The Honourable Richard Mark Watson

Thorhildur Bjartmarz:

Mark Watson and „The Day of the Icelandic sheepdog

To realize your dreams and to fulfil them in the way that Mark Watson did in Iceland is unique. To see a few dogs of a rare species in a distant land, and then to decide to save the dog-species from extinction says much about this rare human being. In 1955 – 1960 it was not easy to travel to remote places in Iceland, but at great cost and with burning enthusiasm he started searching for dogs with a certain look. It may be assumed that many Icelandic farmers were flabbergasted to see this British gentleman stand in his finest clothes on the porch, asking very politely for permission to examine the dogs on the farm.

This summary tells the story of the man that saved the Icelandic sheepdog from extinction. The same man which gave The Dog Friends Club precious support in its campaigns. The same man, that encouraged the foundation of The Icelandic Kennel Club and who became an honorary founding member. As if this was not enough, he supported the campaigning of animal rights activists in Iceland, gave the nation its first Veterinary Hospital and incredible cultural value.

I never met Mark Watson personally, and therefore this is not a personal account of the issues discussed in this summary. Therefore I prefer to let his contemporaries tell the story, and I publish their narrations as they are recorded in the archives, rather than to interpret them myself.

Anna Snorradóttir was a good friend of Mark Watson. She gave a pamphlet to The Local Museum of Skagafjordur in 1989. This pamphlet was republished in 2006, in honour of the 100th anniversary of Mark Watson, this great benefactor of both Skagafjordur and Icelanders. The pamphlet is called „Mark Watson and Glaumbaer“. I want to thank Sigridur Sigurdardottir, museum curator for giving me permission to use material from this pamphlet.

Hilmar Foss was also a good friend of Watson. Hilmar wrote a detailed article about Watson in the Yearbook of National Library of Iceland in 1979. I have used some material from that concise article and also from newspaper articles that Hilmar wrote.

Other sources are from The animal protector magazine and from various newspapers. Through time, my opinion has been that available material was missing about what Mark Watson really achieved here in Iceland.  I hope that this summary describes that fully.

On the annual general meeting of the Icelandic sheepdog club I presented the proposal that Mark Watson´s birthday, July 18th shall be defined as „The Day of the Icelandic sheepdog“. Last July I emphasized this proposal again in a letter to the board of the Icelandic sheepdog club and I asked that it would present the proposal at an International Conference on the Icelandic sheepdog that was held in Iceland last October.

Hopefully this summary will increase the understanding of why I consider it our duty to commemorate and preserve the memory of the visionary Mark Watson. It is my opinion that the best way to do that is to make his birthday an annual event where we draw attention to the history and origins of the Icelandic sheepdog.


About the man:

Mark Watson was born on the 18th of July 1906 in the UK. His family was wealthy, had a large farm in Scotland, a summerhouse in Austria and lived elegantly in London. Mark Watson was well educated, studied at the foremost colleges of Britain and also on the mainland, especially in Paris. He spoke French fluently and spoke German also rather well. Before World War II he served in the diplomatic corps of his native country, both in Paris and in Washington. During World War II Watson was in the Royal Air Force. He travelled all across the world and was very interested in all kinds of artistic events.

Hilmar Foss described the man in an article in the newspaper Morgunbladid, 1959: Watson is a plain man and nice, he does not use his title and lives modestly as a farmer and a scholar.

Watson explains in the same interview: I became interested in Iceland in my youth and Iceland has ever since then always been the Land of my Dreams. I dreamt about adventure in Iceland, its beauty and ancient renown. I started writing to the post office director in Reykjavik. He was so nice as to send me various postcards that later became my first collection of photos from Iceland.

From the newspaper Morgunbladid 1958:

Mark Watson came on his first journey to Iceland during the summer of 1937, he took a lot of photos and later exhibited them in London.

A year later Watson came back to Iceland and he then travelled on horseback around the country. During his travels, he took photos and also recorded a motion picture in colour. His motion picture and several of his photos were exhibited in the Icelandic Section of the World Fair in New York 1939.



