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Mastermind – Duke of Gordon

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text and illustrations by Ria Hörter

Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon (1743-1827)
and George, 5th Duke of Gordon (1770-1836)

Black and fellows setting dogs

The above introduction above is not entirely correct. Long before Alexander, the 4th Duke of Gordon, was born, black-and-tan Setters could be found in Great Britain. In Gervase Markham’s, Hunger’s Prevention: or The Whole Arte of Fowling by Water and Land (1621), one can read about ‘black and fellows setting dogs’. Fellows means fallow, pale red or yellow-brownish (tan). According to Markham, ‘black and fellows’ setting dogs were the strongest and had the greatest stamina – a black and fallows setting dog… hardest to endure labour. Dogs and Partridges by the French painter Alexandre François Desportes (1661-1743) depicts a black-and-white ‘Setter’ with tan markings. In A Treatise on Field Diversions (1776) the author wrote: “Already fifty years ago one distinguished two kinds of Setters, the black and tan and the orange or lemon and white. That was nearly twenty years before the 4th Duke of Gordon was born. Last but not least is a watercolor depicting a black-and-tan Setter in Sydenham Edwards’ Cynographia Brittannica (1805).

The black-and-tan pattern was well-established – in Terriers, Bloodhounds and Foxhounds, for example, but also in the old Land Spaniels, the ancestors of Setters. The conclusion is that the Gordon Setter does not owe his existence to the 4th Duke of Gordon, but he certainly bears his name. And, thanks to the Dukes of Gordon, the breed became well-known in the 18th century. But first, let’s meet the Gordon family and have a look at Gordon Castle.

Gordon Castle and the Gordon Family

Gordon Castle, situated near the village of Fochabers in Moray (Scotland), was designed by John Baxter for Alexander in 1769. It replaced an earlier castle, built by George Gordon, 2nd Earl of Huntly, in the 1470s and enlarged by his grandson into a Renaissance palace. When John Baxter completed the new Gordon Castle, it was described as the most magnificent edifice north of the Forth. During construction, part of the village of Fochabers had to be demolished and rebuilt elsewhere to make room for the extension. After the rebuilding, Gordon Castle was an impressive building presenting a northern façade 568 feet (173 metres) long. The six-storied tower still rises to a height of 84 feet (25.6 metres). The interior contained a valuable library, magnificent dining and drawing rooms, and was richly adorned with marble statues and busts, portraits and other paintings. About 1,300 acres of woods belonged to the castle. In its heyday, Gordon Castle was likely the finest Georgian house in Scotland.

Early records state that the Gordons, a family of Norman origin, settled in Berwickshire, Scotland. Adam Gordon was granted land in Long-Gordon by Malcolm III, a Scottish monarch who ruled from 1058-1093. Adam fought for Malcolm and died by his side. This was the beginning of a long family history of soldiers, crusaders, chancellors, earls and dukes. The family has a colorful past, being related to many other noble Scottish and English families and involved in battles, uprisings and rebellions. They also bred horses and dogs. This is the clan Alexander, the 4th Duke, was born into in 1743.

Alexander and Lady Jane

In 1741, Cosmo George, 3rd Duke of Gordon (1719-1752) married Lady Catherine Gordon (1725-1779). He died in 1752 while on tour in France at 33 years old. His body was embalmed in France, then conveyed to the Chapel near Gordon Castle and interred in Elgin Cathedral. He left a wife, three sons and three daughters. His eldest son, nine-year-old Alexander, succeeded his father as the 4th Duke of Gordon. In 1761, young Alexander was elected one of the representative Peers of Scotland and created a Knight of the Order of the Thistle in 1775. Professor Ogilvie of Aberdeen acted as a traveling tutor to the young Duke who, in 1761, visited Italy. In 1784, Alexander received the titles of Baron Gordon of Huntly and Earl of Norwich, inherited from his great-grandmother. Aside from the titles, he had a considerable fortune, owned pieces of art, acres of land and a castle – quite a lot for a good-looking boy with reddish hair.

As a young man, Alexander lived in the Gordon townhouse almost opposite the Maxwell family. Sir William Maxwell’s daughter, Lady Jane, was so strikingly beautiful that a song was written about her: Bonnie Jennie of Monreith, the Flower of Galloway. In 1767, at the age of 17, Jane married Alexander. Two sons and five daughters were born; the eldest son became Alexander’s heir: George, the 5th Duke of Gordon (1770-1836). In addition, Alexander had an illegitimate son, also called George. Lady Jane used to refer to the boys as ‘my George’ and ‘the Duke’s George’.

“Most dog breeds were developed after hundreds of years of evolution and lengthy selection by breeders. However, some breeds owe their existence to just one person, whose name they bear.”

After the marriage, the Duke and the Duchess lived at Gordon Castle for about 20 years. Lady Jane organized parties, planted trees and took a keen interest in farming. She was a remarkable person; in the 1780s she started entertaining in Edinburgh and became the leading lady. The Duchess was an excellent hostess and entertained well-known poets such as Robbie Burns at Gordon Castle. After his visit, Burns wrote the poem Castle Gordon and in his Journal he noted: “… the Duke makes me happier than ever great man did – noble, princely, yet mild, condescending and affable, gay and kind.” The Duke himself wrote such well-known songs as Cauld Kail in Aberdeen and The Reel o’Bogie.


