Of Shetland Ponies: A 19thC Visit to Shetland

In 1890 an American Professor took a trip round Orkney and Shetland. His impression of the islands was published in the local paper The Orkney Herald.

The Professor, in Shetland, takes himself to the cliffs.

‘ The “Noup of Noss” is the name given to the seaward side of the rocky islet of Noss, which presents to the ocean only precipitous walls. When you lean over the edge of the cliffs, at their outermost verge, and look down, 500 feet and more, upon the sea, the scene is one hardly surpassed elsewhere, unless it be in the Faroe Islands, or in the group south of Iceland (Westman Islands). The crags far below have been rent into caves and turrets. The tide, dark under the shadow of the cliffs, moves slowly shoreward. …And everywhere are the seabirds. ‘

The stunning high cliffs  from the sea at the Noup of Noss with seabirds swirling around
The 180-metre (600-foot) cliffs at the Noup of Noss are a breeding site for many thousands of seabirds including Gannets and Puffins.

Next the American Professor tells us what he saw on ‘his only clear day’ in Shetland. Standing on a ridge of hills he looked down upon Scalloway

‘ Scalloway lay at my feet, with its dismantled Earl’s palace, and, just beyond, were strewn multitudinous islets and skerries with picturesque waterways between. … After half an hour’s walk, a twin loch stretched beneath me, divided in twain only by a narrow strip of marsh land. From its shores a green fertile valley curved upward, Tingwall, the garden of Shetland. I descended the hill, crossed the marshy strip, and in a quarter of an hour was chatting with the rector of Tingwall.

I cannot take leave of the islands without saying a word about the ponies and the Shetland wool weaving. I was disappointed in regard to the former. I expected to see them everywhere, somewhat as in Iceland; but with the introduction of roads, the native ponies are disappearing, a sturdier breed, the Welsh pony, a cross between the two, or even the horse, taking their place. The peasant still employs them for carting peat and occasionally they may be met with attached to a lady’s phaeton. But manifestly they are ceasing to be regarded in any other light than as articles de vertu , kept only for fancy breeding and export, especially to America. The prices are thus out of all proportion to their intrinsic value. I would most earnestly advise all those who care for ponies to abandon the Shetland breed for the sturdier Icelandic stock. A fine Icelandic pony is equally if not more graceful in form, and has vastly more strength and endurance. Furthermore, he is a natural product of the soil and commands only a legitimate price, while the Shetland pony, as now exported, is the result of only artificial breeding for an infatuated American market, prepared to pay a price utterly disproportionate to his usefulness. ‘

close up photo of a shetland pony
Photo by Harrison Baker on Pexels.com

In his next account our American Professor will turn his attention to the women of Shetland and has more advice for the islanders.

What’s the history of the Shetland pony? from Shetland.org

“For at least 4,000 years, Shetland ponies have roamed the exposed hills and moors of Shetland. This unrestricted lifestyle has led to the evolution of a unique and hardy breed, befitting the environment.

Shetland ponies were used in British coal mines from the 19th century. Hardy, resilient and very strong for their size, the ponies could pass through low underground tunnels hauling truckloads of coal.

At first, ponies were simply rounded up and exported from Shetland but, from around 1880 until the end of the 19th century, there were breeding pony studs in the islands. The best-known of these was operated by the Marquis of Londonderry on the islands of Noss and Bressay, and the story is told in the former stud buildings on Noss.

The export of ponies had greatly reduced the number and quality of stallions in Shetland, threatening future breeding patterns. As a result, the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society was established in 1890 to ensure that purity of the breed was retained.

At home, Shetland ponies were used as workhorses – cultivating the land and transporting peat from hills – an essential addition to crofting families.”

You can find more of the American Professor’s impressions of Orkney and Shetland by using the search button on The Orkney News website.

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