s time,” I said to Bjørn.

He nodded, and crouched to hug the dog, his arms circling its throat. He would miss her, I knew, but we couldn’t take her with us.

When he had let the dog go, I spoke. “Nell. Go home.” She stood, the breeze ruffling her black and white coat. “Home,” I said again. She turned and began to trot north, along the valley floor and the ancient droveway, the wide paths along which sheep and cattle had been moved for generations beyond count.

Bjørn watched her for a minute, his eyes dry. “Will she really find her way home?” he asked. “It’s a long way.”

“She’s done it several times,” I told him. “That’s why Harr Dugar chose her to accompany us. The torps will feed her, don’t worry.” I pulled up the pony’s head. “Do you want to ride?”

Empire’s Reckoning

Many years ago, long before I envisioned the world I write about in my Empire series – an analogue of Britain and northern Europe after the decline of Rome – I read a book called The Drove Roads of Scotland, by A.R.B. Haldane. (Landscape history, if you’re new to my blog, is an avocation of mine.)  I don’t remember a lot of it, but in a footnote, he made this observation:

‘Some years ago the late Miss Stewart Mackenzie of Brahan, Ross-shire, informed a friend that in the course of journeys by coach in the late autumn from Brahan to the South during her childhood about the year 1840 she used frequently to see collie dogs making their way north unaccompanied. On inquiring of her parents why these dogs were alone, [she] was informed that these were dogs belonging to drovers who had taken cattle to England and that when the droving was finished the drovers returned by boat to Scotland. To save the trouble and expense of their transport, the dogs were turned loose to find their own way north. It was explained that the dogs followed the route taken on the southward journey being fed at Inns or farms where the drove had ‘stanced’ and that in the following year when the drovers were again on the way south, they paid for the food given to the dogs…’

That passage stayed in my mind, in part because I immediately associated it with a classic book of my childhood, Lassie Come-Home, by Erik Knight, in which a collie, sold from necessity and taken to a remote part of Scotland, still finds her way home. Written in 1940, it predates Haldane’s book. Had Knight heard stories of the drove collies?  Perhaps; I can’t prove it: in fact, I can’t prove this story of the drove dogs sent home by themselves at all. Every source I’ve found simply links back to Haldane’s footnote.

But it’s a good story, one that fit into Empire’s Reckoning (even though it’s set a thousand or so years earlier), because my main character was travelling south with a sheepdog in the role of an itinerant sheep-shearer. But that’s not what he really is, and so the borrowed dog will need to be sent home. Does she make it?  Here’s a tiny excerpt from the work-in-progress, Empire’s Heir, set four years later.

Bjørn’s gaze swept the room, stopping at Druise. “Bjørn,” Sorley said, as the two men regarded each other, “if you for a moment doubt Druisius’s loyalty, I’ll regret having sent the dog back north, and not you.”

A bark of laughter. “I was pleased when you wrote to tell me she was safely home,” he said. “It still surprises me that a sheepdog can do that journey across all that wild land on its own.”

Empire’s Heir

And if you know of any reliable sources other than Haldane for this practice, please let me know!