Hebridean Beauty - Eriskay Ponies
Known in Gaelic as ‘Each Beag nan Eilean’ (Small Island Horse), this is the story of a survivor, and how the Eriskay Pony became a unique living legacy to Scotland’s native horse.
When I finally got to see the ponies on Eriskay again, 7 years since I’d last been to the Outer Hebrides, it was like seeing old friends: I had missed them greatly and it felt so good to be in their company once again. At once charming and enchanting, this beautiful Celtic creature is captivating to behold, and once you get to know it, can never be forgotten.
On my last visit the Eriskay herd were up on the hill where they spend their days during the warmer months, but as this was March the ponies were among the township and loitering around the village shop like bored teenagers. During the winter months, when natural grazing is less plentiful, they are fed daily, which helps them get through the leaner months of the year before common grazing on Beinn Sgrithean or Beinn an Stac begins again in May.
A big part of the success of its survival as a pure breed can be attributed to the Isle of Eriskay’s relatively remote location.
At the southern end of a Scottish island chain also known as the Western Isles, the Isle of Eriskay has only been linked by a causeway to South Uist since 2002.
Out in the Atlantic Ocean, before the age of cars and ferries, such islands were much more isolated than they are today.
Up until the 1800s ponies classed as ‘Western Isles type’ would have been found throughout the Outer Hebrides. They were often used by island crofters for all kind of tasks such as carrying loads of peat for the fires and seaweed for the crops.
They were also used to work the land harrowing the plots, as well as pulling carts. But increasing mechanisation began to impact the numbers kept for crofting.
At the same time, other Hebridean islands gradually increased the use of larger ponies by adding Arab, Clydesdale and Norwegian Fjord into the breeding mix.
But the islanders on Eriskay had greater logistical challenges accessing such stock, and the increased maintenance costs of of larger animals outweighed many of the advantages brought by the pony’s increased strength and size.
And so, for similar reasons of geography and practicality to the Shetland pony and Icelandic horses, the Eriskay ponies remained pure. However, they were also seriously depleted and by the 1970s numbers had fallen to around 20.
The extinction of this pure breed would have been almost an inevitability were it not for the dedication of a small group of pioneering islanders who were passionate about ensuring the breed survived, using initiatives such as the preservation of the original genetic material and careful breeding programmes, the breed has pulled well away from that dangerous low point to a figure of several hundred today.
But Eriskay ponies still remain under threat and are classified as critically endangered by the Rare Breed Survival Trust.
The Comann Each Nan Eilean – The Eriskay Pony Society, based here in the Outer Hebrides, is dedicated to safeguarding the breed’s long-term future.
At 12-13.2 hands they are a little smaller than the Cumbrian fell ponies I’m so familiar with. But the ponies are just as hardy, and so well adapted to the conditions they have to endure. They might not face the bone-chillingly cold temperatures of the Cumbrian ponies quite as often, but they are hit by ever-increasing wind speeds, often gale-force, combined with lashing rain - lots of it. The Atlantic weather can be brutal, and cycles of persistent low pressure can weary the hardiest of souls.
However, their dense waterproof coats are adapted to this climate and this stoic pony takes such challenging conditions in its stride. I’m in awe of the Eriskay pony for that alone.
As is typical for the breed, the herd I can see today is mainly grey, although a couple of bays are present too. All the foals are dark in colour, bay or black, and only establish their true colour as they reach maturity.
These ponies are incredibly strong, with a stamina to match, which is why they proved such a great asset in helping to work the crofts with the islanders.
Their roots are ancient, Celtic and Norse and they share similarities with other northern breeds such as the Faroe pony and the Icelandic horse.
Although I'm primarily a landscape photographer, I'm drawn to animals, no more so than horses, and regularly photograph the Cumbrian fell ponies. My fell pony photography can be see here.