Burns: Robert / Supper / Reindeer

Burns Suppers celebrate the life and work of the Scots poet Robert Burns. More commonly known as Burns Night the suppers take place on or around his birthday, 25th January and are effectively a second national day in Scotland. Here at Reindeer House we just love any excuse to get together and eat some fantastic food with some great company! For those of you that don’t know about the Burns Supper tradition here’s a brief overview of what we got up to last night at our Burns Supper, along with some tales of our reindeer named Burns, seeing as this is a reindeer blog after all!

Robert Burns 1759-1796. Photo from Wikimedia commons.

Robert Burns was born in 1759 in Alloway, Ayshire and lived until he was 37. He is known and celebrated worldwide for his poetry much of which was written in the Scots language or Scots dialect. Whilst many of his poems were of the Romanticism style he lived through a period of political repression. His work often reflected or commented upon this and some considered him to be a radical and revolutionary which perhaps helped give him such a huge following during and after his lifetime.

The poem and song “Auld Lang Syne” is sung all over the world on Hogmanay and is one of Rabbie Burns’ most famous works. Other well known work by him includes “Scots Wha Hae”, a patriotic song which became an unofficial national anthem for Scotland. It was written in the form of a speech from Robert the Bruce before the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 where Scotland defeated England in Battle. Romantic work included (My Love is Like) “A Red, Red Rose” whilst “Tam o’ Shanter” and “To a Mouse” reflect on his upbringing as a tenant farmer. For us though at Reindeer House his “My Heart’s in the Highlands” seems most appropriate!

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Farewell to the mountains, high-cover’d with snow,
Farewell to the straths and green vallies below;
Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods,
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.
My heart’s in the Highlands.

If you needed further persuasion of Robert Burns’ stature then did you know he won a contest run by STV to be called “The Greatest Scot” of all time in 2009? It is a rather impressive feat to have beaten Mel Gibson (William Wallace) to the title don’t you think? Perhaps he was aided by some of his extremely impressive nicknames that make him sound more like a cross between a rap artist and a boxer:

– The Bard of Ayrshire

– The Ploughman Poet

– Or just plain Rabbie Burns

Here’s a photo of some of our cows and calves on the free range a couple of weeks ago for anyone desperate to get back onto reindeer!

Burns Suppers have been taking place for over two centuries with the evenings format barely changing over the years. There is usually a general welcome followed by the “Selkirk Grace”

Some hae meat and canna eat,

And some wad eat that want it;

But we hae meat, and we can eat,

Sae let the Lord be thankit.

Supper usually then begins with a soup dish such as Scotch broth or Cullen skink before everyone stands for the “Piping” of the haggis (this is exactly how it sounds). We stand whilst the haggis is brought into the room by the cook whilst a piper plays a tune such as “A Man’s a Man for A’ That” written by Burns. Before you can eat the haggis though, you must first address it! “Address to a Haggis” is a poem written to a haggis with the opening line of Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face” (translated as Nice seeing your honest, chubby face). At last we can eat the haggis! Served with neeps (swede) and tatties (potatoes) our meal last night was delicious! The evening concludes with an often amusing “Toast to the Lassies” and a reply for the laddies before a vote of thanks is given and everyone stands to sing “Auld Lang Syne”.


Reindeer herders, spotted for once out of our scruffy clothes!

As you can see we had a fantastic evening, but back to the reindeer!

As well as giving us an excuse for a party at the end of January, Rabbie Burns is of particular importance to us because we have a reindeer named after him! This year our calves were named after authors, writers and poets so we obviously had to name one Burns. He has turned out to be one of the biggest, strongest and healthiest calves of the year. He is extremely tame and bold and quickly became quite a cheeky chappy. We have him marked down, along with Dr Seuss, as being one of the biggest characters of the next few year but hopefully neither of them will misbehave too much in the following years as young bulls like Fergus did.

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Burns, of the reindeer variety rather than his namesake Robert. Taken a few months ago he’s now substantially bigger!

