To all the Shetlands I’ve ever loved
Falling in love, I am told, often happens unexpectedly.
I’m here to report that I fell in love with the Shetland Islands unexpectedly.
It’s hard to pinpoint what made my head spin, but here are my thoughts:
1. Knowing my mum would be over the moon, I traveled to the Shetland Islands after years of watching the TV show Shetland together.
2. The relief from dry land after the 12-hour ferry ride that made me think I was on a bout of Deadliest Takeonly to learn that the sea was calm.
3. The thrill of knowing I’m in the northernmost part of Scotland, somewhere in the middle of the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean, and feeling like I’m adrift altogether security.
4. The joy of embracing the windswept look and not trying to sort my hair anymore and the joy of ditching, most importantly, eye makeup as most end up in the middle of my cheeks at the end of the day .
5. Reveling in the cool July weather that made me buy a woolen scarf from a cake fridge and the sheer delight of stumbling across a cake fridge*.
6. Complete disbelief that the raw, rugged, arid landscape is so incredibly beautiful and the surprise of seeing an isthmus for the first time and realizing you have a lisp, at least while you say isthmus.
7. Rejoicing in the lack of people despite the tourist season and the cruise ships spoiling an otherwise perfect landscape.
8. Marveling to know that you are standing on the breeding ground of not only the puffin but also the infamous Shetland pony.
It may be all of the above. Whatever the reason, it’s fair to say that I’m in love.
mistaken belief, according to
With any new love there are often mistaken beliefs and what would a message written by me be without one of these?
I felt like there would be ponies everywhere. Hordes of hungry little parasites that would have to be chased away. I also thought I would get tired of seeing Highland cattle, but this whole paragraph is a misplaced illusion.
Highland cattle, and I could be wrong here, seem to be more ornamental than anything and finding a field of them is unlikely, at least to me.
And as for those sneaky ponies, I had a hard time finding a small herd, let alone a swarm. But with a keen eye, a fearless nature and slow, careful driving, I eventually spotted some. Once you are familiar with the silhouette of the pony against the stark background, they become easier to find.
Unfortunately, Shetlands are not wild. They appear as such because they are often seen roaming freely in moorland, on a white sand beach or along an isthmus, but not by me. Local smallholders or what we like to call farmers own the ponies and they are often ‘released’ to graze on common land.
And although I think they roam wild, all the ones I encountered were kept in fields. Gigantic fields, but fields nonetheless. And to prove that these ponies aren’t wild, every time I approached their fence, they’d raise their windswept little faces and stalk towards me with a cute, well-rehearsed nicker.
These guys are old
Ponies are believed to have occupied the Shetland Islands since the Bronze Age, i.e. 3000 to 5000 years ago. The Shetland breed is believed to be a combination of a tundra cob type and southern European mountain ponies that came via the ice fields and/or landmass. It’s a hard visual to conjure up, but that was a long time ago and things were a little different back then.
Later, the Celts brought their own ponies and bred them with those on the island. Due to the remoteness, the importation of horses was minimal and those that came were small due to the difficulties surrounding the 150 mile sea voyage between mainland Scotland and Shetland.
Shetland ponies are not only the smallest breed of ponies in the UK, standing at no more than 42 inches, but they are also among the hardiest. A pride of many native pony breeders in Britain. As with Welsh mountain ponies, natural selection has ensured that Shetland ponies are hardy, intelligent, dependable and excellent foragers in the marshy moors and rocky hills of the island. Natural selection has also resulted in these ponies having extremely thick coats, manes and tails that keep them warm against the changeable and often harsh weather.
Little working ponies
For their size, Shetlands are the strongest of the horse breeds. And I think anyone who has tried to drag a Shetland away from a patch of grass can attest to that. Their low center of gravity allows them to tear us away from us, bipedal beings, with relative ease.
Due to their characteristic hardiness, ponies were used to cultivate fields, haul peat from the moors, and transport their owners to town.
More than that, in the 17th century, hair from Shetland tails was used to create fishing lines, bird snares and bows for musical instruments. These tail hairs proved so beneficial that it was a crime to cut and pick up the tail hairs of the ponies as it left them too exposed to the elements.
Shetlands were also known as ponies as they worked in the coal mines and when the Mines Act 1842 was passed which prohibited women and children from working in the mines the demand for ponies increased dramatically increase. Their small size was ideal for pulling coal carts around the mines and it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of ponies worked in the mines until the 1960s.
Ponies were not always sequestered in the dark depths of the earth, as they were also exported to mainland Scotland and Holland in the 17th century as children’s riding ponies and ladies’ ponies. They were also exported to Orkney, a small farming island 100 miles (depending on who you ask) south of Shetland, where ponies were used as draft horses on farms. However, by the 1800s the demands of Orkney farming became too great for ‘small’ ponies and larger horses, such as Clydesdales, were brought in to work.
The Shetland pony studbook was started in 1890, helping to maintain the purity of the breed. There are over 100,000 ponies worldwide, with 50,000 in the Netherlands and 15,000 in Great Britain, which means there are four times as many Shetland ponies as there are Shetland humans.
Shetland Island has around 1,000 ponies with 170 owners and the island is still the best place to buy a Thoroughbred. While ponies roam freely, and far from me apparently, natural selection still ensures that only the fittest survive and all the qualities that ponies are known for remain forever.
So to the Shetland ponies of the world who have outwitted us all, knocked us down, bitten our hands while we fed you and still retain the ability to make us laugh with your fluffy ears, may you live another 3000- 5000 years.
PS Shetland, I love you. Till we Meet Again.
* There are 12 cake fridges, patiently sitting by the roadside for a greedy Gubbins to come and buy a homemade cake, ice cream or other sugar-based treat, and sometimes a woolen scarf. They are also called Honesty Fridges because they are unattended and the baker has to be sure people will pay.