By Stephen and Mary Bilson


Something about the Working Kelpie ancestors

The Working Kelpie was formed in Australia by a number of very keen dog breeders in the mid 1800's. Although there were a lot of sheepdogs in the colony, most did very little except to act as guard dogs for the flocks of sheep or at best were droving dogs.

At first Australia used shepherds to watch their sheep, as had been the tradition in Britain but by the mid 1800's, the large Australian grazing properties were being fenced and sheep numbers had grown considerably. The sheep  were less tame and needed to be gathered by stockman and their sheepdogs.

Many of the dog breeds imported from Britain could not adapt to the work and would not stand up to the heat or the terrain.  There was a huge demand for dogs that could actually go out and gather and hold sheep and move them from place to place. Fortunately, there were a number of people in Australia who strived to have the best sheepdogs and we owe these people a great debt. Today, it is estimated there are probably more than 450,000 sheepdogs working in Australia, the vast majority are Australian Working Kelpies.

It must be stressed that the Kelpie breed was NOT formed from Border Collies. In fact the breed of Border Collies was not formed until some time after the Kelpie was well established. The two breeds however were both formed by mixing different strains of working Colleys in Britain and  Ireland,  and developing them to suit the needs of the situation. The Dingo also played a part in some of the early development and certainly was involved by a lot of breeders at a later stage.  The breed of the Kelpie was then developed from a number of different strains of good dogs especially for Australian conditions and Australian methods of handling sheep and stock.

" .. The Smithfield dogs (black & white bob-tailed dogs) and Russian Collies were used by the early settlers of Australia to work their flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. Other breeds of long haired dogs were imported from Great Britain but all proved unsuitable for working under our conditions. The Rough Haired Scotch Collie was among those used but he had a wedge-shaped head, totally unlike present day Collies." - Dogs of Australia.



It is quite obvious that this dog looks nothing like the Border Collies. Nor does he look like a Kelpie or any of the other major herding breeds in Britain or Australia.

The biggest problem in researching the early Kelpie seems to be the word 'Collie' or 'Colley'. It tends to confuse many new Kelpie people. It refers to general farm working dogs.  The word Collie or Colley does not refer to a particular breed. The Border Collie is a breed. Bearded Collie is a breed. Collie Rough (Lassie type) is a breed. The Kelpie is a breed. All would have been referred to as Collies or Colleys in the 1800's. In fact some early documents in Australia even referred to the Kelpie as 'Kelpie Collies'.

Many people are responsible for all the hard work of developing this wonderful Kelpie breed and we think they deserve recognition. We also think the Kelpie has a wonderful and exciting history and all lovers of this great dog should at least have some knowledge of the work done by thousands of breeders over many years. We would like to see the Kelpie promoted to the position he deserves, as one of the greatest herding dogs in the world. He has been a legend in rural Australia for over a century!


The British working Colleys of the 1700's and 1800's came from the mixing of Roman and Viking dogs and later Polish Lowland dogs, and in some strains also African dogs. As you would expect they evolved into something very different. They evolved into dogs that were needed by the farmers in Britain. At one time almost every little county or shire had their own separate strain of sheepdog .

Because the population in Britain was no where near as mobile as today some of these early strains were well set in small areas of Great Britain for many generations. One of the important strains to Australians was from the Scottish Highlands, called the Rutherford Strain which was introduced into the early Kelpie lines. The Rutherford strain goes back hundreds of years in the highlands of Scotland and had nothing to do with the formation of the Border Collie breed. Some of the Rutherford family migrated to Australia and bred sheepdogs here as well.

Many of these strains (or breeds) of sheepdogs have since ceased to exist such as the Harlequin Collie, Welsh Grey Collie, the Bob-Tailed Collie, Rutherford North Country Collies, the English Handy dog, Dorset Sheepdog, (Scotch Collie), Ban Dog, The Highland Collie, Welsh Hillman, (Fox Collies) etc. Today we still have Collie Roughs (The Lassie dog), Bearded Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs, Smithfields, Shetland Sheepdogs, Old English sheepdogs, etc.

The Highland Collie is said to have remained quite pure in its type until Queen Victoria took an interest in the breed and made them popular. They were a heavy coated dog, strongly built. He worked aggressive Highland cattle and mountain sheep. They were an unusual breed which had double dew claws on their back legs.

The same development also happened in Australia. Many Kelpie breeders were well established in the 1800's. Charles and Harry King and later other members of the King family, Jack Gleeson, Charles Gibson, Allen & Elliot, Charles Edols, the Tully family and others. The great John Quinn was breeding Kelpies in the late 1880's and was still breeding them into the 1930's. One of his last was the famous Boy Blue owned and trained by the great sheepdog triallist, Jack Goodfellow (Currawang Kelpies).

There was also the Smithfield. These dogs used to drove stock to the London Markets, to a place called Smooth Field. In 1860 the area was redeveloped and renamed the Smithfield Meat Market. I believe another strain of these dogs were called 'Ban dogs'. They are said to have been badly treated by their owners and often left to roam at the markets. The local towns people did not like them and from reports I have the impression they were afraid of them.

The Smithfield is still used in Australia but mainly in Victoria and Tasmania. The Smithfield is a bob-tailed dog.  They had long hair, big hanging ears and a cumbersome gait. In Australia, they were used in their original form but some others were also crossed with the Dingo. This produced a breed known in the mid 1800's as Timmins Biters. This breed is thought to be one of the ancestors of our present day Australian Stumpy-Tailed Cattledog. Timmins Biters regularly droved stock between Sydney and Bathurst.