When he came in off the free range in late summer with his mother Gazelle he had broken one of his antlers and it was growing over his face making it difficult for him to feed. We called out the vet who cut away the antler from his face and after a short while with a bandage in the shed he recovered well to become the strong healthy calf that he is. We are interested to see next year whether his antler will grow back in a more “normal” direction and shape or whether the pedicle from which the antler grows has been damaged and Burns will perhaps always grow one antler in a funny shape and direction.

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Fiona and Burns out on the free range this week showing off his forward growing antler.


The importance of reindeer to regions in the Arctic

Reindeer are an integral part of life in the far north. The cultures there rely on the animals for transport, food and skins.

Reindeer are the only animal suited to the cold that can provide the people living in the arctic regions with animal protein. They are raised for venison but almost all parts of the animals are used. The skin is an obvious, valuable and extremely useful product. The skins are used for clothing, rugs and numerous other everyday items. Reindeer are used as draft animals – transporting both people and freight from A to B.

Many of the people of the far north are nomadic. Families or groups migrate large distances to access seasonal pastures. Their reindeer graze and grow and then move on and the people who own them travel with them. Their possessions are on sleighs or directly on the backs of the reindeer. This blog will highlight some of the many arctic cultures and people, and discuss how these people live and especially how they care for, work with and use reindeer.

Reindeer harnessed for a demonstration of sleigh pulling. Photo taken during visit to Sweden in 2008.
During a cold winter in Sweden, reindeer historically provide the main means of survival. Photo taken during visit to Sweden in 2008.

Nenets herders of Russia travel up to 1000km seasonally to survive the challenges of life so far north. The Nenets form the largest group of people in Northern Russia totalling around 40,000 people, with some 700,000 reindeer. The Nenets eat reindeer meat and use the skin of the reindeer as clothing.

A warm jacket made of reindeer skin from the Nenets culture. Photo from Wikimedia commons.

The Chukchi people of Eastern Russia trade reindeer meat and skins with coastal people who provide whale fat and seal skins. The Chukchi people make their tents out of reindeer skins.

The Evenki people in China live with small numbers of reindeer who are milked and used for transport. The reindeer are highly prized and not slaughtered for meat. The antlers are taken and used in traditional Chinese Medicine.

Sami people are the indigenous people of Scandinavia and today live in the far northern areas of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Currently around 3000 people in this area are involved full time in nomadic reindeer herding. The Sami culture is famous for its connection to reindeer. The Sami people produce wonderful crafts and engravings often using reindeer antlers and skins.

Knives made by people from the Sami culture. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Reindeer herding is big business in the Arctic regions and without reindeer the survival of the people and their cultures would be in question. The Cairngorm Reindeer herd was of course established by a Sami reindeer herder. Mikel Utsi came from Swedish Lapland and brought his herding, reindeer husbandry skills and Sami culture with him to Scotland. These skills and culture continue and live on through us and our herding here in the Cairngorm National Park.

A reindeer pulling a sledge in Sweden. Photo taken during visit to Sweden in 2008.
Mikel Utsi with his reindeer – originally from Sweden – in our current hill enclosure in the 1960s.




Calling all deer..

Deer in general are fairly quiet animals, uttering little or no noise in their daily lives. However there are two quite vocal times of year, in the spring when female deer calve and in the autumn when the males are competing for the breeding females.

In spring time whether it is a Red deer hind, a Roe doe or Reindeer cow they will call softly to their young when they are looking for them. In May time when our reindeer calves are born the mothers can get quite agitated if their young calves are not right beside them, grunting incessantly to call them back. Red deer hinds ‘mew’ to their young calves and a Roe doe gives a low whistle when calling her young.

red deer hind
A Red deer hind with her young. Photo from Wikipedia Commons

But the call of the rutting males can be quite different and is sometimes meant to warn off competing males and signal ‘how big and tough’ they are. At this time of year in the forests and glens of Scotland the red deer are in full rut and they make a fabulous bellowing noise rather similar to the roar of a lion. There have been scientific studies on the meaning of bellowing and it has been proven that the more times a stag roars at one session the more likely he is to be a successful breeding male.