When staying in London after leaving Gordon Castle in 1787, the Duchess continued giving parties and had everyone dance Scottish dances. Her name is closely connected to the foundation (1794) of the regiment of the 92nd Gordon Highlanders. In 1799, she became depressed – not surprisingly, because her son George had gone off to war, her second son, Alexander, had died at the age of 23, and above all her husband had moved his lady friend Jean Christie – the mother of the other George – into Gordon Castle. He now openly kept his mistress at the castle, while the Duchess – if one can believe the gossip – had assignations with her lovers elsewhere. However, the Duke had a small house built on the River Spey for his estranged wife – every inch a gentleman. Lady Jane died in 1812 in London. Alexander married his mistress Jane in 1820 and another nine children were born.

The life of the Duchess of Gordon is a book full of drama. The novel Island of the Swans is based on her stormy life.


Alexander, the 4th Duke of Gordon, whose name is so closely linked to the Gordon Setter, was a royalist like his father and raised several regiments for the government. He played an important role in the history of Port Gordon, one of the villages he established and was known as an accomplished and exceedingly genial gentleman. In 1793, the Duke was elected Lord Chancellor of the University and King’s College in Aberdeen. When not busy in military or public affairs, the Duke’s favorite pastime was hunting with Setters. In the rough and extended fields of Scotland or on the heavy heather-covered Scottish moors, the Setters were ideal gun dogs, experts at setting game birds, mostly grouse. Not surprisingly, Alexander started breeding them in his own kennels.

The question is: how did the Duke obtain or breed the black-and-tan Setters? Although credit for the existence of the Gordon Setter is given to Alexander, there are many different stories about how his dogs were established. One story is that the Duke crossed a black-and-white Scottish Collie – belonging to one of his farmers and very good at finding game – with his Setters. This crossing resulted in the early black-and-white Setters. It’s said that the Duke sent one of the pups with a £5 note to the farmer’s son, who tried to make a sheepdog of the pup, but it was useless. This could have been an isolated outcross, but in my opinion certainly not the start of ‘a new kind of Setter’. We know that Setters existed in England as early as the 1600s and there is evidence of several noted kennels of black-and-tan Setters outside Scotland – for example, in the Midland Counties – well before Alexander started his kennel at Gordon Castle. So it’s more likely that the Setters at Gordon Castle came from elsewhere. Experts think that they were obtained from Thomas William Coke, later the 1st Earl of Leicester. The Duke used stud dogs from the Earl of Leicester; did he go back to relatives of his own dogs for a mating? We will never know exactly what happened.

In Dogs of the British Isles (1882 edition), Stonehenge writes: “It is certainly possible that the Scottish Setter, also named Gordon Setter, has been crossbred with a Bloodhound.” Not a word about a Scottish Collie. Idstone mentions the story about the Collie in The Dog (1872), but doubts its truth. Idstone also writes about the head of the Gordon Setter: It is less fine than the head of an English Setter and sometimes it even gives the impression of a drop of Bloodhound blood. Vero Shaw (The Book of the Dog, 1879-1881) is convinced about a Collie crossing, but offers not a word about a Bloodhound.

The Duke preferred the Black-and-tans

In 1976 The Gordon Setter – History and Character was published by G.St.G.M. Gompertz. He writes: “There are reliable records to show that the Black and Tan Setter was in existence as a separate breed long before it was taken up by the Duke of Gordon.”

We don’t know in which year the Duke established his kennel, but we can be almost sure that his Setters were black, white and tan, black-and-white and black-and-tan. It’s believed that the Duke preferred the black-and-tan dogs and therefore he concentrated his breeding on them. That’s the most logical explanation why the black-and-tan Setters at Gordon Castle were eventually named after the Duke: ‘Castle Setter’ or ‘Gordon Setter’. History says that the Duke would not shoot over his Setters until they were five years old, as they were very wild when they were young and matured slowly.

As Rev. Pearce (Idstone) wrote in 1867: “The origin of the breed is not well-known. The late Duke of Gordon, at any rate, brought it up to its present excellence. However, no less important than the development of the breed by the Duke of Gordon has been its establishment and perfecting during the latter half of the 19th Century and after.”

Five years later, in 1872, Edward Laverack wrote: “Two years after the decease of Alexander, Duke of Gordon, I went to Gordon Castle, purposely to see the breed of setters. In an interview with Jubb, the keeper, he showed me three black tans, the only ones left, and which I thought nothing of. Some years later, I often saw Jubb and his setters; then and now, all the Gordon Castle setters were black, white, and tan.”

