Strung off the western coast of Scotland and regularly lashed by the North Atlantic, the Western Isles can often feel like a severe and lonely place. On the small Hebridean island of Eriskay, I followed a single road through a stark, treeless landscape dominated by the greys and deep greens of its rocky slopes. To the north, a sparse scattering of sturdy houses were braced against the wind while a stretch of white-sand beach brightened the island’s western edge. If Eriskay appeared a rugged place, it was an appearance that seemed to reflect its endurance against hardships wrought by both nature and history.
Eriskay resembles an asterisk at the end of a string of bigger islands: North Uist; Benbecula; and South Uist. Only 2.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, Eriskay is the final link in the chain of causeways that tether the islands together, its connection to South Uist completed just 20 years ago. Long accessible only by sea, road access stabilised its then-drastically declining population – islanders can now work or study off-island while still living on Eriskay – and eased travel for visitors. Yet that long isolation had its benefits. It protected such idiosyncratic attractions as the Eriskay Pony, one of the UK’s oldest and rarest breeds and the last remnant of Scotland’s native horse. As I walked, I spotted a herd grazing high on the hill.
By carrying peat and seaweed on their backs, the small, hardy and docile ponies were once crucial to croft work. Every island family used to have a pony, said Sandra MacInnes, secretary of Comann Each nan Eilean (Eriskay Pony Society). “They wouldn’t have survived without the pony. They wouldn’t have got peat to keep them warm, they wouldn’t have got seaweed to help [fertilise] the crops.”
But by the 1970s, largely due to cross breeding and the rise in use of motor vehicles for transportation and work, they’d come close to extinction. While a number of pure mares survived, there was only one purebred stallion, named Eric, left. Founded in 1972, the society helped bring the breed back from the brink. While still categorised as critically endangered, there are now 300 in the UK, all descended from Eric.