By yon bonny brays…Donkey Heaven in the Borders

Not just about horses: The Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells in the Borders opened its doors to the public for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

Not just about horses: The Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells in the Borders opened its doors to the public for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

There were donkeys, donkeys everywhere, and also camelids, pigs, goats, chickens and a pony or two, when The Scottish Borders Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells opened its gates for the Borders Festival of the Horse earlier this year. A good thing too; because donkeys deserve their moment in the sun just as much as horses. They’ve played as important a role in human history, although it might have been frequently overshadowed by their larger and faster cousins. In fact, as I was watching the donkeys watch the humans watching them, I knew that I was going to go home afterwards and ransack the bookshelves in search of donkey related material.

Humans owe a lot to me and my ancestors, you know!

Humans owe a lot to me and my ancestors.

If you were to travel back in time to the end of the last ice age, wherever you went in the northern hemisphere, including America, you’d find equids of one kind or another – horses, zebras or wild asses – roaming free in enormous numbers. Cross from north America into South America, and you’d find horses there too. They have only been hunted to extinction by humans in those two continents since the end of the ice age. It’s perhaps only 8,000 or 9,000 years since the last truly wild indigenous horse in America fell to a hunter’s spear.

At the end of the ice age, various types of wild ass were found across north Africa and parts of Asia (such as Equus africanus in Africa and Arabia, and Equus hemionus and Equus kiang, both onagers, in Asia). The ass extended its range as far as Nubia and Somalia in east Africa, both of which have – or rather had – their own wild versions. After the ice age, as far as humans were concerned, equids of all kinds meant one thing and one thing only – food on the hoof. Masses of skeletal evidence bear witness to this; and so it could be argued that asses, along with other equids, played a part in the inexorable rise of humans long before they were put into service.

Donkeys were domesticated and in the service of man long before horses. This image from an Egyptian 5th dynasty tomb shows a man seated in an unusual carrying chair placed across the back of two donkeys. Image after John Gardiner Wilkinson from Patrick Houlihan's monograph on instances of humour in riding scenes from ancient Egypt, published by Gottinger Miszellen.

Donkeys were domesticated and in the service of man long before horses. This image from an Egyptian 5th dynasty tomb shows a man seated in an unusual carrying chair placed across the back of two donkeys. Image after John Gardiner Wilkinson from Patrick Houlihan’s monograph on instances of humour in riding scenes from ancient Egypt, published by Gottinger Miszellen.

In fact, for various reasons discussed by Juliette Clutton-Brock, Mary Littauer and Joost Crouwel amongst others, equids were domesticated relatively late in human history. The first animals used for drawing vehicles were bovid – ox-type animals – not equid. When – and where – equids were first domesticated is a contentious point amongst researchers, but the strongest claim for the domestication of the horse is Kazakhstan about 7,000 years ago. This appears to have been for meat, milk and skins, and the concept of riding or driving them came much, much later. What we do know is that Mesopotamian cultures such as the Sumerians started to breed onagers and domesticated donkeys together to produce a larger, stronger and more trainable alternative to bovid draught to use in their massive battle cars around 2,800 BCE. Prior to this, they would certainly have used donkeys as pack animals. Donkeys appear in this role in the tombs of Egyptian officials just a little later in time, from the 5th dynasty onwards (about 2,400 BCE). However, Egypt, or rather Nubia, was almost certainly the first place to domesticate the wild ass.

Sadly, it’s around this date that a recurrent theme in the history of the donkey also emerges. In the tomb of the official Ti at Saqqara, for instance, one man is shown in a scene shouting at a group of donkeys that he is going to “beat you on the bum!” Bullying, threats and beatings have all too often been the patient donkey’s lot in life. Let’s not underestimate the importance of the donkey to the emerging Egyptian pyramid-economy, either; one tomb from the period lists a herd of 2,300 donkeys amongst the owner’s – ahem – assets. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Donkeys still play an important part in the Egyptian economy today. In fact, the history of the donkey and its relationship with humans is important – and clearly one of those neglected areas of  which we need periodic reminders.

One of the earliest images of the people the ancient Egyptians called "rulers of foreign lands", and which historians generally call "The Hyksos" arriving in Egypt, from a tomb at Beni Hassan. Whilst the Hyksos have come to be associated with the arrival of the horse in Egypt, this is only partly true; the horse is particularly associated with one dynasty of the Hyksos AFTER they arrived in Egypt. Most, although not all, equid burials in the delta region of Egypt are of donkeys, which played and still play a vital part in many economies, ancient and modern.

