What is the barking sound of 488 golden retrievers?
Imagine the helpless feeling you might feel when someone’s baby is crying and you can’t solve the problem. Then multiply by, oh, 488. Then add torrential rain and an avalanche of mosquitoes.
Why the cacophony? Around 4 p.m. on July 13, the dogs had gathered on the wide lawn in front of the ruins of Guisachan House in the Scottish Highlands to take a group photo at the 2023 Guisachan Gathering, a sort of golden retriever convention, marking the anniversary of the breed’s founding.
For the photo, the owners were instructed to tie their dog to a stake in the ground and then wriggle away for approximately 15 seconds so that the photographer, Lynn Kipps, could capture the moving horde.
Fifteen seconds in a golden retriever’s time is roughly an eternity, and 488 golden retrievers evidently believed they had been abandoned forever. And he panicked.
“Tricia, honey, I’m here,” a woman yelled at her little girl, and with that the barking got exponentially worse. Finally, after eternity, the dog mothers and fathers returned to their dependents and order was restored with a tsunami of petting and treats.
Since the first group photo was taken in 2001, gold lovers have gathered every five years to pay tribute to Sir Dudley Marjoribanks, later Lord Tweedmouth, who lived in what was then Guisachan House. Sir Dudley is credited with developing the golden retriever in 1868, when he bred a wiry-coated retriever to a tweed water spaniel. He wanted a stout hunting companion with a handsome head, a loving disposition, and soft, tender eyes that lived to hunt down prey. An obsession with tennis balls and rolling in the dirt apparently also came with the package.
People and their dogs travel from all over the world to participate (dogs do not need to be quarantined to enter Scotland). This year Ireland, Bavaria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, the United States, Australia, Canada and Croatia were represented. Marta Farkas, 43, — “the name means wolf in my language” — traveled three days from Hungary with a friend of hers, hers a golden and four of her cocker spaniels.
Wayne and Sharon McGrath, 69 and 71, who have bred golden dogs for 40 years, did not bring their dogs with them this year, instead traveling from New South Wales, Australia. The McGraths have been coming to Guisachan almost since the event’s inception, when it was just 30 golds and a dream. “Yes, we are a bit like Deadheads,” Mr. McGrath said.
This year’s gathering was the biggest yet. Accommodations are booked months in advance, with participants complaining that they would bring more dogs if most B&Bs and campsites didn’t limit you to two. My son and I stayed at the Westward Bed and Breakfast in Cannich, a perfect rustic stone cottage with traditional Scottish breakfasts, right near the Cannich Nature Reserve. Canada Afric. Strangely, there were no gilts at the B&B. That’s because the resident terrier mix, Rass, “hates them,” said Alistair Mann, 57, our host.
What do you do once you get here? There are hunting dog demonstrations and a dog show. There was a class on “how to behave in an exhibition ring.” For the humans, there was a haggis-throwing competition. The highlight of the trip to Lourdes for many dogs and owners is to pose in front of the brass statue of the golden retriever in the nearby town of Tomich. Pamela Burns, 55, looked like someone checking off a wish list item as she posed there with her dogs, Captain, Bear and Gabby.
And there were many, many opinions. Susan Goodwin, 74, an internationally renowned breeder and judge from Durham, England, was openly concerned with the latest fad for upward-swirling tails, flab that looked adorable but wasn’t necessarily healthy, and a certain short leg. “How do I put this delicately?” said Mrs. Goodwin. “You don’t want a dog shaped like a coffee table. Coffee table dogs are not good for the country.”
Many of the attendees were breeders, but some were simply pet owners or gold stans. One man, a retired London police detective whose last golden had just died, explained it this way: “I’m an addict, and this is where I come to get my fix.”
This is not difficult to understand. We came because I missed my late, great gold, Monty, the one with three balls in his mouth at all times.
Many come simply to be in the Photo, the shot of all the dogs gathered in front of the ruins of the house. This year, two Americans who couldn’t fly with their dogs brought life-size cardboard cutouts instead. They placed them front and center. “I had to tell them no, they couldn’t be counted, and if they wanted their dogs to be there, at least put them somewhere in the middle of the pack,” said Ms Kipps, the photographer.
Despite the breed’s enormous popularity, a golden has never won Best in Show at Westminster or Crufts (Britain’s largest and most prestigious dog show). “It’s true: goldens are not glamorous,” said Carol Henry, 65, secretary of the Golden Retriever Club of Scotland and main organizer, along with her husband Tom Gorrian, 68, of the Guisachan event.
But, of course, elegance isn’t the point (and neither, if we’re being honest, is intelligence). The eyes are the point. The eternal sun is the point. The tufts of hair around the house and the joy of seeing them with something, anything, in their mouths is the point.
I had brought an envelope of Monty’s ashes with me to the meeting, and when no one was looking, I scattered them on the grounds of Guisachan House. I suspect that he is not alone there.
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