When Alasdair MacRae was 16, he was expelled from school. By his own account, he wasn’t a model pupil. But Alasdair, who grew up in a remote part of north-west Scotland, found his niche in life the day he discovered sheepdogs – his ‘epiphany’ moment. In 1993, he became the International Supreme Champion, the following year he won BBC’s One Man and His Dog title, and in 2015 he was inducted into the American Border Collie Hall of Fame. Now living in Vichy, in rural Missouri, Alasdair, whose father was the renowned Highland fiddler Farquhar MacRae, is widely recognised as the most accomplished dog handler in the United States. His wife Tricia shares his passion, and she won the US National Championship in 2012. The couple breed, train, and sell sheepdogs and market online dog-handling courses – The MacRae Way. His life has been a great success. It’s all a far cry from his troubled schooldays in Lochaber…
I come from the village of Lochailort and I was expelled from high school at the age of 16. I got my first job at the Marine Harvest fish farm. It’s a salmon farm and there’s a hatchery just down the road from Lochailort Castle. When I joined, there were four people working at Marine Harvest, when I left a year and a half later there were over 40.
I wanted to be a farmer and I got a job as a shepherd over at the Hill Farming Research Organisation at Glensaugh, near Laurencekirk, which is now called the Macaulay Institute. I never really knew what the dogs could do. I was just trying to get the sheep in off the hill.
The head shepherd at Glensaugh was called Norman McEwan and one day I watched him sending the dog round the field to get the sheep. He gave it a whistle and it stopped, and he gave it another one and it went to the right, and gave it another and it went to the left. Then it walked up and it stopped. He did something that would have taken me half an hour and he did it in two minutes.
It was one of life’s epiphanies, and I just thought: ‘You know something, that’s for me.’ So, I got a wee pup off his dog and, after various jobs, I traded it for a dog called Mirk. That was really the beginning. I won the Scottish National with him in 1984, and then in 1993 I won the Supreme International, which is the biggest competition in the world.
Twenty-two years ago, I came out to America with my ex-wife, and we got divorced about 10 years later. I then married an American lady, the love of my life, and we are still married today.
When I came out here I started doing training clinics, a little competition, and some judging, and I realised that the knowledge I had gleaned in the hills and with the dogs in competition in Scotland was something that people were quite happy to pay for, and there was a very eager audience of people wanting to learn. So I found that I could make a very good living out here with a lot less hassle and hardship, a lot easier life.
There’s no question, I’ve come over here and lived the American dream. In Scotland, money was not there, so people were very careful what they spent it on. Over here, money was plentiful and a lot of people had disposable income, and they liked to make themselves feel good and spend it on themselves and enjoy their lives.
They came to me and learned how to run their dogs. I also gave them private lessons once a week or once a month. After that, they go out and compete and that’s one of the most rewarding things. When I’m not competing myself, I enjoy seeing the people I’ve worked with take part in the trials and sometimes beat me.
There’s a sense of satisfaction from it, and probably my greatest thrill since I came out here was my wife Tricia winning the National Championship in 2012. That’s my pride and joy.
We run online training courses where you can sign up and see our methodology. We call it The MacRae Way, it’s a system of training dogs that works well and people can log in and they can buy whatever part of it they want. It’s been popular and it’s lucrative as well.
I enjoy competing, and yes, I feel a sense of pride about what I’ve achieved when I talk about it. I like winning but if I get beaten by a better person then I’m quite happy with that. Now the fire doesn’t burn as hot as it used to. In order to be great, you’ve got to practise, and in order to practise you’ve got to be dedicated to it and you must get enjoyment out of it. I don’t get the same enjoyment out of practise now.
I enjoy training young dogs, selling them to somebody else, and that person doing well with them. I get a lot of satisfaction from that so my enjoyment is coming from different places now.
The only state I haven’t been in is Alaska. You get to see a lot of places out here – the Giant Redwoods, Crater Lake, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, I’ve been very fortunate that way.
I’ve been able to see a lot more stuff than I thought possible but there’s only one problem – it’s not Scotland. I see a picture of home and feel the old tug on the heartstrings. You miss a lot of things that you took for granted, you miss the countryside, but most of all you miss the people.
I love and miss the Scottish people and the Scottish culture. I would be happy to go home and live there if things were not going so well here.