TOMICH, Scotland — Around 11 p.m. the crowd raised their glasses as the last of the light faded from the Highland sky to toast Lord Tweedmouth. Dogs were everywhere, and nearly all of them were golden retrievers. They came from around the world to pay tribute to the man who first bred them here in the mid-1800s. Some were almost white; some had a more reddish hue and others fell somewhere in between.
The dogs and their owners strolled down the very same lane that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once reputedly learned to drive on. Their destination, Guisachan House (pronounced Goose-a-kin), was brightly lit in a changing array of colored lights against the darkening Scottish sky. It was a mostly quiet affair.
Almost unbelievably, the dogs didn’t bark, and their owners spoke in hushed, reverential tones as they made their way along the drive up to the now-ruined house.
It was one of the opening events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Britain’s Golden Retriever Club. And because Scotland is the birthplace of the breed, hundreds of dogs — a new record of 222 dogs, to be exact — and dog owners from around the world made the pilgrimage to the tiny conservation village of Tomich, next to the Guisachan Estate, about a 200-mile drive north from Glasgow. Some came from as far away as Australia. Others traveled the length of the United Kingdom to attend. And there were also Spaniards, Danes, Austrians, Japanese, Italians, Canadians and a contingent of about 50 Americans on hand, among others.
Guisachan was the home of Dudley Coutts Majoribanks, the first Baron Tweedmouth, from 1854 to 1894. It was here he famously bred the first golden retriever. Crufts catalogue, considered the historical British authority on all things canine, cites Lord Tweedmouth’s stud book. Tweedmouth notes the mating took place in 1868 between a yellow Wavy-Coated Retriever named Nous and a somewhat rare, and now extinct, Tweed Water-Spaniel named Belle. That breeding produced four yellow puppies: Crocus, Cowslip, Ada and Primrose. It took another 64 years before the breed was officially recognized in the United States by the American Kennel Club.
Golden retrievers are the third most popular breed of dog in the United States, according to the American Kennel Club.
Carol Nolte came all the way from Maineville, Ohio, for what she calls her “golden retriever mecca.” Nolte’s love affair with the dog began when she was a little girl and started showing and breeding, even winning the right to compete at Westminster’s junior show in New York City.
Nolte and her husband Joe keep about a dozen dogs of their own in Ohio. The dogs didn’t make the transatlantic trip, but Nolte and her husband wouldn’t miss it. “For years golden enthusiasts have been coming here,” Nolte said. “I’m guilty. We came here about 10 years ago for the first time. It’s a good reason to get together to have a party.”
The party lasted for three days in July, with haggis hurling, tug-of-war and a dog show all on the agenda. Under warm, sunny skies, the dogs watched as their owners donned kilts, stepped onto overturned half-whiskey barrels, raised a wee dram (for the uninitiated, a shot of whiskey), and then hurled the frozen haggis down a long, grassy lane. Visitors from around the world tried their hand, but as might have been expected the winners were both Scottish. The male winner, Warwick Lister-Kaye, was actually born in a house that was once the old kennels at Guisachan. Tug-of-war was a hit too, with the Scottish women handily beating the American women and other nations pairing up against each other in raucous but jovial battles.
Spectators watch as a woman launches a frozen haggis down a grassy lane in the haggis hurling competition. Haggis is the national dish of Scotland, a mix of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs encased in the animal’s stomach.
The culmination of the gathering was reserved for the dogs with the Club’s championship show, held in the nearby village of Cannich. And then the dogs and their owners began their journeys home, many saying they would be back to the birthplace of the breed they love so much.