From the grassy cliffs at the Butt of Lewis, to the sandy bay at Vatersay, there’s no shortage of jaw-dropping scenery to be found across the Western Isles. But for ethereal, almost otherworldly beauty, it’s tough to beat the beach at Luskentyre, where a pair of friendly equines punctuate the vivid seascape.
The scattered beachfront settlement of fewer than 40 full-time residents on the west coast of Harris, about 10 miles from harbor town of Tarbert, hugs a shoreline that is frequently ranked among the best in the UK—and the world.
Stand atop the expansive dunes as the weather clears, and you can watch the colors shift from dull to dramatic. The grey sand suddenly shines white, the water transforms from steel grey to vivid turquoise, and you can almost believe you’re standing on a beach in the Caribbean. But dare to dip a toe in the water and in an instant, you’ll remember you’re closer to Greenland than Grenada.
But as enjoyable as a visit to Luskentyre can be for its technicolor scenery, it’s the four-legged company you’ll find in the rolling sands that truly makes a visit stand out. For most of the year, a pair of friendly pale horses—technically ponies—wander the dunes, munching on the verdant shoots that poke through the pale grains.
The ponies are well documented on social media, where admirers from afar often speculate that they’re wild, or that they’re specimens of Scotland’s mythical “mascot,” the unicorn. Those inclined toward the fantastical will certainly find fertile ground for imagination in this fairy-tale-like landscape. But a glance inland from the dunes reveals a fence that keeps the ponies contained. And a gate near a large green shed (where the two can often be found, particularly in the morning) serves as their feeding area. It may not be obvious by the amount of time they spend munching with their heads down in the sand, but the ponies don’t dine solely on beach grass.
After a visit with to Luskentyre in 2017 left me enchanted, I soon realized I could find almost no solid information about the ponies online. Curious about how they found their home on this beautiful beach, how long they’d been there, and simply what their names were, I decided to track down their owners.
The ponies belong to Western Isles native Joanna Mackay, though they’re often cared for by her parents, Isobel and Murdo, while Joanna studies Midwifery at the University of Cumbria. The family also runs a tourism business at Luskentyre, Atlantic Shore Cottages and B&B.
According to Joanna and her parents, the larger and lighter of the pair (shown above) is Toby (full name Nashend Tobermory). He’s a 15-year-old pedigree Highland pony who’s been at Luskentyre since 2011. According to Isobel, Toby is related to the Balmoral Highland ponies of the queen’s estate, and he spent time working in a riding school in Invergordon before coming to Luskentyre.
The smaller of the two—whose coat is noticeably mottled in direct sunlight—is Isla, a six-year-old pedigree Eriskay pony that Isobel says was born on the family croft. Named after their island of origin, south of the Uists, Eriskay ponies are a rare breed that were once used extensively for island croft work, hauling peat and gathering seaweed for fertilizer.
Their numbers eventually dwindled as they were increasingly crossbred to create larger ponies for plowing and hauling heavy loads. According to The Eriskay Pony Society, today there are roughly 500 registered Eriskay ponies in the world. Interestingly, breeding island ponies like Isla with horses like the Norwegian Fjord resulted in modern Highland ponies—like Toby.
Those who visited Luskentyre before 2012 may remember a different Eriskay pony, Belle, who was also often photographed, perhaps most notably in Ian Lawson’s beautiful tome documenting the Hebrides and Harris Tweed, "From the Land Comes the Cloth."
Isobel says when Belle died in 2011, they got Toby within a couple months. Soon after, Isla was born on their croft from an Eriskay pony they were looking after, and they decided to keep her as Toby’s companion.
With their different--though linked--pedigrees, you might expect Isla and Toby to have their own distinct temperaments. And you’d be right.
“They have very different personalities,” Joanna tells me. “Toby is very laid back and loves attention. Isla is more highly strung and temperamental. If she doesn't get a treat, she'll give you a nip on your way past!” Belle was gentle and patient according to Joanna, but could be stubborn—especially if she didn’t feel like being ridden.
Joanna says Toby and Isla get on well and stick close to one another. If they get separated in the rolling dunes, they call out to each other until they’re reunited. I never saw them apart in my two visits to Luskentyre. But that doesn’t mean the pair treat each other as equals.
“Toby is definitely the boss,” says Joanna. “I have to feed them separately or else Isla would never get any!”
She says the ponies are very friendly, and visitors shouldn’t have any major concerns about getting close enough to take photos. Just like many people, it seems that Isla has also become more even-tempered with time. “As she’s grown older,“ Isobel tells me, “she is much more settled and doesn't really bite at all.”
I had my own almost surreal encounter with Isla and Toby on my first visit to Harris. It took nearly an hour to track the pair down in the dunes on my first day there. But when I arrived two days later in the early morning (unexpectedly, after missing a ferry at Tarbert) the duo were close to the fence and their feeding area. This time I ventured closer, and spoke to them calmly. I seemed to be the only visitor near the beach, and Toby watched me intently, while Isla dozed, her eyes closing for seemingly minutes at a time.
Eventually, I decided I should leave the dunes and try to get some photos of the beach, as the weather was clearing, turning the sea to a bottomless shade of blue. To my astonishment, after walking toward the water for a few minutes, I looked back to see that Toby and Isla were following me. They continued to trail along several meters behind until they (or rather we) were right down close to the water.
I stayed there, capturing the ponies and their vivid backdrop—blue sea, white sand, sun-kissed sheep on a hill nearby, and the gravestones of the nearby cemetery—for at least another half hour. During that time, I took some of the most beautiful photos of the 12,000 or so shots I accumulated along my route during that three-week trip, which included Shetland, Orkney, and Skye. Had I known the ponies’ names at the time, I think it would have been even more difficult to leave their calming company.
You may wonder, as I did, what will become of Toby and Isla once Joanna finishes her studies. How much longer will the ponies have with the human companion they watched grow up? It turns out they may not have a thing to worry about. Joanna has spent nearly her whole life surrounded by these blue waters, white sand, and her ponies. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to escape.
“I finish uni in the summer and would love to move back home then,” says Joanna. “There's nowhere quite like Luskentyre.”