The Dutch Connection


The Hardy Pony

The Shetland Pony is an ancient breed.  The storm lashed Shetland Islands have endured long periods of isolation so the native pony’s genes are well and truly fixed. The harsh climate has adapted the pony, over at least the last four millennia, into a hardy animal.  Its special winter coat with a double layer for insulation, as well as long guard hairs to run the water off, keeps the pony’s skin warm and dry.  The profuse mane and tail are no accident either for they provide protection for its vulnerable parts.  Any weakness meant certain death. The Shetland Islands are peppered with ancient ruins and recently several sites have been excavated.  Finds from the Neolithic Era onwards have included pony bones which, the experts say, compare favourably in size to the Shetland pony as we know it.  The pony is now found in many countries throughout the world but , because of lack of written records, it is impossible to find early evidence of export.

Hollanders in Shetland

The fishermen from Holland were acquainted with these ponies.  The 15th Century was a prosperous period for fishing in the Low Countries with an abundance of herring in the South area of the North Sea in summer time and ample supplies of cod and white fish in winter.  The boats fished with drift nets for herring, which were salted and cured on board.  For white fish they used lines.  They fished round the Shetland Islands and often came ashore for trading and much needed leisure.

As early as 1405 the larger Dutch Busses appeared among the smaller ‘yagers’.  By the 16th Century the herring fishing season had been extended to a start date of June  24th, St John’s Day, [ Johnsmas], and so it remained for three hundred years.  When we were children, living in a fishing community, we celebrated Johnsmas with a bonfire and a picnic.    Although they were coming to fish in Shetland waters they were made welcome. The Shetland fishermen at that time were fishing in small vessels so were not in direct competition.  At that time also Shetland had been passed to Scottish rule and the people were far from happy with the new regime.  The temptation to trade with the Hollanders on the quiet was great.  Smuggling became common, especially if paying taxes to the new governors could be avoided.

The Dutch fishing fleet began to arrive in ‘ Buss Haven’ or ‘The Bay’ [ now Lerwick Harbour] two weeks before the herring fishing was due to start. By the 24th of June about 500 Dutch vessels would be in the harbour.  The boats would begin fishing to the North of Shetland, working their way South till they finished the season at Yarmouth, in Norfolk, in September.  The first herring of the season were good quality with developing roes and called ‘madjies’ [still known as such in parts of Shetland].  This treasure was rushed back home to Holland in their fast ‘yagers’.


The trade brought by the Dutch fishing fleet meant that the smattering of houses round Buss Haven was fast developing into the town of Lerwick.  At every opportunity islanders thronged to The Bay to trade their goods.  They brought fresh provisions such as mutton and eggs, knitted stockings, hats and mittens, and in exchange received tobacco, brandy, boots and money.  Money was especially helpful to the small land holders, [crofters], to help pay their rent and buy supplies.  People with ‘vested interests’ were not so happy.  It was a sad day for Shetland when the French burned a large proportion of the Dutch fleet in 1703 as it became one of the main causes of the decline in the Shetland economy in the 1700s and led to much poverty among the crofters.


The crofters mostly kept a few ponies to help with the chores and they also brought these to the outskirts of the town where they offered rides to the fishermen when they came ashore.  This was encouraged by the doctors who accompanied the fleet in the hospital ship.  They recommended this form of exercise to counteract being cooped up in the confines of a fishing boat.  A ‘stiver’ per mile was the going rate but if various descriptions of the performances are to be believed we are tempted to think that the entertainment value was enjoyed as much as the riding.  The Hollanders’ acquaintance with the Shetland pony goes back a long way and it is very possible that one of the earliest pony exports was to Holland in the hold of a fishing boat.

The Versatile Pony

Before roads were made in Shetland in the 1800’s ponies were widely used for carrying people.  Although they were small they were strong and sure footed.  They were also tractable and intelligent, capable of finding their way in fog.  Visitors who came to the Islands were pleasantly surprised by their little mounts.The main chore of the year for crofters was carrying home the dried peat from the hills.  This was done ‘pannier’ style and continued well into the 1900s.  In Njal’s Saga it is stated that  ‘In Iceland in the year 1012 on returning home from the Althing, [their Parliament], a group of men riding East to Myrdale met a man leading a horse carrying peat panniers’.  We are not sure where the practice started, but possibly in Norway.Sometimes small carts were used for peat, farmyard manure or rotted seaweed which was preferred for the potato field.  The ponies were often used for pulling harrows or at harvest time for bringing in the crops.Longer ago horse hair was much in demand for fishing lines and ropes, but the cutting had to be done carefully so as not to rob the pony of its natural protection.

Sudden Demand

Because the pony was so versatile and easy to keep there was a large number of them in Shetland.  Numbers up to 10,000 are mentioned.  Some were exported yearly to Orkney, Scotland and further afield at quite low prices.  However in 1842 Parliament passed the Mines Act which changed all that.  The act forbade women and children to work down the coal mines.  There was an immediate demand for small ponies to replace them. Shetland ponies, being small and strong, were the answer, so the flood gates opened.  Rules had been made that male ponies only could be used to prevent fighting.  Also they had to be between four and twelve years of age.  Year after year dealers came to Shetland to buy what ponies they could.  Prices increased, and that must have been very tempting for the poor crofters.  As dealer after dealer took their pick of the best it created a serious shortage of potential quality stallions.

