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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 war-horse, 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 thirty 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 ten 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 ten pounds for every foal which shall be short of the number of thirty 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 paintings 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.