Highland Ponies: the Pantechnicons of the North.

"Barra Pony with Panniers." An image taken from John M. Macdonald's "Highland Ponies" (Eneas Mackay, 1937).

The small Shetland pony, immortalized in cartoons by the likes of Thelwell, seemingly obstinate as it carries (or disposes of) its young, spoilt rider, was one of a breed of horse that formed a crucial part of northern society for centuries. In a country with few, if any, roads, horses were certain to be of immense importance, even after the invention of the car. If those roads, or lack of them, would not permit even carriages, then the beast itself was of even greater importance. But whilst one might expect a whole range of horses to be found in such a place, one would lookin vain for magnificent beasts like the Cleveland Bay or the English Thoroughbred. Quite simply, the terrain of the far north-west could not sustain anything other than the Highland Pony.

Charles Cordiner, travelling in the far north in 1776, explained the problem. Having travelled up the east coast, and "formed the resolution of going round to Ross-shire, through the most mountainous parts of Sutherland", he found that he was:

"under the necessity of returning the horses by the east coast....Large horses cannot take that route, not only on account of the exceeding roughness of the rocky heaths; the difficulty of the paths among hills, where climbing is often necessary, and the dangerous nature of the swamps and morassy grounds: but {also], as it is not practicable to carry corn and hay into the wilds, the finding of good grass being extremely precarious, and proveneder of any kind very difficult to be obtained. All they who wish to penetrate into the more remote and desert[ed] districts of Strathnaver, must be furnished with the hardy ponies of the country; a breed I believe, originally from the Orcades. These being accustomed to climb among rocks, to jump between hillocks among bogs, to feed on birch leaves, or any green stuff that grows among the hills, [these] are the only proper horses for the journey."

Highland Ponies, after a painting by Rose Bonheur.

Highland Ponies, after a painting by Rose Bonheur.

One of the most important books on the subject of Highland Ponies is by John M. Macdonald, titled Highland Ponies, with Reminiscences of Highland Men (Eneas Mackay, 1937). The detail of his account reveals that there are a number of different strains within the general term 'Highland Pony', a situation that  has been fostered by the islands on the west coast being so isolated, even from each other. On Skye, for example, the ponies remained pure for a much longer period than did those of the surrounding islands simply because the larger farmers there were more concerned with the improvement of their sheep rather than that of their horse stock. One influence on the development of the breed seems to have come from Spain: on Barra, it was decided that Arabian stallions would improve the strain of the ponies found there, and it is thought that such stallions were introduced on the island by the Macneils, who had 'lifted' (i.e. stolen) them from a Spanish ship. Sir Walter Gilbey suggested that the ponies on Rhum were descended from horses which were wrecked on the coast at the time of the Spanish Armada. In contrast the ponies on Mull were said to be "but of a low size, yet very sprightly" (Martin, 1695).

On the mainland, ponies were often required to do even tougher work than those on the islands, and efforts were made to breed a slightly larger beast. Gilbey again remarked that the ponies he found in Sutherlandshire "do wonders: they set out at break of day and never halt until the work of the day is finished, going forty-eight miles." This, then, is the essence of Highland Ponies, their "sturdy constitution, their keen intelligence, and their concentrated vitality, all of which are common to the entire breed" (Macdonald). 

Images of ponies:

Original painting signed 'SW.' and dated Sep. 1854.
A Highland Garron, taken by John Ewan, Braemar.
"Pony Cart and Carrier", from an album, photographer unknown.
"Old Sandy, and the Pony. With a pile of peat, what the Scotch cll their winter flowers. Tongue, Scotlans 1900. Taken and developed by Emily L. Tuckerman."
The Pony as Pantechnicon: a photo by J.D. Rattar of ponies with their loads - here probably peat.

The Shetland Pony is for most people the classic Highland Pony. Photographers delighted in publishing both islanders and their ponies in the late 19th/early 20th centuries:

"Shetland Ponies", a photograph by G.W. Wilson, c1880.
"Natives of Shetland", a postcard sent in 1906.
"Shetlanders", a card sent in 1909.

These are two images on Lewis, the crofters proudly displaying their ponies in front of their cottages:

"Crofter's Cottage, Stornoway." A G.W. Wilson postcard.

"Crofter's Cottage, Isle of Lewis." A Valentine postcard registered in 1925.

Ponies in art:

One of a pair of original ink drawings, from a Scottish Victorian scrap book.
c.1840. Artist unknown.
Original copy of a painting by Edwin Landseer, artist unknown.

The scene depicted in the Landseer painting is frequently repeated in photographs well into the 20th century.

One of a pair of hunting scenes....
.....Photographer unknown
Titled on the back "Fording the Borgie."
From the same set, titled on the back "Tongue, 1928. End of the 12th".
Deer stalking was a huge business, as is shown in this image by Valentine, c.1880. Possibly Glen Tilt.

At the smithy:

An old Valentine postcard.

An old Valentine postcard.

Card sent in 1909, photographer and place unknown.

Card sent in 1909, photographer and place unknown.

On the ferry. Transport over the water was always tricky on the early ferries. I give an account of Dorothy Wordsworth's experiences in my book, The Immeasurable Wilds. Both the design of the ferries, and the treatment of the horses was in general found wanting.

"Shipping Shetland Ponies." Photographer, date and place unknown
A personal photograph, place and date unknown.
A CDV, titled simply in pencil on the back "Highland's Ferry Boat."
Dornie Ferry, Loch Long."
"Shipping Ponies, Fair Isle." A G.W. Wilson photograph

The Horse Fair, where ponies were traded:

"Lochmaddy Market". The Fair on North Uist, a Valentine photo registered in 1911.

...and a more frivolous view of the Horse Fair:

"Sketches at a Scotch Horse Fair." Humour in the Pictorial World magazine, 1875.

More humour with horses:

"Mountaineering: Up and Down Ben Lomond." The Graphic, 1874.
"A Picnic in Scotland." The Graphic, 1885. Miss Grace's pony in the middle vignette "had to be looked after most carefully", while Miss Doleful's (bottom right) "managed to get down by itself"!
An original drawing, illustrating some Scottish tale (possibly Walter Scott?).
"Scotch Harry on his Fast Trotter". Lord Melville is depicted heading back to Scotland on his Highland pony, loaded with English silver.

Humble as the Highland pony is in the catalogue of Horse strains, it still found favour with the aristocracy:

"Colonel Colquhoun, Mrs Colquhoun & Family at Glen Loin, Arroquhar: Loch Long."
A Tuck postcard, sent in 1910
An original painting, "circle of William Evans" in pencil on the back. Signed 'SW. Oct. 1852.'
Royal Princes given a ride at Mar Lodge, Braemar....
Princess Alexandra is holding the reins in this photo, with her children on board.