Hebridean Survivor - Eriskay Ponies
Eriskay Ponies - 'Stallions On South Uist'
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.
All images belong to Shaun Barr Photography and may not be reproduced without permission.
Images (as recently seen on the BBC documentary Scotland's Native Horses) are available as prints and giclée fine art prints and may also be licensed for publication. Please use the Contact Form to get in touch and I'll be glad to help.
Eriskay Pony - 'Hebridean Beauty'
When I finally got to see the ponies on Eriskay again - 7 years since I had last visited the Outer Hebrides - it was like seeing old friends: I'd missed them and it felt so good to be in their company once again. At once charming and enchanting, these beautiful Celtic creatures are captivating to behold, and once you get to know them, can never be forgotten.
Not only is the Eriskay pony the last remnant of Scotland's native horse, it is one of only three surviving native breeds in the entire British Isles, the other two being the Exmoor and Shetland ponies.
On my last visit the Eriskay herd were up on the hill on Beinn Sciathain (Ben Scrien) 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 by dedicated islanders, which helps them get through the leaner months of the year before common grazing on Beinn Sciathain or Beinn an Stac begins again in May.
Eriskay Pony - 'Rare Breed'
The Eriskay pony's roots are ancient, Celtic and Norse, and it shares similarities with other northern breeds such as the Faroe pony and the Icelandic horse.
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 Outer Hebrides or 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, islands like Eriskay were much more isolated than they are today.
Eriskay Ponies - 'Grazing on South Uist'
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.
Eriskay Pony - 'A Mare Looks On'
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.
Eriskay Pony - 'Stallion Portrait'
Back From The Brink
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.
Eriskay Pony - 'Eriskay Jetty'
The Comann Each Nan Eilean – The Eriskay Pony Society, based 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.
Eriskay Pony - Grey Mare
However, their dense waterproof coats see them through the worst of the weather, becoming heavier and more coarse during the winter, lighter in the summer. Eriskays are perfectly adapted to this sometimes testing climate, an adaption honed over thousands of years. This is a stoic pony which takes such challenging conditions in its stride. Countless generations of the breed have learned to survive and prosper on this land - an environment which they are intrinsically connected to and entirely bonded with - and 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.
Eriskay Ponies - 'Silhouettes At Sunset'
Belying there gentle temperament, these ponies are surprisingly strong, with a stamina to match, which is why they proved such a great asset in helping to work the crofts with the islanders.
Eriskay Ponies - 'Eriskay Stallions'
For The Ponies' Sake
If you're visiting the island on your travels through the Outer Hebrides there's a good chance you will see some Eriskay ponies. It's important to remember that these are not domesticated animals and will exhibit typical horse behaviour in the wild. It's important to treat them with respect, and as friendly and they can be, from a safe distance. It's also hugely important that you do not feed these ponies - doing so can put their health at risk.
Although I'm primarily a landscape photographer, I'm drawn to animals, horses in particular, and regularly photograph the Cumbrian fell ponies. My Fell Pony photography can be see here.
Giclée Fine Art Eriskay pony prints from this page, produced on stunning Hahnemüle cotton rag are available to purchase by using the Contact Form.
Eriskay Pony Picture Gallery
Eriskay Pony - 'In Profile'
Eriskay Pony - 'Looking On'
Eriskay Pony - 'Up The Hill'
Eriskay Pony - 'The Pose'
Eriskay Pony - 'Out For A Stroll'
Eriskay Ponies - 'Mother and Foal'
Eriskay Ponies - 'Nearly There'
Eriskay Pony - 'Close Up'
Eriskay Ponies - 'The Youngsters'
Eriskay Pony - 'Black and White Portrait'
Eriskay Ponies - 'On The Road'
Eriskay Ponies - 'Protected'
Eriskay Ponies - 'Islanders'
Eriskay Pony - 'Head Portrait'
Eriskay Pony - 'Day's End'