NEWTONMORE, Scotland — "Aye, me lads and lassies, leave yourre tartans aht hom and bring yourre Western jeans to the Highlahnds."
It's a promise. Riding in the Scottish Highlands and islands is the finest way to see the country.
The Scottish Trekking and Riding Assn. lists 42 riding centers and explains its terms: "Pony trekking is a type of riding which can be enjoyed by a complete beginner. The highland pony is quiet, sure-footed and a born follower."
These trekking centers offer a full range of accommodations from where you ride out on a different route each day, or you may stay in a nearby hotel and join the rides.
Old Drovers Roads
"Post trekking" is for more experienced riders who want a week's ride along the old drover roads, with overnight stays at hostels and country inns.
"You'd like to ride Cailaghd this mornin', would you? She's a darlin' pony. They're all pure-bred, strong and steady. We'll be climbing to the top of that big hill over there."
I asked the young Boston lawyer, brushing the heavy coat of the brown mare with the luxuriant black mane and tail, how anyone could call such broad powerful animals ponies.
"The Scots relish the diminutive," he said. "Potatoes are tatties, cauliflower is cauli, your breakfast tea comes with crisp bikkies. They pat and nuzzle these big-footed horses and refer to them as 'dear little girls' or 'laddies.' "
Heavy and tough they are. In wind and snow all winter they grow a coat so thick that no saddle blanket or padding is needed. They can be cinched as tight as our wrangler, Helen Coyle, can pull the strap.
She and Jim own Balavil Sport Hotel, Newtonmore, Invernessshire. Helen is chef, Jim manages the three bars (the Public, Resident's and Shinty), brother George is porter and waiter. The Coyles' two wee ones, Jamie and Frazier, scamper in with their friends after school and dash out again in their playing togs to the soccer field across the road.
Our rucksacks bulging with our lunches, Helen led us five trekkers, rookies and veterans, along village roads between low stone walls, past farmhouse inns and blooming gardens. Up into lumpy meadows shaggy with heather that turns radiant purple and pink later in the summer.
Our Lesser Percherons and Clydesdales splashed across bubbling burns that crisscross the upland heath. Snow lay in the crotches on north-facing hills. The air was exhilarating.
Lower down, silver beeches, twisted and dwarfed by Highlands gales, shimmered in the brilliant May sunshine and made dancing shadows on carpets of bluebells.
Just when you get comfortable in a light sweater, the wind whips across your face and rain hits your sunglasses. During the four-hour picnic ride I almost wore out my knitted cap and gloves pulling them in and out of my parka pockets.
But magnificent. All the Highlands climates compressed into a single day. And magnificent too, the top-of-the-world panorama, a 360-degree moonscape, hard heath littered with rock outcroppings, raw and primeval, 2,000 feet above the newly green open range of sheep and lambs.
The ponies showed no fatigue. They were only interested in stealing our apples and sandwiches as we sat on the bristly ground, holding their reins and urging them to graze instead of poach.
Cocktail hour in the hotel lounge found everyone stretched out in front of a glowing coal grate, feet in socks and cheeks rosy as wine.
Londoners on Holiday
Michelle Lingfield and Jan Penfold were on holiday from their London bank jobs.
"Oh yes," said Jan, "we have taken riding vacations in Tunisia, France, Ireland, but this region of the Scottish Highlands is our favorite. People are the friendliest, prices in the hotels and pubs are not so dear as in Ireland, mountain and moorland riding is across open country, few set trails. And we always go home with a suntan."
The dining room is carpeted in MacGregor tartan. Huge silver coffee tankards from old shipping lines adorn the mantel. Sun streams through the lace curtains. In summer the sun doesn't set until 10 or 11 o'clock.
Next morning 30 members of a walking club, all ages, in no-nonsense tweed knickers and caps, draped in cameras and binoculars, strode out after a hearty breakfast. "We'll be back for tea."
Michelle explained that the expression "high tea" is left over from the Victorian Era. "Just a fancy name for supper." The hikers would be back for "afternoon tea" on the sunny veranda of the hotel.
Places to Stay
Newtonmore in the Spey Valley, a town of 900, has bed-and-breakfast cottages, large guest houses and five hotels on the main street. On a BritRail pass you can be delivered to Newtonmore station a few blocks from the hotel. Balavil's rates are $26 B&B for two. Dinners $8; half-day ride $8.50, full day $16.