Gordon setters, also known as "black and tans," have a coal-black coat with distinctive markings of a rich chestnut or mahogany color on their paws and lower legs, vents, throat, and muzzles; one spot above each eye; and two spots on their chest. A small amount of white is allowed on the chest. Although uncommon, red Gordons are occasionally born to normal-colored parents, the result of expression of a recessive red gene. Predominantly tan, red, or buff dogs are ineligible for showing. A Gordon's coat is straight or slightly waved (but not curly), long and silky, with chest, stomach, ear, leg, and tail feathering. According to the AKC breed standard, "the bearing is intelligent, noble, and dignified." They are the heaviest of the setter breeds, with males reaching 27 inches at the withers and up to 80 pounds in weight.
Gordons were bred to run, and require 60 to 80 minutes of vigorous exercise daily. Young dogs should not be over-exercised or begin agility training until they are at least 18 months old, to avoid joint problems later in life. Because of their hunting instincts, Gordons should not be allowed to roam freely if unsupervised, as they are apt to wander into a potentially dangerous traffic situation while following a scent.
We now really need not to go back to the Spaniel and its specialized development into the setting-dog, as it was called, and can be found in the work by the famous French sportsman, Gaston de Foix, Vicomte de Bèarn (1331-91), who it is said owned about 1500 dogs 'brought from all countries of Europe' and was known as 'Gaston Phèbus' owing to his love for the chase. This work is called Livre de Chasse or Miroir de Phèbus, and was started in 1387. This work was the bases of The Master of Game written between 1406 and 1413 by Edward III's grandson, Edward, second Duke of York, who acknowledged his debt to de Foix. Below is the main passage referring to the Spaniel and the Setting-dog, as republished in 1904: 'Another kind of dog is that is called falcon-dog or spaniel (espaignols in the French original ed.) because it comes from Spain, notwithstanding that there are many in other countries.... 'A good spaniel should not be too rough, though his tail should be rough. The good qualities that such a dogs are these: They love well their masters and follow them without losing, although they be in a great crowd of men, and commonly they go before their master, running and wagging their tail, and raise or stat fowl and wild beasts. But their right craft is of the partridge and of the quail. It is good for a man that has a noble goshawk, or a tierecel, or a sparrowhawk for the partridges to have such dogs; and also, when they are taught to be couchers (chiens couchants in the original French - ed.), they are good for taking partridge and quail with the net...' (Baillie-Grohman, p66).
The modern Gordon Setter is a predominantly black dog with rich tan marking on the muzzle, legs and chest. A little bigger and heavier than either the Irish or English, he is nevertheless descended from the same genetic mixing pot , which undoubtedly has its origins among those setting spaniels we met earlier. The Kennel Club applied the name 'Gordon Setter' to the breed in 1924. Before that they were known as black and tan setters, and were found in many kennels beside those of the Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon (1743-1827). Indeed, as we shall see, there is plenty of evidence that the majority of the setters at Gordon Castle during the Duke's time were tri-colored rather than pure black and tan.
The breed was brought to the United States by George Blunt and Daniel Webster in 1842, with the purchase of two dogs from the Duke's kennels. The American Kennel Club officially recognized the breed in 1892.
Besides the modernization of the style of shooting and the work required of gundogs, the situation was altered by the new developments that also took place in farming, which helped to bring about a marked reduction in the Partridge population. This came about with the introduction of modernization such as early cutting of silage, the use of fast-moving mechanical equipment, the burning or ploughing of stubble-fields soon after harvest, the destruction of hedgerows and the use of chemical sprays for weed-killing. The hedgerows had provided shelter and nesting sites; the weeds and other herbage supplied food and cover; whilst the stubble-fields had been a primary source of winter food; so the partridges were deprived of some important assets, whilst the wide use of chemicals on the land exercised a direct harmful effect.
It will be obvious to the reader that these changes significantly affected the status of Setters and Pointers, not least that of the Gordon. Though often used as a general purpose gundog, the Gordon Setter is essentially a wide-ranging dog employed in the UK to locate Red Grouse and Ptarmigan on the Scottish or North of England moors and partridges on the stubble-fields of the south of England. Up to the late 1930s most Gordons were kept for this type of work, so that the majority were to be found in Scotland and the north of England; but now they are more evenly distributed and there are no large working kennels.
