Saddle Up For A Classic Pony Book Spring

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Fidra Books of Edinburgh have recommenced rolling out their new editions of Ruby Ferguson’s Jill series with book three, Jill Has Two Ponies. This is the original text, without any politically correct snips or sections removed because long books might bore the modern kiddo. They also feature facsimiles of the wonderful 1950s illustrations by Caney. Fidra’s Facebook page is here, and their home page for the Jill series is here, with sample chapters galore. If you think you’ve outgrown Jill, think on – rereading them as a grown up left me in peals of laughter. Ferguson added some gentle satire to the standard pony book mix, and Jill has the wickedest comments to make on sappy girls and other idiots.

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Look out, too, for Jane Badger’s forthcoming book, Heroines on Horseback: The Pony Book in Children’s Fiction. It tells you the stories behind not just the great authors of the genre – Pullein Thompson, Leitch, Gervaise, Ferguson, Peyton, Edwards, Cumming et al – but also the artists who brought life to their words. Jane collects and sells pony books and her website has long been a go-to resource for all things gymkhana. It’s definitive and chockful of illustrations from your childhood, helping you sort your Silver Snaffles from your Six Ponies. My wee disclaimer: I contributed a short piece on my love for the Pullein-Thompsons’ Black Beauty’s Clan series.

The Real Finmory Discovered

I finished If Wishes Were Horses in summer 2010 and handed it in to my editor, Angus. After he’d read it he sent me an email saying that he was sure he knew where we could find Finmory, the house in Patricia Leitch’s Jinny and Shantih novels.

Here’s the first description of Finmory House in For Love of a Horse:

“At the far edge of the moorland, mountains shouldered up against the sky. Cloud shadows raced over them so that their colours seemed to flow and change as you watched – deep purple turned to blue that faded into bleached pinks and mauves. Waterfalls streaked black gorges with threads of brilliant white as they crashed down the mountains’ sides, and patches of dried moss were a vivid saffron gold. Ravens croaked, disturbed by the car, and two buzzards flew up from the telegraph wires that followed the road. …

The track turned and dropped down to a farm, half-hidden in a clump of pine trees. …

The car crawled slowly along a muddy, rutted track, twisted through a broken-down gateway, and followed the overgrown drive that pushed its way between top-heavy, fungussy trees to Finmory House. … They all burst out of the car to stand staring at the four-square, solid, stone house.

‘It’s smashing,’ breathed Mike.

‘Sea at the bottom of the garden!’ exclaimed Jinny. ‘And mountains peering down the chimneys!'”

I think everyone who loved those books wanted to live in Finmory. And it turns out that, for several summers as a student, Patricia Leitch did just that. In an interview with Jane Badger she said that:

“Kilmacolm is part of the setting for the Jinny books, but only part.  If you want to go looking for the locations you’ll have to be prepared to travel, as the setting is actually a combination of two different places.  Finmory House, the house to which Jinny and her family move, is on the Isle of Skye, and is the house at which Pat worked as a housemaid for several summers.  The moors around Finmory are in Renfrewshire, around the village of Kilmacolm.”

Now Angus’ family comes from Skye, and he too has lived there, so when he told me that he’d found Finmory, I knew we were onto something. His email had read:

“although Talisker is justifiably praised as a fine single malt, the distillery itself is not at Talisker but Carbost. Talisker Bay is a few miles away over moorland and a single-track road, down which you pass eventually to glimpse the sea and find a farmhouse and another, much bigger house, this surrounded by trees and tucked in the lee of a huge, rearing rocky outcrop. It is quite the most beautiful place in the world. I think the house is now a hotel of some sort, although if I ever won a lottery, I would attempt to buy its owners out. You can walk past it and down a rowan-shaded path alongside a burn to the bay itself, which faces west, between great headlands, and has the blackest of sand.”

When my book was published I sent a copy to Patricia along with a note about Angus’ theory, and a few weeks later I had a letter from her:

“YES YES YES YES YES. Finmory is/was Talisker. Am staggered that you and your editor tracked it down. Many lifetimes ago I worked there three college summers in I am sure, another life. Cannot even think of it, what memories. One of the Jinnys uses the name Talisker and many of Finmory’s background was Talisker, but not the moors, they were/are the moors at Kilmacolm. … If you would be interested I could tell you more about Talisker. It was indeed a wonderful place. The dream was then to stay in one of the stables with Kirsty/Bramble. Nearly happened. … One white moon night was remembered vividly but I bolted and wrote instead.”