Mark Watson was very generous to Icelanders:

He gave to The National Museum of Iceland more than 100 watercolour paintings by Collingwood, who was a British painter that travelled round Iceland at the end of the 19th century. He also gave the Museum other works of art.

Hilmar Foss writes in the Yearbook of The national library of Iceland 1979:

The president of Iceland, dr. Kristjan Eldjarn, said, when he was curator at The National Museum that the collection of paintings by the archaeologist and aesthetician William Gershom Collingwood, that Watson gave to the museum, was so valuable that it´s value could never really be estimated.

It was the granddaughter of Collingwood that made an effort along with Watson in finding her grandfather’s paintings from Iceland.

Apparently that was not straightforward, as the paintings had been forgotten in dusty storage rooms for decades, it seems. Watson had 134 paintings transferred to carton-paper, signed and framed in the most elegant manner. He then lent the paintings to The National Museum to begin with for exhibiting, but in the end he gave 123 of the paintings to the Museum right away and finally bequeathed the last 11 paintings to the Museum at his death.  In addition he gave 28 unframed drawings and sketches by Collingwood to the Museum.

Watson gave a valuable library (1310 works) to the Icelandic National Library, including a complete edition of the works of William Morris, 24 volumes which were published during 1910 – 1915. This library is extraordinary, but Watson had for a long time collected books on Iceland. He had advertised all over the world for rare books and tried his uttermost.

The true generosity of Watson towards Icelanders was especially noticeable when he first came to Glaumbaer in Skagafjordur. He became really interested in restoring the elegant turf-houses in the original form, and he presented a sizeable amount of funds to make this possible.

In December 1938 Mark Watson was made an honorary member of The Icelandic Archeological Society (Hið íslenzka fornleifafelag).

Mark Watson was honoured by the Icelandic president with the medal Stórriddarakross with a star in April 1965.


The Icelandic sheepdogs:

Mark Watson was a great dog person. He was one of the first people to realize that the stock of Icelandic sheepdogs was on the verge of extinction. He decided to do everything he possibly could to save the breed. He bought and collected and brought together dogs that were found and had in common the typical Icelandic sheepdog look. The dogs were then sent to California, where Mark Watson lived for a few years.

Mark Watson lived in the US from 1946 – 1958. He traded in antique furniture in New York, and then managed the farm Wensum kennel in California. Mark Watson also purchased horses in Iceland and imported them to the US.

In the history book Oldin okkar from the year 1955 this export from Iceland is mentioned:

Two dogs of the Icelandic breed were exported to California. These were Brana from Jokuldalur and Bosi from Skagafjordur.

In Oldin okkar from the year 1956, the search for Icelandic sheepdogs is mentioned:

Today, two foreign guests and an Icelandic guide start their search for sheepdogs with the old and classic Icelandic characteristics.

Mark Watson decided to send a letter to a few district administrative officers in order to get help to search for dogs. In one of the Reykjavik newspapers the following is stated:

A British citizen, who lives in the US, tries to breed the Icelandic sheepdog stock.

Few days ago district administrative officers in most districts in the North- and Eastern part of Iceland received a mysterious letter. The letter contained two nice colour photos of chubby and happy looking dogs, with erect ears and spiral tail. The letter also contained a sketch. The sketch showed Icelandic dogs from an old textbook, no longer available.

The export of the Icelandic sheepdogs drew much attention, but no effort on behalf of Icelanders themselves can be seen during these years in order to save the breed. During the years 1956 – 1960 many and detailed articles were published on the export in the following newspapers:

1956 Dagur: Will the last remnants of an old breed be exported to the US?

1957 Visir: Icelandic sheepdogs being bred on the coast of the Pacific

1958 Visir: The latest „colony „of Icelanders in the US

1958 Morgunbladid: THE LATEST „Icelandic settlement „in the US

1958 Islendingur: The Icelandic dogs

1958 Dyraverndarinn: The Icelandic dog

1958 Dyraverndarinn: Friend of Icelandic dogs both in the US and in Iceland

In 1957 Mark Watson published a book on the Icelandic sheepdog:

Helgi Valtysson writes about the book in Visir and says it is magnificent and quite a novelty. The book is called: The Icelandic dog 874 – 1956 and in the book Watson lists all the data he had assembled on the Icelandic sheepdog. Watson himself financed the publication of the book but the profits from the sale he gave to The animal protection society in Reykjavik.