A Great Experiment

Among those who were looking for strong pit ponies was a mine owner from County Durham, the Marquis of Londonderry.  He took a different tack.  He came to Shetland, rented a farm on Bressay,[ the island that forms Lerwick Harbour] and the Island of Noss.  He bought some choice mares and two hundred male ponies from which he selected six for stallions.  With the expertise of Robert Brydon , a veterinary surgeon, and John Meiklejohn, an expert stockman, Londonderry set about a rigorous breeding program. He had the motive, the money and the know-how, and the results were spectacular.  As well as a careful choice of ponies he was in a position to feed and care for his ponies properly.  From 1873 to 1899 his efforts were richly rewarded and following his dispersal sale, held down at Seaham Harbour, 15 stallions, 70 mares, 30 fillies and 43 foals spread through Britain to improve studs and be the foundation of some famous studs.                                                               

Shetland’s Dilemma

Further pressure on the Island ponies came from an increasing American demand.  It is estimated that Shetland’s pony population had been reduced by half, and it was probably the better half.  At the end of the 1890s a basic Stallion Scheme was started by the Board of Agriculture for Scotland  to try and ease the situation.  It was reasonably successful, starting with nine stallions and increasing to twenty two by 1914, serving six hundred mares. The First World War had a huge impact on the world and the pony world did not escape.  No more ponies were crossing the Atlantic and the home market almost dried up as shows ceased and leisure pursuits were forgotten.  The mines could now buy their ponies near at hand from all the new studs that had sprung up, without the extra freight from the Isles.   Ponies from the Islands were un-sellable.  Studs went out of business.

The premium stallion scheme

The Department of Agriculture resumed sending stallions to Shetland in the late 40’s but few people took advantage of this because the trade was so depressed.  Mr James Dean asked Mr and Mrs Cox to come to Shetland in 1948 and so began their lifelong involvement with the Islands.  They were so shocked by the poor quality of a big percentage of the ponies they saw that they began an uphill battle to form a stallion scheme run by the Shetland Pony Stud-Book Society.  On the whole the Council thought the Island ponies were beyond redemption but Mrs Cox was a very forceful, forthright character, and as Vice President and President persevered with the stallion scheme.  First of all they inspected a great number of mares whose pedigrees had been neglected.  The Premium Stallion Scheme got off the ground in 1956.  It was funded for many years by the Betting and Levy Board. Shetland owes the Coxes, and the prominent stud owners who sent up their stallions to the Isles, a huge debt.  It must have been rather a shock to the stallions to leave green pastures for the wild heather hills of Shetland.  Successful sales following the first year of the Scheme proved to the breeders that all was not lost and that it was possible to maintain the Shetland Pony on its native heath.  To prove the point Betty and Maurice Cox did a miniature Londonderry.  They bought a croft –type property in Shetland and proceeded to buy Island ponies.  Gletness became their home for many summers.

A list of the Stallions that came to Unst, for example, in the first three years  gives an idea of the commitment of the people at the heart of this rescue scheme;

1956;                                                               1957;      

Wells Prince 1613                                          Donnachaidh Saigean 1645

Sovereign of Marshwood 1609                        Eckington Kirriemuir 1571

Littlestroke Neptune 1562                              Sprinkle of Marshwood 1611

Brian of Longhaugh 1533                                Polydor of Holne 1421

Benvorlich 1553                                             Robin 1607

Spaniard of Marshwood 1484                          Wells Sunstar 1638

Blue Bonnet of Mundurno 1436                 


Spook of Marshwood 1632

Trigger of Marshwood 1526

Starlight of Belmont 1676

Lucky Boy of Berry 1696

Hescott of Transy 1661

Heatherman of Marshwood 2B

Wells David 1635

Sprinkle of Marshwood 1611.

Others that left their mark include;  Fireball of Marshwood 1686,

Olympus of Mousa 1947,   Sultan of Mousa 2128,   Rosetaupe of Transy 2017

Noggin of Luckdon 1698,   Bon Bon of Berry 2693, and Gletness Rocket 2207    

Most of these stud names will be familiar to Dutch breeders.

Ponnies in Holland

There are now as many Shetland Ponies in Holland as there are in all the rest of the world. I like to think that about four hundred years ago one of the fishermen who rode a Shetland pony outside the growing town of Lerwick decided to take one of them back to his children in the hold of his fishing boat, all the way from ‘Buss Haven’.   Their popularity obviously grew.Traditionally the farmers used strong dogs to pull their small carts but when this practice was banned by the Government in 1937 they were replaced, very successfully, by ponies. The small agricultural holders would have made good use of these tractable animals for various chores.  This was a similar situation to the Shetland crofters.  Each crofter kept a few, especially for the peat carrying, but not enough to justify keeping a stallion. During World War 2 many of the ponies in Holland were ‘requisitioned’ by the German Army, but a number were hidden carefully, out of harm’s way.  As Europe was struggling to get back to some sort of normality in the late forties people’s attention came back to leisure pursuits like pony shows and riding  In those years up to the 1970’s many Dutch buyers came to Britain to buy Shetlands..

Pony breeding has, for many years, been scrupulously vetted in Holland, especially the quality of the stallions. We realise that you are truly committed to the Shetland pony and its future.  We wish you every success.

Margaret Hunter (Clivocast Stud) Unst Shetland