What does a St Bernard carry round its neck?

St Bernards have never, ever carried brandy barrels.

The dog’s mission is entirely teetotal – apart from anything else giving brandy to someone with hypothermia is a disastrous mistake – but tourists have always loved the idea, so they still pose wearing them.

Before they were trained as mountain rescue dogs, they were used by the monks at the hospice in the Great St Bernard Pass – the Alpine route that links Switzerland to Italy – to carry food, as their large size and docile temperament made them good pack animals.

The brandy barrel was the idea of a young English artist named Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-73), who was much favoured by Queen Victoria. He was a renowned painter of landscapes and animals, best known for his painting The Monarch of the Glen and for sculpting the lions around the base of Nelson’s Column.

In 1831, he painted a scene called Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller featuring two Sr Bernards, one of them carrying a miniature brandy barrel around its neck, which he added ‘for interest’. St Bernards have been saddled with the association ever since. Landseer is also credited with popularising the name St Bernard (rather than Alpine Mastiff) for the breed.

Originally, St Bernards were known as Barry hounds, a corruption of the German Baren, meaning ‘bears’. One of the first lifesavers was known as ‘Barry the Great’, who rescued forty people between 1800 and 1814 but was unfortunately killed by the forty-first, who mistook him for a wolf

Barry was stuffed and now has pride of place in the Natural History Museum in Berne. In his honour, the best male pup from each liner at the St Bernard’s Hospice is named Barry.

Sometimes, the Hospice’s duty to provide food and shelter for all who ask can prove troublesome. One night in 1708, Canon Vincent Camos had to provide food for over 400 travellers. To save manpower, he had a device built like a large hamster-wheel attached to a spit. Inside, a St Bernard trotted along turning the meat skewer.

It’s estimated the dogs have made over 2,500 rescues since 1800, though none at all in the last fifty years. As a result, the monastery has decided to sell them off and replace them. with helicopters.

"The Book of General Ignorance" (John Lloyd and John 
Mitchinson)

One Response

  1. Oh… poor Barry….

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