The Gun Dogs of Queen Elizabeth II
In remembrance of Queen Elizabeth II, we're republishing a cover story we ran about her—and her gun dogs—from 1976
Here’s a little-known bit of Field & Stream trivia: In the January 1976 issue, we ran a cover feature about Queen Elizabeth II. The story was about her gun dogs, and it was written by Field & Stream’s legendary gun dog editor, Bill Tarrant. Today, we were saddened to hear of her passing. So, to commemorate the Queen’s love of hunting—and her appreciation for the companionship of a good dog—we’re publishing this story again. —The Editors
Two hundred years ago the United States was rightfully called New England. So, as one American, I went home to celebrate our nation’s Bicentennial. But, I went not to city folk, though they, too, gave America a legacy: parliamentary law, architecture, lifestyle, religion, and later—the Beatles. I went instead to rural Britain. And that is how I came to the Queen’s attention. For though the world may know this lady as “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith,” I met bark-knuckled, wind-tanned, tattered-cuffed men who hushed in admiration. “She’s but a simple country girl who loves the land and sacrifices herself to duty. ’Tis a grand thing she does. Capable in her reign she is, but her heart is upon those things of the fields. Aye, the moor’s winds claim her ear more to her liking than the spoken flattery of man.”
And so imagine this queen, if you will—and mind you, I didn’t meet her, I do not know her—pressed to serve her fellow man, forevermore. Not just queen for a day, but pressed from the moment of birth until moment of death. And remember, too, the relentless, raucous handsaw!
If you were a queen, then, would you not on occasion seek the kiss of a sea wind, the stillness of a moor, the symphony of a marsh, the solitude of a stream? And would you not, amidst the myriad supplications of man, seek as well the mute and selfless love of a dog?
Well, this queen does.
And so it was this lady granted me permission to visit her dogs and the man she chose eleven years ago to keep them: Bill Meldrum. It’s a day of calliopes, barkers, and confection stands when I find Meldrum at the sun-splashed Country Sports Fair outside Worksop, England. Today’s the sixth running of the International Gundog Test: England versus Scotland versus Wales.
I look for a man who “…stands 6 feet tall and weighs 14 stone.”
Amongst 20,000 people, seemingly each with dog in tow, and across the 7th Duke of Portland’s Walbeck Abbey estate, I wander. Through clay shoots, past fly- and coarse-fishing competition, alongside sailboat races, next to the air-rifle range, by the ferret demonstration, within the horse arena, under the parachute drop, and down the long midway of sporting-goods stands, I look for a big man with a big yellow Lab.
Everyone knows the Queen’s man, “…he was here but a moment ago…,” but big men with big yellow labs are nearly as common in England as tweed coats. I ask three such men if they’re Bill Meldrum before the fourth one answers, “Yes.”
I find the man distant and non-defined. That tallest peak shrouded in haze on the far horizon. The dark gray one. The one where rain touches first. The one everybody knows, and has properly named and listed, but to which no one ever goes. Such a mountain is impervious to man; it would move only to earthquake. I judge Bill Meldrum to even be earthquake-proof.
I seek him out in conversation. His responses are minimal.
I’m right about the mountain. The pebbles of information Meldrum lets loose require a torrent of force on my part.
Then I know. Throughout the world I’ve met dog men who, by necessity, must represent themselves. They are the product they sell and they’ve got to get it on the open market to make a living.
But Meldrum? He’s the Queen’s man. He stands next to the living flag. Consider the presentation of colors prior to a national event! Does not everyone stand shushed? Do not the color bearers appear in rigid line, stone jawed? Does not the flag always represent an affair of state?
Okay, Mr. Meldrum, I say to myself, I seek not a story of your Queen or yourself…tell me about your dogs.
And with that, a sun sweeps across the great gray mountain of this man so his eyes catch light like green grapes glossed with dew and the man talks so fast and heartily I give up trying to take notes.
“Sandringham Sidney,” he says, pointing to the bull-shouldered, toffee-coated Lab, “is one of Her Majesty’s dogs. She keeps mostly Labs, and the majority of them, black. But this is the best, and he’s yellow. Born when the Queen was in Sidney, he was. So his name.
