Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber

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West Highland ponie

Not so long ago ponies were a common sight on Highland stalking estates where they were kept for bringing deer home from the hill.

Usually the deer were carried on specially designed saddles, although in some places they were dragged along on heavy wood and metal sledges. Where the ground was steep and rocky, many a good horse was ruined if the pony man was unable to prevent this awkward contraption from running into the back of their hind legs.

Achnacarry, the home of the Camerons of Lochiel, has a very ancient reputation in connection with hounds, ponies and everything connected with the work of a deer forest. Donald Walter Cameron of Lochiel (1876-1951), replying in 1905 to an inquiry by Thomas Dykes, the well-known pony breeder who lived near Edinburgh, had this to say on the subject.

‘There never has been any special breed of ponies in this quarter, and until the past two years no-one thought of improving them. Since the formation of Lovat’s Scouts [1900] some impetus has been given to raise a class of animal suitable for military as well as sporting purposes, but of course this requires time.

‘The farmers mostly used to breed or buy half ponies, half Clydesdales; so also the crofters, except that those used by the latter were not as a rule so heavy, though some of them did well enough as hill ponies. For myself, I have never been without a really good pony or two bought in the district. I
have two now – one 30 years old, a fast trotter, and the best hill pony I ever rode; the other also smart enough to drive in London, and which we use here in a pony carriage or on the road (riding). You cannot find a better beast in the shooting season to carry panniers, or to carry myself, on steep, rough, or boggy ground.
‘But these kinds of ponies are rare. In old days there was another class about this country, whether bred or bought elsewhere I cannot say. The stamp was small and with light bone – not the best of shoulders, but extraordinary good ribs and back, with very powerful quarters, about 13 hands high. Such a pony I once had, and it lived till close on 30 years. This particular animal was rather a slug and not very good trotting on the road, but wonderfully good with a stag on its back. No weight seemed too heavy, no ground too steep or soft. Another of the same stamp in my younger days was owned by an old Highland drover, who had the farm of Erracht on this estate. This man must have weighed 16 or 17 stones, and he rode the pony all the way to Falkirk and attended every market. His legs seemed to be only a few inches from the ground, so tall was he and so stout his mount.

‘The ponies of the present day, though wanting the character and endurance of those described above, seem to produce a useful class of animal when mated with any kind of well-bred sire, whether Arab, polo pony, roadster or “so-called” Highland. The only cross I dislike extremely is the ordinary English thoroughbred horse, which in my experience produces a weedy brute with long legs and no action, useless on the road and dangerous on the hill. The bad points of each parent seem to be reproduced and none of the good ones.’

There is nothing more perfect at the end of a day’s stalking than following a pony with a stag on its back down a glen into the mouth of the night with the silence broken only by the click of its hooves on the stony path and the roaring of stags from the surrounding hillsides. It beats looking at an animal lying in the back of a noisy, soulless machine any day. Nowhere can this centuries-old scene be best savoured than at Achnacarry.

Here, after an absence of more than 40 years, Alex MacDonald, the sporting tenant, whose family have been stalkers on the estate for over a century, has returned to the old ways by reintroducing hill ponies in the great pine-girt North Forest.

‘They are sure-footed, stocky and very strong. A machine may get you home a bit quicker, but you can’t take it right up on to the hill because of the noise. Our guests like the ponies better than anything. Of course, breeding and bringing on ponies requires a lot more effort than turning a key in the ignition. Their training is quite a long process, but they have a quiet temperament,’ says Alex MacDonald.

‘There is concern regarding where the next generation of ponymen will come from and how they will learn the skill. There’s a real lack of training in the art of working with hill ponies. It’s becoming difficult to find a hill-wise ghillie that can work with a pony. The worry is, do you trust a pony to someone who will do the job only on sufferance to earn a seasonal

Iain Thornber