Myths, Legends, and good old stories

In this blog, I will be exploring the way Reindeer and other Deer species are represented within myths, legends and general stories over a variety of cultures. From old folklore to modern day films and books, Deer have been used as symbolism for magic, and an insight into the natural world.
2000 years ago, the Sami people inhabited large parts of the arctic circle. The oldest recorded document regarding the Sami people dates back to 98AD by the Roman Historian Tacitus. The Sami have a close connection with nature and the animals that live and survive around them.
Sami folklore states that the white reindeer was the most magical reindeer of all the reindeer. It was believed that if a human was to catch a white reindeer it would bring them luck, riches and eternal happiness.

Harry, Bajaan, Minto

In some other cultures they have a beautiful belief of how they believe that in the beginning there was only the sun and the earth, and the white reindeer created the wold. The Veins became rivers, its fur became the forest, and its antlers became the mountains. Either way it seems that people who work alongside reindeer have a deep connection and understanding about nature and its natural balance.


What makes a reindeer white- Leucism is a mutation in the genetics of reindeer. This makes the particular reindeer pure white, however the mutation can also cause them to be deaf too. Reindeer rely on hearing to communicate through involuntary clicking from a tendon snapping against the bone as they walk. If a predator is close by the clicking would be loud and in quick succession, signalling that the herd was running. A deaf reindeer wouldn’t be able to hear this, therefore, not so many white reindeer exist in the wild.


In the Cairngorms we have two pure white Scottish females Mozzarella and Blondie, and one white Swedish male, Matto (although not Leucistic), he was chosen for us, so we would have a white reindeer in our herd. Matto was brought over from Sweden to potentially be a breeding bull, however there were sadly more handsome specimens available, and Matto was a bit on the small side. However, with no large bodied predators in Scotland, such as wolves and lynx, allows the white reindeer to survive, and pass on the lucky trait of being pure white! Or we are just a really lucky herd with huge amounts of eternal happiness.


Deer in general have strong places in the mythology across the world. In Celtic folklore, has several stories involving deer as spiritual figures. In some Scottish and Irish tales Deer are seen as “Fairy Cattle,” and are herded by otherworldly women, who can shapeshift into the form of a red or a white deer.
Furthermore, in many other culture’s deer are heavily featured in songs and poems, such as the beginning proportion of the poem Beowulf, and in the Poetic Edda poem Gimnismal The Four Stags of Yggdrasil, who are four stags who eat among the “Yggdrasil” (the world tree). A theory to these four stags is that they represent the four seasons, and the “World Tree” This poem also relates to mythical stag “Eikbyrnir” who lives on top of Valhalla.
Deer have also got links with Greek Mythology. The Third Labour of Heracles; Eurystheus and Hera were angered that Heracles had beaten the beasts in the first two labours, so gave him the task of capturing the female Cerynein Hind, a hind that could grow antlers, and outrun a flying arrow.
There are different versions of the story, one where Hercules captures the deer by waiting for her to fall asleep; another version says that Artemis intercepts Hercules trying to capture her sacred animal and tells him to relay the message to Hera and Eurystheus and the labour would be considered complete.
The hind was the sacred animal of Artemis, the goddess of hunting and the wilderness. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leto, and one of the twelve Olympians.