One of the earliest images of the people the ancient Egyptians called “rulers of foreign lands”, and which historians generally call “The Hyksos” arriving in Egypt, from a tomb at Beni Hassan.  The idea that the Hyksos brought the horse to Egypt is only a partial truth. It’s associated with a particular Hyksos dynasty AFTER they arrived in Egypt. Most equid burials in the delta of Egypt from that date are of donkeys which have played a vital role in many economies, ancient and modern.

People have come to associate the Hyksos, often described as “invaders” of Egypt, with the arrival of the horse there. In fact, the horse only came to be associated with a particular dynasty of the Hyksos once they were established in Egypt; and the earliest images of the “Hyksos” in Egypt, from Beni Hassan, show a group of people looking very much like economic migrants arriving with – a donkey.

Whereas the horse is frequently described as “noble”, “spirited”, “powerful” and so on, the donkey has always had to make do with more humble epithets – of which “humble” is used most often. Humble, stubborn, lowly, lazy – the donkey, like the mule, has tended to attract negativity from those who view the horse as obviously superior. But donkeys can often do what horses can’t – and they can do much of what horses do, more cheaply and with less fuss. Encountering a donkey, such as those at the sanctuary, reveals them to be creatures with immense patience and affection; and, strangely given the nature of their interactions with humans over the millennia, they have great curiosity in us and what we do. Stubbornness and difficulty in most equids is a consequence of the need to assert their strong sense of self-preservation.

I'm all ears!

I’m all ears!

The word “ass” betrays its Latin origins – asinus.  Where does the word donkey, in use from the 18th century onwards, come from? Anthony Dent, in his book “Donkey: the Story of the Ass from East to West” speculates that it’s from the Flemish “donnekijn”, meaning “a small, dun-coloured animal”; the same language probably gave us “monkey”, as used for the capuchin ape, from the Flemish “monnekin” or little monk. Originally, donkey would have been pronounced in the same way as monkey – dunkey. In ancient Egypt, however, just as the cat took its name from the noise it made – “miu” – donkeys were called something like “ee-aas”, as they still are in France, to which every child can still relate. Hee-haw, ee-aw, hi-han; unmistakeably the sound of the donkey.  And Doris Rybot suggests in her book “My Kingdom for a Donkey” that “moke”, for a donkey, might be from the Dymoke family crest, which sports a pair of donkey ears. It’s not entirely clear which came first, though – the donkey-moke or the Dy-moke. In Northumberland, Durham and parts of the Borders they are known as cuddies, after Saint Cuthbert. They get a passing defamatory reference – are you surprised? – in the Geordie anthem “Blaydon Races”, in which 19th century bookmaker Coffee Johnnie is accused of stealing white donkeys to make a hat from their skins: “Coffee Johnnie had a white hat on – they yelled ‘Wha’ stole the cuddy?'” This was a notorious trade, as the remark suggests. In other parts of Britain the question “Who stole the donkey?” would inevitably receive the reply “The man with the white hat.”

They talk about me behind my back, you know.

They talk about me behind my back, you know.

The donkey appears in many legends, reaching his finest hour in Christian belief with the Nativity and the humbleness – humility again – of the ox and ass. A donkey is supposed to have carried the holy family into Egypt. Also, there’s the arrival in Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, with Jesus riding on a donkey, although it’s not actually entirely clear in all English versions that a donkey – as distinct from a horse – was intended. However, that, in Christian tradition, is why many donkeys have a cross formed from a dorsal stripe and lines going down over their shoulders. Scientifically, however, it’s likely that it simply indicates their descent from the Nubian wild ass which has similar markings, suggesting that upper Egypt is the likeliest place for the earliest domestication of asses. Darker strands run through the mythology of the donkey, with a possible association with the Egyptian god Set, or Sutekh, and his link to the forces of chaos. Anthony Dent mentions the use of the donkey as an anti-Christian and anti-Jewish symbol in graffiti from Roman contexts. And of course, there’s G.K. Chesterton’s famous poem “The Donkey” with its cutting description of the donkey as “the devil’s walking parody on all four-footed things”: “When fishes flew and forests walked/and figs grew upon thorn/one moment when the moon was blood/then surely I was born.” Then there’s Midas, with the ears of an ass; not to mention infamous Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In fact, the more you examine the history of the donkey, the more you find projections of human fears and foibles onto this unsuspecting animal.

