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Why Did 488 Golden Retrievers Gather in Scotland?


What is the sound of 488 golden retrievers barking?

Imagine the sense of helplessness you might feel when someone’s baby is crying and you can’t solve the problem. Then multiply by, oh, 488. Then add in drenching rain and an onslaught of midges.

Why the cacophony? Around 4 p.m. on July 13, the dogs had been assembled on the broad lawn in front of the ruins of Guisachan House in the Scottish Highlands to take a group photo of the 2023 Guisachan Gathering, a kind of golden retriever convention, commemorating the anniversary of the founding of the breed.

For the photo, the owners were instructed to leash their dog to a stake in the ground and then scurry away for approximately 15 seconds so that the photographer, Lynn Kipps, could capture the wagging horde.

Fifteen seconds in golden retriever time is approximately eternity, and 488 golden retrievers evidently believed they had been abandoned forever. And panicked.

Tricia, darling, I’m over here,” one woman shouted at her girl, and with that the barking got exponentially worse. Finally, eternity over, 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, golden lovers have come together about every five years to pay homage 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 wavy-coated retriever with a tweed water spaniel. He wanted a rugged hunting companion with a beautiful head, a loving disposition and soft, melting eyes that lived to fetch game. An obsession with tennis balls and rolling in filth apparently also came with the package.

People and their dogs travel from around the world to take part (dogs do not need to be quarantined to enter Scotland). Represented this year were Ireland, Bavaria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, the United States, Australia, Canada and Croatia. Marta Farkas, 43 — “the name means wolf in my language” — traveled three days from Hungary with a friend, her golden and four cocker spaniels.

Wayne and Sharon McGrath, 69 and 71, who have bred and raised goldens for 40 years, did not bring their dogs this year, but traveled from New South Wales, Australia. The McGraths have been coming to Guisachan almost since the event’s inception, when it was only 30 goldens and a dream. “Yes, we are a little like Deadheads,” said Mr. McGrath.

This year’s gathering was the largest yet. Accommodations book up months in advance, and participants grouse that they’d bring more dogs if most B&Bs and camping sites 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 nature reserve of Glen Affric. Curiously, there were no goldens 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 “how to behave in a show ring” class. For humans, there was a haggis hurling competition. The trip-to-Lourdes moment for many dogs and owners is posing in front of the brass golden retriever statue in the nearby village of Tomich. Pamela Burns, 55, had that look of someone checking off a bucket list item when she posed there with her dogs, Captain, Bear and Gabby.

And there were many, many opinions. Susan Goodwin, 74, an internationally known breeder and judge from Durham, England, worried openly about the latest fashion for tails that swirled upward, chubbiness that looked adorable but wasn’t necessarily healthy, and a certain shortness in the leg. “How do I put this delicately?” said Ms. Goodwin. “You don’t want a dog shaped like a coffee table. Coffee table dogs are not good for the field.”

Many of the attendees were breeders, but some were simply pet owners, or golden stans. One man, a retired London police detective whose last golden had just died, explained it thus: “I’m an addict, and this is where I come to get me fix.”

This is not tough to understand. We came because I missed my late, great golden, Monty, he of the three balls in his mouth at all times.

Many come simply to be in the Photo, the shot of all the dogs assembled in front of the ruins of the house. This year, two Americans who could not fly their dogs over brought life-size cardboard cutouts instead. They stationed them front and center. “I had to tell them no, they couldn’t be counted in the tally, and if they wanted their dogs 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 either Westminster or Crufts (Britain’s biggest and most prestigious dog show). “It is true: Goldens are not glamorous,” said Carol Henry, 65, secretary of the Golden Retriever Club of Scotland and the chief organizer, with her husband, Tom Gorrian, 68, of the Guisachan event.

But, of course, posh is not the point (and neither, if we’re being honest here, is intelligence). The eyes are the point. The eternal sunniness is the point. The tufts of fur around the house and the joy of watching them with something, anything, in their mouths is the point.

I had carried an envelope of Monty’s ashes with me to the gathering, and when no one was looking I scattered them on the grounds of Guisachan House. I suspect he is not alone there.


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