Lorn author travels the Hebrides on horseback

Udal Peninsula, North Uist.

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A Hebridean travelogue on Highland ponies, called Marram, by Glen Lonan author Leonie Charlton, has been chosen as Waterstones’ first Scottish book of the month this April.

From the southern tip of Barra to the ancient stone circle of Callanish, Leonie and her friend Shuna ride off the beaten tracks on their beloved Highland ponies, Ross and Chief.

In deeply poetic prose, she describes not only the beauties of the Hebridean landscape, its spare, penetrating light and its people, but also confronts the ghost of her mother and their fractured relationship.

When Leonie’s pony has a serious accident, she begins to realise that finding peace with her mother is less important than letting go.

Leonie Charlton blends travel and nature writing with intimate memoir in this beautifully written account of grief and acceptance. Here Leonie tells The Oban Times more about her journey:

Leonie in a beehive dwelling, Kinloch Rèasort.

‘Many years ago a friend, Jane Isaacson, who lived at the time on Tiree and ran a riding centre, said she’d love one day to ride her ponies through the Outer Hebrides. Her words planted a seed in my mind and heart, and in 2017 my friend Shuna and I welcomed the chance to head to the islands with our Highland ponies Chief and Ross.

‘The year before we’d taken 10 days to ride from Fort Augustus, through Glen Affric to Shiel Bridge on the west coast, then an epic trip through the Knoydart Peninsula, back out via Loch Arkaig and Glen Finnan, and finishing up on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula – all in glorious sunshine!

‘Our appetites were well and truly whetted and we were all up for more adventures; the Outer Hebrides called. I hadn’t intended to write a book about about the trip to the Hebrides, although my usual pocket notebook and pencil were to hand at all times for memories, and possible poems and articles later on.

‘However, the trip turned into far more of an adventure – both physically and emotionally – than I’d counted on, and the need to write about it became a burning necessity once I was back home in Glen Lonan.

‘The trip through the Outer Hebrides was a very social one, far more sociable than I’d anticipated, and as a result Marram is a book full of people; fellow travellers, hostel caretakers, crofters, people whose families had been in the islands for generations, and others forging their own newer kinds of belonging. There was also a lot of time when we were alone, and could fully appreciate being in the landscape.

Sgarasta, Harris.

‘Ponies have a terrific ability to help ground you if you have – like me – tendencies to be ungrounded. Travelling through machair, moor and townships with the ponies, and meeting people along the way, was an absolute privilege.

”’The land is like poetry: it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.” So wrote the late Barry Lopez in his wonderful book Arctic Dreams. I learnt so much about working as a team during this trip, how four beings can merge into a coherent whole; time travelling slowly lends itself to both a growing self-awareness, and also a fine attunement to your travelling companions.

Shuna at Camp spot, Kinloch Rèasort.

‘We had experiences from the sublimely beautiful, hilariously funny to the profoundly dark, such as nearly losing my pony in peat bogs in a very isolated area where Harris becomes Lewis. It was the dark experiences that I learnt the most about myself; how much grief and fear I was holding in my body, and it was within these dark experiences where I experienced the beauty and power of finding courage through companionship and team-work.’

Day Thirteen: Solas to Berneray

The A865 was quiet, so were we. Every now and again we’d ride past a house and catch a scent of dinner cooking. We passed the loch and its dun where the swan family had crossed earlier, and I imagined the family of eight now bobbing on the sea, the cygnets growing used to the salt, the swash of kelp.
On the B893 to Berneray we got off the ponies. It was good to walk, watching our shadows striding long-legged across peaty pools and hill grass turning rose in the evening light. A redshank pipped at us from a post, his legs skinny carmine. We turned right where the sign said, ‘Sound of Harris Ferry’. We were getting nearer and the ponies sensed it. They stepped out lightly.
It was nearly ten o’clock in the evening and the sun still hovered on the horizon. It gilded everything to our left, the cotton grass, the grazing sheep, the sea, in silver and platinum, while to our right the world was tinted with gold and rose-madder.
We rode across to Berneray, loving that we had the causeway to ourselves. I lifted my face upwards, tasting all that pink light and wishing I wore feathers in my hair.