Frontal view of red deer stag (Cervus elaphus) roaring during the rut, mouth open, in England
A Red deer stag bellowing. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

However Reindeer (and Caribou) do not bellow like red deer but instead ‘grunt’ rather like a female calling to her calf, but more ‘gutteral’. And the grunting only really takes place when a bull is chasing after a cow. It is not a loud noise and certainly is not a threatening call in the same way as the red deer bellowing.

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A tussel will often follow reindeer grunting, with the winner going on to breed with the females.

Roe buck, patrolling his territory will bark (like a dog) to challenge other bucks who dare to step a foot in his domain and Fallow bucks are different again, issuing a husky, rolling grunt in an attempt to attract the does and warn off other prospective males.

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A Roe deer buck with velvety antlers, just before the rut. Photo from Geograph.
The grunt of a Persian Fallow deer buck, to warn off competitors. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

The non-native Sika deer, which were introduced into GB at the turn of the last century, have a characteristic kind of whistle, which turns into a high-pitched scream during the rut.

Sika Deer Roe Deer Hirsch Wild Free Deer Red Deer
The more delicate looking of deer species in rutting season, a male Fallow deer. Photo from Max Pixel.

So there is a vast variation of noises from grunts to screams, even among the deer found here in Great Britain. So if you go out in the countryside at certain times in the year and hear something unusual, don’t take flight, it will probably be a female and young calf, or else a harmless male deer in full flow because it’s the rutting season..



Glenfeshie Girls

Every year when the cows and calves come off the high tops from the summer one group tend to head towards Glenfeshie, a part of the Cairngorms they aren’t meant to be. We have got good communications with the landowners and gamekeepers over there so they let us know and we head over in the mission to catch them. It is always the same culprits. To name a couple– Fern and Wapiti. You may remember a blog in October of Andi and I recovering Fern from Glenfeshie in the autumn so she must have gone straight back!

Glenfeshie, where the reindeer like to hang out. Photo from Geograph, labelled for reuse.

Alex is chief free range reindeer herder and knows the hills best over there so he headed out the first few times to catch up with them. Once he knew their location he set up a corral with a few gates in the aim to catch the naughty reindeer. This all happened over the Christmas and New Year period, they like to pick the busy times! Alex went out a few times and fed them which gets them used to the feed again and a bit easier to manage. In the group were three calves who weren’t yet trained so they were fairly timid and didn’t let Alex get very close. But then we got the phone call at Reindeer House from Alex that he had them all in… calves included. Ye-Ha!!!

It can be hard to spot reindeer on the hill at the best of times, but especially in these speckled snow conditions. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

So Chris and I got everything together and headed off in Brenda (this is the name of our wee livestock truck). Alex was going to start putting halters on them. When we arrived it materialised Alex wasn’t on his own. With Emily (his wife) and two month old son in toe the three of them had caught all the reindeer. Start them young! Being the holiday period the hills were pretty busy with people walking and there were a few dogs around so Emily was on people and dog duty while we walked the reindeer up to the livestock truck. Remember the calves are pretty wild and not halter trained so there was a lot of persuasion going on. Luckily all their mothers are halter trained so they were easy. So in two runs, we walked all 11 reindeer up to the livestock truck and loaded them.

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Fern – the Glenfeshie girl.

On route we phoned the Centre to get extra pairs of hands to lead them across to our enclosure where they have now been for a week. The calves are getting more and more bold everyday, eating the mixture and now joining in with our daily guided tours. It won’t take long for them to get pretty tame… the great thing about reindeer and thousands of years of domestication means working with humans comes second nature to them. We will halter train them over the next few weeks. Their names are Keats, Blyton and Harper to fit into our 2017 naming theme of poets and authors.

Parmesan and her big healthy female calf Blyton settling into the enclosure and getting used to people beinging food. And all watched closely by Morven (on the left)!


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