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The great outdoors: Two ponies, one trusted companion, many beautiful islands… and the memories of my mum

Shuna, Chief and Ross at Scarasta, Harris
Shuna, Chief and Ross at Scarasta, Harris

It wasn’t a fast-paced journey, nor a competition. Yet, for Leonie Charlton, travelling the length of the Outer Hebrides by Highland pony did have an end-goal.

Her gently paced trek, from south to north on the wildly beautiful Scottish archipelago, began as a quest to find “some kind of peace” after the death of her mother.

“It had been seven years since mum had died,” Leonie says, “but I continued to be tortured by the need for closure. I couldn’t come to terms with my grief and regret for what had been a difficult and fraught relationship.

“I am not a person of faith or ritual,” says Leonie, herself a mother of three, “so this is not what I would normally do. But I knew I needed to try something.

“The roots of an idea started to grow – and that’s when I thought of the Outer Hebrides.”

Leonie, 48, who has lived in Glen Lonan for more than 20 years, had a peripatetic childhood. At first, she lived in Ghana, Africa, where her father Max worked as a vet. Her parents split when she was a toddler and while Max stayed overseas, mother Kathryn moved Leonie and her two brothers to Wales, then to various spots across Britain. Max returned to the UK when Leonie was 11, settling in Oban. This gifted her a first taste of her now beloved Scottish west coast.

His work took him to the Hebrides and a young Leonie would sometimes accompany him. She also enjoyed a memorable camping trip with her dad and brother on the islands when she was 13.

“I would spend holidays as a child with Dad and then I lived with him after university. I’m so thankful to him for my connection to the west; it’s such a fierce connection.

“Now it is my home, with my husband Martin and our children. I am besotted with the area.”

Leonie’s mother had also visited the Hebrides for work and pleasure, although she never shared a trip with her daughter. The two had a difficult relationship, but Leonie thought the islands could help mend the bond.

“I suddenly knew the Hebrides would be the perfect place for a journey.”

© CAROLYNE MAZUR
Leonie Charlton

She knew, too, that the trip had to be on horseback.

“Mum loved horses and I owe this great passion to her,” she says. “We rode together when I was a child and until my teenage years we shared a connection through horses. I find horses so grounding.”

As a teenager, however, the pair grew apart. “I was mad and crazy about my mother when I was little and then… disenchantment.”

In 1988, when Leonie was 16, her mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. She recovered, but in 2010 another tumour was discovered. This time it was terminal.

“Mum was remarkable,” Leonie says. “She had recovered from her first cancer. She was beautiful, tough and tenacious.

“But she was not easy to have as a mother. She was difficult and my relationship with her was fraught with pain and misunderstanding. Only as she was dying did we find some closeness again, but then she was gone.”

Leonie’s companion for the Hebridean trip was friend Shuna Shaw. They rode Ross, Leonie’s pony, and Chief, which belonged to Shuna.

“Shuna and I had enjoyed several Scottish adventures with Ross and Chief and I knew she was the right person to go with. We are fantastic travel companions. We both do silence well, we’ve a shared respect for the natural world and our horses come first. Also, we are not competitive and our trips are not about speed but about being immersed, making sure the horses are comfortable, enjoying it all, rather than thinking about the finish.”

They started at Castlebay, on the Isle of Barra, in May 2017, and took a varied route north through the island chain over three weeks. “After the first few days we didn’t have a plan and just developed as we went along.”

Part of the journey for Leonie was the process of leaving memorial beads, owned by her mother, at carefully chosen points. Kathryn, who nicknamed her daughter Beady as a baby, was an avid collector of beads.

“I took a bag of her very tiny beads, all made of natural materials,” Leonie said. “Each time I placed a bead, perhaps on a tide line or a fence post, it was like a small act of gratitude or appreciation of my mother.

“It was a positive process – it was like my mother was with me. Many memories resurfaced and I found myself enjoying them, rather than being upset. It helped me to understand that I had to forgive myself – and I realised that finding peace with my mother was less important than letting go.”

Leonie discovered further comfort being surrounded by nature. She describes the Hebridean landscapes in stunning detail, from the tiny, colourful flowers of the machair – grassy plains – to the turquoise seas.

She recounts names of myriad birds, explains how an extraordinary light floods the islands, “turning reeds gold and cotton grass fields pearly white”.

Leonie says, “I inherited an appreciation of wildlife and landscapes from both parents. Walking quietly by horseback, amid the natural environment, seeing beautiful places, having the time to think, to be in the present, it all brought a calmness.”

The trek was not without stresses, however. A serious incident occurred in the hills between north Harris and south-west Lewis where the ponies got stuck in a potentially deadly bog. Thankfully, the horses made it to safety unharmed but it meant the pair were unable to continue the ride.

“We made it to the ancient stone circle of Callanish in south-west Lewis, but no further. It didn’t matter though because we were so thankful the ponies were OK.”

There had been no plan to write a book about the journey, but when she returned home Leonie was compelled to record it. The result is Marram: Memories Of Sea and Spider Silk, published last year. It is a contemplative account of grief and acceptance, blended with evocative stories of travel and nature.

The author concluded: “It’s a personal book and I wrote it for myself; it was cathartic. If it touches other people, then I’m delighted.”