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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Laurence Edmondston   2 August [1857]1

Down Bromley Kent

Aug 2d.

My dear Sir

I am very much obliged for your letter of the 23d, & for your information on the wild Pigeons, which is of much value to me.— I enclose the stamps for the Rabbit, for which I heartily thank you, as it will prove interesting in comparison with some other insular individuals.—2 You are so kind as to offer to take the great trouble of sending me some young Rock Pigeons: if I could have had them ten years ago, they wd. have been worth their weight in gold to me, but now, I think, I could have hardly any chance of breeding them for a sufficient number of generations to make it worth while to have them; though this does not make it the less kind of your offering to send them.—3

About a month ago I wished extremely to ask you a question but I refrained solely because I thought I had already trespassed to a quite unreasonable degree on your kindness; but as you offer with so much goodnature to assist me further, I will ask my question, as I do not think it can cost very much trouble, & it is a point on which I have vainly sought for information.

In most parts of N. Europe, small horses or ponys are common (Eel-backs) of a Dun or Mouse-colour. Do such occur in the Shetlands? These duns generally, (perhaps always (?)) have a black stripe along the spine, & sometimes, (as I have seen) transverse dark Zebra-like marks on the legs, & I have been assured on perfect authority a transverse shoulder stripe like that of the Ass. Now any information on ponys of this colour wd be of extreme interest to me, as it is a most widely geographically extended & ancient breed.—4

Is the spinal stripe universal with the duns? Have you ever seen the shoulder asinine stripe? are the transverse leg marks common? But especially I want to know whether these marks when they occur are plainer on the very young foal before the first hair is shed. And more than all I want to know whether the Dun or Mouse colour ever appears when neither parent is dun, and as far as known, no ancestor has been of this colour; though this must always be very doubtful.

Is the Dun (with spinal stripe & occasional other stripes) a very hereditary colour, ie will one parent of this colour generally transmit it, when two horses of different colours, one being dun, are crossed? When duns & other colours are crossed what colour results? I have written to Norway to beg for information;5 & if you can give me any (& coming from you, I know it will be reliable) it will in truth be of extreme use to me. Something analogous occurs in cream- & roan & chesnut horses; though in the two latter colours I have heard (& seen) only the spinal stripe. I do not know whether these colours ever appear in the Shetland herds.

I can trust only to your great kindness, so often shown to me, to forgive this long note, & I beg to remain, with hearty thanks, My dear Sir | Your’s sincerely | Ch. Darwin

Anything about the stripes on Chesnuts interests me almost as much as in Duns.


The year is given by CD’s request for information on dun-coloured horses (see letter to Gardeners’ Chronicle, [before 13 June 1857]) and by the reference to the rabbit sent by Edmondston (see n. 2, below).
Edmondston’s letter has not been found, but see the letter to Laurence Edmondston, 19 April [1857], in which CD asked Edmondston to provide him with a specimen of the feral rabbit of the Shetland Islands.
CD had already received two dead rock pigeons from Edmondston in April (see letter to Laurence Edmondston, 19 April [1857]), the measurements of which he later used in Variation 1: 134 n. 5.
CD discussed the dun-coloured ponies, but without mentioning any from the Shetlands, in his species book (Natural selection, pp. 329–32). He believed that they, like the occasional reversion of breeds of domestic pigeons to the coloration and markings of Columba livia, might illustrate the ‘Laws of variation’.
The letter has not been found, but a note in Variation 1: 58 n. 31 indicates that CD had written to John Rice Crowe, British consul-general in Norway, who provided him with information on this from several university professors. Crowe had previously corresponded with CD (see Correspondence vol. 5). In his species book (Natural selection, p. 329), CD stated that dun-coloured ponies were found ‘commonly (as informed by a friend) in Norway’.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Natural selection: Charles Darwin’s Natural selection: being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Edited by R. C. Stauffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Thanks for rabbit.

Are there dun-coloured ponies in Shetlands? Are they striped?

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Laurence Edmondston
Sent from
Source of text
L. D. Edmondston (private collection)
Physical description
ALS 10pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2131,” accessed on 29 November 2022,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 6