Two years ago today, as the last of the winter snow of 2010 was beginning to recede, we had to accept it was time to say goodbye to our faithful friend of 14 years, Hamish McTaggert –
Born on a farm in a village on Lake Constance in January 1996, his mother was a Bernese Mountain dog and his father a neighbouring Bernese Mountain crossed with a grey Bergamo sheepdog, a breed popular on farms here in the 90s (although not a Kennel Club recognised breed – it’s a northern Italian type of dog often seen with wandering shepherds and their large herds, not yet ousted by the Border Collie!). By the time I saw him for the first time at 5 weeks old, there were only six puppies in the litter: 5 typical black Bernese Mountains and Hamish! A local member of an animal protection league was trying to educate farmers to have their dogs and cats neutered and promised that whatever they earned by selling the pups would go towards having the bitch, Lissi, spayed. When I got to the farm, several onlookers were making a fuss of the Bernese pups and making derisory comments about the “funny-looking” one… as soon as I said that was the one I wanted (to be different and unique!), there were grumbles of “oh, we wanted that one”! My decision was made, and the little ball of fur with hardly a snout at all who was worrying at our shoelaces was reserved for us.
We brought him home at Easter time, 11 weeks old – the first and last time he sat on anyone’s lap! Knowing he would grow up large and hairy, I came up with the name Hamish – much to my friend’s amusement, as that was her father’s name! – and my husband supplied the McTaggert, feeling that the rather wild appearance had a Highlands air of mixed heritage that suited the pup. We bought him a bed to grow into:
And now you can see that not only did he have an interesting and unusual flecked coat, but he also had blue eyes! In fact, they weren’t completely blue, they were a mixture – one looked as if there was a brown propellor in it, and we called the other, which was coloured horizontally half-and-half, the fuel level! Along with a tail that eventually grew into a plume that looked substantial enough for him to take off when he got excited, we immediately loved our slightly clownish-looking pet. (Remember, this was before the introduction of the Australian Shepherd, which quite often has this colouring – at the time, we often heard Swiss people commenting on our “weird” dog, while in France, we only ever heard admiring exclamations of “quel beau chien!”…)
Like all puppies, he was very exuberant but totally lovable and we forgave him over and over again for the shoes and slippers and furniture he chewed. In temperament, he was the most wonderful family dog since Nana from the Peter Pan story – children could do anything with him, he adored the slightest bit of attention, even if it involved a small child crawling over him or retrieving a toy from the depths of his strong jaws. In fact, I lost count of the times I watched him adjust the strength of his tug on a plaything to the strength of the person on the other end, from a delicate nudge with our youngest daughter, who grew up with him, to a full blown 40 kg weight-pitch, including vicious-sounding growl, against my husband. Always happy as long as we were nearby and he could keep an eye on us all, he was the epitome of a dog who becomes a member of the family.
(He’d grown a nose by this time!!) Although he looks keen on the water here, he in fact hated swimming and would only ever go into water as far as his ankles if he could help it – I came to believe that the weight of his tail in the water made swimming very difficult for him, so he simply avoided it. At the beach, he would lie guarding our things, watching anxiously to make sure we were all in sight. On walks, he would circle the family in sheepdog style, trying desperately to keep his herd together, while one daughter rode a bike, another shot past on rollerskates and a third toddled off to investigate the ditch… His very favourite time of year was carneval. In his opinion, the village only put a parade on for him to have an extended herd to look out for and he would trot happily in among the crowds of children, getting covered in confetti (which adhered very well to his fur!) and not in the least fazed by the Guggenmusik, the men dressed as witches or the children running and squealing. Reluctantly, he would come home with us, shaking confetti all over the house for a number of days afterwards.
When this photo was taken, Hamish was just a teenager. Although our garden was fenced in to a height of about 80 cm, he casually leaped the gate in great style in order to have a sniff around in the field next door. This was something of a problem when he took to greeting all passersby very enthusiastically with no regard as to their attire – I was hugely embarrassed when he jumped up at a young man dressed in light-coloured clothes one day. No amount of calling or scolding helped – until it was time for him to be neutered, after which his behaviour rapidly improved and he became a well-behaved young fellow. For the most part! Since he cleared the gate with so little effort, it became common for him to roam the village investigating the latest smells and nosing around for old bread and Gipfeli (croissants) at the bakery and chocolate factory next door. After a literal “run-in” with a delivery van, he became extremely street smart and could gauge to the centimetre when cars would pass, whereupon he would casually cross the fairly busy road in complete safety, returning home to check everything was in order.
He was also a good guard dog. At the time, we lived in a large, rambling old house and I was often on my own with my three daughters, so it did help to have a dog with a big bark. He would always let us know that somebody was in the vicinity and did frighten a few suspicious characters off over the years, much to my relief. Once visitors were in, however, he could hardly contain himself with pleasure that he had company and only when everybody was settled comfortably would he then lie down, chin on paws, with a satisfied sigh. Most of the time, he seemed a bright and intelligent sort – until my friend met him out wandering one day in her part of the village. Since she was on her way to see me anyway, she invited Hamish to join her, which he happily did, since he loved her and her children, too (always huge-hearted!). When they got to our front door, my friend rang the doorbell – so Hamish dutifully barked loudly to announce we had visitors – how we laughed!
Whether at the beach, on the rocks or in the snow, Hamish was always everybody’s friend and incredibly delighted to be part of the family. On one occasion, a wonderful sleigh ride had been organised, a really special treat for us and our visiting family, too. Poor Hamish. Who could know how anxious he would be – the sleigh was too fast for him to run alongside, so he had to sit at our feet, but he was so stressed he howled for the whole hour’s sleigh ride, trying to climb onto our laps for protection…
It certainly wasn’t the horses that bothered him. Hamish and Sturuss got along just fine and looked very attractive together, with their matching gleaming chestnut browns and the dog’s shagginess and plumed tail mirroring the blonde mane and tail. Sturuss liked to have Hamish alongside, although Hamish was a little worried he might lose us and trotted along almost under Sturuss’s tummy to keep up, never stopping for a sniff in case we should disappear off into the sunset.
Fourteen is a grand old age for a large dog, which we hadn’t really expected to have with him. What a gift it was that he remained in good health almost to the very last, moving house with us at the age of 10 and settling into a different environment. Accepting first a rambuctious spaniel puppy and then my daughter’s Dane, as well as a new baby, our grandson! He managed the stairs more or less to the end, since our living quarters are not at ground level, miraculously managing never to break a leg when he occasionally slipped. No car was too small to squeeze into if it meant joining us on a trip, no walk was ever too far and he remained a perfect gentleman to the end of his life. We often talk about him and he’ll never be forgotten. He was a big chunk of our lives for a long time, a true and faithful friend who will always be part of our hearts.