Stretched off the west coast of Scotland and regularly whipped by the North Atlantic, the Western Isles can often feel like a harsh and lonely place. On the small island in the Hebrides, Eriskay, I followed a single road through a stark, treeless landscape dominated by the deep grays and greens of its rocky slopes. To the north, a sparse scattering of sturdy houses wedged against the wind while a stretch of white sand beach brightened up the western edge of the island. If Eriskay seemed like a hilly place, it was an appearance that seemed to reflect his endurance against the trials brought on by both nature and history.
Eriskay looks like an asterisk at the end of a larger island chain: North Uist; Benbecula; and South Uist. Only 2.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, Eriskay is the last link in the chain of causeways that connect the islands to each other, its connection to South Uist completed just two years ago. Long accessible only by sea, road access has stabilized its then declining population – islanders can now work or study off the island while living in Eriskay – and has made it easier for visitors to travel. However, this long isolation had its advantages. It protected idiosyncratic attractions such as the Eriskay pony, one of the oldest and rarest breeds in the UK and the last remnant of the native horse of Scotland. As I walked, I saw a herd grazing at the top of the hill.
Carrying peat and seaweed on their backs, sturdy and docile little ponies were once essential to crofts’ work. Every family on the island had 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 had peat to warm up, they wouldn’t have had algae to help them. [fertilise] harvests. “
But by the 1970s, largely due to crossovers and the increased use of motor vehicles for transportation and work, they were on the verge of extinction. While a number of purebred mares survived, only one purebred stallion remained, named Eric. Founded in 1972, the company has helped bring the breed back from the brink. While still listed as Critically Endangered, there are now 300 in the UK, all descendants of Eric.