In 1862, the very first Dog show was held in Australia. This was in Hobart, Tasmania. It is interesting to note that one Smithfield Colley and one Black & tan Colley were shown here.

Another strain of British Working Collie was called Laudies. These dogs were used by the the shepherds on the estates of the Lord of Lonsdale. There was also the Irish Sheepdog which resembled the old Scotch Collie. These dogs were similar in size and type to the modern Border Collie and were black and white but had a coat more like a Bearded Collie.

There were also the Black & Tan Collies of Galway. There was reported to be strains of these dogs on the Isle of man and they were called 'Holding Dogs'. The Black & Tan Collie is thought to have been bought to Wales and North scotland by the Vikings and there are similar dogs in Norway called 'Moo Dogs', which are used for working Moose and cattle. These strains became concentrated in Ross and Cromarty and British writers have reported that this strain is in the Kelpie.

The Lundehund was also bought to Britain by the Vikings. They think the Pembroke Corgi may decend from them. The Lundehund was used mainly for hunting and digging out the Puffin bird.

There was even an exceptional working strain formed in the USA from British Working Collies in the 1800's called the McNab. These were from a British strain Alexander McNab referred to as 'Fox Collies' from the Grampian Hills of Scotland. They had erect ears, light build and the occasional occurrence of red colour. Short coats were favoured in the Californian conditions.

In an article by Lulu McNab written in 1894 she said they had worked on the property in Mendocino for more than 25 years which would mean they had to be there by the 1860's when Alexander McNab first settled in the region.

Some other American breeds such as the English Shepherd and the Australian Shepherd were also thought to be developed from British Working Collies. (Both these breeds, despite the names, are solely American breeds and not found in England or Australia.)


Photo by Irene Glover

Iris Combe, well known British author and authority on the history of British sheepdogs wrote the following paragraph in her book 'Border Collies (1978).

" Some authorities on pastoral dogs state that the Border Collie has been an established strain for centuries, but from discussions I have had with old shepherds or farmers, and from reading past literature in various farming or country journals, the dog we know today as the Border Collie is indeed a new modern strain, but descended from those collies of the lowlands and border counties of England and Scotland, mingled with the blood of those other strains of sheepdog I have previously mentioned."

Mr.Robert Kaleski, one of Australia's early working dog authorities and author of 'Barkers and Biters' (1914) thought that the blue colour found in Kelpies such as Quinns Coil and Wallace was a throwback to the Highland Collie.



The Kelpie came about from a mixture of strains. The first was the dogs belonging to George Robertson in western Victoria. It is not known whether these were imported dogs or were bred for many generations from dogs he bought over from Tasmania in 1843. The latter seems the most likely and many early writers said the breed originated in Tasmania (the island colony). Of course the Tasmanian dogs must have originally came from imported stock. Gleeson's Kelpie is thought to have been born sometime between 1868 and 1870 at Warrock Station near Casterton in the south-west of Victoria, Australia.

There is also the persistent theory that the sheepdog that Jack Gleeson got, was a Dingo/Collie cross. It has been said that the bitch was tied out to a tree at night when she was on heat and a wild Dingo mated her. We know from reports that there were a lot of Dingoes in the area at that time. As there is no proof either way, we keep an open mind. Although there are detailed records of the Robertson family's dealings, so far nothing has been found indicating any dogs were imported. Some researchers think the bitch may have come via the Henty family in the district. the Henty's were the first to settle the district.

About the same time as Gleeson's Kelpie was being born, there were the two excellent working collies (Brutus & Jenny) imported from Scotland by Allen & Elliot near Young in NSW. There was also the introduction of the Rutherford strain through Tullys Moss. While it is well known that the wild native Australian dog, the Dingo, was an influence in some lines of Kelpies, it is still not known just how much influence the Dingo had on the early Kelpies or on the  breed as a whole.

Tony Parsons of the Karrawarra Kelpie Stud and well known author had a few things to say on the beginnings of the Kelpie. We know Tony well and he is a man that has spent his life researching and promoting the Kelpie he loves. In his book (now out of print) 'The Australian Kelpie', he had this to say on the matter:

" There is no doubt that a number of Collies, not Border Collies, were imported prior to the arrival of the dogs that produced the Kelpie....One important point to remember is that the dogs we have been discussing were at that time all regarded as Collies. The name 'Kelpie' was not used until after Kings Kelpie had won the Forbes Trial in the 1870's and her progeny began to be dispersed throughout the country.... There are many curious stories to be heard ... most of them ignore the fact the first examples of the breed were derived from purely Scottish dog, not Border Collies, because that breed had not yet come into being at the time the Kelpie's ancestors were imported to Australia."

Later in the same book, Tony Parsons added: " The Border Collie, although clearly developed from Old Country dogs, was not produced from exactly the same type of Collies as was the Kelpie. The Border Collie breed could be said to have originated with a dog named Old Hemp. (Born 1873)"

OLD HEMP (Born 1893)




Painting 1803


If you have any additional information, we'd love to hear from you

Mary and Stephen Bilson Noonbarra Kelpie Stud

P.O. Box 1374, Orange NSW, Australia


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