Threatened breed of Hebridean pony makes comeback

Fiona Misselbrook out in the paddock with three of the threatened breed of Eriskay ponies near Gifford, East Lothian. Picture: Neil Hanna
Fiona Misselbrook out in the paddock with three of the threatened breed of Eriskay ponies near Gifford, East Lothian. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Ancient strain sees numbers soar to 420 from just 20 after horse-lovers gallop to rescue it from brink of extinction

A rare and ancient breed of native Scottish pony that inspired Pictish artworks and helped salvage the cargo of the famous Whisky Galore shipwreck has been rescued from the brink of extinction.

We mustn’t lose the breed. It’s part of Scottish history

The small and hardy Eriskay pony originated in the Hebridean islands and was used by crofters to carry baskets of peat and seaweed harvested from the shores.

It is one of Scotland’s four remaining horse breeds, alongside the Shetland, Clydesdale and Highland. The Galloway was cross-bred out of existence by the 18th century.

Today, Eriskays are Europe’s most threatened horses, with only around 420 worldwide. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust lists it as critically endangered.

But just 40 years ago the picture was much worse. The surviving population of pure-bred ponies had dwindled to just 20 mares and a single stallion –named Eric.

It is all thanks to Eric and the efforts of a few dedicated individuals that the Eriskay pony exists today.

A rescue attempt was launched by a small band of islanders in the 1970s. Through their hard work and the establishment of breeding groups throughout the UK, numbers have steadily been rising.

All of today’s Eriskays are descended from Eric, with three registered bloodlines stemming from his sons.

Nowadays there are two registries for the breed, the locally-based Comann Each nan Eilean (CEnE), formed in 1972, and the Eriskay Pony Society (EPS), set up in 1986.

Island priest Father Calum MacLellan, a founder of CEnE, said at the time: “Without the people of Eriskay there would be no pony, but without the pony there would have been no people on Eriskay.”

Perthshire farmers Mary and Donald McGillivray have been part of the drive to save the breed since they saw Eric at the Royal Highland Show in 1978. A year later they bought Eriskays of their own, sparking a lifelong passion.

McGillivray said it was her husband’s island roots that first drew them to the ponies.

“Donald comes from Islay and used to see similar ponies at markets in Oban, and we thought it would be nice to do something for them. They really get under your skin.

“I think it is really important for Scotland to save the breed, which has a long history and is an important part of Scottish culture.”

Lady Liz Sanderson, Eriskay breeder and president of the EPS, said: “We mustn’t lose the breed. It’s part of Scottish history and they are so versatile.”

Fiona Misselbrook keeps Eriskays in East Lothian. She was inspired to help save the breed by her mother-in-law Anne, now 91, who has bred the ponies for 30-odd years.

EPS chair Ruth McMinn said the remoteness of the islands had been key to keeping the breed pure.

She added: “It would be such a tragedy if this breed was lost as it is a native Scottish pony with a very important cultural heritage.”

The ponies can still be seen on Eriskay and are something of a tourist attraction.

In addition to domesticated ponies, there is a small herd of Eriskay ponies living wild on the Holy Isle.