The function of the Setter is well summarized by Captain Blaine as follows: ‘The work required of the setter and pointer differs from that of all other breeds of dog. It is their business to range and hunt independently for game, at a distance from the sportsman, using their own initiative and intelligence to find it, and having done so, to remain staunchly “on point” awaiting his approach. They must search for the body, and not for the foot scent, and be able to maintain a fast steady gallop for long periods without fatigue. For the purpose a dog should have independence of character, speed, endurance, and a sensitive nose, combined with natural ability for hunting the terrain, in the best method of finding game’ (Croxton Smith, 1932, p70).
Perhaps one of the best descriptions of the Setter at work in the field is a poem by the poet William Somerville (1675-1742) in the following lines:
‘When autumn smiles, all beauteous in decay,
And paints each chequered grove with various hues,
My setter ranges in the new shorn fields,
His nose in air erect; from ridge to ridge,
Panting, he bounds, his quartered ground divides
In equal intervals, nor careless leaves
One inch untried. At length the tainted gale
His nostrils wide inhale, quick joy elates
His beating heart, which, awed by discipline
Severe, he dares not own, but cautious creeps
Low-cowering, step by step; at last attains
His proper distance, there he stops at once,
And points with his instructive nose upon
The trembling prey. On wings of wind and upborne
The floating net unfolded flies; then drops,
And the poor fluttering captives rise in vain.’
There is much on record that seems reliable about the origin or derivation of the Duke of Gordon’s Setters, though verification at this late date is of course impossible. Most of this evidence comes from Samuel Brown, the Veterinary Surgeon of Melton Mowbray, who was a great authority on the breed. In a letter to ‘’The Field’’ of 12 November 1864 Samuel Brown stated: ‘An old gentleman sportsman, and one too who has shot over the same breed for fifty years and new them during his boyhood, assures me that the late Duke of Gordon, Marquis of Anglesey, and several other noblemen, had their original stock of setters from the late Mr Coke of Longford, and that the colour was usually black-white-and –tan. Mine are descended from the original breed of Mr Coke, the Gordon ‘’Regent’’ and ‘’Fan’’, and within the last five years from a black-white-and –tan bitch which I got direct from the Beaudesart kennel’ (i.e. the Marquees of Anglesey’s – Ed.). Five years late, in another letter to the same journal, the Rev F. W. Adye wrote: ‘Mr Brown was told by Mr Coke himself that he often sent dogs to the Duke of Gordon and received others in exchange, in order now and then to obtain fresh blood’ (‘’The Field,’’ 8 January 1870). These facts were well know to J. H. Walsh (‘Stonehenge’), Editor of ‘’The Field’’ and a leading authority on sporting dogs, for it is he who mentions in the first chapter of his book ‘’The Dogs of the British Islands’’ (1867) a Setter ‘from Mr Coke of Norfolk and doubtless related to the late Duke of Gordon’s kennel, as Mr Coke and the duke bred together and interchanged setters frequently’. Therefore it does appear to be reasonably established that Mr Coke provided most of the original Setters for the Duke’s kennel. The Rev Hutchinson, who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Sixty-one’, insisted that ‘the original setter taken or sent to Gordon Castle by the first Marquis of Anglesea’ (‘’The Field’’, 29 January 1870), however what has been seen is that, according to Samuel Brown’s ‘old gentleman sportsman’, the Marquees of Anglesey likewise had his original stock of Setters at Beaudesart from Mr Coke – probably, although this cannot be confirmed, some years before the Gordon Castle kennel was founded; for in 1869 the Beaudesart Setters were said to have been maintained ‘for sixty years pure and unmixed with any blood’ (‘’The Field’’, 11 December 1869). It is most unlikely that the Duke obtained his setters from only one source, we know that he interbreed with other kennels besides Mr Coke’s, notably with Lord Lovat’s.