A Brand New Reindeer Centre!

On 4th August 1989 Alan and I took over the ownership and management of the Cairngorm Reindeer. We had both been working for the family who owned the herd for a number of years and when Mr Utsi and then Dr Lindgren passed away the opportunity arose for us to buy the herd.

Back when Alan and Tilly took over the Reindeer Centre in the late 80s (and Alan had more hair!)

To this day the 4th August is etched on my brain. Our children were 3 and 4 years old and we had never had our own business, Alan had been employed by Dr Lindgren and I was initially a volunteer. But we had lots of ideas and we had a beautiful herd of reindeer.

The requisite Smith family photo – Tilly and Alan with Alex and Fiona, and obligatory reindeer.

We immediately converted part of Reindeer House into the ‘Cairngorm Reindeer Centre’, with reception, shop and office at one end leaving the rest of the house for living in with our young family and friends, many of whom who were volunteer reindeer herders. The reindeer paddocks beside the house became a display area for visitors to see a small group of reindeer, along with the 11am Hill Trips to the herd on the mountains.

The shop and reception area, in what was once the living room of Reindeer House.

Nearly 35 years later and the status quo continues. The only difference is that we’ve all got older; Alan and I moved out to our new ventures at Glenlivet (although still closely involved with the reindeer) and our daughter Fiona is living at Reindeer House with many of the other herders (they’re paid now though!). We attract more visitors and there are extra daily visits onto the hill to the herd.

The Paddocks in recent years.

The set-up has worked really well and the homespun infrastructure and hard working herders, along with a unique herd of free ranging reindeer, has been a great story. I have written three books around the life of reindeer and our journey with them and the herd is still looked after by us along with a band of enthusiastic, caring and clever people. Our herders today have brought with them tremendous life skills which have hugely progressed the way the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre is run from day to day. But most importantly the welfare and care of the reindeer is still at the heart of everything we all do on a daily basis.

Looking after the herd. Photo: Alex Smith
Tilly with Scrabble. Reindeer are the heart of the business, and always will be, regardless of the changes around them. Photo: John Paul

In the summer of 2021 we received an incredibly generous donation from a long term reindeer adopter who asked that the monies they donated be put towards upgrading the current facilities at Reindeer House, which would involve returning the house to a domestic property and constructing a stand alone building for our reindeer shop, exhibition and office.

Exhibition displays. They’ve improved a lot over the years, but the building housing them was definitely getting shabbier and shabbier!

The following January we engaged with an architect and since then we have been going through the process of agreeing plans and applying for planning permission and the building warrant. With all the statutory requirements in place we began work last September, building a 16 bay car-park close to the Paddocks. The car-park is now nearly finished (but not available for parking in yet) and work is due to start on the new building in early February, which will be situated in our existing Paddock area.

The artist’s impression of the shiny new building!The existing Reindeer House building can be seen at the left hand side here, with the entrance to the new car-park on the right hand side.

As normal we closed for a few weeks on 8th January 2024 and immediately our son Alex, with help from herders, began to demolish the wooden structures in the Paddocks to make space for the new construction. There is a tinge of sadness seeing the old buildings (that we built ourselves) coming down but I suspect the improvements are long overdue and we are imagining a really special place for visitors to come to learn about our wonderful herd of reindeer alongside new displays, children’s activities and of course reindeer. Most importantly the new Centre will be access to all abilities.

We closed to the public on Monday 8th January. By Friday the 12th the Paddocks looked like this!

So exciting (and expensive!) times ahead. Unfortunately a bit disruptive too as the Paddocks will not be available for viewing reindeer while the building is constructed. However once we re-open to the public on 10th February we will otherwise still operate as normal with reception, shop and office where they have always been and the daily Hill Trips to the herd will continue as usual.

Hill Trips will continue as normal – tickets available on our website (from 30 days in advance)!

To check out what is available and how you can still come and visit do keep an eye on our website for updates and once construction gets underway we will have a better idea of how things are progressing, and more of an idea of the duration of the work.

Tilly

Old lady Okapi

I’m lacking in inspiration, motivation and time to think of a new and so-far unused blog topic, so this week I’m going for the old tried-and-tested method – pick a reindeer and write about him/her.

This week’s subject is Okapi. I’ve known Okapi her entire life, and at 15 and a half years old, it’s a long life indeed. Whilst not right up there in my very, very top favourite reindeer, she’s always been in the upper echelons of the reindeer herd, and I reckon most other herders would agree – collectively amongst us, she’s held in extremely high affection.

Okapi was born in 2008, her mum Esme’s third calf. Esme was a lovely reindeer, and was actually the subject of our very first blog, back in 2015! I first met Okapi at a few months old, at which point she was easily distinguishable from the other 2008 calves by the silver hairs on her face, giving her the appearance of wearing war-paint.

