Cairn and West Highland White Terrier

Westie StampWestie Stamp

The Cairn and the West Highland White Terriers ("Westie') are considered together here because of the common origin of these two breeds. These rough coated working terriers hunted badger, otter and fox that lived in the rocky highlands or cairns on the West coast of Scotland. Working within the confines of rocky lairs was very different to working in soft earth. So the Cairn and Westie had to not only be especially game and fearless, they also had to be built so they could physically wriggle though passages between narrow rocky entrances, and also retreat backwards!

History of the Cairn and Westie

Colonel Malcolm of Poltolloch with his WestiesColonel Malcolm of Poltolloch with his Westies

For more than 60 years during the 1800's, Colonel Malcolm of Poltalloch worked his Terriers along the rugged Highlands of the west coast of Scotland. Accredited with developing the Westie from the Cairn, Colonel Poltallock wrote that his terrier must have the following working qualities:

Terriers working in the Scottish HighlandsTerriers working in the Scottish Highlands

"... the pluck and capacity to get at the quarry. The body must be small and most active, to get at the innermost recesses of the lair. If your dogs ribs are a trifle too big, he may crush one or two through the narrow slit in the rocks and then stick. He will never be able to pull himself back - at least until starvation has so reduced him that be will probably be able, if set free to get back into the open. That body must be protected by the best possible teeth and jaws for fighting, on a strong rather long neck and directed by a most capable brain.The eyes should not be sunk, which gives the sulky look of the Scotch Terrier, but should be full and bright, and the expression friendly and confiding.

One of Colonel Poltolloch's WestiesOne of Colonel Poltolloch's Westies

It is believed that feet that were turned out a little were better for scrambling up rocks than perfectly straight Fox-terrier like feet. In addition, it is useful to have your dog of a colour easy to see when in motion... the quantity of white, dirty white or wheaten yellow in existing terriers all through the west coast of Scotland shows that these must have been the rather favoured colours.... there should be a general foxi-ness of character - the straight-limbed, rather low, active body, the broad forehead, light muzzle and underjaw, the bright intelligent eye and the look of interest in their faces.

There is another point of great importance - the undercoat. The outer coat should be long enough to thatch over the soft, woolly real coat of the animal, and keep it dry so a good shake will throw off most of the water; while the undercoat should be so thick and naturally oily that the dog can swim in a fair sized river and not get wet...the size of the dog is perhaps best indicated by weight. The dog should weigh no more than 18 pounds, the bitch 16 pounds"[4] 

West Highland White Terrier c 1910West Highland White Terrier c 1910

In Australia, in 1869 the first two West Highland White Terriers were imported into Melbourne. These, named "Daisy" and 'Pinnaninny" in Australia's first Stud Book, Tyzack's Annual[5]. This Annual also states they were from original stock from the Isle of Skye kept pure in the Mackinnon family for 60 years prior to classification being given to them, so they were first shown in Melbourne as Scottish Terriers. But from 1908 to 1911, two more were imported by Mrs Chirnside and another seven were listed in the Stud Book as West Highland White Terriers. So credit of establishing the Westie in Australia must be given to Mrs Audrey Chirnside[7] who brought in a breeding pair in 1910 which established the Ostaig lines here.

Cairns were first brought into Victoria in 1926 and by 1932 several breeders began to emerge. In 1930 Major Eric Mayhead first brought them into Tasmania and through those he sold to Miss Dorothy Chandler, Mr James Watson became very successful with them both in Tasmania and Victoria with his son Richard carrying on the Durnsford prefix for many decades. In Victoria in the early days Miss Grice was very active as was Mrs Light of the Strathdene Kennels and who could forget Miss Russell(Kerriemuir)! So Cairns have been popular throughout Australia continuously since they were first imported[6].

The Cairn Terrier Today

Cairn Terriers Demonstrating the Colour VariationCairn Terriers Demonstrating the Colour Variation

Same Cairn at Different AgesSame Cairn at Different Ages

The Cairn Terrier should be workmanlike because his prey lived in cairns in the Highlands of Scotland. So, what makes the Cairn Terrier unique is that the Breed Standard allows his front feet to turn out just a little, but only from the dog's pastern. This was so he could balance himself while scrambling up the rocks or cairns of Scotland that were so much part of his ancestry[3]. In other words the feet should NOT turn out because of bowed forelegs caused by the chest extending below the elbows. Instead, the Cairn is built on top of his legs.

Today the Breed Standard also demands the Cairn Terrier to be medium in every way - in leg, bone, body length, depth and width as well as in movement. But at the same time he must be strong, muscular, and workmanlike to enable his supple body to work between narrow crevices. If the dog had to retreat quickly, the Cairn's head should be small enough to facilitate this exit so the dog did not get stuck between the rocks, yet broad enough to support its strong jaw.

"Toto" with Judy Garland"Toto" with Judy Garland

His workmanlike appearance is enhanced by his rough coat which should be presented naturally and without excessive trimming[1].

