A history of the highland garron
For several centuries prior to the introduction of mechanised transport, Highland ponies played a crucial role on many Scottish sporting estates, says David S. D. Jones.
Once a familiar sight in every Scottish deer forest, the Highland pony is now only found on a few sporting properties. Commonly known as garrons, these ponies were used to transport grassed stags and hinds from the forest to the game larder at the shooting lodge, to convey rifles to the hill and to remove grouse from the moors.
Traditionally used as an agricultural workhorse on crofts and farms, and for timber extraction – as well as for sporting purposes – the Highland pony is not only one of the oldest native pony breeds in the British Isles, but also one of the largest mountain and moorland breeds in the country. Renowned for its hardiness and stamina, the pony is both intelligent and docile and has proved its worth on the battlefield as and when necessary; being employed by Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Jacobite rising of 1745, and on the battlefields of Europe during the First World War.
Highland ponies or garrons have been used for deer extraction for several centuries. The earliest written accounts of garrons being employed in deer forests date back to the 18th century. However, they were almost certainly being used to transport deer carcases during the late Stuart period when the Scottish monarchs and noblemen held large-scale deer drives using hounds, swords, primitive firearms and other weapons to secure their quarry.
Garrons first became really popular for sporting purposes during the first half of the 19th century, when Scottish lairds began to let out their estates to wealthy Englishmen for deer stalking, grouse shooting and salmon fishing. Tenants started to hire garrons from local crofters and others in order to travel from their shooting quarters to distant beats and to bring back deer and grouse at the end of the day. The crofters themselves doubled as ponymen and ghillies as and when required, and were usually well paid for their services.
However, Highland garrons at this time came in all shapes and sizes and often included Uist and Barra ponies as well as the now extinct Lewis pony – a tiny pony which was particularly useful for extracting deer carcases from restricted locations that were inaccessible to larger breeds. Not unnaturally, experienced stalkers started to select the best garrons for the task and concluded that a pony measuring between 13.2 and 14.2 hands in height, or even up to 15 hands, which was sturdy, sure-footed, sound in wind and limb, with a docile temperament, was the most suitable for transporting deer. Mature garrons of four years of age and upwards were usually chosen for deer forest operations, and might have a working life expectancy of between four and 20 years, or even longer.
The rapid growth in deer forests during the period 1870 to 1900 led to an ever-increasing demand for high quality garrons throughout the Highlands and Islands. Rather than hiring stalking garrons on a seasonal basis from horse and carriage hirers or local crofters, many estate owners chose to purchase their own garrons from the Atholl, Gaick, Glenartney and other old established studs, employing full-time grooms as well as part-time ponymen to look after them. Some even started their own small stud of garrons, built stabling and walled pony enclosures to house them adjacent to their shooting lodge, and constructed a blacksmiths shop for shoeing purposes.
Many of the more prestigious estates with large deer forests employed half a dozen or so local crofters to act as dedicated ponymen or ghillie-ponymen throughout the sporting season each year, providing bothy accommodation and full-board facilities for them during this period. Special deer extraction saddles were invented at this time to enable garrons to transport carcases safely and comfortably over rough terrain. The Glenstrafarrar and the Glendrossan, for example, were restricted to bringing in deer, while the Glenquoich acted both as a riding and a deer saddle.
It became the fashion for wealthy late-Victorian and Edwardian landowners to improve the quality of their garrons through selective breeding and to keep pedigree records for their studs. A number even crossed garrons with Cleveland Bays and thoroughbreds in order to produce hunters and polo ponies for use on English estates.
Following the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, large numbers of garrons were requisitioned by the Army Remount Department for service on the battlefields of Europe. Stalkers and ponymen serving in yeomanry and militia regiments were immediately mobilised and sent overseas to fight for their country – the Lovat Scouts alone supplying around 1,200 territorial soldiers and their garrons for the war effort. The elderly stalkers and forest staff who remained at home were restricted to using aged and ‘pensioned-off’ garrons for deer extraction purposes, or more frequently were obliged to remove deer from the forests manually.
In the aftermath of the war, strong, healthy garrons were once again required on sporting estates for transporting deer and grouse from forest and moor to the game larder. However, a national shortage of horses and ponies in the immediate post-war years meant that in many instances landowners had to augment their garron teams with ex-War Department mules and donkeys, or resort to manual game extraction methods. Some enterprising deer forest owners managed to circumnavigate this problem by importing Norwegian fjord ponies to bring in game from the field, and even mated stallions with Highland mares in order to create a Norwegian Fjord – a garron cross which proved to be quite successful for deer forest use.
Garrons continued to be employed in large numbers on Scottish sporting properties until the 1970s, although some estate owners had started to extract deer from forests using a sledge drawn by a farm tractor as early as the 1950s. Price-wise, in the late ’50s a garron could be purchased for between £50 and £120 depending upon its age and whether or not it had been trained for deer handling. In comparison, the cost of hiring a garron at this time was around £5 per week or £30 for the duration of the stalking season, while a ponyman was paid £1 per day.
From the late ’60s onwards, more and more proprietors started to replace garrons with Haflingers, Gnats, Snow-tracs and other all-terrain vehicles. This not only obviated the need to maintain a team of ponies and hire a staff of ponymen, but enabled forest owners and their guests or clients to kill a greater number of deer per day and to transport the carcases from the hill to the larder speedily and more hygienically. Indeed, as one enthusiastic landowner commented in 1968: “If only more people would switch over to mechanisation, more deer – particularly hinds – could be killed, and the quality of stags, both as regards weight and heads, improved.”
Fortunately, despite the obvious advantages of mechanised deer removal, a number of well-known Scottish estates have continued to use garrons for extracting deer and grouse, including Atholl, Glenartney, Knoydart, Eishken and Balmoral, where a team of around 16 garrons are employed during the sporting season to transport game. The garrons not only attract discerning sportsmen who prefer to stalk and shoot in the time-honoured manner – in a spectacular environment without the intrusion of noisy vehicles and exhaust fumes – but also enable traditional deer handling skills to be passed down through the generations.
The Highland garron is extremely popular today, both as a working hill pony and for pleasure riding, trekking and driving purposes. Since 1923, the breed has been regulated by the Highland Pony Society, an organisation which has ensured the survival of the garron into the 21st century through their diligent efforts to improve and promote the breeding of the ponies, and by maintaining a register of pure-bred stock.