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.
The formation of the pony society occurred at a time of increasing cultural awareness and confidence in Scotland. The Scottish National Party (SNP) gained its first MP in 1967, and the ponies may have been a beneficiary of the more assured national mood. In his research into the pony society’s formation, Liam Crouse, PhD researcher at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI college, learned that its early membership “included some notable SNP members, as well as some of the Gaelic intelligentsia at a national level”. He said he’s “trying to piece together the impetuses of the instigation of the society in 1972, but I think it is a combination of an increasingly confident Scottish cultural society and the realisation in Eriskay that these ponies were both unique and rare.”
The revival of Eriskay’s ponies is just one part of the island’s reclamation of its history. For years, Eriskay was better known for what had arrived on its shores than for its own rich heritage.
You may also be interested in: • Scotland’s little-known Highlanders • The British island where wallabies rule • The UK island waiting to be discovered
Home to around 130 majority Catholic and Gaelic-speaking residents, Eriskay may be small but it has found itself at the centre of several dramatic events. It was on Eriskay’s stretch of silvery sand, now known as Coilleag a’ Phrionnsa, or “the Prince’s Cockle Strand”, that in 1745 Charles Edward Stuart (better-known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) first set foot in Scotland to launch his doomed Jacobite uprising to retake the British throne. The consequences, following defeat the next year at the Battle of Culloden, were disastrous for the Highlands and Islands. Britain terrorised them through indiscriminate killing; dismantled social structures by breaking up clans; and attempted to erase cultural identity through banning the wearing of tartan and suppressing the use of Gaelic.
The second event that has long defined the island occurred in 1941, when the SS Politician, carrying some 22,000 cases of fine malt whisky in its hold, struck submerged sandbanks off Eriskay. Having first helped to rescue the crew, the islanders soon set about liberating the whisky in the belief that the cargo was theirs under the “rules of salvage”. UK Customs and Excise took a different view. Islanders’ homes were raided and several were tried for illegal salvaging, smuggling and black market selling of goods and sentenced to prison. Despite this dark end to the story, and islanders’ lingering sense of injustice, writer Compton Mackenzie spun the tale into Whisky Galore!, a novel later made into a comedy film.
Today, Eriskay’s lone pub, Am Politician, embraces the history. It’s decorated with photos of the SS Politician and has a handful of salvaged, still unopened whisky bottles tucked behind the bar.
Visiting such celebrated sites as the pub and the prince’s beach is easier now that there’s road access to Eriskay. Travellers can just pop over for a few hours, check them off, then turn back north towards the Outer Hebrides. But in recent years, islanders have been working on ways to entice visitors to stay longer.
I had travelled the old, slow way, coming north by sea from the island of Barra, and chose to stay a while, booking a few nights at the Oir na Mara bed and breakfast. With plenty of time to fill, I set out to walk around the coastline. At several particularly scenic spots I came across laminated pages of poetry tucked into boxes. They seemed to make up a curious scavenger hunt scattered across the island. Titled Maighstir Ailein’s Poetry Trail, each page featured verses in Gaelic and English from Eilein na h-Òige (Isle of Youth) written at the turn of the 20th Century by Father Allan MacDonald, whose careful documentation of the Gaelic oral tradition – the songs, poems and folk tales that made up a vibrant cultural heritage then on the verge of disappearing – helped to rescue it from oblivion.
The poetry trail had been put together by Comann Eachdraidh Eirisgeidh (the Eriskay Historical Society). The society was established in 2010 to collect and preserve materials of historical value to the island, something that hadn’t been done much before. “When you’re growing up in a community, you perhaps don’t give it credit for how distinctive that community is,” said Iain Ruaraidh, the society’s chairperson. Initiatives such as the poetry trail encourage a deeper exploration of Eriskay’s heritage, and the society recently purchased the island’s school, closed since 2013, to turn into a heritage centre where visitors can learn more – it’s currently one of the few islands in the Outer Hebrides that lacks one.
Later, at the B&B, I asked where it might be possible to see the ponies up-close, as I’d been under the impression that they wandered wild across the island. Without hesitation, the owner Iagan drove me to see some of his. I was only half mistaken: the ponies spend the summer grazing on the hill of Beinn Sciathan to allow crops to grow in the settlements, but they spend their winters roaming freely in the township. As I petted the ponies, Iagan told me that he wished more people were interested in them so they could rebound further. Thanks to the pony society, which has stepped up promotion of the breed in recent years, he may soon get his wish.
The historical society plans to promote the breed in the new heritage centre, too. “We’re trying to get people more aware of the Eriskay ponies and get them into breeding them themselves and using them throughout the islands and on the mainland,” said MacInnes. “We’re also going to teach traditional skills like making creels [wicker baskets] and taking the ponies down to the beach for seaweed.”
It’s all part of embracing Eriskay’s heritage and reclaiming what makes this island so unique, and, she said, going “back to the traditional skills to show people how it was”.
Hidden Britain is a BBC Travel series that uncovers the most wonderful and curious of what Britain has to offer, by exploring quirky customs, feasting on unusual foods and unearthing mysteries from the past and present.