Talisker House is now a listed building. I haven’t been able to find a site for it as a hotel, but there’s some information on the structure and history here (Boswell and Johnson stayed there in the eighteenth century) and a shot here from behind. This absolutely stunning photograph shows you the location – as described by Jinny. WalkHighlands has both photographs of the spectacular bay (do you think that “stack” of rock was the inspiration for the dramatic rescue in Ride Like the Wind?) and details of a walk you can take in the area.

UPDATE: My parents pointed out that I spent some time nearby too, although I was too young to remember. We stayed in a holiday cottage called Skerinish just up river from Talisker Bay. It’s the two-storey building on the right here. I dedicated a lot of time to trying to reach the farmer’s bull in the field nextdoor.

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If Wishes Were Horses: The Red Horse and the White Mare is a comprehensive one-stop-shop for all the known sources on the Gallo-Celtic horse goddess, Epona. There’s an on-line shrine complete with funky flute music here.

Devon, Maid of Epona has provided a prayer for the goddess here, and ideas for honouring her in ritual here.

Jane Badger has an interview with the author of the Jinny and Shantih books, Patricia Leitch, whose books are being reissued by Catnip Publishing. The covers for this new editions were shot by photographer Karen Budkiewicz, a fan of Leitch’s since childhood, who grew up to own her own chestnut Arab mare called Shantih: the horse you see on the new covers. The horse on the “horseshoe” series above is a stallion called Prince of Orange.

UPDATE: read about the real Finmory here!

This post relates to a chapter of the book If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession. If you have any questions to ask about the content, please fire away in the comments. The main online index for the book is here.

A Buswoman’s Holiday

When I was little I exasperated my parents and teachers by being able to find a horsey angle for every last thing. Eventually I (largely) outgrew that habit until I started writing the pony book (which appears to be called Horsedrawn just now), but sometimes these equi-cryptic meanings are just lying there, waiting to be seen. This weekend I got back from the UK and a holiday in the north west Highlands with Mum and Dad. I don’t think Mum could have known that the holiday cottage she chose was positively riven with horsey ley lines.

Here, give or take fifty yards and a stone wall, is the view from my bedroom window:

The cottage is part of the Duke of Westminter’s Reay Forest Estate and bang nextdoor to the gamekeeper’s house. His home paddock was occupied by one of eight Highland ponies kept to bring the bodies of hunted deer back off the mountains and moors on shoots, and this rather fine grey mare had a one-month-old dun colt at her side. He was curious, but not hugely brave. I wonder if they show them?

Opposite their field was this –

– a round barrow tomb (in foreground) which of course turned my Jinny-and-Finmory-primed brain to thoughts of the ancient Celtic Pony People who wander in and out of Patricia Leith’s books. I’m a subscriber to the archaeologist David Anthony’s theory that the cultures which first domesticated on the horse on the Eurasian steppes brought their language (proto-Indo European) and its later variations and their burial culture as far west as Scotland and Ireland. So that was good.

And THEN, when you looked in the opposite direction, you saw these hills:

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Foinaven, Arkle and Ben Stack.(I couldn’t get them all into a photo but here’s a single shot which shows them more clearly. Sadly I am not yet the mistress of the slideshow function, so the other photos in the post are in there too. Ho hum.)

Yep, aren’t those names familiar? The Grand National’s cheekiest winner (Foinaven), the greatest chaser of all time (Arkle) and the Cotswold Chase and National Hunt Champion Chase winner Ben Stack were all owned by Anne, Duchess of Westminster, stepmother of the current duke. There’s a wonderful obituary of her here, at the Telegraph.

Here’s a nice patriotic Irish song about “Himself”

And a link to colour footage of Foinaven’s infamous Grand National.

Win a Pony (Book)

Do you know your Jills from your Jackies? Can you write a four generation pedigree of The Black and give a comprehensive breakdown of every rosette that Shantih won? Do you fancy £50 to spend on classic pony books? Proceed to Jane Badger’s website, and have a crack at her Christmas quiz.

A New Home for Jinny and Shantih

Win Shantih

Patricia Leitch’s wonderful Jinny at Finmory series is being reissued by Catnip Publishing, and Jane Badger is running a competition to win the first two novels at her very excellent pony books site. Take part here.