Owd Bob, the Grey Dog of Kenmuir, published in the US under the title Bob, Son of Battle was originally written by the English author Alfred Ollivant ( 1874-1927). Intended as a children’s book, this gripping tale of a legendary sheepdog in the 1880s Dale Country has enough depth to fascinate teen or adult readers as well.
The beautifully bound new retelling by Lydia Davis, hardcover with the original illustrations by Marguerite Kirmse (1885-1954) who also illustrated Lassie, Come Home by Eric Knight, caught my eye. I have seen several books similarly bound with wine red cloth spines in our library and found that they were published in the New York Review’s Children’s Collection along with many other wonderful children’s classics. This collectoin is worth looking into.
Author Lydia Davies writes in her afterword that she read and loved the book as a child but even then had difficulties with the Cumrian dialect in most of the dialog. She has retold the story in more accessible English while still conveying the local color. She retained the many quotes from poems by Robert Burns and provided translations into modern English. I have not read the original version, which has also been republished, but I find her retelling simple and beautiful.
The story is set in the North Country of England south of the Scottish border, in the area that is now known as the Lake District, I assume. The moors of Kenmuir, the town of Grammoch, and the Muir Pike mountain from the story seem to be fictitious. However, the description of the general area is very real, only the particulars are fiction.
The story of Bob, Son of Battle, the last descendant of a fictional breed of the grey sheepdogs, is first of all the tragic story of the conflict between the Moore and the McAdam families in their close knit sheep farming community. The book draws the reader into the lives of these tough farmers whose livelihood in their harsh environment depends on their sheep and their brave and intelligent herding dogs.
The story follows the conflict between James Moore, Master of the Kenmuir farm, and of his neighbor and rival, Adam McAdam, an expatriate Scot. While James Moore is the perfect example of a righteous Christian, an honest, hard-working and loving family man whose mercy and compassion seem endless, Adam McAdam is an ill-tempered and selfish loner who has succumbed to self pity after the death of his beloved wife. He drowns his sorrows in drink rejecting and abusing his young son David. When the Moore family offers David a refuge in their loving home, McAdam develops a growing jealousy and resentment against them.
The characters of James Moore and Adam McAdam are reflected in their sheepdogs. Moore’s gentle and beautiful Owd Bob, descendant of a noble breed, is a skillful sheepherder admired by the entire community. He is expected to win the Dale Cup, an internationally famous sheepdog championship trophy. McAdam finds his canine counterpart in Red Wull, an ugly, mixed-breed puppy on whom he lavishes all the love he withholds from his son. Red Wull grows into the terror of the canine and human community, a huge and mean animal who loves to fight and kill other dogs. Red Wull is also a sheepdog with exceptional skills and a worthy opponent to Owd Bob in the Dale Cup trials.
There is a sickness in McAdam’s relationship with his dog. He withdraws his love from his son and lavishes all his affection on the animal going even so far as setting the dog against his son. There is a warning here. In the divine order, human beings deserve our first and highest love , animals come next. While a man’s love for his dog can be a wonderful thing, it can never take the place of his love for human beings. James Moore loves his Owd Bob deeply but his family comes first.
In McAdam, we see a profound portrait of a character type we have all met, an unhappy, self-centered man who antagonizes all his neighbors and subsequently blames them for disliking him. He rejects all offers of help and friendship and nurses a fierce jealousy for anybody who deservedly receives respect and friendship from the community that he himself refuses to be part of. McAdam rejects God, not only in his rejection of his neighbors, but also in his particular hatred for the local parson who tries to reach out to him, and for all “‘churchgoers.”
The most wonderful quality of this story is the way it arouses great pity for McAdam in the reader. We see his loneliness and misery and wish he would accept the help offered to him.
Lady Eleanor, the wife of the local squire, is one of the few villagers who feel pity for McAdam. I love her role in this book. We are used to hearing only about the negative side of the landowning class in the European past. In Lady Eleanor, our children get to know a woman who fulfills her role as protectress and caregiver to her tenants. She visits homes and helps wherever she is needed. She is loved and admired by everybody – even by McAdam.
While McAdam is portrayed as responsible for his own fate, we also see the guilt in others who fail to reach out to him. In spite of James Moore’s admonitions to respect his father, David McAdam habitually counters his father’s abuse with insolence and ridicule. When McAdam experiences a single moment of remorse and attempts to reconcile with his son, David responds with disbelief and more insults. He misses his only opportunity to bring his father back into the fold of human companionship.
The villagers in the local pub, where McAdam spends his evenings alone in a corner, also lack charity. They enjoy answering his rudeness and insolence in kind. The reader becomes quite aware of the devasting effect their behavior has on Mc Adam. It is clear that these men are partially responsible for McAdam’s state of mind. There is even a mob scene where a thousand men are out for McAdam’s blood. The insightful description of this mob scene holds a valuable lesson for our kids.
James Moore and his dog Bob are the main targets of McAdam’s hate and jealousy, especially after Bob wins the Dale Cup. However, in spite of McAdam’s animosity, Moore forgives his neighbor again and again and refuses to hate in return. Moore is a model of Christian charity following Our Lord’s call to love our enemy.
The book contains much sorrow and tragedy which is softened by a surprise ending. After his father’s death, David McAdam marries Maggie, the warmhearted daughter of James Moore, and takes over his father’s farm. In the last lines of the book, we find out that, in a wonderfully redeeming gesture, David and Maggie have named their baby son Adam MacAdam after his grandfather.
My only complaint about this book is its spiteful description of the Scots. I’m sure that the author depicted the true sentiment of the Dales people against their ancient enemies at the time. They suffered much in the “Scottish Raids”. However, when Ollivant describes McAdam as a small and shrunken man like all his countrymen while the locals are tall, fair and straight-limbed, I cringe a little. It gets even worse when one of my favorite poets, Robert Burns, is put down by a character in the book. It is hard to tell the author’s opinion from that of his characters.
It is a wonderful thing for children and adults to read about the cooperation between man and dog that has grown over the ages in the North County. It is as beautiful as the breeds of sheepdogs which are perfectly adapted to their tasks and their environment. The dogs are the product of what might be called man-made evolution, not of natural selection, but of purposeful selection by the breeder. The dedication and loving cooperation between hardworking farmer and hardworking sheepdog can only be pleasing to God. The sheep dog championships show how the entire community in the Dales revolves around the sheep farmers and their dogs. The members of the community depend upon and support each other. This also must be pleasing to God.
Ultimately, the book is about evil entering into this close knit community by taking over the heart of McAdam. This evil is supported by the viciousness of McAdam’s dog Red Wull. Only the virtue of James Moore supported by the gentle and courageous character of his dog Owd Bob remains untouched by this evil and eventually overcomes it.
Bob, Son of Battle is a true classic, highly recommended for its beautiful writing, its page-turning suspense, its insightful portrayal of vice and virtue and its wisdom. It is also a great portrayal of a way of life that has developed over centuries in a harsh and hostile landscape. This book would make a great addition to your geography and history curriculum.