Olympic as a calf

Reindeer pee- now this isn’t myth or legend, just a good (and true) story. Reindeer, particularly young males, occasionally enjoy eating a variety of mushrooms. Some of these mushrooms are highly poisonous to humans, however, because reindeer are ruminants, they are able to digest and deal with the poisons within the mushrooms. These mushrooms, however, can have some side effects. They can get high off the mushrooms; this happens in the cairngorm reindeer herd too, our boys go ‘shrooming’.
In some Scandinavian countries, they use this talent of digesting poisonous mushrooms to their advantage and drink the urine of the reindeer. Due to the poisons in the mushrooms being broken down, it just leaves trace elements from the fungi. These can have psychedelic effects if ingested.
Rudolph the red nose reindeer- The shiny nosed reindeer was first introduced by Robert L. May in 1939, in order to save money for annual Christmas promotions in the department store chain, Montgomery Ward. In its first year over 2 million copies were sold. May tried and tested different versions of the story on his young daughter. “Rudolph the red nose reindeer” was first printed on a large scale in 1947, and due to its success, a short cartoon was shown in theatres the following year. From the increasing success since 1939, Rudolph is probably the most famous reindeer of all.
Annabelle’s wish is a Christmas film about a cow who wants to become a reindeer. Is still my favourite Christmas film of all time! Annabelle and the rest of the farm animals are able to talk for one whole day, due to Santa’s magical powers. Annabelle is amazed by the reindeer who pull his sleigh and decides that next year she’ll ask Santa to make her a reindeer too. She is given as a gift to a little boy who cannot speak. She becomes really close friends with the boy and when the following Christmas comes decides to ask for another wish- so Billy can speak again. However, in doing this Annabelle is never given the power to talk again. She grows old and stays with Billy until he’s an adult with his own family. In the end Santa grants Annabelle her original wish and she becomes a reindeer, and part of Santa’s sleigh team.
Bambi- Was released in 1942 produced by Walt Disney and based on the book Bambi, a Life in the Woods by Austrian author Felix Salten. Bambi was only the fifth Disney animated feature film.

One of our yearlings, Frost

Bambi is based on a mule deer. However, Disney had to change the species from Roe deer to Mule deer to better fit the native species in north America. The film received three Academy Awards.
Fire Bringer was published in 1999 as a young adult Fantasy Novel by David Clement- Davies. The story follows the life of a young red deer, Rannoch, during the 13th century in the lowlands of Scotland, whose life is subject of an old prophecy among the deer.

Young male Red Deer in Glen Etive

Fire Bringer is one of the few books that I have read that I wish I could read again for the first time all over again. It is such a beautiful story with many adult underling themes. If I was to compare it to another book it would be of the same themes of Watership Down. With several different links to historical events throughout the book. I Highly recommend reading this book!


Midges…complete and utter nuisances. That’s what most people tend to say.
Well…I’ve heard quite a few individuals use more colourful language than that, but that’s the gist of most people’s views on this small flying insect that occupies the Highlands. This view is commonly expressed whilst people flap their hands around as if they’re aiming to actually launch off and flee the plague of midges.
In the bible there is reference to a plague of locust but this past week it is the midge numbers that have been of biblical proportions, causing people to look like they have moustaches and tattoos. In the five years that I’ve been reindeer herding last week was by far the worst that I’ve ever seen the midges.
During this past week I also found that the term midge can get lost in translation! We recently had a visitor who complained about being attacked by midgets. It’s amazing the difference one letter in a sentence can make!

