2nd World war Wren, who became a renowned pony breeder, exhibitor and judge
Margaret Runcie, who died on December 23rd 2022 aged 97, was a leading figure in the UK equestrian world. The Rosslyn Stud, which she founded in 1958, produced a stream of champion riding ponies, and outside the ring she was in constant demand as a judge, lecturer, administrator, advisor and breeder, helping to raise the standard and quality of native ponies across the country. She was also proud of her wartime service as a ‘Wren’ in wartime, serving from 1943-6.
Margaret Mary Power was born on October 19th, 1925 in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. Her diminutive stature led to her nickname of ‘Midge’ by her family. Her interest in ponies started aged 3 riding the family donkey. At the insistence of her mother, who never had the chance to ride but enthused her daughter, she joined her local Enfield Chace Pony Club and competed in showing, showjumping and cross-country events. Education at a private boarding school included evacuation from the south coast to mid-Wales. She left in 1941 having gained her School Certificate and spent the next two years at home helping to keep the Enfield Chace Hunt going while its staff were in the Forces.,
By 1943 her mother suggested it was about time Margaret joined up. She enrolled in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (the ‘Wrens’) following her mother’s example in the 1st World War. 9 months of training as a radio and radar mechanic in Warrington and central London followed. There she would often sit near her digs in Cheyne Walk and watch planes flying at night along the River Thames past Battersea Power Station, the whole area being lit up by anti-aircraft searchlights. In June 1944 she was posted to the Fleet Air Arm base of HMS Jackdaw at Crail, Fife on the far eastern tip of Scotland.
For the rest of the War served as a radio mechanic. Her work was usually done at night and involved changing and recharging the batteries of planes returning from sorties across the North Sea, as well as repairing any of the valve radios that were not working. It meant hazardous, wobbly bike rides in pitch darkness across the airfield clutching a heavy battery, with leaking acid dripping down her uniform. She was assigned firstly to 786 Squadron which flew Barracuda torpedo bombers, and later 785 Squadron which flew a similar bomber type named the Avenger. She was billeted in Crail House with other public school girls, rather than in the nearby barracks. “I’d been at boarding school, so was quite used to being away from home, whereas the girls in the barracks were homesick and cried for their mothers at night.”
By the age of 20 she had risen to the rank of Petty Officer as well as grown in height, to the annoyance of the Commanding Officer. Commenting that her skirt was too short she told Margaret sternly that “Wrens don’t grow!.” She hitch-hiked around the Highlands of Scotland when she had any leave, as it was too far to travel back to her home. Like other Wrens was always told to avoid befriending the lonely Polish squadron pilots stationed nearby at Dunino. “All they wanted to do was fall in love with you.”
Demobbed in December 1946, Margaret had applied for and passed the exams to become an aviation mechanic but was firmly told those jobs were reserved for men returning from the Armed Forces. She had already made up her mind for a career in the outdoors, having enjoyed life at HMS Jackdaw, so went to Reading University and study Dairy Animal Science. Graduating in June 1950 she joined the National Agricultural Advisory Service in Leicestershire as a milk tester. She worked mainly in Leicestershire’s Belvoir Valley, which was handy as by then she had restarted riding.
In 1953 Margaret was awarded a scholarship to study for a Masters degree in the USA, at the prestigious University of Cornell, NY. She initially turned down the invitation to apply, reasoning “I’ve got a super hunter who will win all the big shows this summer” but was persuaded by her boss the offer was too good to pass up. Along with other award recipients from England studying a range of subjects, she boarded the famous Cunard liner ‘Queen Mary’ to cross the Atlantic in steerage class.
The particular field of study with her Professor was modern milk transportation, collecting milk in chilled bulk tankers from farms and replacing small, old-fashioned churns left by the farm road end, which tended to go off in the sun. Having completed her Masters she was asked to travel to various recommended types of farms across the USA to study their modern farming techniques. Her companion on that trip was one of those Scottish ‘agrics,’ Ken Runcie. They were married in January 1956. Margaret returning to Scotland only a decade after being stationed there in wartime. Her new home was Langhill, a research farm on the outskirts of Roslin south of Edinburgh which Ken managed for Edinburgh University
The imminent arrival of a son in the summer of 1958 prompted her to set up the Rosslyn Stud, and the start of four successful decades of breeding and showing children’s riding ponies. As the stud became more successful the family moved to a farm in the East Lothian countryside, Garvald Grange, surrounded by 35 acres of fertile grassland ideal for grazing ponies. It also boasted a large walled garden, something Margaret welcomed as a very competent and knowledgeable gardener. Her skills in the art of equine breeding were highly impressive. Sticking to one family and not following fashion, she had a clear picture of what she wanted. She was dedicated to breeding ponies of the highest quality, movement and temperament.
As well as success in the show ring she became influential outside it. Together with two friends, in 1961 they set up the Scottish Committee of the National Pony Society (NPS) to promote better standards and education among native pony owners in Scotland. With Margaret as secretary the Committee worked tirelessly, persuading agricultural shows to put on more native breed classes and book better judges, setting up a transport pool to share long-distance costs from Scotland to the south, running an annual stallion parade to encourage pony owners to use better quality animals, putting on numerous demonstrations to educate people, even coordinating a Scotland-wide dried milk and colostrum scheme for orphan foals. She eventually served as NPS Scottish secretary for 33 years. The telephone at home was never quiet, with people ringing up at all hours for help and advice from Margaret on any aspect of equine management, advice freely and generously given.
Already a Council member of the main body, Margaret became President of the NPS during its centenary year in 1993. At the annual show that year she escorted the Society’s patron HRH Princess Margaret around to explain what was happening. She was asked to stay on for an unprecedented second year in office in 1994 and was also subsequently awarded their Medal of Honour. In 1995 she was the recipient of the prestigious Sir William Young Award from the Royal Highland Agricultural Society. Given annually to those who made the greatest contribution to livestock breeding in Scotland, the citation said “Her success is in large part due to her attention to detail in all aspects of equine management. However those in the horse world agree that she has that intangible asset – flair – which separates her from her peers.” She was the first equestrian personality and the first woman to be awarded this.
By 1997 Margaret decided to retire from running around show rings. It also allowed her to spend more time working in the new garden and enjoying walks with the dog. The dispersal of the stud allowed her more time to judge, including trips to the USA, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, plus a continued involvement in many aspects of the equestrian world using her considerable knowledge. She and Ken also enjoyed going on cruises – they completed 18 of them before her 80th A final move to a sheltered cottage in Haddington followed in 2010, but she continued to keep up with her horsey friends, events and shows until well into her 90s.
She was also an active and much-loved member of the Edinburgh branch of the Wrens Association, proud of her links with the wartime generation. Karen Elliot, Branch Chairman, said “We all loved to hear Margaret’s many tales about her life in the Wrens and beyond. She could be relied upon and was always a willing volunteer to represent our Branch and the Association at commemorative and remembrance services. She enjoyed the opportunity to share some of her experiences with all she came in contact with.” Only recently in May 2022 she was invited to be the guest of honour at a tree-planting ceremony to mark the late Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee at the Scottish Veterans Residences on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
Margaret’s husband Ken, recipient of an OBE in 1987, predeceased her in 2011. She is survived by sons Charles and Ian, and grandchildren Isobel, Charlotte and Grace
Crail HMS Jackdaw 1944
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