Cairn Terrier

Cairn TerrierCairn Terrier

The Cairn Terrier is a small, alert terrier that is easy to train. Devoted to his family, whether elderly, children or energetic teenagers he reliably adapts to modern society. But historically, the Cairn's initial establishment as a pure breed took 36 years!

History of the Cairn Terrier

James Robertson in his 'Sketches of Scottish Terriers' or 'diehards' as he called them, reproduced the lithograph below from an old engraving dated 1835, 50 years before the advent of dog shows.

Cairn Terriers in West Highlands 1835Cairn Terriers in West Highlands 1835

This signed, dated drawing is titled: 'Scotch terriers at work on a Cairn in the West Highlands'. It shows rough sailors arriving at the rocky cliffs, one waving his cap, while others in kilts scramble down the broken rocks, following their terriers with primitive guns, as the prey slips between the rocks. In this pack of remarkably similar terriers that the artist called 'Scotch' Terriers, resemble a Cairn Terriers in type[1].

Cairn Terriers become a Pure Breed

White 'Scotch' Terriers c 1890White 'Scotch' Terriers c 1890

Certainly different types of 'Scotch' terriers working in packs, were kept on the different estates throughout Scotland, These often included white terriers like those in the drawing on the right that are neither Scotch Terriers nor West Highland Whites. Meanwhile, it was the MacDonalds' Terriers of 'Waternish' on the Isle of Skye that had the greatest influence on our modern Cairn.

Cairn Terrier c 1910Cairn Terrier c 1910

By 1888, the Skye, Scottish and West Highland Terrier were all recognized as pure breeds with their own published breed standards. But it would be 24 years, until 1912[2], before the Cairn was given its own register. Then it was yet another decade, 1922 before the Breed Standard was adopted by the Cairn Terrier Club of England[5]. Coupled with this, until 1924, interbreeding was permitted between these 3 different terriers of Scotland. This occurred occasionally between the Scottish Terrier and the Cairn, but more often between the West Highland White Terrier and the Cairn.

So for 36 years, from 1888 until 1924, Cairns were not really stabilized. This was because there was no clear distinctions between the Cairn and the other Scotch Terrier breeds. So it was a credit to its breeders that the Cairn was able to retain its 'workmanlike', appearance during all this time.

Alan MacDonald and his terriers Alan MacDonald and his terriers

History of the Cairn in Australia

In 1848, a 'very fine pack' of 'Rough Terriers', the fore runners of what we know today as the Cairn Terrier, was brought to Australia from the Isle of Skye by Scotsman Captain Allan MacDonald of the 99th Regiment[4]. In 1862, when Australia held its first dog show in Tasmania, 'Rough Terriers' were entered.Two years later, in 1864 at Australia's second dog show in Melbourne, 23 Rough Terriers (over 7 lbs) were recorded. It is probable that these were descendants of Captain MacDonald's terriers he brought from the Isle of Skye.

Miss M Skene's Med'hail c1929Miss M Skene's Med'hail c1929

With no formal pedigree systems in place in Australia, and the Cairn not being stabilized in Britain until 1924, it was remarkable that 1926 saw the foundation for Cairns in Victoria by Miss Patterson, Mrs Cormack and Miss Coles with Miss Skene (Rubislaw) following in 1928.

In 1930 Major Eric Mayhead brought Cairns into Tasmania. From those he sold to Miss Dorothy Chandler, she bred a pup and sold him to Mr James Watson (Durnsford). He became 'Grand Champion Sandy of Stafford'. Mr James Watson was very successful with Cairns in both Tasmania and Victoria. Then his son Richard then carried on where his father left off, and is still involved today.

Blencathra Blossom and pupsBlencathra Blossom and pups

Among the prominent Victorian breeders that emerged in 1932, Mrs Light, (Strathdene) and Miss Russell (Kerriemuir) made significant contributions[3]. At the same time, Miss Grice (Rahween) began with an English import Blencartha Blossum. Over many decades, she steered Cairn Terriers in Australia through the Second World War. Miss Grice was then responsible for the formation of the Cairn Terrier Club of Victoria which was still in existence.

The Cairn Terrier Today

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

Cairn Terriers Demonstrating the Colour VariationCairn Terriers Demonstrating the Colour Variation

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.

Comparison between the Cairn and West Highland White Terriers

Because of their historical connection, it is interesting to compare the Cairn and West Highland White Terriers. Not only are there many distinct similarities, the differences between these two breeds demonstrate the purpose for which these two breeds were originally bred.

Cairn Terrier West Highland White Terrier
General Appearance Workmanlike Possess self-esteem with head carried at right angle of less to axis of neck and not in an extended position
Cairn TerrierCairn Terrier West Highland WhiteWest Highland White
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 a piercing look with a varminty expression
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 WhiteWest Highland White
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

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

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

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

[1] Fayette C Ewing, MD.; F.A.C.S.'The Book of the Scottish Terrier' 1897 - Semi-Centennial Revised Edition 1948 Published by Orange Judd Publishing Company Inc New York USA Chapter 1 Historical,  Page 23

[2] J.W.H Beynon & Alex Fisher, 'The Cairn Terrier' First published by 'Popular Dogs Publishing Co Ltd London 1929 4th Edition 1969 Chapter 1 'Origin and Early History Page 27

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

[4] E.C.Ash,'The Cairn Terrier' Published by Cassell 1936 Page 14

[5] Hutchinson, Walter (ed.) 'Hutchinson's Dog Encyclopedia' The Cairn Terrier Page 277


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