The last of my NetGalley books published in May that I’ll get read in May, and ever such a good one – another non-fiction book after a spate of novels, and absorbing, moving and full of information. This would be a good companion piece to Sheila Gear’s “Foula” as well as Peter Jamieson’s “Letters on Shetland“, and indeed Munro visits Foula in this book, as well as spending time on mainland Shetland and various others of the islands.

Catherine Munro – “The Ponies at the Edge of the World: A Story of Hope and Belonging in Shetland”

(27 April 2022)

I felt the presence of time, the ancient breed of sheep roaming the hills, the people who nurture and understand them, the birds, ocean and seals, eternal, ordinary and magical. I noticed my body and the feeling of flow between me and the surrounding world, a surprising lack of tension.

I’m counting this as a travel book rather than a nature book as such, as it’s steeped in both the human social atmosphere of the Shetlands and the animal and bird life. It is full of the author’s life and reactions, too, but that felt natural and not forced or inserted at the demand of an editor, and her careful thinking and teasing apart of her own thoughts and what she’d told by others is intelligent and well done.

Munro was living an almost hand-to-mouth existence in Scotland, in precarious employment but yearning for nature and open spaces, when she managed to secure a funded PhD place to study animal domestication, specifically of Shetland ponies, in the Shetland Isles. Off she and her husband go (especially after reading “Snow Widows”, I liked the theme that her supportive husband followed her on her research journey) and settle in to a small house in a tiny community, digging in and working out how to exist there amongst the close-knit community and learning about the lives of the pony breeders and their charges.

I have to say here that I am particularly impressed that Munro managed to get a PhD and this book out of her year in Shetland; working with doctoral students, the time and other pressures are immense (and, indeed, she discusses this when starting a family but not getting any time off) and it’s astounding to have produced both!

We meet other wildlife as well as the ponies, including an orphaned lamb she rescues and the bird life of the islands. It’s all beautifully described, dialect words mixing with scientific ones naturally and authentically. The landscapes and weather are also superbly described and then we come to her fellow-islanders, respected and admired, their personalities drawn and their relationships with their animals carefully and considerately unpicked.

Munro’s central idea is that good, ideal domestication involves teaching the ponies how to interact positively with humans while retaining their own natural abilities and senses, letting them make their own decisions and learning from and with them. Shetlanders have strong ideas about what their animals are like, as a breed first, and then as individual studs, and Munro tries to describe how this happens and its deep value. Working with other people’s ponies, she gets an idea of how it works herself, too – the descriptions of her and others’ interactions with the ponies are moving and fascinating.

Going further, the landscape is seen as another actor in the interplay of humans, animals and the islands, and this is very plausible, each having an effect on the other two. Humans and animals are interwoven and back up each others’ attributes:

… across Shetland, island breeds are included as active participants in the stories of hard work and resourcefulness and tare so central to local identities. Connections between animals, history and contemporary life and closely interwoven in ways that are powerfully symbolic, but the shared attributes between people and animals inform and are informed by everyday embodied relationships with the animals they love.

There’s no call to action here, but a description of what works and a worry about what might happen if things move otherwise. It’s good to see changes and adaptations in the way Shetland ponies are used – for example, their innate good relationship with children and vulnerable people makes them ideal therapeutic animals – which might secure their future.

I should probably add a content warning for pregnancy loss here as there is a fair bit of detail, although it’s not a sad book as such when seen overall. And Munro derives a lot of healing from the places she stays in Shetland, again in a natural and authentic way: even when she’s visiting sacred sites and monuments, it’s more matter-of-fact than woo, an acknowledgement of special, “thin” places in the world and the weight of history.

A lovely book I’m very glad I read.

Thank you to Ebury/Rider Publishing for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “The Ponies at the Edge of the World” was published on 19 May 2022.