Invisible Ancestor: The Galloway Nag and its Legacy

Invisible Ancestor: The Galloway Nag and its Legacy. Miriam Bibby. Trivent Publishing, Budapest, 2024. 559 pages.25 colour and black and white illustrations. ISBN 978-615-6696-15-1. ISSN 2676-8097. Paperback Price €64.00

The history – and therefore the archaeology – of the horse is intrinsically linked to that of humanity. Whether it has been as sacrifice or status symbol, war horse or pit pony, it has walked diligently beside us. It is no surprise then, that it has been subject to as much bias and bigotry as the humans it inadvertently threw its lot in with. Miriam Bibby’s book is about the most influential equine type you possibly have never heard of – the Galloway pony, from southwestern Scotland. Over the past decade, Bibby’s Scottish research has often overlapped with my own ongoing work, as Scotland and Ireland’s equestrian history are closely linked, so this publication was highly anticipated.

‘The Galloway Nag and its Legacy’ is Bibby’s opus setting the record straight about this influential and utterly Scottish pony which casts a long shadow through history. The pony is now extinct, via being bred out with other larger animals, but Bibby’s passion brings it back to vibrant life. This book is a historical and archaeological gallop starting in later prehistory and navigating the hurdles of the early modern period, with intrigue, politics, rebellion, pseudo-archaeology, and eugenics. It has a cast of famous names – James VI/I, Lord Byron, Lady Wentworth, Robert Burns, Ben Jonson and even zoologists such as Ewart and Ridgeway who were no strangers to controversial and erroneous ideas about Irish equines.  

Many antiquaries and travel writers, from the 16th century onwards, had noted the graceful little ponies of the southwest of Scotland, known as Galloways, whose endurance and speed was the stuff of legends, remarking how similar these animals were to the also-extinct Irish Hobbey which also possessed these properties. It is very possible these were variations on the same animal type, when we consider the very short body of water which separates Ireland from Scotland. It is important to note that breeds as we understand them, with extensive pedigrees, are very much a construct of the 18th century onwards, a measure of purity for the various Empires who saw themselves worthy of only the best. Earlier peoples bred animals for tasks, be it speed, endurance or beauty.

Bibby starts her analysis in later prehistory and sees many parallels with what is happening in the Irish Late Iron Age, and of course Argyll, the legendary Epidii and the early medieval Dal Riata. While Ireland left no images behind of its earliest equestrians, Scotland has a plethora of Pictish carvings showing fine-boned and clean-legged little ponies pacing through history without offering any idea what type of animal they may be. Bibby argues that many may be Galloways, as they are recorded as performing naturally  the uncommon lateral gait where the feet on the same side strike the ground simultaneously (which incidentally the Irish Hobbey performed naturally as well). 

These were the speedy ponies which Robert the Bruce raced across beach racecourses, and supposedly rode into the Battle of Glentrool in 1307. They were, simply, an accepted factor of Scottish life for many centuries until the rulership of James VI/I, when the larger, non-native animals of the English nobility started to make their way north. The Galloway came to symbolise Scotland, for good and ill, depending through which lens you chose to look. Bibby’s fresh research has indicated that  playwright and satirist Ben Jonson lampooned James VI/I , portraying him as a travelling fabric salesman from the uncouth north, after the disastrous fabric trade scheme of 1614 with William Cockayne (Lake and Yamamoto 2022). The lack of recorded equine pedigree, so important to the burgeoning British empire, was used unmercifully to satirise the archetypically Scottish Stuarts (page 197),  often moving the meaning of ‘nag’ from being a small horse to a derogatory one. Even the word ‘jockey’ comes from a slur on labouring-class Scottish men – Jocks/Jocky.

It was James VI/I’s courtly favourite and possible lover, George Villiers, who commenced an intensive upbreeding programme using Galloway mares, as well as Irish mares, crossed with the larger, heavier animals from Europe which were very much the royal choice de jour. The journey to create the Thoroughbred had begun, but only a few sires would be remembered, not the Irish or Scottish mares who contributed their speed and independence of thought (Bower et al 2012). Racing with Thoroughbreds is known as the ‘sport of kings’, as it not only gave the great and often not-so-good a hobby which no-one else could afford, but also allowed a more modern version of the Roman concept of bread and circuses, to keep the general public entertained, and spending money – an economic merry-go-round. In short, the commercialisation of racing was a political action (page 212). 

