Exmoor Ponies in Conservation Newsletter

Issue 2 Article 19

Transport Without Wheels

The invention of the wheel is frequently regarded as the most significant landmark in the progress of human engineering skills, indeed it has come to symbolize intelligent exploitation and technological progress in our culture. This human artifact had many uses even in a fairly primitive society, the wheel or its principle were utilized by the potter, the wood-turner, the spinner and the miller but studies of its use are almost always associated with the motion of transport whether a cart pulled by draught animals or a chariot for a hero, although the quern stone is recorded from many settlements where no wheeled vehicles left any evidence.

Wheeled transport suffers from two main problems:

i The wheel must have a suitable surface to travel over.

ii It requires considerable inputs of materials, effort and skill to construct the circular device itself, the axle arrangement, the cart and a reliable system of shafts and harness.

These two factors and the nature of the terrain determined that pack-pony transport in Scotland was dominant until well into the 19th century.

In Lowland areas oxen were favoured in the plough team but throughout Scotland ponies were kept for ploughing, harrowing, bringing peat down from the mosses, and taking goods to and from market.

For moving heavy or very bulky loads like stone, turf, peat or hay and straw over limited distances, sleds or slipes were often used. They had a definite advantage over wheeled vehicles in that they were more stable and easier to control, especially down hill on steeper slopes.

The pack-animal's ability to traverse rough ground and ford rivers required little or no need for road construction. The savings in manpower were significant, a cart requires a man for every two animals but up to fifteen pack-animals can be supervised by one man.

Although pack horses were used in great numbers for the short-distance transportation of cheaper, heavier items: grain, coal, peat, lime and even stone and slate, they were most effectively employed in moving high-value low-bulk goods such as wool or hides, commodities which were commonly transported over long distances, the most valuable of these was whisky. Illicit distilling was accepted by everyone as the only means of paying rent for a farm. The parish of Airlie in Angus had some two million gallons of whisky smuggled through it in 1821 "mainly on the backs of the 'shaltie'."

by Alec Copland

For the 'shaltie' read highland pony, a similar beast to the noble Exmoor. If anyone would like to think about using their own Exmoors as pack animals, then the author of this article, has plans available for the construction of the type of pack saddles that are still common in parts of Greece and Spain. Anyone who would like a go, please contact EPIC. We would, of course like to hear about how you get on.