“He’s a good one. But, maybe too intelligent for his own good, at times.” Meldrum frowns at the dog. The dog rises slowly so he stands on his hind legs with his forelegs wrapped around Meldrum’s waist. The dog looks into the man’s eyes as though searching for love or information, or maybe love and information are what he’s giving.
Meldrum cups the dog’s right ear and continues, the words tumbling in Scottish brogue as a game of Chinese checkers dropped down a staircase, “When he’s on double retrieve…as he’s going out on the first one he’s thinking about his second one. And so he doesn’t work thoroughly on his first one because he’s in a hurry to get it back. And this is what makes him fast. He’s really fast.” Meldrum thumps the big dog’s head, which is nose level to the man’s tie clasp, if he were of bent to wear such things.
“When Sidney works,” continues Meldrum, “he’s using his brain. Last week we went to a test in Yorkshire. There was a dummy hare hidden. I didn’t know it was there. But as I walked up they told me a hare would get up. And probably, I worked up…I got worked up for this hare…you know? I was prepared for it. And Sidney sensed this. Without me even speaking he was walking at heel, for he sensed there was something in front. And we were about 30 feet from it and he’s ready for it. He was ahead of it, really.”
Meldrum looks into Sidney’s eyes. They both confirm the story to be true. Then the big dog releases its bear hug of the man, returns to all fours, sits, looks off to the horizon.
“Your father,” I tell Meldrum, “says Copper will beat Sidney.”
Meldrum’s head jerks to the disclosure, his lower jaw juts forward. “You’ve been to see my father?” “Yes.” I understand Meldrum’s surprise. His father lives many miles north.
Without smile, Meldrum says in flat voice, “Well, that’s why we have field trials. He can enter and run.”
I smile. George Meldrum, Bill’s father and mentor, is the winningest contemporary retriever trainer and handler in Great Britain: he’s made more field trial champions than any other man and is regarded as the dean of dogdom. Copper is one of Sidney’s pups. When Copper and Sidney meet, it will be more than one father against son.
George Meldrum lives in the black currant and turnip country of southeastern Scotland, that place of rolling hills and high-performance farming, with great verdant fields of grass so lush it clogs a sickle bar even when dry; a place of rural prosperity with no chipped paint fences, no weeds, and no earth scars; a place where to win the best of anything in the county would be equal to winning the World’s Fair.
Presently in his 39th year as trainer to the Sir Spencer-Neirn (pronounced Nin) family, George Meldrum lives at Rose Cottage, Ladybank, Scotland. Lives there with his wife, thirty dogs, and a father’s pride of son. And memories! He lives with memories that rewrote all the records for Labradors in Britain. Like Blackie! Norhum Blackie. A little bitch that won everything by the time she was 3, then became a dam four times and threw five field champions. As George Meldrum says it, “And two more could have been made but were sold off to America after they’d won an open.” Blackie’s production of champions has never been equaled.
I recall, now, bombarded by the loudspeaker and calliope, swirled about by this current of fair’s spectators—I recall the quiet of George Meldrum’s cottage. Him standing there with a bottle of Scotch.
“Will you have a drink?” he asks. The man is as warm in presence as the Scotch will prove to the innards. I nod that I will. The Scotch is poured in a small tumbler and dashed with a splash of Barr’s Lemonade.
I glance across the room. Beside Mrs. Meldrum, on a fragile side table, is displayed a framed photograph of her son standing with the royal family. Another picture shows him alone with a dog. I ask about this. I’m told that’s not the son, that’s the father—twenty years ago.
I look again to the man. He’s Lincolnesque, almost craggy. Built of that same stuff that can see a juniper stripped of foliage by sandblast and still stand alive.
The empty tumblers are placed on the dining-room table to the north side of the living room and I follow the senior Meldrum to a field of buttercups, clover, and peppermint. He works two dogs released from kennel. As one sits at heel and the other searches about for a bumper thrown-to-field by a dummy launcher, Meldrum says, “We like to see a dog with tail wag.” Wag is said so it rhymes with frog. “We go in for that a lot you know for I think once you start to pressure a dog you take too much away.”
I watch the leaping, frolicking Copper search out his bird. He moves in sharp contrast to the locomotive driving dogs we develop in America. He transmits joy. There’s no neurotic outcrops because he’s mismarked the dummy. His work is play. “I’ll find it, Boss,” he seems to say, “after all, we’ve got all day.” Meldrum agrees. The man, the dogs, and I train for two hours and nothing occurs to discourage anyone.