Horrible sight

It was during the latest inundation of midge attacks that I found myself asking: Where do these midges even live? Why are they biting us? How long do they live? Well, look no further folks…let’s rattle out some midge facts.
• Midges have a life span of around one month. Although adults are only capable of flight for a short portion of that time.
• Midges lay their eggs in wet soil, bogs, mires and the soggy surrounding landscape.
• In the U.K. there is 2-3 batches of midge eggs per year. The first batch is in May or June depending on warmth and moisture levels. A second occurs in late July or early August. And if the season is a warm one, a third batch can occur in September.
• In the U.K. alone there are more than 500 species of non-biting midges, and more than 150 species of biting midges. Most of these are found in Scotland, however they can also be found in Northern England and Northern Wales.
• Only the female midges bite. The male and female midges survive upon sugary food such as plant nectar. However, the females need a protein rich meal of fresh blood in order to mature their eggs. They get this from both birds and mammals, with the majority of blood coming from cattle, sheep and deer.
• Female midges tend to bite in close proximity to their breeding site and rarely go further than 1km away (cough, cough, Utsi bridge).
• Once they’ve found a blood source, midges emit pheromones and summon all their buddies to come on over, hence the swarming.
• They have short and sharp mandibles to pierce the skin of mammals and then they increase the blood flow via histamines in their saliva. This is what causes the wound to swell afterwards.
• Low light spurs their feeding habits so they’re most active at dawn and dusk.
• It takes a midge five minutes of feeding to become engorged.
• Mild and wet winters usually means a bigger midge season. Moreover, a very cold winter can also mean a bigger midge season. In 2010 the prolonged freezing conditions in Scotland reduced the number of natural predators such as bats and birds, meaning more midges.
• It is estimated that midges cost the Scottish tourism industry around £268 million per year in lost visits.
• On the Isle of Rum, folk lore says that as punishment for improperly burying a body, a gravedigger was stripped, tied to a post and left outside for the midges to feast on. They did kill him, eventually.
• Rumour has it that pomegranate skin, marmite, lavender and charcoal are all deterrents.
• They’re attracted to the CO2 that us animals produce. Some people are more attractive than others due to a combination of specific body odour and temperature. They are also more attracted to dark coloured clothing than light coloured clothing.
• There is a midge forecast, detailing how torrential the midge downpour is across Scotland, which can be located at

Close up of the horrible things

So, there you have it. They say knowledge is power, but I’m not sure this knowledge will stop you being attacked by these small critters, but at least it may give you some happiness to know that you’re playing a part in a midge’s life cycle. Bah, who am I kidding? Probably not! But you may get some happiness in knowing that at least you’re not a midge.



1 year anniversary of reindeer herding

It’s time for me to write a blog and my one-year anniversary of being an (employed that is) reindeer herder is coming up soon, so why not make that my topic?

I arrived at reindeer house July the 5th, after a long drive from Newcastle where I was released from the ferry, ready to start my life as a herder in the Cairngorms. I was immediately swept away with the fast-flowing life of reindeer house, as a few hours after my arrival we were to play a game of rounders on Hayfield. My weekend plans had also already been laid out, there would be a ceilidh on Skye after a hill race the Saturday, and everyone was going. I’d only ever volunteered as a reindeer herder, and had never done a hillrace in my life, yet I’d been to one ceilidh so I kind of knew what was going on (or did I?). What followed was a summer full of running and walking around hills and mountains in rain and sunshine, long nights at the Pinemarten bar, short nights in my bed at the reindeer centre, nightly swims in Loch Morlich, and music gigs where we danced until our feet hurt and then we’d dance some more. I thought that within a year and a bit I might leave again, so I had best make the most of it.

Loch Morlich swims with Lotti

Fast forward to last week (Ed. back in June – it’s taken two months to upload this blog!), where I did a couple of days of reindeer herding, then drove off in a van to spend a long weekend in Arran with Chris. The main reason of our visit was participating in the furthest hillrace I’ve ever run (26k, 2000+m of ascent!!) but also to discover more of Scotland. I’ve now seen a fair bit of Scotland, but the more I see, the more I find I still want to see. I’ve also had every season now in terms of reindeer herding. I saved the best for last, as calving season has just come and gone and now our summer season is just about to start again. In a year I’ve learned lots, but most importantly that one can never know what to expect from a day at the reindeer centre. I’ll briefly go over the seasons as I’ve experienced them the past year.

Full on, both in terms of reindeer herding and life at reindeer house. At some points there were 7 people living at reindeer house, excluding visiting friends and family for whom there’s always a bed to crash at the centre. On top of that, on frequent occasions there were guests at parties that filled up the house and left it again, like the tides of a sea coming and going. This meant there was constantly a high level of energy in the house, and so were the people living and working in and around it. There were 3 hill trips a day, most of which were quite full. So basically, a standard day looked like this: wake up, get breakfast and a big big coffee. Then either go up the hill first thing, or do the paddocks and/or emails down at the centre. Then take a fairly large group of visitors up the hill to show them the reindeer, work a bit in the shop and the office, shut the centre at 5pm. After work we’d go for a run, eat together with everyone who lived at the centre at the moment and their guests, and this would often then end with a night at the Pinemarten bar for “just one drink” (which often somehow ended up being a bit more than that).