In the magazine Dyraverndarinn 1958 Mark Watson is cited:

Would it not be wise and appropriate, that Icelandic breeders would start to breed the remnants of the Icelandic sheepdog breed? What about the Icelandic Agricultural Society (Bunadarfelag Islands)? The Society has increasingly promoted the preservation of various arci facts and remnants on the agricultural- and living practices in Iceland. This is a good thing. But is it then not normal and self-evident that The Society should also preserve living remnants. It cannot be excluded either, that this could be directly beneficial to Icelandic farmers.

Pure breed Icelandic sheepdogs have through the ages proved to be extremely wise and good servants, good companions, exceptionally good at tracing and finding its way, good for shepherding, especially when they were properly trained – and some of them have been quite excellent in finding sheep under the snow.

It is clear that there is total chaos in many farming areas nowadays, with regard of selecting dogs for shepherding, and it seems common, that the selection is often not well grounded, and that breeding is not considered.

In 1957 Helgi Valtysson wrote an article about Wensum kennel in the newspaper Dagur:

To the west on the Pacific Coast of the US, a rapidly growing group of happy-looking Icelandic sheepdogs is barking. The leader of the pack is most likely Bosi from Hoskuldsstadir or Vaskur from Thorvaldsstadir. Both are of true blue blood that is dog blood. That also goes for Konni from Lindarbakki.

They are also very promising the siblings Gloi and Gryla, the first true US citizens in this beautiful group, becoming one year old just before Christmas. They both carry the pure look of their parents, Bosi and Brana from Hvanna. They would probably have agreed with this barking in their native tongue. Because English is not spoken in Jokuldalur .— And not in Hlidin either, barks Auli from Sledbrjótur in Jokulsarhlid.

In Nicasio, California lives a man called Mark Watson. There he now breeds Icelandic dogs in his dog refuge at Wensum kennel. He is very enthusiastic and very knowledgeable concerning everything that has to do with dogs.

Mark Watson travelled in Iceland in summers 1955 and 56, travelled widely and searched for pure bred Icelandic dogs. He then bought a total of 8 dogs, four pairs. He was very careful in his selection and cautious. He found the most numerous pure bred dogs in Breiddalur in the East. There he bought 4 dogs and one at Fossardalur in Berufjordur. Then he bought one in Jokuldalur, 1 in Jokulsarhlid and 1 in Blonduhlid in Skagafjordur.

It also has to be mentioned that later Mark Watson received two dogs from Talknafjordur. He exported a total of ten dogs to California.

Hilmar Foss: After living in the US, Watson settled at a large farm in Southern-England for a few years. He continued breeding dogs there. His Icelandic dogs already awakened interest at the great Crufts show, in 1958.

Breeding in Iceland 1967:

From the book  „Íslenski fjárhundurinn“ by Gisli Palsson:

Pall A. Palsson, Veterinary Director General introduced Sigridur Petursdóttir to Mark Watson. After encouragement from Watson, Sigridur visited England three times. There Watson introduced here to Jean Lanning, dog breeder and judge. He also introduced her to The English Kennel Club. The Club organised an educational schedule for Sigridur, and she was studying fulltime during her stay in England.

Sigridur visited all shows and visited the best and most outstanding dog breeders, each exceptional in their own fields. Sigridur carried out these visits in 1965 – 1967, and in 1967 it can be said that she started breeding seriously here in Iceland.

During her last trip to England, she selected a dog and a bitch that were later paired together. Watson gave her two puppies from this pair, Vaskur and Brana of Wensum. On the condition that the dogs would be quarantined in Iceland Pall A. Palsson allowed the import.

After Sigridur learned to know the The English Kennel Club, she became interested in founding An Icelandic Kennel Club that would put emphasis on the Icelandic sheepdog. As Watson was familiar with all this, and was also familiar with the situation in Iceland, it was decided to found a Kennel Club that would protect and breed the Icelandic sheepdog.