I leave that postcard-bright country—where all around it seems a golf course, the first ball ever teed-up being whomped just 20 motoring minutes away at that game’s holy-of-holies, St. Andrews—and head south. Now I stand before George Meldrum’s son, and to the distance the country seems suburban-Detroit: ground haze, factories, great highline towers stalking like giant skeletons across the land, a place of industry, compaction, haste, and man’s hapless standoff against concrete and dwindling space. A place where no one “…has all day.”
Several hours into Bill Meldrum I hazard to ask, “Why does the Queen keep the dogs?”
He answers, “Her Majesty wishes to build the standard up. Like Slipper is a field trial champion, Sherry is a field trial champion, Flora won the Game Fair in 1968, and she also qualified for the championship last year. Those are all the Queen’s dogs.”
From hearsay I have my answers, but from this man I require confirmation for publication. I ask, “And the queen—she’s good with the dogs, no?”
“Aye. That she is. The Queen’s a very good handler. Why she’s as good as I am.” Meldrum smiles on that. Then he turns stern and offers, “She contributes a great deal to perfecting a dog. I’ve seen Her Majesty launch a dog on a blind across a river and up a far hill that would be 800 yards distant. A magnificent retrieve. Yes, the Queen is a very good handler. Also, Princess Anne and His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales are excellent retriever handlers. And so is the Duke. Why you know, it’s the strangest thing…The Queen and the Duke appear and the dogs just leave me. Just like that—they go to them. Then when the Queen’s finished with them, the dogs all come back to me. They’ve never been trained to do that. They just know.” Meldrum slowly shakes his head and stares at the ground. He says in open wonder, “I don’t know how they know to do it…”
His number is called.
I watch him go and recall his words spoken hours before: “I’ve spoken to all the jockeys before they go on the field. They all have this little tingle in their tummy.” He reflected on this, then observed, “If you’re not worried, you’re not enjoying yourself.”
I watch a worried Bill Meldrum enjoy himself through a walkup with Sidney. The dog works well. Yes, he’s fast. And yes, George Meldrum, he’s got tail talk—tail wag, you call it.
Sidney has the dummy, leaps a hog-wire fence, runs to Meldrum, and gives to hand. Meldrum leaves the field and returns to me. He is not smiling. I joke to myself, “Meldrum, you must really be having fun.”
But I’ve earned the right to joke. I feel I know the man—know him as well as one can know the tallest peak in a distant mountain chain. This man is going to win. That’s all there is to it. Winning is his business. And, winning is his pleasure.
Bill Meldrum has that work ethic of champions. I never met one who didn’t have it. That total dedication to purpose; never a compromise to excellence.
And he has that other necessary ingredient, to take the best from the rest, and from the past, but to innovate for the future. As Delmar Smith, America’s winningest dog pro says it, “If he’s winning, he’s doing something different.”
One thing Meldrum does different is training with a diversion hare. No, I’m not saying other Britons do not train this way. They all do. But Meldrum put the zip in the catapult hare. Let me explain. British field trials pose hazards for a dog by enticing him to go off his bird and pursue counterfeit game. That is, a decoy is reeled past the dog’s nose while he’s on a water retrieve. This simulates a swimming duck. A dummy hare is dragged hand-over-hand through the cover as the dog leaves the line to fetch a bird. This encourages the dog to switch from feather to fur.
Meldrum rigged a traveling device whereby the dummy hare is attached to a rubber shock cord. When the mechanism is released the hare shoots before the dog in a grass-stalk-snapping run for his dummy life. What a temptation! The ultimate diversion. A dog that masters this can handle rabbits afield that seemingly move sluggish as the fabled tortoise.
When asked of such things, what one might call tricks of the trade, Meldrum tells me, “There are certain things you learn through experience, but there are no secrets, really. I don’t say there’s tricks, because most of the people in this country, anyway, pass on all what they know to other people. They talk about it. So there’s really no secrets. If you have problems with a dog, you’ll be talking about it among the other trainers, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I had a dog like that and I did this with it,’ and you’ll go home and try it. Every dog has a different temperament. So you can’t tell a man about his dog unless you see the dog working and judge his temperament. You use different methods with different temperaments.”