The first of many reindeer selfies

There’s no clear boundary between Summer and Autumn, but at one point most of the seasonal staff has unfortunately left, and there’s an eerie kind of quietness that takes over in Reindeer house. All of the sudden some nights no-one took the initiative to go for a run, swim, or visit to the pub. And the nights I sat still I noticed a bit of a tiredness, like a giant hangover from the lack of sleep and excess of activities and drinks over summer. Autumn we took things a little bit slower, there weren’t as many hill trips and visitors anymore, the centre had quietened down and so had the house. It was also time for my first hill race ever, which was absolutely great. The days started getting shorter and the head torches came out for the runs at night..

October = sleigh training

And then it was winter. First wet and windy, later on a bit colder and snowy, but never as cold as I’d expected it from the stories of the years before. Reindeer house exchanged the running shoes for ski-touring boots and skis, and instead of walking or running up and down mountains we’d “skin” up and ski down, whenever there was snow. The first months of winter were crazy busy again, because of our Christmas events and weekends of Christmas fun. We’d either be at the centre, carrying out Christmas fun duties or regular herding tasks (including lots and lots of adopts), or we were going all over the country in teams, with big lorries for Christmas parades, staying overnight at our farm bases. When Christmas was over, another sort of peace and quiet came over reindeer house, different from the one after summer. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the events, but shutting the centre for a couple of weeks in January allowed us time to work less and enjoy the Scottish winter. We were also able to catch up on all sorts of tasks that had been dropped in the Christmas craziness. Days were very short and this meant energy levels a lot lower, so lots of excuses for going to bed early!


Early winter free rangers

Proper winter reindeer herding

Eventually the long nights got shorter, bit by bit. Our female reindeer started showing signs of pregnancy. It was still very quiet at the centre, with the odd school holiday in between. Every time I went down South for a hill race or a trip of a different nature, it was clear that Spring was on its way, but in the subarctic climate of the Cairngorms we had to wait quite a while. Even once spring signs had clearly presented themselves we had a bit of snow every now and then. The last month of Spring was also the best month of my “career” as a reindeer herder so far – calving time is amazing. I’d be willing to drop everything at once if I’d get a shot at walking around the enclosure to find a wee ball of fluff next to its mum somewhere tucked away in a corner. The changing weather and daylight hours gave lots of extra energy, either spend chasing calves and mums or training for or participating in my first proper season of hill racing. What a joy to live in the hills, with such great animals and nature around!

Calving season
Special moments

And so my first year as a reindeer herder was complete. Summer staff came to move back into reindeer house, and the centre started getting busier. Tufts of hair were flying around: the reindeer were moulting their winter coats and the circle would start all over again.


Can reindeer swim?

Google will tell you pretty quickly and you’ll also see a cool clip on Youtube from a dude on a boat filming his herd across a body of water.

Reindeer are good swimmers and today we’ll find out why and how.

Reindeer have spent millennia migrating across continents to access seasonal pastures. Their habitat grows relatively coarse fodder meaning they must travel vast distances for grazing. These migrations tackle many obstacles and one particularly challenging is water. This water body was often a river but also small sections of ocean between the mainland and an island perhaps. Either way the reindeer needed to swim. And Swim they did. And this is how they do it…

Reindeer have miraculous hooves. Their hooves can be used as snowshoes or spades in the winter for dealing with all that snow and flippers for swimming! Their action is a doggy paddle stroke and I feel we should rename this stroke and call it ‘reindeer paddle’.

We know their fur is hollow trapping air to insulate them from winters’ frosts but did we know this air fill coat also acts as a buoyancy aid! How fantastic is that?!

