Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Heavy horses

"Heavy Horses, move the land under me.
Behind the plough gliding slipping and sliding free.
Now you're down to the few
And there's no work to do:
The tractor's on its way

(Jethro Tull, Heavy Horses, 1978)

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about what horses mean to me, spurred on, if you’ll pardon the pun, by Jethro Tull’s 1978 song “Heavy Horses”. I was driving back home last week after a day working in the Borders and it is the first time I’d listened to the song for years. It triggered a whole lot of thoughts and memories concerning horses. There’s a sub-text to the Tull song that, one day, when the oil runs out, the heavy horses, the Clydesdales, Percherons, Suffolks, Shires and others, will have their day again, be called back to harness and celebrated for their usefulness and strength. Horses as a working tool for land management when the oil runs out? Silly old hippy nonsense surely! But no, horses have made something of a comeback in recent years, especially in forestry, where specialist log extraction in sensitive areas is sometimes best accomplished by horses.

A little web searching reveals a wealth of thriving heavy horse culture in Britain and wider, with a whole range of professional and amateur bodies devoted to preserving and restoring the culture of heavy horses as working animals. There is a Heavy Horse Centre between Perth and Dundee, there are numerous societies and trusts (The Working Horse Trust, British Horse Loggers Charitable Trust, and the European Federation for the Promotion of the Working Horse (FECTU), to name a few) and many forestry and land management consultants who use working horses (e.g. Heavyhorses.net, British Horse Loggers. Other contractors are available!). I even found an interesting blog: trojanheavyhorses.blogspot.com


So, for a few days, I’ve been contemplating the influence that horses have had in my life. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the idea of heavy horses and the romantic notion of the “living tractors” with all their horse brass and quiet power. I don’t manage to attend the Royal Highland Show at Ingliston every year, but the heavy horses are a major attraction for me when I do. Now, don’t get me wrong – I have never owned a horse, never helped look after a horse. Blimey, I’ve never even ridden a horse, not even pony trekking. But I think these sentimental notions derive from the earliest age, when parents and grand-parents talked about working horses in their younger lives in Ayrshire. We always had horse brasses hung as decoration in the house, as I suspect lots of people did.

Of particular note is my memory of Dad telling us many times how, as a boy, he helped with the collection of milk churns from dairy farms on horse and cart. To my childhood imagination, that horse was always a big Clydesdale (rather than the wee working horse that it probably was in reality). I remember, as a very young child in the early-mid 1970’s, Dad pointing out to us the big draught horses from one of the Edinburgh breweries, still pulling the dray wagons to make beer keg deliveries around the city. The fact that we only ever saw them when we were driving through very early morning Edinburgh (this was a time before city bypasses, when all roads converged on central Edinburgh) on our way to a holiday stay with grandparents only added to the sense of drama and enjoyment!

I experienced another link to the days when “horse power” was still a serious option in agriculture through the grand-dad of my closest childhood friends. For most of my childhood and teenage years, our family lived in a row of cottages on a big farming estate in East Lothian. These had been modernised to convert six original tiny cottages to form two small cottages. My friends’ grandfather (and their mum as a little girl) had lived in one of the original six cottages, where he had worked as a ploughman on the farm (just that change in housing density in itself tells a whole story about rising living standards for working people through the 20th Century, and the increasing mechanisation of British agriculture). He told us a number of times about his working life. Rising each morning at about half past four, he had to prepare his horses for the working day, would spend a day working the horses in the field, and then would have to feed and look after the horses before his work was done for the day. It sounded unbelievably hard work to my young ears. No wonder tractors were seized on with such enthusiasm when they first appeared!

But a celebration of big horses is not restricted to those working with horses. Many Scots will be familiar with the big horse statue on the M8 motorway. The artist who created this magnificent equine celebration is the Glasgow-based sculptor Andy Scott. He specializes in statues of horses as public art and you can see more of his wonderful, inspiring work at here. But he is working on something particularly spectacular just now. A remarkable project is underway, courtesy of British Waterways Scotland, who run Scotland’s canal network, the people who brought us the Falkirk Wheel, Central Scotland Forest Trust and Falkirk council (collectively the Helix Project). Only a few miles east of the Wheel, where the Forth and Clyde Canal reaches the sea at the River Carron next to the M9 motorway, two 30 metre horses head statues are to be built as part of the Helix Project by Andy Scott, to create an iconic entrance to the canal network. They will be known as the Kelpies, after the mythical Scottish water horse spirits. What’s more, one of the 30 metre high heads will dip, as part of a mechanism to pump water in and out of the canal’s sea lock. I was privileged to be invited to the launch of the 1/10 scale “maquettes” of the Kelpies statues at the Falkirk Wheel in 2007, when Andy Scott spoke very movingly of the influence of horses in his life and in his family that led him down his own personal artistic path.

Andy Scott's 1/10 scale maquettes of the Kelpies (c)S Mathieson

The Kelpies are due to be built by 2012 and will create a fine historical link back to the role of horses in Scottish life, not least on the canals where almost all canal transport back when the canals were built in the late 18th to early 19th centuries would have been horse-drawn. I, for one can’t wait to see them!


  1. I believe that there are more horses in Britain now than when they were an essential part of transport and work.

  2. id love to cut fairways with soft shoed horses and gangmowers like back in pre tractor days!,esp if we got a pint at lunchtime like they did!..great post big bro!

  3. @Katepang - I didn't know that, Kate - fascinating. Presumably mostly for leisure riding now?

  4. Cheers Scottishnatureboy! Took the above mentioned grandfather to the Heavy Horse Centre at Kilfauns about 20 years ago for his 85th birthday.The years seemed to fall away.... Sadly due to lack of cash the centre has closed.


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