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Darwin Correspondence Project

From George Cupples   3 February 1874

Feby. 3/74

My Dear Mr Darwin,

In great haste—as I was from home when your letter came. I hope my statement of the queries is correct, and the answers of some use. I shall be but too glad to get any further facts, on any point of any kind.1

My health is tolerably good at present.

How delighted I am to find that your health appears to be so.

I should like to have heard how Bran got on—or gets on.2 I have often wished to have some account of him. If Mrs Darwin could find time to send a few lines about him, we should be much pleased.

I have been succeeding greatly with my strain of Deerhounds.

Yours ever | George Cupples

P.S. Very sorry to see Lord Colonsay’s death yesterday.3

Deerhounds Feby. 3d. 1874

Query 1 “If one bitch produced 4 females and 2 males in a litter of puppies, and another bitch produced 4 males and 2 females (say,)—as a general sort of rule or practice would more of the females be destroyed than of the males?”4

Answer. Most undoubtedly. And that more or less by all breeders of Deerhounds, I should say, under all circumstances and (more or less) throughout the whole period during which the “breed” has been formed and kept up.5 (Considering the specific use of the breed, the characteristic difference of size in the sexes comparatively, and the long period of the breed’s existence—coextensive, we may suppose, with the express use of Deer as a source of sustenance or of sport,—in this view I infer that the statement may have its value.)

Query 2? “How many on an average do you suppose would be saved of each sex in the two above hypothetical litters?”

Answer. In the case where females preponderated, either 1 or 2 females would on an average be preserved—and that probably only for a time. In the case where the males preponderated, no females would on an average be preserved. With careful breeders (which means all breeders of Deerhounds) the aim is generally to keep on the dam not more than 3 or 4 suckling puppies.

Note (supplementary.)

1. I cannot do better than quote two passages from letters lying beside me just now—penes me6—of the MacNeils of Colonsay,7 in reference to their well-known restoration of the breed about half-a-century ago. The first letter is from the late Lord Colonsay to Captain Horatio Ross, written for my behoof; in which he says: “We bred largely, and reared many to a certain age, but preserved to maturity only the very best; our object being the revival of genuine deer-coursing, then almost obsolete. That sport required that the dogs should possess, in a high degree, speed, endurance, courage, strength, and weight.” To which I may add, the peculiar instinct of “striking their quarry from behind the shoulder.”— “We were very successful, though at considerable cost.+ + + I may mention that in my ardent sporting days we got some dogs from Russia, and from Greece, of breeds celebrated in those countries, but we did not find them equal to the Highland deerhound for our work, and did not breed from them.” (These were of course also Greyhounds proper (Deerhounds.)

The second letter is from the brother of Lord Colonsay, Archibald MacNeil, Esqr., author of the monograph in Scrope’s book—8 He writes to me, June 1868—“A fortnight old was the age at which I was in the habit of making my selection, and in doing so I was guided by form and size.+ + I used at this age to reduce my puppies to three.” In another letter, May 1868—“Unless to try their speed and courage, Bitches are seldom slipped at deer; for they have not the weight and strength to bring down a fullgrown stag.” “To reduce their number (of the puppies) greatly increases the size.” “It never attains a great size if a number are reared together.”

So much to throw light on the point as to whether I am rightly answering the queries, in regard to modern breeders. Further, with a view to the consideration in how far the same principle is likely to have influenced ancient breeders (far back into the period which even Mr A. Wallace—see “Nature” recently—would probably give at a “moderate computation” as at least some “500,000 years”)9

It is to be kept in mind that the Celtic races—with their distinctive clanships and jealousies among themselves—seem to have been historically the special breeders, at any rate the preservers, of the Deerhound. Even a prehistoric significance may possibly be extracted from such old Irish legends as the following— The poet Ossian is in one of these legends represented as lingering, the last survivor of the heathen Fingalians, till Christianity had been introduced—and at that period is said to have noticed, among other things, a litter of Greyhound (Deerhound) puppies in a cavern; whereupon, partly perhaps to test their degeneracy, partly from old habit, he dashed them successively against the rock to try which should be found the hardiest and best worth preserving.”10 This, in order to show that a stringent system of selection appears to have prevailed very far back in regard to the dogs you mention, and thus may have had much to do in producing their unique character—a uniqueness, which, I may add, comes out more and more to the breeder the longer he tries to bring them to the perfection of the old standard.

Noah, I should say, must have been a deerhound breeder—or at all events have valued the race highly. E.g. take the evident fact of his having secured at least a pair on board the Ark.

Pray excuse the appearance of trifling, which, believe me, is the very opposite of my intention.


CD annotations

14.6 for they … together.” 14.8] scored blue crayon


CD’s letter to Cupples has not been found.
Cupples had given CD a deer-hound puppy called Bran in 1870 (see Correspondence vol. 18, letter from George Cupples, 14 November 1870).
Duncan McNeill died on 31 January 1874 (Pall Mall Gazette, 2 February 1874, p. 6).
See also letters to William Waring, 6 January 1874 and 12 January [1874].
CD cited Cupples for this information in Descent 2d ed., p. 258 n. 99. He was interested in whether female infanticide would tend to make a ‘male-producing race’.
Penes me: belonging to me (Latin).
Duncan and Archibald McNeill.
Archibald McNeill contributed the discussion of deer-hounds in William Scrope’s Art of deer stalking (W. Scrope 1838, pp. 333–45).
In his review of the fourth edition of Charles Lyell’s Antiquity of man in Nature, 2 October 1873 (Wallace 1873), Alfred Russel Wallace criticised the custom of taking the most conservative estimate of the antiquity of human remains or artefacts; he estimated that 500,000 years had passed since flints worked by humans were buried in the lowest deposits of Kent’s Cavern at Torquay.
Cupples also told this story in the enclosure to his letter to CD of 11 March 1869 (Correspondence vol. 17). Ossian or Osín was a warrior and poet, the narrator of the ‘Fenian cycle’ of Irish mythology (Briggs [1976], MacKillop 1998).


Briggs, Katherine Mary. [1976.] A dictionary of fairies: hobgoblins, brownies, bogies, and other supernatural creatures. [London]: Allen Lane.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Descent 2d ed.: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. London: John Murray. 1874.

MacKillop, James. 1998. Dictionary of Celtic mythology. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Scrope, William. 1838. The art of deer-stalking; illustrated by a narrative of a few days’ sport in the forest of Atholl, with some account of the nature and habits of red deer, and a short description of the Scotch forests; legends; superstitions; stories of poachers and freebooters, &c. &c. London: John Murray.


Responds to CD’s queries about breeders’ practices in destroying and saving males or females in litters of deerhounds.

Letter details

Letter no.
George Cupples
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 90: 85–90
Physical description
1p, encl 5pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9263,” accessed on 23 September 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22