The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

It would have been 1964 or 1965, when I attended my first Shetland Pony sale at Baltasound Unst. A ship was anchored at the small pier, ready to take the ponies to the mainland (Aberdeen) after they had been through the auction. There was no ring, or enclosure as such, just people standing in a circle, I could hardly believe that there were this many people on the Shetlands, so vast were their numbers, all kept warm with the help of bottles of whiskey that were being passed around the gathering. The ponies were led into the middle of the circle and paraded around, I had never seen a Shetland Pony this close before, they were tiny.

Some happily followed the handler, others kicked at the tether, rearing up on hind legs, it is then you realised, these were wild animals and had spent most of their lives free to roam the pastures of the islands.

The first sale of Shetland foals at Baltasound took place in October 1958, prices were high, fillies making up to 116 guineas, foals up to 82 guineas. I can not remember the exact prices at the time I attended, but they were in pounds not guineas and ranged from under £100.00 to £160.00. These were good prices, for before the war ponies had been selling for 5s and during the depression, (between the wars) ponies had been worthless.

I had been standing next to a crofter who went by the name of Priestman, he sold three pones that day and was delighted with the prices, they had sold well.

Years later I was abiding in Edinburgh and working at Scottish Agriculture Industry (SAI) at Leith docks. One of the two riggers there was a Shetlander, he had spent his former years as an AB in the Merchant Navy. We rubbed along well together, but it was much later that I noticed his surname on the clock card, Priestman. Well, I never the crofter I had been standing beside at the pony sale had been none other than his father. It’s a small world and no mistake. We had much to talk about after that revelation.

Turned out he was the black sheep of the family, for he was unable to play either an accordion or fiddle, (That indeed would mark you out as an outsider in Unst at that time). His sibling sisters certainly could, I had been invited to a few parties at the Priestman farm over my time there, all of the family seemed to be able to play both instruments and would happily swap one for the other with ease, but why do these fiddler rally tunes all sound the same?

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