Though we often don’t think about them in this way, dogs are really about people — those long-ago (or, sometimes, not so long-ago) figures who developed particular breeds for particular tasks. Some breeds — like the Doberman Pinscher, Teddy Roosevelt Terrier, and Cesky Terrier — owe their existence to just one visionary person. Other breeds were brought into being by specific cultures or classes of people.
If civilization is the intersection of a group of people with their environment, so too are their dogs: With coats that evolved to survive the local climate, body styles developed to navigate native terrains, and characters that fit into the social mores of the day, our purebred dogs are living, breathing moments of history, reflections of the far-flung cultures that developed and nurtured them. Through them, we rediscover our globe’s cultural diversity and heritage.
Each week, without even leaving our couches, we travel to a different place and time to meet the people who developed the snoozing bundles of fur at our sides.
Dog breeds are all about transformation. And in the story of the Golden Retriever, that theme reverberates on multiple levels – with an ambitious man born with means but no title, with a dog of a color that was considered undesirable, and with a once-sparkling mansion reduced to crumbling ruins.
To unite this trio, in our mind’s eye at least, let’s rewind to early 19th-Century England, where class distinctions were razor-sharp, and the manses and manors that gave us “Downton Abbey” were in full swing.
That’s the socially stratified backdrop into which Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks (often pronounced “Marchbanks”) was born in 1820, second son to a successful Scottish banker. Even as a teenager, the young Marjoribanks was interested in dog breeding – then, unlike now, considered an admirable hobby for the well heeled and socially prominent. He recorded all the breedings he did over a half-century in a leather-bound book that still survives today, kept securely at the Kennel Club in England. (That’s the formal name of Britain’s dog registry – simply the Kennel Club – which, with its implied sense of universal recognition, is so very British.)
While his father’s banking partnership was earmarked for his older brother, Marjoribanks nonetheless inherited a substantial fortune. With it, he purchased part of the Meux Brewery. Formerly known as the Horse Shoe Brewery, the distillery had been the site of the London Beer Flood of 1814, in which a burst vat sent a quarter-million gallons of porter beer gushing the densely populated neighborhood, killing eight.
But during Marjoribanks’ tenure, the only flood he saw was of pound sterling. And that investment, along with his directorship in the East India Company, left him even wealthier.
Like most successful men of his era, Marjoribanks invested in property. His principal residence was the many-balconied Brook House in London, where, being a member of the House of Commons, he stayed for half the year, when Parliament was in session. Marjoribanks also owned a retreat in the Scottish Highlands named Giusachan (pronounced “yoush-a-gan”), which translates as “place of the firs.”
Marjoribanks acquired his prized country estate in a rather backhanded way. Attending dinner as a guest at Giusachan one evening, Marjoribanks heard his host say he would sell the estate if someone offered him a specified sum; without missing a beat, Marjoribanks announced he would take the deal. The next morning, the abashed host said he had only been joking, but Marjoribanks held him to his word – something a true gentleman of the day could not break – and in this awkward way the 15-bedroom mansion surrounded by forest and deer-stalking land became his.
Now suitably equipped with the appropriate trappings of aristocratic British life, Marjoribanks received the ultimate nod in 1881 – elevation into the peerage as the newly minted 1st Baron Tweedmouth.
For many years, the prevailing origin story of the Golden Retriever was that Marjoribanks had purchased a group of Russian circus dogs, and started breeding his famous yellow-coated dogs from there. But the truth turns out to be much more pedestrian – literally.
On a walk with his son in Brighton in 1865, Marjoribanks came across a wavy-coated dog named Nous. Belonging to a cobbler who had gotten him from an employee of a local nobleman to settle a debt, Nous had black parents but was himself gold-colored.
During the 19th Century, black sporting dogs were fashionable and considered to be better hunters; any other colors in well-bred litters were usually disposed of.
In dogs as in humans, one’s standing in life depends on the vagaries of luck and birth. During the 19th Century, black sporting dogs were fashionable and considered to be better hunters; any other colors in well-bred litters were usually disposed of. Had Nous not been given to a tradesman, he might not have survived at all.
Three years after Marjoribanks acquired him, Nous was bred to Belle, a Tweed Water Spaniel that Marjoribanks had been given by his cousin. Now extinct, Tweed spaniels were liver-colored, sort of kissing cousins to Irish Water Spaniels, and associated with the fishermen of the River Tweed Valley on the Scottish-English border. It was an inspired combination, crossing a retriever to a water spaniel to create a robust hunter capable of navigating both land and water to hunt grouse, partridge and even red deer. Marjoribanks’ famous 1868 litter contained the florally monikered puppies who are considered the world’s first Golden Retrievers – Cowslip, Crocus and Primrose.
A Spectrum of Gold
Unlike those common woodland flowers, the gold-colored Marjoribanks retrievers weren’t widely dispersed, but instead were only gifted with great discretion to family and friends, who valued them as the ultimate gentleman’s hunting dog. Marjoribanks’ son Edward was given Crocus, and the fact that he also owned a red setter named Sampson might explain the very deep red that is part of the spectrum of color seen in the Golden Retriever even today. A female named Ada, who was from a repeat breeding of Belle to Nous, was given to Marjoribanks’ nephew the Earl of Ilchester, whose subsequent line of Golden Retrievers at Melbury Hall in Dorset became quite famous.
And long before the Golden Retriever became the third most popular breed in the United States – surpassed only by Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherd Dogs according to last year’s AKC registrations – two alighted on North American soil with Marjoribanks’ youngest son, Archie. Archie took a male named Sol to Texas, where his Rocking Chair Ranch raised some of his family’s prized Angus Aberdeen cattle. Soon after, Archie brought a female named Lady to Canada, when he was appointed aide-de-camp to his brother-in-law, Canadian Governor-General Lord Aberdeen. Sol died in Texas, but Lady returned to Britain with Archie in 1895 and went on to produce more puppies there.
The Blooming Popularity of The Golden Retriever
Marjoribanks made the final breeding entry in his leather-bound record book in 1890, and died several years later, but the breed carried on without him.
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for Guisachan. The Golden Retriever’s ancestral home changed hands many times over the ensuing decades, with much of its 20,000 acres eventually partitioned and sold off. The great house itself became an albatross, and in 1939, the roof was removed in order to lower the tax bill. A tangle of trees and underbrush began to grow where there were once drawing rooms and wine cellars.
In 2018, Friends of Guisachan (friendsofguisachan.org), a non-profit group created to share information about the breed’s birthplace, erected a life-size bronze state of a Golden Retriever in the Scottish village of Tomich, along the road to Guisachan. That same year, the group paid to clear the trees from the ruins, and began a campaign to stabilize what remains of the structure.
With its crumbling masonry and gaping window frames, Guisachan is a reminder that the monuments we humans build to the times in which we live often do not outlast us. Dogs, however, are somewhat more resilient. Like those wildflowers for which the first trio of Golden Retrievers were named, they can settle and thrive in unlikely places. And as their popularity blooms, they brighten their new landscapes, always carrying with them a whiff of the people and places that brought them into being.