Open wide and say ee-aah. Donkey feet and teeth, like those of horses,  need regular treatment.

Open wide and say ee-aah. Donkey feet and teeth, like those of horses, need regular treatment.

Mini-moke...miniature Mediterranean donkey Basil.

Mini-moke…miniature Mediterranean donkey Basil.

The sanctuary at St Boswells is also called Donkey Heaven, and it’s easy to see why. Beautiful, sheltered paddocks offer a safe haven away from those human fears and foibles. Sadly, abuse and neglect still play a part in donkey rescue, but that’s not the whole story.  When people buy a donkey they might simply find they’ve taken on more than they realised; or as they age or their needs change, the responsibility becomes too much for them. Keeping a donkey is no less expensive or time-consuming than keeping a horse or pony. They need time, attention, footcare, dentistry and veterinary treatment as required. During the course of the day, we are educated in the grooming and coat care required for a donkey as well as watching the sanctuary vets at work on an elderly donkey’s teeth. With over 70 donkeys currently in the sanctuary, there’s a lot of teeth and feet to look after.  Donkeys are affectionate and need companionship and specialised winter care, too, as unlike that of the horse, the ancestor of the domesticated donkey did not come from a continental climate zone with extremes of cold and heat. Whilst they have adapted to other climates, their bodies were originally intended to cope with hot, dry conditions.

To find out more about the Scottish Borders Donkey Sanctuary, visit and for more information about donkeys in general,

Donkey heaven.

Donkey heaven.

Simpson and his cuddy

Gallipoli, 25th April 1915. The newly arrived ANZAC troops are about to enter hell. From the moment they attempt a landing on the most inhospitable point of the coast, they are under relentless machine gun and rifle fire from Turkish gunners esconced on the cliffs above. Alan Moorehead, writing in his 1958 publication, “Gallipoli” commented: “…the Gaba Tepe region, where the Anzac troops were to land, was unmapped and almost wholly unknown. It is still the most savage part of the whole peninsula.” Landing to the north of their intended place, eventually over 20,000 men and their horses, mules and donkeys would take shelter in the place that has entered history as ANZAC Cove.

The ANZACs experienced casualties right from the start, many whilst attempting to row to the shore from their troop ships. The dead fell on the shore and in the rowboats; there are varying reports as to the scale of the casualties, but  in the first few hours of the first day alone, it seems that at least half of 1500 men from the first boats were dead or disabled.

The most unlikely and most revered hero of the whole ANZAC Gallipoli Campaign is the man, who, with his donkeys, saved the lives of dozens of soldiers during the first weeks of the campaign, before dying under machine gun fire on 19 May 1915. He was 22 years old. His name is still spoken with reverence in Australia;  the young man was John Simpson Kirkpatrick, better known as Jack Simpson, and he came from South Shields (Shields) in what is now Tyne and Wear, UK.

Simpson’s parents were Scottish and although his father came from Edinburgh, Simpson is a Border name and there is a village of Kirkpatrick Fleming in south west Scotland. It would make sense to me, given the strong cross-border links between Scotland and the north east of England, that Simpson’s parents might have had relatives or friends in the north east if they were Border people. Simpson, growing up in South Shields, was a resident of Tyneside; a Geordie.

Simpson and his first donkey, probably Duffy, with bandage halter (Australian War Memorials)

He was born in 1892 and, like many children of a large family at that time, his early years were impoverished by today’s standards. Birth rates were high, but so were mortality rates amongst working class people. Families found work where and how they could and one of Simpson’s jobs, according to his biographers, was leading the donkey rides on Shields sands. He’d probably have known them as “cuddies”, which is the word for a donkey that prevails in Northumberland, Durham, Tyneside and parts of Scotland.

So enduring is the legend that has grown around Simpson that it is hard sometimes to separate the facts; however, it seems that he had a genuine way with animals. One detail that will certainly ring true for modern day inhabitants of Tyneside is that his mother affectionately called him “Jackie-ma-lad”.

He joined the Merchant Navy and headed off to Australia; just another young man with his way to make in the world and desire to go to sea, as his father had done. At 17, The life of a stoker must have seemed like a dead end and he effectively deserted on arrival in Australia, to travel around the country, working at various jobs and dropping the Kirkpatrick from his name. He signed up to the army in 1914.

