West Highland White Terriers are cute, kind, loyal and mischievous – especially this one;. Story by Lesley Choyce.
It is a coolish morning as I sit in my warm kitchen at Lawrencetown Beach in Nova Scotia. My wife Linda is working, so I am home alone – well, not really alone; my dog is sitting on a chair beside me. Yes, he is sitting there, watching me write this, looking a bit like one of those dogs in that silly but ubiquitous 1894 painting titled Dogs Playing Poker, by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. Unlike any of the dogs in the artwork, however, Kelty is a two-year-old West Highland White Terrier – a Westie.
He is a most lovable pet most days, but on occasion becomes a little West Highland Terrorist when the spirit moves him.
For as far back as I can remember, there has always been a dog in my life. Sadly, we outlive our dogs, and I have outlived nearly a dozen. But it is not a morning to be mourning – nor to be pondering mortality. It is a day to plan for the future.
I have a sabbatical coming up and have decided that some sort of grand adventure is in order. My fondness for the U.K. – and for the Celtic world in general – got me thinking about a land-based circumnavigation of Great Britain. Linda and I would drive around, paying homage to dead poets and novelists, find small villages with funny names, and drink local brews at England’s smallest pubs and other sudsy establishments with names like the Cock Inn and the Broken Whistle. We’d meet fabulously quirky and eccentric Brits, Scots and Welshmen, and I would write a book about it.
But we wouldn’t leave the mutt behind this time. Instead, we’d drive around England, Scotland and Wales with a dog. It was a most exciting idea.
Two authors were partly responsible for inspiring this peripatetic quest. One was Bill Bryson, who had written two wonderfully funny and insightful books about his travels in England. The second was Tony Hawks, who had written a most hilarious book titled Around Ireland with a Fridge.
Prepping myself for the upcoming odyssey, I first wrote to Bill Bryson, believing he was living in New Hampshire, requesting an interview. He promptly wrote back with the following: “Thanks for your inquiry. I am afraid I haven’t lived in New Hampshire for 15 years, which kind of suggests that you haven’t been following my work terribly closely for quite some time. I am afraid I am not able to give interviews at present.” I guess it was his semi-polite way of saying “go-fly-a-kite.”
Nursing a bruised writer’s ego, I am still working up the courage to write to Mr. Hawks, bracing myself for yet another scathing brush-off, but hoping that a man who has hitch-hiked the perimeter of the Emerald Isle will see my own humble quest as modestly noble and offer up some advice.
In my mind the whole adventure was shaping up nicely: fly with my wife Linda and dog Kelty to Glasgow, rent a car, go first to Poltalloch, the legendary origin of the modern Westie, then over to Edinburgh to sit in the back at The Elephant House café where J.K. Rowling reputedly wrote her first Harry Potter novel. We might possibly take a quick nip over to 6a Nicolson Street, where she did morw writing – now the location of Jimmy Chungs Buffet King restaurant. Then it would be down to Sibson in Leicestershire, home of my ancestor, William Percival Choyce, before moving on to Wales to Surf Snowdonia, the world’s first inland surfing destination – all with Kelty along for the adventure.
At Christmas, someone had even given me a book titled Good Guide to Dog Friendly Pubs, Hotels and B&Bs. In it, Fiona Stapley notes that “8.5 million households in Britain own a dog,” and that she takes her Labrador to many friendly pubs where they offer her black pet “biscuits and other treats such as pig’s ears and a sausage or two.” I was convinced immediately that, without a doubt, Kelty’s first tasting of pig’s ears would be a highlight in his young life.
But alas, the kind folks at the airline informed me that you can’t fly into the U.K. with a dog in the cabin – they could only go in baggage. And there was simply no way we were about to let that happen. The Brits, for all their love of dogs, had thrown a mighty wrench into the works, the bureaucratic bastards!
We almost gave up on the idea. I went looking for advice on how to get a dog into the U.K. and discovered that we could travel over on the Queen Mary from New York and take the pooch. The only problem, however, was that it would cost many thousands of American dollars – more bad news.