The Cairn Terrier comes in a variety of colours, including brindles. Interestingly, a potentially dark Cairn can look wheaten as a youngster, but can gradually darken throughout its life as the triad of pictures of the same dog on the left, illustrates. As well as in the accompanying collage, this is evident in the case of 'Jock', the subject of the story of A Dog of Many Roles.[2] in which the pictures also show this change of colour throughout his life. This story also demonstrates the adaptability and charm one of This delightful breed.

No article on the Cairn Terrier would be complete without mention of 'Toto', the dog which put the Cairn on the world stage. This little female, originally called 'Terry', was cast to play 'Toto' in the 1939 MGM film 'The Wizard of Oz'. 'Terry' starred in 13 films in all, but 'Toto' was her most famous role. The story goes that Judy Garland wanted to keep 'Terry' after 'The Wizard of Oz' was completed, but although her owner refused, her call name was subsequently changed to 'Toto'.

The West Highland White Terrier Today

Jane Judging West Highland White TerrierJane Judging West Highland White Terrier

"Outspeaks the Squire, 'Give room, I pray,
And hie the terriers in;
The warriors of the fight are they,
And every fight they win"[5] 

As stated before, the West Highland White Terrier originated as a white Cairn. After the gene pool was split from the Cairn, the show ring influenced this little dog into becoming the smart breed we know today. As the West Highland White became the product of those proficient in coat sculpturing, his appearance changed dramatically. His coat has altered from the rough coat of the Cairn a century ago to become a modern broken coat.

West Highland White TerrierWest Highland White Terrier

So today the Westie's conformation has also become modernized in that

  • His back is shorter than his Cairn ancestor's
  • His tail is higher set
  • His head is broader in proportion to his body
  • His brows are more pronounced
  • He has front legs with feet pointing straight ahead
  • His hocks are set more underneath his body
  • He moves closer behind than his Cairn ancestor
  • He only comes in one colour - white!

Comparison between the Cairn and West Highland White Terrier

Cairn Terrier West Highland White Terrier
Cairn TerrierCairn Terrier West Highland White TerrierWest Highland White Terrier
General Appearance Workmanlike Possesses self-esteem with head carried at right angle or less to axis of neck and not in an extended position
Head Small but in proportion to body with sufficient breadth of skull to support its strong muzzle Skull slightly domed and larger in proportion to the body than the Cairn's
Stop Definite indentation between eyes Distinct stop formed by heavy bony ridges above eyes
Muzzle Strong, but not long or heavy Strong, shorter than the skull with fairly large nose forming contour with rest of muzzle
Eyes Medium slightly sunk under shaggy eyebrows Medium and slightly sunk but looking out under heavy eyebrows imparting piercing look
Ears Small not too closely set Small, neither too close nor too wide
Neck Not short Sufficiently long to allow proper carriage of head
Cairn TerrierCairn Terrier West Highland White TerrierWest Highland White Terrier
Forequarters Medium length of leg but not too heavy in bone, feet may turn out a little from pasterns only Legs short, straight and muscular with shoulder blades and elbows lying close to chest wall elbows allowing legs to move parallel to axis of body
Body Medium length, with well sprung ribs and supple loin Compact with deep chest, with upper half of ribs well arched and forming a flattish appearance and back ribs considerably deep
Hindquarters Very strong muscular thighs with normal turn of stifle and hocks moving neither too close nor too wide Strong and muscular but not set too wide apart. The hocks are set under the body so they are fairly close together either standing or moving.
Tail Short and neither too high nor too low set 5 - 6 inches long, high set and carried jauntily
Coat Rough, double coated slight wave permissible but not broken coated Double coated about 2 inches long, broken coated but free from curl
Size 11 - 12 inches in proportion to weight ideally 14 - 16 pounds Approximately 11 inches (no weight specified)

References and Further Reading

[1] Jane Harvey, "How do Cairn, Norwich and Norfolk Terriers Differ?" in National Dog, the Ringleader Way (National Dog, Menangle Park NSW) Vol 11 No 4 April 2008 supplement Page 4

[2] Jane Harvey, "Notes on the Breeds - Cairn Terriers" in National Dog Newspaper (Windsor NSW) December 1977 Page 17

[3] Jane Harvey DVD 'Terriers Then & Now' Pub 2002 - 2004 Rangeaire Vision ISBN 978-0-9804296-4-0

[4] Colonel E. D. Malcolm C. B. of Poltalloch, 'The West Highland White Terrier' Cassell's New Book of the Dog' by Robert Leighton assisted by eminent authorities on the various breeds Published by The Waverley Book Co Ltd Vol 111, Chapter XLI Page 391

[5] T.W.Tyzack and C.S. Turner "Tyzack's Annual" published by the Victorian Poultry and Kennel Club 1912, printed by Bellmaine Bros., Printers 66 - 70 Flinders Lane Melbourne Australia P. 78 (Stud Book) and P.99 (Importations)

[6] Mrs Muriel Clarke, 'The History of Purebred Dogs in Australia' The Cairn Terrier published by OzDog Newspaper 1997 Page 84

[7] The 'Weekly Times' 'The Kennel' by 'Standard' Saturday August 22nd 1914 Page 51


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