Those silver hairs eventually spread across the rest of Okapi’s body, and although she is still want we would call ‘normal-coloured’, she’s a much greyer colour than many of the other reindeer in the same colour category. Coat colour runs in family lines – Esme was on the silvery side too, as were many other members of the family, most notably Okapi’s big brother Elvis. Elvis became a legendary reindeer in our herd, living to 17 and only passing away a few months ago.

Silvery-coated big bro Elvis

Okapi has always been a ‘leader’ in the herd, a relatively dominant female and generally one of the first to start moving in the right direction when we call the herd from a distance, leading them towards us. Reindeer like this are worth their weight in gold to us as a lot of the winter season is spent bellowing towards specks on a distant hill, and wondering whether they are going to come to us or we are going to have to go to them… It needs a dominant reindeer to sigh, stand up and start moving to get the rest of the herd underway too.

As a youngster, out free-ranging up on the mountains.

We usually like to breed from our loveliest female reindeer multiple times, but Okapi had a bit of a hitch in this respect. She had two lovely calves, in 2012 and 2013, Murray and Oka. Murray had the best set of antlers that we’ve seen on a calf in our herd, and we were very excited for what he would grow into in the future. Sadly it wasn’t to be, and he passed away at about a year old. Win some and lose some with animals, but this felt like a particularly hard loss.

Okapi with 8 month old Murray – look at those calf antlers!

Okapi’s second calf, Oka, was also lovely, but again didn’t survive long term – dying at about 2 years old. A huge shame, as a female she should have gone on to continue Okapi’s genetic line, but hey ho. Again these things happen, but it feels unfair for Okapi to have lost both her calves.

Oka

And that was that for Okapi’s motherhood career, as a few months after Oka’s birth she suffered a prolapse. This came completely out of the blue and we never knew what – if anything – triggered it, but the end result was that everything had to be pushed back into place more than once, and eventually permanent stitches were inserted by the vet to keep poor old Okapi’s bits where they should be. This meant no more calves for her – a real shame for a lovely 5 year old female in her prime.

Okapi’s classic pose – she’s a reindeer who almost always has her ears pricked. This is how I will remember her when she’s no longer with us.

But life as a permanently ‘single lady’ has meant Okapi has since been a lady of leisure, all her energy going into her own body each year, and quite possibly has contributed to her longevity. Almost every year she’s grown pretty big antlers, and it’s only really in the last couple of years she’s started to look ‘old’.

Never having calves at foot means that Okapi also spends a higher ratio of her time free-ranging out on the mountains, as there’s never really a reason for her to spend any length of time in our hill enclosure. She will come in now and then for a few days as all our reindeer need vaccinating a couple of times of year, or sometimes we’ll hold particularly friendly reindeer back in the enclosure so they can be part of a the group for filming, for example. But on average, I’d say Okapi spends 11.5 months a year out living a completely free lifestyle – pretty nice!

A life of luxury!

And finally, Okapi had one particular starring role – on the cover of our Naked Reindeer Herders charity calendar in 2023. But I don’t think too many people were looking at the reindeer, if I’m honest…

Okapi on the right,with Ochil, Ruth, Fiona, Marple and Lotti, left to right. What a line up!

Hen

How Isla became a reindeer herder…

The lovely Isla with one of her favourite reindeer – Busby!

The first time I met the reindeer here at Cairngorm, I was just four years old and a bridesmaid at my mum’s wedding. Mum, being as extravagant as she is, decided she wanted the reindeer to pull the sleigh for us from the service to the party venue. Once we were on the sleigh I was quickly alarmed about the health and safety, as there were no seatbelts on board. Four-year-old me obviously thinking the reindeer would be flying us there! As we were just setting off, I whispered to my cousin “hold on tight, we are about to take off” but was quickly relived and slightly disappointed when I realised the reindeer would just be walking us there.

Four year old Isla – closest to the camera holding on tightly to her cousin. The reindeer is Wallace.
The sleigh firmly attached to the ground, phew!
The happy couple off to the party.

After the wedding it then became a tradition to come and visit the reindeer before Christmas. Even adopting Elvis as a two-year-old boy and always loving getting my certificate through the post before Christmas. Elvis lived to be one of the oldest males in the herd, before sadly passing away this August at the impressive age of 17!

Elvis as a two year old bull in 2008 – the year Isla adopted him.

During the spring this year, just as I was leaving school. I went round to visit my ‘Fairy God Mother’ Sheena, one of the herders here at the Reindeer Center. After explaining to her that I wasn’t sure what to do after school and fancied a change she suggested I got in touch to see if I could work the summer here with the reindeer.