A little more digging, however, revealed that we could fly to Paris with Kelty and smuggle him into the U.K. in our rental auto strapped down on a rail car through the Chunnel. It smacked of a slightly tamer version of something from Mission Impossible and I immediately knew it was the thing to do. So we booked tickets to Charles DeGaulle instead of Glasgow and paid an extra $50 to keep our dog with us in a carrier at our feet. Around England with a Dog would have to begin on French soil, and we would make our landing in England not far from Hastings where the French army under William of Normandy successfully invaded England in 1066.
Some might wonder why go to all this trouble just to take the family mutt to a foreign country.
Well, dogs are damned important to some of us – man’s best friend and all that. Let’s face it. Dogs are loyal and lick your face. They are exuberant and fun-loving. I’d always had mixed breed dogs but, with the arrival of Linda in my life, came a pure- breed Westie. Kelty’s predecessor, Murdo, was a purebred Westie that required expensive grooming and who slept on the bed. Murdo died of cancer a few years back and we mourned his loss for a full year before Linda convinced me we needed a new dog – a puppy – and a Westie of course. The only problem was there was not a single Westie puppy to be found for sale in the Maritimes. We had to drive to Ontario and escort our new puppy home to Nova Scotia, where we three are living happily ever after.
Hoping to avoid a tedious internet research on the subject of Westies for this article, I made a library reservation for what I thought was the definitive tome on the dog breed – West Highland White Terriers by Sara Green. When I arrived at the library, however, I discovered it was a children’s book. It had such great photos of lively tongue-protruding, tail-wagging Westies that I checked it out anyway, and found a wealth of information. I also concluded that I had made a big mistake as a young lad when I gave up on those colorful slim volumes about volcanoes, spiders, Uruguay, and how things work, in favour of dull, wordy and picture-less books for more mature readers.
I devoured the book cover to cover and was reminded that Westies are “small, friendly dogs with shiny white coats.” Well, not my dog after a trip to the beach where he has rolled in sand, mud, and washed-up unidentifiable sea creatures that had been decomposing for at least a week. But underneath, yes, white it is.
I didn’t know about the double-coat made up of a “short and soft” undercoat and a coarser outer-coat of wiry hair, but here was a two-coated dog. I also discovered that our noble beast was descended from Cairn Terriers, who have a darker coat. Apparently, back in nineteenth century Scotland, some Cairns had white puppies which were thought to be weak and poor hunters. That was undoubtedly a lie but, back then as today, people believed what they wanted to believe, true or not.
The book tidied up the story about Edward Donald Malcolm of Poltalloch who, in the 1800s, started breeding the white dogs because “it would be easier for hunters to recognize their white dogs in the fields or woods.” Well, I already knew that Colonel Malcolm himself had shot one (if not more) of his own darker Cairn Terriers while hunting foxes, so the breeding was an attempt of sorts to offset his own incompetence as a huntsman. But, nonetheless, he gave us the modern Westie. He called them Poltalloch Terriers because that was the name of the town where he lived.
And indeed, Poltalloch is first on my list of places to visit in the U.K. – a most appropriate pilgrimage to the sacred soil where Kelty’s ancestors roamed the fields, chased rabbits, and sniffed each other’s butts.
Westies are darn good at digging. Apparently their claws grow faster than other dogs for just this purpose. They like to dig deep and follow tunnels made by animals living underground. In fact, the name “terrier” comes from a Latin word meaning earth. This was labelled a “fun fact” in the child’s book, allowing me to remember that, yes, once upon a time facts really were fun, as opposed to today when “facts” are no longer fun and, so often, are not even facts at all.
Kelty, like his ancestors, is a great digger and if we had rats, I’m sure he would heartily enjoy catching them and biting into their necks, then swinging them left and right like his Poltalloch cousins have done for over two hundred years. Apparently, Westies also have extra-strong tails, so if they are stuck down deep in a rat hole, you can pull them out by their tail and it won’t hurt them, although it would surely be a significant discomfort. I have seen Kelty “unhinge” his back legs as well, sprawled out flat on the floor in a pool of sunlight. These are very versatile and agile dogs, indeed.
