ANYONE who has been fortunate enough to go deerstalking on one of the traditional Scottish estates that still use Highland ponies to take stags off the hill will have witnessed centuries-old sporting scenes worthy of even the most romantic Edwin Landseer painting.
And although numbers have declined since the turn of the last century, when many landowners had at least 20 working ponies and nearly as many gillies and pony men, it’s still possible to stalk a stag – and take it home on another noble beast – on several estates, such as Balmoral, Blair Atholl and Invercauld.
“Going out stalking on the hill in Scotland is not just about the stag,” says Mark Nicolson, chairman of the British Deer Society. “It’s the entire day: talking to the gillie and the stalker on the way out, finding the stag, stalking it, shooting it, gralloching it and then taking the beast off the hill on a Highland pony.”
One of three native breeds of the Highlands and islands, the Highland pony was originally bred to be strong and hardy enough not only to carry 17-stone stags, but to haul timber and provisions, too. “The estate road to Kingussie, near Gaick, where my great-grandfather Edward Ormiston worked as a pony gillie in the late 1800s, was 15 miles of very bad track climbing some 1,000ft, with every pony expected to pull at least half a ton of coal,” says Ruaridh Ormiston, whose family has been at the forefront of Highland-pony breeding since the 1860s. “You need a substantial horse to do that job,” he adds.
However, the Highland pony has always been more than just a beast of burden. Queen Victoria wrote about the breed in Life in the Highlands, in which she describes a ride from Blair Castle, up into the hills with Prince Albert and the Duke of Atholl.
The monarch purchased a Highland estate at Balmoral in Aberdeenshire in 1852, where she established a herd of Highland ponies. It’s a tradition that HM Queen Elizabeth II, patron of the Highland Pony Society, maintains at the Royal Deeside estate to this day, where she runs one of the country’s largest Highland pony studs. The estate has almost 50 ponies, which regularly work on the hill carrying grouse, deer, people and lunch. They also bring in an income from trekking and driving.
Atholl estate in Perthshire is another that maintains a tradition of working Highland ponies on the hill. “Highland ponies have been working here since the 1860s and we can trace their blood-lines back to then,” says Debbie McLauchlan, senior pony gillie, who’s responsible for the estate’s 24 ponies.
“Although we use them at the trekking centre, carrying deer is their main job. But when we’re grouse-shooting, they carry the guns’ gear and cartridges on to the hill, and bring back the game in their wicker panniers,” she adds, stressing that ponies are often better than machines. “They are very sure-footed, very stocky and very strong. We’ve got places here that vehicles can’t reach but the ponies can.”
Sandy Reid, Atholl’s former headkeeper and stalker, who started on the Forest Lodge beat as a pony boy more than 50 years ago, agrees. “It’s a grand sight to see the ponies loaded – so much better than seeing a stag lying in the back of an Argocat,” he says.
Peter Fraser, a gamekeeper at Invercauld in Aberdeenshire, has been involved in the breeding of the estate’s equine team, currently half-a-dozen strong, for the past 42 years. He’s another advocate of pony power. “I’d rather have a horse any day. A machine might be quicker in getting you back home, but you can’t take it right up on to the hill because of the noise. Our guests like the ponies better than anything – you can’t beat the pony.”
Of course, breeding and bringing on ponies requires a lot more effort than turning a key in the ignition. “Their training is quite a long pro-cess,” says McLauchlan. “But they have a very quiet temperament and are virtually bombproof.” To begin with, many gillies are happy to let nature take its course.
“A foal tends to follow its mother out on to the hill when she’s working. It’s vital that, from an early age, they get to know the feel of the terrain and the ground underneath their feet, as well as the smell of the deer and the blood,” explains McLauchlan. “We hang deerskins next to water troughs to introduce them to the smell of the deer, so that they’re not scared. We also encourage them to eat their food off skins that we lay on the ground. When the youngsters are three years old, we try a deer saddle on them, then progress to loading it with a calf or a small hind, working up to a stag when they’ve got more experience.”
Fraser employs similar techniques at Invercauld. “Getting the trust of the pony is the main thing,” he says. “They’ll either carry [a stag], or they won’t – you can’t force them. We place a sack of sand on the saddle first, to get them used to the weight before trying a hind. “You have to be careful, though,” he cautions. “Some go berserk when they’re carrying a stag for the first time, and there’s a chance that one of the antlers might pierce the stomach or the rump.”
Being able to load deer safely on to the ponies is vital. “We use special deer saddles, some of which are more than a hundred years old. It’s very important that the weight of the deer – whether stag or a hind – is distributed evenly over the pony’s back, so that it doesn’t cause any pressure points,” says McLauchlan.
The skill of loading the stag on to the pony is envied by seasoned stalker, Mark Nicolson. “I’ve always had an admiration for whoever designed the deer saddle, in all its complex-ities,” he says. “It amazes me how anyone can remember which strap to put where.”
“A pony gillie has to very quickly get in tune with the ponies he works with,” says Ormiston. “He has to second guess what the pony’s going to do next to avoid accidents; if they bolt, they can easily fall over the edge of ravines and down hills.” Indeed, Reid can recall incidents when ponies got the better of inexperienced handlers. “Oh, aye – the ponies did use to escape sometimes; they were fly,” he says. “Some pony boys who came to us from the town had never even seen a pony before. They’d forget to tie them to a stone or a piece of heather, the next thing you know the pony’s off and heading for home and the boy’s had to walk six miles before he gets to a gate to find the pony waiting there for him – they’re very quick.” Fraser remembers one boy making a two-hour trek to the top of the hill, only to discover that his charge was no longer attached to the lead rope he’d slung over his shoulder.
There is concern regarding where the next generation of pony gillies will come from and how they will learn the skill. “There’s a real lack of training in the art of being a pony gillie,” says Ormiston. Ken Griffin, a stalker on Applecross for nearly 30 years, agrees: “It’s becoming difficult to find a hill-wise gillie that can work with a pony. The worry is, do you trust a pony to someone who will do the job only on sufferance to earn a seasonal wage?”
Over the years, many have relied on the ponies to guide them home.”Sometimes, I think they know the routes better than we do,” says Fraser. This is a sentiment shared by Reid. “I had a superb pony called Jill, who definitely knew her way home,” he says. “One wild night, one of the pony boys was coming back off the hill with a new stalker and a loaded pony, when he got knocked over in a swollen burn and hit his head on a stone. It was such a horrible night that when they got him out of the water, he was suffering from hypothermia. But although the stalker didn’t know where he was, that pony took him – some four miles – back to the shed, no bother.”
Apart from intelligence and dependability, many stalkers point to the ponies’ cheekiness as being a highlight of a stalking or shooting day. “There have been numerous incidents when, given half the chance, ponies have bitten bottoms and trodden on toes, which always causes an enormous amount of hilarity,” says Nicolson. Griffin fondly remembers one grey that regularly tried to rid himself of the stag on his back. “He used to attempt to dislodge it by barging against the stay-wires of hydro poles beside an old path on the way off the hill. When this failed, he’d slip up behind the gillie who was leading him and forcibly shoulder him down the next steep bank.”
Working with Highland ponies means everything to McLauchlan, whose father and grandfather were keepers at Blair Atholl. “It makes me very proud and emotional when I see them bringing a stag back,” she admits. “If I didn’t work with Highlands, I would not work with any other breed. Once they’re in your blood, they’re there forever.”
Reid agrees: “It would be a shame if they ever stopped using ponies on the hill – it would be a poor place without them.”