The Eriskay Pony is the last remnant of Scotland’s native horse. There are fewer than 300 Eriskay Ponies in the world and the Rare Breed Survival Trust lists its status as critically endangered. The breed is defined by the Studbook of Origin of Comann Each nan Eilean, the mother society for the pony.
Definitions & Standards
The purebred Eriskay Pony dates as a defined breed from 1972. All Eriskay Ponies must be traceable to the Foundation Stock, as listed within Volume One (1972-1985) of the Studbook of Origin for the Eriskay Pony, kept by Comann Each nan Eilean.
Since 1986, only purebred stallions have been used for breeding in order to upgrade the breed.
The Eriskay Pony has an excellent temperament, and is strong and sturdy, being ideally suited to the harsh environment of its native heath, the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Their coarse winter coat gives way to a lighter coat during the summer months. The Eriskay is a grey pony although occasionally other colours may be seen. New-born foals can be black, bay or roan in colour but this gradually fades to the grey colouration seen in the adults. They can stand up to 13.2hh.
The British Isles maintain three native pony breeds: Eriskay, Exmoor and Shetland ponies. These are the only breeds identified as uncrossed descendants of the wild British horse.
Eriskay-cross with creels used to carry peat © Dr Kenneth Robertson
History & Development
The Eriskay Pony is Scotland’s native horse and a jewel of Scotland’s natural heritage. Its origins can be traced through written sources, stone carvings and other ancient depictions. The ancestors of the Eriskay Pony are the undomesticated equine which roamed the forests and hills of Scotland before people lived here. The Eriskay pony is the last living reference to the kind of mount which was used by the Picts at the Battle of Nechtansmere (685AD) and the little grey palfrey ridden by King Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314AD).
The native Scottish ponies were incalculably numerous throughout Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the Highlands and Islands where they played an important role in the lives and economy of the people. The Highland Clearances and other factors took their toll on these native ponies. Many were taken from the region and many more were crossbred with larger breeds, giving today’s Highland Pony.
However a few remained in their pure state on the Isle of Eriskay, no stallions of other breeds having been taken there.
That the Eriskay Pony breed survives today, even if critically endangered, is a miracle. To highlight how close the pony came to extinction, the last known pure stallion on Eriskay died in 1971, a year prior to the foundation of Comann Each nan Eilean.
There were several reasons for the breed’s decline. With the increasing abandonment of traditional crofting methods and the coming of mechanisation, fewer households keep them. Then the introduction of the car ferry and eventually the causeway in 2002 further eroded the necessity to keep a pony.
© Dr Kenneth Robertson
Breeding & Stallions
With the establishment of Comann Each nan Eilean, the future for the breed has become brighter. At the time of foundation in 1972, it was believed that no pure Eriskay stallions existed. Therefore, to preserve the breed, Comann Each nan Eilean bought a Highland Pony stallion of the Western Isles type – the closest breed genetically to the Eriskay Pony – with a view to breeding back. Subsequently, a pure but unlicensed Eriskay stallion was discovered in South Uist, and although not allowed back to Eriskay due to legislative licensing, ALSU3 ERIC was brought to the neighbouring Isle of Barra to breed with a number of pure mares. He left three very good colts, one of which, Prince of Caolas, was brought to Eriskay as a stallion to breed with the mares. Since then, Comann Each nan Eilean has used only 100% pure stallions for breeding.
All Eriskay Ponies bred through the auspices of the Society have a pure male bloodline tracing back to Eric and beyond. Now the Society has access to six 100% pure stallions allowing for greater control over the process and has repatriated further purebred ponies to their native heath.
The Society believes that the characteristics of the ponies change when bred in different environments as well as the activities they are suited to, such as conservation grazing and endurance riding, especially as the numbers remain low. To recognise this, the trademark ‘Seòrsa Gàidheal’ is attached to Eriskay Ponies born, bred and brought up in the Western Isles.
Advice on breeding was provided for the Society by the Professor of Genetics at the Polish Institute of Genetic Sciences. The Institute was involved with the revival of the Polish native ponies which had all been expatriated during the Second World War.