Scotland is of course known for its tartans. Those checkered lengths of fabric reflect the natural plant dyes that were locally available for centuries, indelibly linking the clan colors to the places where they evolved.
Dog breeds are no different. Each owes its existence to the particular environment in which its ancestors flourished. And because hunting with dogs was such an important pastime of the British aristocracy, a number of these native breeds eventually became shaped by the richest and most influential families in the area – and in the process, sometimes took their name.
Becoming the Superior Setter
It’s largely accepted that Alexander Gordon, who became the fourth Duke of Gordon as a 9-year-old in 1752, did not invent the Gordon Setter, known for its striking black coat with rich tan markings. There were black-and-tan bird dogs in the vicinity of his Gordon Castle for centuries – as well as dogs of other colors. But the duke’s imprimatur started the breed on its journey into purebred status as the most substantial of the four setter breeds. (The other three are the English Setter, Irish Setter, and the more recently recognized Irish Red and White Setter.)
The dividing lines between these setters are not only color, but also structure, which reflects the varying terrains they hunted. Because it needed to navigate the rocky, heather-swept Scottish moors, the Gordon Setter evolved the heavier bone and square silhouette that imparted strength rather than speed. The Duke’s dogs were well regarded for their resulting stamina, able to work from early morning to well into the afternoon without respite. (Once they had gotten over their teenage zoomies, that is: The Duke reportedly would not shoot over his eponymous setters until they had reached five years of age, as they were slow to mature, both mentally and physically.)
An avid hunter, the Duke relied on his setters’ superior scenting ability to locate their prey in heavy cover. These were primarily upland game birds, such as partridge, grouse, pheasant and quail, which naturally freeze in the presence of a close predator. Before the advent of firearms, the setters indicated the presence of a bird by pointing, or “setting,” in the direction of the game, shrinking down in an effort to minimize their mass, and make it possible for the hunter to cast a net over the birds, and occasionally over the dog as well. Although modern setters now stand their points, one will occasionally see a dog “set,” crouching low, almost to the ground.
Black-and-Tan? Not Always
To be sure, the Duke of Gordon was not the only person in his time to breed these setters. Indeed, the breed was known simply as the black-and-tan setter until 1924, when Britain’s Kennel Club renamed it the Gordon Setter.
But even that color-derived moniker was a bit of a misnomer, as the breed wasn’t always black-and-tan: Reports of the period note that many of the Duke’s dogs were tricolor – black, white and tan.
In 1862, well-known dog writer H.H. Dixon – who went by the pen name “The Druid” – visited Gordon Castle and its 800-acre estate. There, in the kennel meadow, he counted 37 of the Duke’s setters, “spreading themselves out like a fan” on the green expanse.
“Originally the Gordon Setters were all black and tan. Now all the Setters in the Castle Kennel are entirely black and white, with a little tan on the toes, muzzle, root of the tail, and around the eyes,” he later wrote. “The late Duke liked it, as it was both gayer and not so difficult to spot on the hillsides as the dark colour.”
The Duke of Gordon may have introduced the white color by crossing to a brace of English Setters that had been gifted to him. Another theory posits a sheepdog cross. And then there are those who suggest an infusion of Bloodhound blood – not to add color, but rather scenting ability and bone. No records survive to confirm the exact recipe. But what is clear is that the Duke, described as “not a man to confine himself to shades and fancies,” was unperturbed at making such color modifications, something that today’s Gordon fanciers would consider nothing short of heretical.
The Jumbled Life of the Duke of Gordon
If the early history of the Gordon Setter sounds like something of a jumble, in his personal life the Duke did not color within the lines either. Described as “one of the handsomest men of his day,” he met his visual match when he married Lady Jane Maxwell, who was so eye catching herself that a song was written about her. Lady Jane had given her heart to Captain Fraser, a young officer from Edinburgh who she learned had died in America while fighting the Revolutionary War. While on her honeymoon with the Duke of Gordon, Lady Jane received a message from her very-much-alive first love, asking for her hand in marriage. She reportedly fainted on the spot.
A legendarily talented hostess, Lady Jane routinely gave seated dinners for up to 100 guests, the missing finger she had lost in a cart accident as a teenager replaced by a wooden insert in her ever-present gloves. But from all accounts, the Gordons lived separate lives, complete with his-and-her trysts; he preferred the castle, where he eventually installed his mistress, and she – if gossip is to be believed – made use of the moors.
By 1805, the two had parted ways. But while the Duke found it difficult to maintain fidelity to his wife, his setters were an altogether different matter. And as the 19th Century progressed, they found an appreciative audience far beyond the Scottish moors.
One of the First Recognized Breeds
Gordon Setters were present for almost all the firsts in the purebred dog world, from the first official dog show, held in Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1859, to the world’s inaugural field trial in 1863. Across the pond, the “Gordon Castle Setter” was among the first nine breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1878. Only a year before, at the first-ever Westminster Kennel Club show, 79 Gordon Setters were entered.
That large Westminster entry – and the word “Castle” inserted into the official breed name, which was removed in 1892 – are quite understandable when you consider that the first American dogs, Rake and Rachel, had been imported a half-century earlier, directly from Gordon Castle kennel.
That grand residence, which during the Duke’s lifetime was expanded to become one of the largest country house in Scotland, has had much of that construction demolished. But today the castle has adapted to modern times, opening its grounds up to cottage guests, salmon fishermen and wedding parties.
The Gordon Setter also has a smaller footprint since its 19th-Century heyday, ranking 107th out of the American Kennel Club’s 195 recognized breeds. But the breed is as indelible a part of Scottish history as the castle from which it derives its name – and, thanks to devoted fanciers around the world, will likely outlast it, too.