Manouk’s interpretation of a swimming reindeer

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking yea ok reindeer can cross a river, so can I. I swam across the Spey River once. No, they can really swim. The herds in North America are known for especially large migration routes. These herds swim across huge rivers. The Yukon river flows for over 3000km the Spey just 170km. The Yukon has a volume of 6428 cubic metres per second almost exactly 100 times larger than the Spey. These rivers are big and anything that could swim across would need to be a strong swimmer.

Caribou swimming across the Porcupine river, Yukon.
Photo credit: Niclolas Dory,


It’s all in a name.

Some people answer to just one name, others like me have a proper name and a nickname. Although given the name Elizabeth as a baby, I was nicknamed Tiddly because I was the youngest ( and so smallest ) in our family of four children.

Tiddly got shortened to either Tids or Tilly and now many 10’s of years on from being Tiddly I am almost universally known as Tilly, although I do sometimes use my ‘real’ name Elizabeth when I want to sound ‘official’.

Having two names has worked to my advantage. Many years ago, when I was still organising all the Christmas Events with our reindeer ( thankfully our daughter Fiona does all that now ) I received a phone call from one of our clients regarding their event. After our conversation I said to the Centre Manager, ‘ I am going away for a couple of weeks and so if you have any other queries it may be best to wait till I get back’. To which the lady replied ‘ that’s no problem if you are not available, I will just ask for Tilly!’ I didn’t let on, but was amused that in this Centre Manager’s eyes there was a Tilly and an Elizabeth!

Tilly, in action. Photo credit: John Paul

Tilly was not a common name when I was a child but in recent years I have met quite a few young Tillys! I am not someone who keeps up with changing fashions, indeed my mother used to despair of me always wearing jeans and never putting on makeup! But it would seem that I was ahead of the game when it came to my nickname!

As well as other people being called Tilly I have known of various animals with my name. Years ago I was driving up the Ski road from Aviemore back to Reindeer House and there was a chap with his ‘3 legged black labrador’ trying to hitch a lift. Feeling sorry for the dog I drew up and jumped out to let the dog jump in the back. The chap said ‘ jump in Tilly ‘ which rather took me aback before I realised he was talking to his dog!

In the mid 1980’s we became acquainted with a farmer and his wife from Keilder in Northumberland who ran a small open farm. We became best friends and over the years they both looked after reindeer for us at their farm and helped out with our reindeer events at Christmas time. John was a great stockman and could turn his hand to all types of livestock. He acquired some fallow deer and when the doe had her fawn, she wouldn’t raise it and so John and Shirley hand reared the little mite. The wee fallow became incredibly tame and was a winner with all their visitors. I was well chuffed when they announced they had called her, yup you guessed ——-‘Tilly’.

A few of the Wild Farm fallow deer

Not only do we name all our reindeer, but we also name our pedigreed Belted Galloway cattle that live on our farm at Glenlivet. When we name our reindeer calves we choose a theme for that year. Last year it was TV/film detectives, before that poets and authors, ancient civilisations etc etc. But with the cattle we go through the alphabet and in 2018 the letter was T. So strangely enough one of our heifers ( young cows ) is called Balcorrach Tilly.

Some of Tilly’s Belted Galloways, but not Belted Galloway Tilly…

And then today we received an email from a lady in the USA who had recently bought a copy of my latest book Reindeer, An Arctic Life. It transpires that she has a reindeer farm and this is what she wrote in her email:

‘Your book just arrived today and I am only one chapter in, but I already know I absolutely LOVE it. We would be honored to feature this book in our gift shop at our reindeer farm———– Already planning to name our next calf, Tilly.’

So there we go. I don’t think I ever imagined that I would have namesakes that were as diverse as a 3 legged dog, a fallow deer, a Belted Galloway cow and potentially a reindeer. What an honour. And to cap it all, very close friends had a little girl 2.5 years ago and not only did they ask me to be her Godmother but they also named her Tilly!


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