Early Westies had several different names, and this annoyed dog breeders so much that the Scottish Kennel Club gathered in 1904 and, after what I envision as a highly charged debate involving scathing Scottish insults and many glasses of Scotch, came up with the official name of the breed: West Highland White Terrier. And that was that.
Today, I am told by Ms. Green, “Most Westies just dig for fun.” But some are trained to work with deaf people; when they hear crying or doorbells or smoke alarms, they use their nose or paw to inform their deaf companions – how ingenious is that?
Modern dogs, even Kelty, are related to those howling wolves I occasionally hear on moonlit nights here on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. But they came into their own about 100,000 years ago. About 30,000 years ago in Europe, humans started to domesticate dogs – or at least dogs started hanging around the campfire hoping someone would toss them a bone. Domestication led to breeding for certain desired traits. Hunting and guarding were big ticket items, and West Highland Terriers certainly have that going for them.
White dogs probably first appeared in Spain, although I could not find an explanation why the Spaniards wanted a white dog more than anyone else. Some time in the 1500s, James VI of Scotland gave a white terrier (but not the modern version, and probably not pure white) as a gift to Henry IV. There are no reports as to how well the dog fared while Henry spent considerable time during his kingship fending-off assassination attempts and rebellions.
Just so you won’t be as confused as I was, James VI (the dog giver) became James I of England after the death of Elizabeth I. Certainly he brought some terriers south with him as Scottish comfort against the many conspirators who gave him trouble as well, including one Walter Raleigh. And it was this James I who granted a charter to Sir William Alexander in 1621, giving him rights to a large parcel of land in the New World that would one day be Nova Scotia, present home of Linda, Kelty and me.
Unlike King Charles II, he did not name a dog after himself, but in Volume 12 of Classical Review (1898), there is an article about a most convoluted discourse that took place in Cambridge back in 1614-1615 involving “King James I on the Reasoning Faculty in Dogs.”
One way or the other, it is clear that dogs helped influence, if not shape much of the history of Scotland, Britain, and other nations.
Dogs have inspired poetry and paintings as well, of course. One fine example is the 1839 painting by Sir Edwin Landseer – Dignity and Impudence – of a bloodhound, representing dignity, and a small white terrier, well, representing the alternate quality.
I have discovered there is much ink spilled on the subject of Westie breeding, definitions of a pure breed, and the world of show dogs – none of which is my cup of tea. Nor would I want to get into an argument in a dog-friendly pub about which lineage or breed is nobler than the others. There seems to be a considerable number of various official competitions as well that involve Westies, including agility competitions, “conformation shows” (sounds nasty to me), a dog sport called coursing ability, earthdog trials, freestyle (more like it) and, God help us, something called “obedience and rally.”
I am certainly not an advocate that everyone should go out and buy a Westie; it turns out that between vet bills, endless grooming, and making travel arrangements for the small white creature, you could probably raise a child for less.
Famous Westies abound, and I was surprised to learn that Mohammed Ali Jinnah, considered the founder of Pakistan, had a Westie. A Westie also appears on the label of Black and White whisky, as well as on Cesar dogfood throughout the world. You should never tell an owner that all Westies look alike – even though, for the most part, they all do look alike.
I grew just a tad jealous when I learned that J.K. Rowlings’ West Highland White Terrier, Bronte, won a cutest dog competition. The headline in the Scottish Sun read, “THE MAGIC MUTT: JK Rowling’s adorable West Highland Terrier Bronte earns top marks in cute pooches competition WeRateDogs.” I mean, isn’t literary fame and unspeakable wealth enough?
I am hereby giving Ms. Rowlings fair warning that we are headed her way and, although I may not be as famous a writer as the author of the Harry Potter books, I have a dog that I think is both smarter and cuter than any in the U.K. And there will be photos taken to prove it – lots and lots of photos.