Many of Simpson’s biographers make reference to the fact that, tall strong lad that he was, he was an ideal stretcher-bearer.  That was his allotted task. “Stretcher bearer” suggests some degree of organisation and support but in fact conditions were so chaotic, and casualties so high, that the bearers often had to make a dash under fire to carry the wounded back over their shoulders. Shortly after Simpson’s arrival he found one of the donkeys that had arrived with the water bearers and, with a makeshift halter made from a bandage, took the animal to help him carry the wounded back.

He carried on performing this task, totally independent of any orders, with donkeys variously called Abdul, Murphy, Queen Elizabeth and Duffy, for twenty-four days before he was killed. Duffy is the donkey who has made it into legend as the donkey first found by Simpson. After Simpson’s death, the last of Simpson’s donkeys is said to have returned to the camp hospital on his own, carrying the last wounded soldier Simpson had put onto his back.

The bloke with the donk.

Simpson and his donkey had made it into legend and gained the admiration of the establishment whose rules he had refused to follow.  Australia’s greatest WWI General, then Colonel, John Monash, spoke warmly of him: “Private Simpson and his little beast earned the admiration of everyone at the upper end of the valley. They worked all day and night throughout the whole period since the landing, and the help rendered to the wounded was invaluable. Simpson knew no fear and moved unconcernedly amid shrapnel and rifle fire, steadily carrying out his self-imposed task day by day, and he frequently earned the applause of the personnel for his many fearless rescues of wounded men from areas subject to rifle and shrapnel fire.”

We get a vivid, and believable picture of the character of Jack in the the remembrances of his colleagues in the ambulance brigades, as quoted in Tom Curran’s book, “Not only a hero”:; “Andy described Jack as ‘a big man and very muscular, though aged only 22 and was selected at once as a stretcher bearer… he was too human to be a parade ground soldier, and strongly disliked discipline; though not lazy he shirked the drudgery of “forming fours”, and other irksome military tasks.’ Andy also said of Jack “that ‘he was very witty, and inclined to the lazy, very popular, liked a pot or two but did not drink to excess; careless of dress and was a handful to Sgt. Hookway, his Section Sergeant.'”

And from the same author I get a real sense of the quick flashes of exasperated irascibility and biting wit that were part of his character and in which I also recognise the character of my own Geordie and Border ancestors: “Jack was livid. ‘You stupid lookin’ sod!’, he yelled out – to Private Tom Yeomans – ‘the only chance the poor little bugger hez of gettin’ a bit of a rest and yee hev to ride him back half a mile up this hill.’ Jack could have knocked Yeomans off the donkey’s back, he was so angry (as Yeomans later recalled). ‘Sorry mate’, Yeomans said, ‘I didn’t realise.’ Jack’s anger disappeared as quickly as it had arisen, a summer storm. ‘That’s alreet mate’, he grinned, punching the soldier lightly on the shoulder, ‘Divint dee it again, eh!’

The Simpson Memorial at Shields, Tyneside

As with all legends, Jack Simpson’s story has been told, retold, deconstructed, reconstructed, denied; people question how many casualties he and his donkey could really have carried: the detail, the detail. He has been claimed by many, and by the Australians most of all, who know him as “the bloke with the donk”; “Simpson and his donkey”; “the man with the donkey.” His image has been put onto stamps and statues have been erected to him. He has been described as a humanitarian, a trade unionist and “a disaffected English deserter” who hated guns and who only wanted to return home when he signed up for the army in Perth, Australia.



Who are we to judge? We were not there; we did not witness it. Many historians have written of the utter confusion and mess of the Gallipoli Campaign. The only people with the right to comment, it could be argued, were the casualties saved by “the man with the donkey”. They are the people who experienced the work of this man and made his legend: they were the “diggers” of ANZAC cove and with their ghosts and their living relatives it should remain.

One of the many Australian memorials to the "Man with the donk".

Over the years there has been a fervent campaign to obtain a posthumous V.C. for Simpson. Many believe that the lack of a V.C. is a great wrong that should be redressed. In discussing this with my Australian husband, his views were clear; a V.C. would “mean the creation of an official myth. It should be left as it is, for those to whom it belongs.” And as a Geordie, knowing something of the background to Jack Simpson, the type of streets and houses he and his family would have lived in, even the donkeys on the beaches of Northumberland and Durham that were giving rides when I was a child, I agree with him.

Read more about Jack Simpson and his donkey on:;;;; http:;//;;;;