In interviews with Sigridur Petursdóttir at Olafsvellir, it becomes very clear how much Mark Watson assisted her during her first years as a breeder.

The foundation of The Icelandic Kennel Club:

In the newspaper Morgunbladid the following notice can be found (excerpt):

On the 4th of this month around 30 enthusiasts in dog breeding met at the Baendahollin and founded a club called Hundaraektarfelag Islands. (The Icelandic Kennel Club)

The aim of the Club is to be a nationwide organisation concerned with the breeding of the Icelandic dog that is in great danger of extinction because of mixing with other breeds.

At the founding meeting it was agreed to show the friend of Iceland, Mark Watson the honour to make him an honorary member. He has shown initiative in safeguarding the Icelandic sheepdog and also written a book on the subject.

In 1969 dog owners founded two societies. The Dog Friends Club in July and The Icelandic Kennel Club in September. From 1924-1984 there was a dog ban in Reykjavik and other urban areas in Iceland. The goal of The Dog Friends Club was to fight for the rights of dog owners in urban areas and get the ban overturned.

 The first dog show of HRFÍ and Hundavinafelagid:

The first dog show in Iceland was held in 1973 in Eden in Hveragerdi with support from Mark Watson. The judge was British; Mrs. Jean Lanning, but she owned Icelandic sheepdogs from Watson. Watson supported the show, paid the travel costs for the judge, and presented prizes.

The next dog show was held five years later, in autumn 1978, with support from Watson who again paid the travel costs of the judge, Mrs. Jean Lanning.


The animal activist Mark Watson:

This four clubs are mentioned a lot:

SDI: Samband Dyraverndunarfelaga Islands: Federation of associations for the welfare of animals

DR: Dyraverndunarfelag Reykjavikur – The animal protection society in Reykjavik

HRFI: Hundaræktarfelag Islands – The Icelandic Kennel Club

Hundavinafélagið – The Dog Friends Club

 Watson´s Veterinary Hospitalfrom Annual Report of SDI 1973:

At the beginning of year 1973, Watson gave all Icelanders a fully equipped Veterinary Hospital. To begin with he intended that S.D.I. along with Hundavinafelagid and Dyraverndunarfelag Reykjavikur would be the recipients of his gift.

Later he changed his mind, because all these Societies were in a bad financial state. Watson wanted most of all to secure the basis for running the hospital. He tried to get the Icelandic state to accept the present, but was turned down, as is now famously known.

A private foundation was created around the running of the hospital. Six parties owned the hospital and were responsible for running it. Reykjavik city gave land under the hospital, built the foundations and paid and installed all piping and electricity. 

This Veterinary Hospital got the name Dyraspitali Watson

Mark Watson was asked about the Veterinary hospital in Visir that same year:

How did you get the idea to present a Veterinary Hospital to Icelanders? Watson answered:  “I was deeply stirred by knowing of all the animals that my friends owned and could not be helped because there was no Veterinary Hospital in Iceland.” 

„Hundurinn minn“ – My dog – A guide for handling dogs was published 1973:

Mark Watson considered it necessary to educate Icelandic dog-owners how to handle and raise dogs. He also wrote and published the pamphlet “Hundurinn minn” privately.

Halldor Thorsteinsson translated the pamphlet and Barbara Arnason sketched the pictures. The Introduction was written by Jakob Jonasson, a doctor of medicine and then the chairman of Hundavinafelagid:

The number of dogs in Iceland during past centuries testifies to the fact that Icelanders have always cherished their dogs, and valued them as social companions as well as good and useful dogs. During a certain period in History, echinococcosis cast some shadow on Icelander´s attitude to the dog, as it was unworthily blamed for this horrible disease, even though the fault was of course with men themselves. Echinococcosis has long since been eradicated from Iceland and modern veterinary medicine has measures that can prevent its appearance in Iceland again.

The author of this book, the Englishman Mark Watson is one of the most generous, living friends of Iceland, and he has presented to Icelanders more items of cultural value than any other foreign citizen.