Charles II is well known to have been a racing enthusiast, but it was under William’s reign that the Thoroughbred as we understand it was developed.  ‘Oriental’ equids such as the Barb and Arabian were his great interest, the contributory native breeds were now classified as puny, coarse and worthless. Political satire was yet again used, with the Galloway ‘nag’ as a coded insult to the Covenanters of Scotland, who had locked horns with Charles for reneging on his word for religious autonomy. 

By the late 18th century the bloodline of the Galloway was in a fatal decline, not helped by the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, or the Highland Clearances of 1750. The Hanoverian Government of the times promoted the idea of the barbarous nature of both Scotland and Ireland, and the Galloway, with its strong associations of regional identity was seen as part of the problem (page 285). So much so that between 1794 and 1801 there was an attempt to eradicate the ponies by breeding them out with larger animals which would work the land in the new, improved ways the government wanted. However, this coincided with the beginnings of Scottish Romanticism, which now promoted the remaining (and likely diluted) Galloways as indigenous and ancient, part of the very fabric of the island of Britain. Stories such as their origin being from shipwrecked Armadas – the same fabricated origin story as the Connemara pony – were woven into the national identity of the animal.

This sudden new interest in all things Scottish was likely too late –the  Industrial Revolution had little use for a pony which may have been carved on Pictish stones, wanting only exploitation as beasts of burden. By the 19th century almost any small and smart pony was referred to as a ‘Gallowa’, with their diminutive size being used in mining. The fairly obnoxious aristocratic Hope sisters, Estella and Lady Dorothea, ran Shetland pony studs  (which they seem to have confused with Galloways) at the same time as Lord Londonderry. They are recorded as claiming they “ only breed  show ponies, and not, as Lord Londonderry, pit ponies” ( page 445). By constantly adding other bloodlines, they erased anything which may have been native or indigenous in the selected Scottish equids they chose to ‘save’.

Such rampant snobbery became a facet of horse breeding in the 19th century, with numerous native breeds of Ireland and Britain not making the grade for preservation – the Manx, Achill, Roscommon, Old English Black, and Norfolk Trotter all faded into extinction for not being ‘noble’ enough. This was an era of animal eugenics as much as human. As an example, James Cossar Ewart, well known to Irish zooarchaeologists, worked with the Hope sisters and the equally problematic Lady Wentworth and basically fabricated an entire breed, Equus caballus celticus, an animal which never existed, because he wanted to preserve some Irish and Scottish animals but not all – just the ones he could breed to make polo ponies (Ewart 1903 and 1904). There was again the belief that native animals, the creatures used by humans for centuries, were less than important, and of no value. Only when crossed with the ‘hotblood’ Arabian did a native breed become noble enough to be taken seriously.

The Galloway slipped silently into extinction sometime around the end of the 19th century.  Nature being what it is, the bloodline’s DNA is out there somewhere, waiting for modern science to unravel the rest of the story that history or archaeology cannot yet answer.  The book is a powerful one, straddling history, zooarchaeology and socio-political commentary, with equally unfortunate parallels with ancient Irish livestock. Bibby’s passion is obvious and as such could be gently chided for seeing references to Galloways in every historic text, whether named as such or not, but this is a small price for such a call to arms to seek out the evidence, the archaeology of the animal itself. In the Smith Stirling Museum, a set of 14th century small horseshoes are on display, made for very small hoofs, and I could not help thinking if these were one of the few tangible archaeological pieces of evidence we have for the Galloway Pony. What else lies in cabinet and storeroom, both in Ulster and Scotland, unidentified due to lack of knowledge?  I suspect this is not the last word in the story of the Galloway pony.


Bower, M.A., McGivney, B.A., Campana, M.G., Gu, J., Andersson, L.S., Barrett, E., Davis, C.R., Mikko, S., Stock, F., Voronkova, V. and Bradley, D.G., 2012. ‘The genetic origin and history of speed in the Thoroughbred racehorse’. Nature Communications  3.1 (2012), p.643.

Ewart, J. C. 1904. ‘The Multiple Origin of Horses and Ponies’. Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (1904), 1- 49

Ewart, W. 1903. ‘Societies and Academies: Editorial’. Nature. 67 (1903), 238–240

Lake, P. and Yamamoto, K., 2022. ‘Alchemists, puritans and projectors in the plays of Ben Jonson’ in Yamamoto, K (ed) Stereotypes and stereotyping in early modern England (2022), 114-149 

Comments (1)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. SleepingDog says:

    If horses had historians…

    There are only a few references to nags in Shakespeare (I sympathise with Harry Hotspur’s take on poets, of course), but what does ‘Captain’ Pistol’s reference to Galloway nags mean?

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.