The Kennel Boy

Very little is known about Alexander’s dogs, because there are no stud books or any other records. But we do know that the Gordon strain was present at the Castle before 1815. In Dogs of Scotland (1891), D.J. Thomson Gray describes the breed in detail. Gray had spoken to Bill Roger, who had worked as a kennel boy for the Duke before the Battle of Waterloo (1815). Bill told the author that around 1820, Gordon Castle had one of the most famous kennels of the British Empire. The dogs were not uniform in color; they were mostly black with red (tan), black with red and white, brownish-red with white, black-and-white or yellow-and-white. The black-red-and-white dogs had big black and white markings above the eyes and rust-colored markings on the cheeks. Their heads and ears were black and many of them had white on the chest and feet. The dogs were heavy-bodied, had big feet, were heavily feathered and had a beautiful head with Spaniel-like ears. Light eyes and weak heads weren’t tolerated in this kennel. The Gordon Castle Setters were generally easy to train. They were not fast but had great stamina, working early morning until late in the afternoon without a rest.

Considerate Landlord

After Alexander’s death in 1827, his son George became the 5th and the last Duke of Gordon (1770-1836). Like his father, George was a military man, joining the army in his 20th year. He was educated at Cambridge, served in the Gordon Highlanders and became a general in 1819. After his father’s death, he moved from Huntly Lodge – where he had been living with his wife Elizabeth Brodie of Arnhall – to Gordon Castle and took over his father’s dogs and kennels. He was known as a kind and considerate landlord.

Both father and son were painted and their portraits are in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Alexander’s portrait is that of a gentleman holding a gun – a dog is looking at him. Unfortunately only the dog’s head can be seen, but it’s certainly a Setter type. The portrait of George is better; it was painted by the famous Ramsay Richard Reinagle and auctioned at Sotheby’s in March 2005 (estimated price £20,000). This portrait is seated in a (Scottish?) landscape, the Duke wearing a green coat and cream colored breeches. He holds his gun and is accompanied by his dog. Not surprisingly, because after Alexander’s death, George took care of the Setters. The dog in this portrait is a white Setter with brown ears; he looks at his master. George died in 1836, only 66 years old. His death was deeply regretted over the north of Scotland.


Between 1827 and 1836, the kennel was considerably reduced in number. It’s possible that some dogs were given away to other breeders, to friends or to the Duke’s gamekeepers. In July 1836, the year George died, only 11 Gordons were offered for sale at Tattersall auctioneers. The list of dogs included Duke – 5 years, a black and tan dog, by his Grace’s famous Old Regent x Ellen. 34 Guineas, sold to Lord Abercorn. Juno – 5 years, black and white, by Old Regent x Juno. 34 Guineas, sold to the Duke of Richmond. A puppy – 4 months old, by Regent ex Crop, pupped March 5th 1836. 15 Guineas to Lord Douglas. It’s remarkable that in this list of 11 dogs there is only one black-and-tan!

Upon the death of the 5th Duke, the title became extinct and the estate passed to the Duke of Richmond, George’s nephew, who later became the Duke of Richmond and Gordon. Some historians suggest that after the Duke of Richmond revived the kennel of ‘Castle Setters’, the principal color of the dogs was still black, white and tan with only a few black-and-tans. The ‘Castle kennel’ was finally closed in 1907 and Isaac Sharpe of ‘Stylish’ Gundogs bought the remaining Setters. They were all black, white and tan.

From Black-and-Tan Setter to Gordon Setter

At the dog show in Newcastle in 1859, a Gordon Setter was awarded first prize for Setters. At the first-ever field trial, in 1863, the first three places were awarded to Gordon Setters. When The Kennel Club was founded in 1873, the breed was classified as ‘Black and Tan Setter’. The reason could be that at that time, Black and Tan Setters registered in The Kennel Club Stud Book had no connection with Gordon Castle. But times change. In 1923, The Kennel Club accepted the name Gordon Setter, not because the breed can be accredited solely to the Dukes, but because there is no doubt these Scottish noblemen played an important part in the development of the Gordon Setter.

The Gordon Setter in America

The first documentation of a Gordon Setter in America is an official importation order, relating to dogs from Gordon Castle. It allowed the dogs to enter America. This document (1842) refers to two dogs, Rake and Rachel, imported by George Blunt. In 1879, the earliest registration was made by J. White. He registered Bang with the National American Kennel Club (merged into what is now the American Kennel Club). Bang (Shot x Nell) was born in 1875. In 1877, the first Westminster Kennel Club Show was held. There was an entry of 79 Gordon Setters. In 1874, the first recorded Field Trial took place in Memphis. Almost twenty years later, in 1892, the American Kennel Club changed the name of the breed from Black-and-Tan Setter to Gordon Setter. Twenty years before the British Kennel Club!

The Gordon Setter Club of America ( was organized in 1924. Their first National Specialty was held in 1983 in Springfield, Ohio. (Source: Baddeley, Gordon Setters Today, 1994)

The current AKC breed standard of the Gordon Setter can be found at:

About the Author:

A breeder/exhibitor/judge and retired bookseller and publisher, Ria Hörter ( ) is a contributing editor of “Onze Hond”, leading dog magazine in The Netherlands.

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Posted by on Apr 14 2014. Filed under Current Articles, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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