Mark Watson has been a strong supporter of Hundavinafelag Islands, and done his share in presenting its cause.

Hundavinafelag Islands thanks this outstanding human being and supporter of the Society for his work for Icelandic dog owners. I am certain that this book will provide many with necessary knowledge, and thus promote the growth of increased “Dog culture” in Iceland.

In annual reports by the animal protection societies in Iceland one can see how generously Watson supported them, both financially and with gifts. Here are the thanks to Watson from these societies.

 The first honorary member of Samband Dyraverndunarfelaga Islands:

In a board meeting that was held Marc 22th, 1973 the board agreed to make Mark Watson an honorary member of S.D.I. for his invaluable work on behalf of animal welfare in Iceland. He is the first and only honorary member of S.D.I.

 The Annual general meeting of Dyraverndunarfelag Reykjavíkur 1973:

The Annual general meeting held in May 1973, sends its most sincere thanks to Mr. Mark Watson for generous gifts, not least for the Veterinary hospital, the first to be built in Iceland. It is good to receive a good gift from a valued guest. And in your gifts and in your other efforts your name will be preserved and be listed among those, who have worked most and most selflessly for the welfare of animals in Iceland.

 From a report of Dyraverndunarfelag Reykjavikur read at the annual general meeting 1974:

We can never fully express our gratitude to Watson, this generous and noble lover of both animals and Iceland. He should be thanked more than has been done up to now. He has presented such valuable gifts to this country, expressed such true friendship in his actions, that it is more our own honour, than his, to make him a honorary citizen.

  In the Annual report of SDÍ 1973 the Day of Animals is mentioned:

 In celebration of The Day of Animals there was a 30 minutes show on the radio. On the show, Hilmar Foss interviewed Mark Watson through the telephone. They discussed the Veterinary hospital.

 During the evening there was a celebration in Reykjavik. Among the acts presented a film was shown that was a gift from Mark Watson. The film showed the various interactions between humans and animals. It described good and bad methods in raising and caring for animals. The President of Iceland and his wife were honorary guests at the celebration.

 Support of animal nursing education:

 In year 1973, Sigfridur Thorisdottir contacted S.D.I and asked for support from the Society to be able to study animal nursing.  The chairman of S.D.I. contacted Mark Watson who showed invaluable support. He helped Sigfridur quickly to commence studies at the known Veterinary hospital of Dr. Singleton in England.

In the magazine Dyraverndarinn 1970: The book „The Icelandic Dog „republished:

The friend of both Iceland and animals, Mark Watson in London, published a few years ago a book on the Icelandic dog. The book is called: The Iceland Dog 874—1956. A part of the printing was distributed in Iceland, and the author gave all the dividends to Dyraverndunarfelag Reykjavikur.

Now the book has been facsimiled, and the author has rewritten the Foreword. It is the author´s wish that the majority of those, who are interested in the Icelandic sheepdog, will be able to read the book, and again all dividends go to D.R.


Final words:

The Honourable Richard Mark Watson died in March 1979 at his home in Eaton Place, London.

In the final words of Anna S. Snorradottir in the pamphlet „Mark Watson and Glaumbaer“she says: I have never met a man of foreign origin that loved Iceland, both the land and the people as faithfully as he did.

Hilmar Foss writes in the Yearbook of The Icelandic National Library:

Mark Watson was a man of high stature, good looking and very respectable.

All his demeanour expressed his gentlemanliness, courage and energy. He was quick, but cautious in his movements and people felt good in his presence.

He has shown great generosity towards Icelanders, in such a manner, that his presents are completely invaluable. Then we do not count his gifts and support of the various non-profit organisations and individuals here in Iceland, that he wanted to support to be able to carry out useful projects both in arts- and charity.

All his life he was true to himself, he was provident and economical, even though he always lived generously and for most of his life ran two homes, one in the country and another in the city. His spending was mainly through his generosity to others. Sometimes he complained that he was not able to contribute enough or as much as he wished, to charity- and work of humanity or to arts- or cultural affairs.

Iceland, December 2015

Thorhildur Bjartmarz