Queen’s ponies in tribute to top ghillie

Fred Taylor carries a stag away from the shoot with the help of Cassie, one of many hill ponies he trained for stalking. Picture: Contributed
Fred Taylor carries a stag away from the shoot with the help of Cassie, one of many hill ponies he trained for stalking. Picture: Contributed
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A VETERAN gamekeeper who trained ponies to carry stags off the Scottish hills will be commemorated today with a new award that has attracted the attention of the Queen.

Fred Taylor, head gamekeeper at Invermark estate and one of Scotland’s top ghillies, kept Highland hill ponies for deer stalking and had planned to spend his retirement breeding them, but his sudden death last year, not long before he was due to leave his job, meant he wasn’t able to fulfil his ­ambition.

Now, a new pony class at this year’s Scottish Game Fair will award the Fred Taylor Memorial Trophy for working stalking ponies, and it has gained some high profile ­entrants.

Two of the Queen’s working ponies from Balmoral estate have been entered into the concourse d’elegance, a class where the animals are judged on appearance, along with eight other entrants from estates around the country. The Queen is patron of the Highland Pony Society and Balmoral runs one of the country’s biggest Highland pony studs.

James Ramsay, the Earl of Dalhousie, owner of Invermark estate and sponsor of the award, will present the trophy today at the end of the three-day fair at Scone Palace.

The earl said: “It seems very fitting that the Game Fair should propose a Fred Taylor Memorial Trophy, to be awarded for the first time this year for the best turned out working stalking pony and ponyman.

“Fred Taylor worked nearly all his life at Invermark and was head keeper for about 30 years. He was very widely liked and respected by his team, by the many visitors to Invermark and in the wider gamekeeping fraternity.”

Highland ponies were traditionally used to retrieve stalked deer on many Scottish estates and were bred to be strong and hardy enough to carry a 17-stone stag on their backs. They would also haul timber and provisions for a day of stalking on the hill. Although not all estates maintain the practice, a number of them, including Balmoral, have stuck solidly to the tradition. Balmoral estate has almost 50 working ponies which regularly work on the hill carrying grouse, deer, people and lunch. They also bring in an income from trekking and driving.

Atholl estate in Perthshire meanwhile, keeps around 24 working Highland ponies. The estate has kept ponies since the 1860s and the ghillies can trace their bloodlines back to then.

To be in with a chance to win the new award the ponies must be well-groomed, have worked on an estate or deer forest and be wearing appropriate tack for stalking – including a deer saddle or grouse panniers. Handlers should be dressed in their particular estate tweeds.

Richard Cooke, estate factor at Invermark, worked with Taylor for much of his career. He said: “He was a very widely known and respected keeper at the top of his profession, especially for his way with ponies. This is a nice event for the show – there’s nothing better than seeing a properly dressed pony and ponyman.”

Taylor was born in Glenesk and left school as soon as he could to work locally as a grouse beater, ponyman, shepherd and fencer. He started as a beatkeeper and stalker at Invermark estate in 1971, rising to become head gamekeeper 10 years later, staying there for the rest of his career.

With more than four decades of experience in stalking deer, beating grouse and training ponies, Taylor had planned to dedicate his forthcoming ­retirement to breeding the rugged Highland ponies he loved.

In a tribute at Taylor’s funeral, Lord Dalhousie called Taylor a “true man of the hill” and a “dear friend”.

As well as the new Fred Taylor Trophy, the winner will receive a set of prints of the winning pony at work by sporting photographer Glyn Satterley.

Organised by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Association of Deer Management Groups, the Game Fair is this year celebrating its 25th anniversary. Scotland’s largest countryside event outside the Royal Highland Show, it became one of many high-profile gatherings that had to be abandoned last year after car parks became waterlogged after heavy rain.

Visitor numbers are expected to reach almost 40,000 people this year, with nearly 400 stands, helicopter trips and demonstrations of rural pursuits such as clay pigeon shooting, dry-stone walling, fly-casting and falconry across the 100-acre site.

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