Loading up coal, Na Hann © Dr Kenneth Robertson
“Without the people of Eriskay there would be no pony, but without the pony there would have been no people on Eriskay” - Father Calum MacLellan (1926-2012).
The Isle of Eriskay, or Èirisgeidh in Scottish Gaelic, lies to the south of Uist in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. It is a rocky outcrop, barren of trees, sufficiently furnished with machair grazing and surrounded by coral sands on its western shore. On its eastern flank, the steep and broken slopes descend to seaweed-strewn rocks and the abundant fishing grounds beyond.
The island residents, totalling around 140, are to a large degree engaged in fishing or crofting. Islanders are predominantly Catholic and a majority speak the Gaelic language.
The Eriskay pony has lived on the island for a great many human generations. The island’s ecology, geography and climate embody the pony’s native heath and play a vital role in the conservation of the rare breed.
Duncan MacDonald weaving a plàd © Werner Kissling
The people of Eriskay were solely responsible for the conservation of the breed until 1972, when Comann Each nan Eilean was established. Ponies were of great utility to the islanders, and it was agreed that a society should be founded to save the breed from extinction.
With grassland on the island limited, the ponies are put to graze on the hills in the summer. During wintertime they are brought back down to the village, where they graze among the houses. When grazing is particularly poor, the ponies are fed by the islanders who own them.
When the ponies were loose on the township or common grazing, the owners would collect their pony from the herd when needed and tether them on their crofts so that they were kept handy. They were used for heavy croft work carrying loads of seaweed, peat and coal. The coal puffer ships would arrive once or twice per year to the island, and the ponies would carry loads to locations inaccessible by lorries or other vehicles. Two creels of willow would be strapped to the pony's back using a srathair, a creel saddle, which would be stabilised to the pony's tail using a bodrachan, a crupper. The pony's back would be protected with a plàd, a heavy mat woven from hessian, which would sit under the sìoman-ruadh, or rope-girth. They could also be used for light draught work.
Once the crops were harvested, the ponies were used here to carry hay from the fields to the iodhlann, or stack yard, where they were stored in haystacks for winter feed for the croft animal. They would also carry the harvested potatoes back to the croft houses for storage.
They would remain working on the croft for days/weeks at a time until they were no longer needed, when they would be let go to roam with the herd again.
Duncan MacInnes feeding his ponies. The islanders regularly feed the Eriskay Ponies with their vegetable peelings in the winter when they wander by their houses
The Eriskay Ponies are no longer used much for croft work, as many of their duties have been taken over by machinery.
They are still bound by crofting regulations which means they still go into the hill for the summer and back on the township for the winter. They graze and roam around the island to whichever part is most comfortable depending on the climate.
Eriskay is an "open township", meaning that from the 1st of May all croft animals (sheep, cows and ponies) are either kept on the common grazing (on Beinn Sgrithean or Beinn an Stac) or kept on the crofters own croft until they are turned loose on the open township in late autumn. The ponies spend their time from the autumn until spring grazing around the houses and among the people.
The ponies do however belong to a number of islanders and aren't left to run wild as a lot of people visiting presume. They are given extra feed by the local owners over the winter months and some are kept either tethered or within electric fencing during the summer so that the ponies are accustomed to being handled.
Although the ponies have a laid-back temperament and are accustomed to humans, they should be approached with care.