The Skye Terrier takes its name from the Island of Skye, which lies off the northwest coast of Scotland and is the largest of a group of islands known as the Inner Hebrides. The breed is known to be the oldest terrier breed of Scotland, going back to the fourteenth century at least.
Terriers were needed wherever there were vermin and the best of these little dogs came from the far west coast of the Highlands of Scotland. It is almost impossible to trace the origin of the breed; to do so one has to piece together all the relevant information which has survived, mainly by oral tradition, for hundreds of years.
It is generally accepted that canine survivors of a wrecked man-of-war from the Spanish Armada bred with local terriers, producing a strain with a long, silky coat. Lady MacDonald of Armadale Castle certainly owned a kennel of terriers of this type. While the story is decidedly romantic there are a few discrepancies which ought to be considered. It is true that many ships from the Spanish Armada of 1588 found their way home blocked and had to sail round Britain, pursued by the English; several of these ships certainly came to grief on the hostile reefs around the coast of Scotland.
The island of Raasay, just off Skye, is supposed to have been a haven for some of the survivors, who made their homes there, so it may be possible to believe that a dog or two could have survived. How many would have been allowed aboard a man-of-war is debatable, however. In any case, the Macdonalds did not have a castle at Armadale until 1815, though the ruins of kennels remain from that time.
So where did the Skye Terrier originate? It is unlikely that the tradition of the Armadale connection would have remained if it contained no truth whatsoever. However, the presence of terriers on the island is recorded prior to 1588, so we have to search further back in time. It is worth bearing in mind that the Western Highlands were first settled by the Picts from Ireland, followed by the Vikings. The Viking invasions were not all pillaging and raping as some stories suggest; the Vikings left their homes in Scandinavia to find a place in which to live and many settled as far south as the Isle of Man.
Studies of the Vikings have shown that they took with them dogs which may also have had an influence on how the Skye Terrier developed. If one looks at the Drever, or Swedish Vallhund as it is better known in Britain, whose history goes back to the Viking times, one can see that the body shape is similar to that of the Skye. Though the Valhund is much more closely linked with the Corgi, the similarity to the Skye is one which must be considered.
We may have something for which to thank the Vikings! Vallhund colouring is different, but brown Skyes are known to appear from time to time so we cannot dismiss the connection too hastily. Certainly Eilean A’Cheo, the Misty Isle, is well named, since the source of the Skye Terrier breed is hidden in the mists of time. In order to understand the geography of the island which gave its name to the breed it is also necessary to learn a little of its history.
Two Scottish clans dominate the story of Skye: the Macdonalds and the MacLeods. Over the years these clans fought a running war, their many bloody skirmishes furnishing material for still more legends of the Misty isle. The chiefs of the clans were well educated men who led their clansmen in many famous battles. The clansmen, however, lived in poor conditions, barely managing to feed their families. When their chieftain wanted to put sheep on his land the people were turned out of their homes, some even being dispatched on ships to colonise Canada and America. Those who stayed behind settled on the coast, learning to fish in order to feed themselves. Despite their harsh treatment, the clansmen rallied when the call went out for troops, and fought to the bitter end.
The Macdonald chief lived in his castle at Duntulm, though earlier homes were found at Dunsgaith and Cnoc in the Sleat Peninsula. In 1670 the chief moved to Armadale in the south of Skye, but in 1690 the house was burnt to the ground by troops of King William 111. This was an act of retribution against Donald, son of Sir Donald Macdonald, who had fought valiantly alongside Viscount Dundee (Bonnie Dundee) at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. Although badly wounded, Donald had returned to Skye. After the fire the family returned to the castle of Duntulm, which was very damp and draughty by now, making frequent trips to a farmhouse in Armadale. Duntulm Castle was finally deserted in 1732, when the family was established at Monkstadt.
Sir Alexander Wentworth, 10th Baronet, 2nd Lord MacDonald and 17th Chief of Sleat, was born n 1773. In 1798 he built a new mansion in Armadale and made this his home. A family feud in 1799 resulted in a family split when Godfrey, later to become the 19th Chief of the clan, eloped. When he died the titles fell to his second son, as his first born was alleged to be illegitimate according to English law. The family estates at Thorpe in Yorkshire were therefore given to the first born as compensation. Godfrey’s grandson, Alexander Wentworth Bosville of Thorpe, married Alice Middleton in 1886, and when Alice investigated the case she found that the allegation of illegitimacy was quite false.
Therefore Alexander was reinstated as 21st Chief of Sleat in 1910 and known as Macdonald of the Isles. The clan now had two chiefs, the new one leasing 4000 acres of land in Duntulm and living in a house close to the ancient castle, which was excluded from the leasing agreement. The family home is better known now as the Flodigarry Hotel. Sir Alexander and Lady Alice owned a Skye Terrier named Mr. Connis. However, although she was a prolific writer, lady Alice makes little mention of any dogs, so we are left not knowing his ancestry.
Loyalties were obviously torn amongst the natives of Skye. An insight into the past comes to light in a letter Lady Alice wrote whilst on Skye in which she states “We were constantly told of the extraordinary resemblance between Alex and the Chiefs of old, and our dog was a marvel to the people for never, they said, had such a dog been seen in Skye since the right people left”. This statement is the only clue we have of similar dogs having been kept by the Macdonalds in days gone by.
In 1815 the castle at Armadale was built, becoming the home of the Clan Chief until 1934. Sadly very little of the castle remains today, but the Clan Donald Trust have made the grounds the Centre to which clan members from all over the world can come to trace their ancestry. In 2013 Skye Terrier Club members and enthusiasts installed a beautiful statue in the grounds of Armadale Castle. Called ‘The Homecoming’, is shows two Skye Terriers, a prick and drop ear, as if in motion and it celebrates the long history that the breed has with the Isle of Skye and Clan Donald.