Morvern Lines – 22.10.20

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Last week I wrote about Donnie Macpherson, Camasachoirce, Loch Sunart-side, and his new collie called Millie. Although Millie arrived in Donnie’s life just recently, it must have been obvious to anyone looking at the accompanying photograph that a strong relationship exists between them already.

The scientists refer to it as ‘human–canine bonding’. To the rest of us they are bosom buddies and often our closest friends.  The average dog owner, apparently, spends more than £1,000 a year on food, toys, medical care and more and some people would be prepared to pay greater sums, especially on vets’ bills if necessary.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in America in 2005, so many people refused to leave without their dogs that Congress had to pass a law requiring disaster contingency plans to make accommodation available for pets. This bond can be traced back at least 15,000 years to bones found buried with two humans in a basalt quarry in Bonn-Oberkassel – a suburb in the Bonn district of Beuel, Germany.

At first they were thought to be those of a wolf but in the 1970s DNA proved they belonged to a domesticated hound and a direct ancestor of today’s dogs.
Stories of dogs remaining with the bodies of their owners at the scene of an accident, or by their graves for years afterwards, have been recorded the world over. In the late 1980s, a man made weekly visits to a hospital in Cadiz for dialysis treatments taking his young dog, Canelo, with him. As the hospital did not allow non-service dogs inside, Canelo had to wait outside, tied to a railing, until his master came out and they’d return home together. One day, due to complications during his treatment, the man died. But, as Canelo was none the wiser, he waited outside for a day or two before breaking loose and going home. Not finding his master there he kept returning to the place he had last seen him for the next 12 years and was given food and water by hospital staff and neighbours who knew why he was there. When Canelo died, the locals were so touched by his loyalty that they named an alley after him and put up a plaque in his honour.

Probably the most famous example in Scotland is Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier belonging to John Gray, who worked for Edinburgh City Police as a night-watchman. When John died he was buried in Greyfriars cemetery in Edinburgh Old Town. Bobby is said to have sat by the grave for 14 years until he died on January 14 1872 and was buried just inside the cemetery gate, not far from his master’s grave. A year later, English philanthropist Lady Burdett-Coutts was so taken by the story that she commissioned a sculptor called William Brodie to produce a fountain topped with Bobby’s statue which can still be seen opposite the entrance to the churchyard.
Robert Johnson, a little known mid 19th-century poet and gold miner living in Tambaroora in New South Wales, Australia, must have felt the loss of a favourite companion keenly when he composed a lovely poem, The Dog at his master’s grave: ‘There’s a mourner that mourns in that old churchyard, for he sleeps on that cold damp grave; he heedeth not winter stern and hard, no shelter doth he crave: nor while life shall last, will his memory fail for his old friend dead and gone. He sheddeth no tear, he maketh no wail, but his long night watch keeps on’.

At Meoble, near Loch Morar in West Inverness-shire, there is a grassy mound marking the grave of the son of a local laird, on which his favourite deer-hound kept her lonely vigil following his early death. Legend has it that for many years her ghost returned when any of her master’s family were about to die.

On November 30 1900, Iain MacDonald, aged 36, a gamekeeper and deer stalker on Ardvorlich estate on the south shores of Loch Lomond, met his death when, accompanied by his dog, he fell off his bicycle and landed in a deep burn below the A85 between Ardlui and Inveruglas. It wasn’t until the following morning that a walker found his body, still with his dog by his side, and relayed a message to the police. A stone marks the spot and bears a Gaelic inscription which reads: ‘Mar chuimneachan air Iain Mor MacDhomhnuill Sealadair Fhiadh a chaidh a mharbhaidh anns an ionaid so mios Samhhna 1900’ [To the memory of Big Iain MacDonald, deer stalker, who met his death at this spot in the month of November 1900].

Sir Edwin Landseer, the Victorian artist, is best remembered for his stirring painting of a magnificent stag called the Monarch of the Glen and four monumental bronze lions guarding Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. For me, his finest and best picture is the Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner.

John Ruskin, one of the most famous art critics of Landseer’s day, praised this 1837 work, describing it as ‘one of the most perfect pictures which modern times have seen’.
This painting is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. The gallery label tells viewers: ‘This scene of the sentimental devotion of a dog won praise and popularity for its famous artist Edwin Landseer. The animals he painted display human feelings and characteristics. One of the important aims of British art of the day was to illustrate love and affection in paintings.’

The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner hangs in a darkened and crowded hallway of one of the galleries at the V&A. It would be easy to miss if you were not looking for it. The protective glass over the painting makes it difficult to see. Although the label is factually accurate, it leaves out a large portion of the story, namely that it became an important part of animal welfare campaigns in the 19th century.

For example, in March 1881 it was reproduced in the magazine of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Here, in a transposed image of human grief, a Highland collie rests its head on the plain wooden coffin containing the body of his companion, the ‘old shepherd’. That this dog refuses to leave his master’s side – even after death – highlights the bond these two had. The closeness of the dog’s breast against the coffin; the clinging of the legs, which has dragged the coarse woollen blanket off the trestle; the utter hopelessness in the eye; the spectacles marking the place where the Bible was last closed; the sprigs of sweet-scented bog-myrtle on the pall and on the floor; the quietness and serenity of the small room, is about as emotional and powerful as it gets.

To be continued next week.