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.
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).
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..
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!
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!
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.