Colour­ful hardy High­land ponies

The Oban Times - - HERITAGE - iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com IAIN THORN­BER

Many read­ers will have seen War Horse, a mov­ing 2011 film di­rected and co-pro­duced by Steven Spiel­berg based on Michael Mor­purgo’s 1982 novel of the same name.

Set be­fore and dur­ing the First World War, it tells the story of Joey, a bay thor­ough­bred, who is taken from a young English farm boy called Albert Irvine by the Bri­tish Army. Joey is shipped out to the front to move heavy guns and sup­plies and, de­spite the hor­rors of war, re­turns af­ter many ad­ven­tures to Albert and the farm he was reared on.

Horses of all breeds and sizes have al­tered the course of his­tory, prob­a­bly none more so than the sturdy High­land pony. As fine an ex­am­ple as any was in 1314 at the be­gin­ning of the bat­tle of Ban­nock­burn when Sir Henry de Bo­hun, an English knight, car­ry­ing a long lance and mounted on a heavy ar­moured warhorse, charged at King Robert the Bruce who was on a High­land pony.

As Bo­hun came to­wards him, Bruce at the last sec­ond ma­noeu­vred his nim­ble lit­tle horse to one side and, ris­ing in his stir­rups, brought his axe crash­ing down on Bo­hun’s head, killing him in­stantly. This clash be­tween the two horse­men be­come for­ever linked in Scot­tish his­tory with Bruce, Ban­nock­burn and a heroic vic­tory against the odds.

Al­though High­land ponies were used for help­ing out on crofts, farms and sport­ing es­tates for decades, it was not un­til the for­ma­tion of the Lo­vat Scouts, a mounted reg­i­ment which did so well in the South African wars in the early 1900s, that their fu­ture was as­sured.

Their de­ploy­ment by Lord Lo­vat proved so suc­cess­ful that the Mar­quis of Tullibar­dine, later the 8th Duke of Atholl, was given per­mis­sion by the mil­i­tary high com­mand to raise The Tullibar­dine’s Scot­tish Horse, which, along with Lo­vat’s Scouts, was given a per­ma­nent place in the Army List of mounted vol­un­teer reg­i­ments.

Where did th­ese an­i­mals come from? Twelve small black horses are said to have been in­tro­duced to Scot­land from Flan­ders around the mid 1600s by one of the Dukes of Hamil­ton who sta­bled them at Strathaven cas­tle in La­nark­shire.

No ev­i­dence for this ex­ists but it has been sug­gested that they may have been brought from Flan­ders to Bo’ness on the Hamil­ton’s Lin­lith­gow es­tates. Later two stal­lions of the orig­i­nal black strain were in­tro­duced to Kin­tyre by Sir Charles Mac­Don­ald Lock­hart of Lee on the Clyde to his Largie es­tates but it was not long be­fore the colour was banned by the High­land and Agri­cul­ture So­ci­ety in favour of greys other than for purely farm work.

The horses which went up into the High­lands were mostly greys al­though Burns’s Tam O’Shanter rode a grey, and it was a grey which his Old Farmer saluted on a New Year’s Morn­ing.

Glenorchy was for many years a great cen­tre of High­land pony breed­ing. Writ­ing of the snow­storm of 1554, a lo­cal scribe recorded: ‘There was no thaw till 17th Jan­uary. It was the great­est snow­storm that was seen in the mem­ory of man liv­ing. Many wyld horses and mares, kye, sheep and goats per­ished and died for want of food in the moun­tains and other parts.’ Th­ese lit­tle “wyld horses” were no doubt in­dige­nous.

‘Shortly af­ter, if not be­fore, at­tempts were made to im­prove them when Lord David Murray, pri­vate sec­re­tary to King James I of Eng­land and VI of Scot­land wrote to the laird of Glenorchy, “Hon­ourable Sir, the prince re­ceived a pair of ea­gles very thank­ful­lie and we hade good sport with same and ac­cord­ing to his promiss he hath sent you a horse to be a stal­lion, one of the best in his sta­ble for that pur­pose and comendis him kyn­dlie to you and to say that seven years hence when he comes to Scot­land that he hopes to gett some of his breed”.’

Some of the Glenorchy ponies went out to other parts of the High­lands and Is­lands and be­came the source of many fine folds. Their man­age­ment was tied to a care­ful sys­tem as the fol­low­ing il­lus­trates: ‘John, Earl of Breadal­bane, lets to John M’Nab for five years the graz­ing hills of Ben­techie and El­raig, with the full ac­cus­tomed places where his Lord­ship and his pre­de­ces­sors’ horses were wont to pas­ture in Glenorchy, de­liv­er­ing to him 30 stud mares ei­ther with foal or hav­ing foals at their feet ... John M’Nab is to keep the mares and stal­lion on his own peril, and to be an­swer­able for them in all cases, ex­cept­ing only in the case of day­light depre­da­tions and pub­lic har­ry­ing in a hos­tile man­ner, and to keep the stal­lion from labour.

‘To pay the Earl the sum of 10 pounds Scots for each of the lands yearly in the name of tack [lease] duty, and at the ex­piry of his tack to re-de­liver to the Earl the same num­ber of mares and foals and a stal­lion of equal value with th­ese he re­ceived, or to pay the afore­said prices for the mares and stal­lions which are want­ing.

‘And in a like man­ner 10 pounds for every foal which shall be short of the num­ber of 30 as above men­tioned, de­liv­er­ing also the Earl’s burn­ing-iron, which he re­ceived for mark­ing the horses. Fin­larig, 11 June 1702.’

The Atholl ponies were equally an­cient. In 1540, Henry VIII pre­sented the Scot­tish king with Bar­bary horses and a num­ber of small Spanish ones called ‘jen­nets’ which found their way into Perthshire.

Al­though prob­a­bly weak­ened by other in­tro­duc­tions, the Atholl ponies were used by Land­seer as mod­els for some of his paint-

ings fea­tur­ing Queen Vic­to­ria. Writ­ing on Septem­ber 18, 1842, when at Blair Cas­tle, the guest of the Duke of Atholl, Her Majesty says: ‘We set off on ponies to go up one of the hills, Albert rid­ing the dun pony and I the grey, at­tended only by Sandy M’Ara in his High­land dress. We went out by the back way across the ford, Sandy lead­ing my pony and Albert, fol­low­ing closely, the wa­ter reach­ing above Sandy’s knees.’

Some time be­fore 1833, there was a noted stud of High­land ponies at Cor­riechoille in Lochaber. They were of all colours – browns, bays, greys, duns, yel­low-creams and piebalds.

Wil­liam McKenzie, the ten­ant of Gaick deer for­est, bought some of the best of them.

Al­though Gaick was never a royal for­est it was re­garded as one of the most im­por­tant deer forests in Scot­land. Edward Or­mis­ton, head stalker [or forester, as they used to be called] recorded in 1905, that the most noted mare at Gaick for a long time was ‘Gaick Cal­liag’ and that this grand old type of a Lochaber pony, when 16 years old and car­ry­ing her ninth foal, was sold for £64 and went south to the New For­est. At the same time her own son was sold for £75 to Mr Forsyth of Quin­ish on Mull.

There were other well known High­land studs at Guisachan, Glen­quoich, Mamore, Rum, Cor­rour, Glengarry and Al­dourie. The fold at Guisachan near Beauly, was formed by mares from Mull, Skye and other western is­lands, served by a black stal­lion owned by a Mr Macleod of Coul­more in Skye.

Pho­to­graph: Iain Thorn­ber

High­land ponies at Acha­gavel in the Black Glen, Morvern.

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