Meldrum keeps talking to emphasize the point he must make. One time said is never enough. He must be sure—as he’s been all day. He’s checked and rechecked his program. Looked at Sidney in critical wonderment. Left me, repeatedly, and talked to officials. Fretted. Tunneled to reflection. Came out only to speak in asides. His eyes have stayed on the field. He’s watched every dog work. He’s assessed the mechanics of the test, the hazards. All this he’s programmed to match with Sidney’s long suits and shortcomings. The man’s running a dog. The second coming could come and go and Meldrum would note only whether or not Sidney had the bird. And that’s why Meldrum’s the Queen’s man. She chose him after he won the British National in 1963.
But now, the working tests are over. This is not a field trial. This is for the spectators; to let people learn of dogs. But for Meldrum it might as well be the National Open. He heads for the score board to learn Sidney and a little black bitch from Scotland, Stroller of Kilncraigs, handled by Mr. J. Paton, have tied as best Labs of the day. England has won the international event by six points: England 575, Scotland 569, Wales 428.
Meldrum bites his bottom lip. He follows the two judges to the far end of the field for a “sudden death” stake. Both dogs are tested and the judges huddle in conference.
“We need another run,” it is announced.
Meldrum looks at Mr. J. Paton. They both shrug their shoulders. Now it is a blind over dirty ground to a bird planted behind a pile of brush. Sidney soars over the fence, holds a line to the downwind side, buttonhooks, and pinpoints the blind. The little Scottish bitch balks at the fence. It’s all over. Sidney has won the British Field Sports Society Country Sports Fair.
The officials hand Meldrum the red-white-and-blue ribbon. He walks to a car fender, takes a pen from his pocket, signs his name on the back of the ribbon, and hands it to me.
“Don’t you want it?” I ask, incredulously.
“Take it,” he answers. Then he starts talking about the game fair that will be held in a fortnight. I understand. To Meldrum, accomplishment sets the test, it does not present the trophy.
So it is, a month later, while working on this manuscript in my Kansas studio, I receive a short note from the man. It reads: “A crowd of 63,000 visited the fair, breaking the attendance record by 23,000.
“Twelve dogs were selected to run in this test having qualified in other field trial competitions throughout the year. The standard is usually very high as it is a great honor for the dogs that are chosen to take part in this event and they are selected for their record of consistency throughout the year…”
The specific tests are outlined, then Meldrum concludes, “With such a large crowd the dogs had to be very bold to work in such confined conditions.”
A list follows: “1st H.M. The Queen’s Sandringham Sidney. Handled by W. G. Meldrum.”
Runners-up fill out the page with a notation on each dog’s performance.
I’m reading along when suddenly I look back at the top notation. He won it! Sidney won the Game Fair. And Meldrum makes no fuss of the showing, says nothing in his cover letter. The disclosure warrants no more fanfare than the first item on a grocery list. I chuckle and wonder, “To whom, Bill Meldrum, did you give the ribbon this time?”
And I conjecture. Did your win, Bill Meldrum, earn from your colleagues the usual cash of success: the coins of bitterness, resentment, envy? Coins kept always in pocket while counterfeit money is spent in your presence.
I hope not. For few know of your life and what you must do. You are the Queen’s keeper. By no means an ordinary Queen. A Queen who loves the earth and reigns over the nation that gave the world it’s earth treasures. A Queen who can cast a dog and hold him to line: and does it.
So you must be good, Bill Meldrum, to keep up. Strike that. Better said, to keep ahead. After all, is not your father the winningest Lab trainer in all the realm? Does he not say Sidney’s pup will take you?
And does it not happen, those who go to field with you are more concerned in taking you than taking first? I know so. And so do you.
So, success to you, Bill Meldrum. You have the most prestigious dog job in all the world, and no other man is better fitted to it. The pressure’s on you, like a four-sided vice. But, that’s the tingle in the tummy you love so much.
When you were half your age, at 20, you were asked to come to America and turn pro. You declined. I know a lot of Lab men over here mighty glad you did. For a tingle in the tummy to them is just a bleeding ulcer and they thank both God and Queen you stayed 4,000 miles away.