So, after a few back and forth emails (me not being the best at replying during my exams), we eventually arranged a trial day for me to come and meet some of the herders and the reindeer of course. I was pretty nervous but was instantly put at ease when greeted by Ruth and Lisette with big smiles on their faces. I was thrown right in at the deep end as my first task was going up the hill to help give one of the reindeer an injection as she had a sore foot. I quickly realised that having dogs and occasionally helping my granny muck out her horse maybe didn’t quite qualify as having experience working with animals! But I like to think I’m a quick learner. And was super eager to get stuck as I loved the idea of walking up the hills everyday to look after the herd.

Not a bad office!

After a successful trial day, I was then offered to come work the summer here at the Centre which I was super excited for! I started at the end of May, and the weather was amazing! Blue skies everyday for about a month, eventually this bubble did bust. And I then had the proper Scottish herder experience. But even in the rain I still couldn’t believe that it was my job to walk up hills and find reindeer. I even didn’t mind taking a reindeer’s temperature (let’s just say it doesn’t go in their mouths) if it meant I could spend the morning up the hill with the herd! Over the summer I learnt so many new skills and everyone was so patient with me helping me to learn about these beautiful animals.

When Isla first started it was weeks of sunshine and moulting reindeer.
It’s a tough job getting to know all the calves when they come back into the enclosure in the autumn, like wee Shannon here.
Isla this time not sitting on the sleigh but working alongside Druid and Haricot at the back of it this autumn.
Breeding bull Kernel this autumn,
Reindeer during the first decent snow of 2023.

When chatting in the office I let it slip about the reindeer being at mum’s wedding, Our resident Blog Queen Ruth was insistent that it would make the perfect Christmassy blog!

We also realised that Hen, another one of the herders here, was at the wedding as well leading the sleigh! Which is hilarious, looking back on the wedding photos we actually found one of her at the front of the sleigh! (Note from Hen: also a way to make her feel really, really old…)

The back of Hen’s head at the wedding!

I have had the best 7 months here at the Centre and have loved getting to know all the reindeer and the herders of course! I’m off for a new adventure in the New Year but I’m sure I’ll be back soon!! If they’ll have me 😉

Druid thinks Isla should definitely return!
Isla chilling out with Cicero.

Isla

A Family Affair

I thought I’d write a bit about the family trees of our herd for this week’s blog, since they work a little differently from a ‘standard’ human family tree. Those of you who have been adopting an individual reindeer within our herd for a while will probably have received a family tree at some point, as we send them out with adoption packs in even years of sponsorship (2nd, 4th, 6th etc) normally. I say ‘will probably have received’ however, as the Swedish born reindeer in our herd obviously don’t have them, and if you’ve only ever adopted the herd as a whole then you’ll not have seen one before.

We record the lineage of the reindeer born here in the herd, stretching back to the original ones imported from Sweden in the 50s, through the maternal line only (on the trees at least – of course we record the father of each calf on our database to keep track of their genetics). More dimensions than a sheet of A4 can offer would be required for anything more than the maternal line in this form however. Let’s look at a sample of a tree (apologies, you’ll probably have to zoom in to see it properly):

(no, I didn’t mean to scan in a leaf as well as the tree…)

This tree (above) is the one currently in use for the living descendants of female reindeer Russia (highlighted in red), born in 2005. As an example, you would receive this particular tree if you adopt Morse – you can see that he is the second of four calves for his mum Torch, herself the first of three offspring for Pavlova. Pavlova’s mum was Russia, Russia’s mum was Cherry, and so on. This goes right the way back to Vilda at the top, one of the reindeer brought over to Scotland in the 3rd consignment to join the growing herd, back in 1954. This particular family tree currently stands at 10 generations in the maternal line. In reality it’s actually more than that, as Morse himself is a breeding bull with multiple offspring, but let’s just stick to the maternal line and not confuse matters!

Vilda in 1955, aged 2 years old. The ancestor of many, many members of our herd!

But again A4 paper has it’s limitations, and as Russia’s mum Cherry (highlighted green on the tree above) was such a productive breeding female then this tree has had to be split into multiple ones once all her calves started calving themselves and we ran out of space. So Cherry’s descendants are now on three separate trees, the top halves of which are all identical until Cherry and her nine calves, but then different below. So Cherry’s daughter Cello (highlighted red below) went on to lots of descendants mainly via her daughter Fonn, who are on this tree:

…whilst another daughter, Tjakko (highlighted red below), was also very productive, as seen on this version of the tree:

This explains why sometimes we chat away about a relative of your reindeer in your adoption letter – who doesn’t seem to exist on the tree you’ve also received in your pack. We haven’t made them up – they’re just on an adjacent branch of their tree that you don’t have!

At times we get a family line that effectively runs out of breeding females – a so-called ‘dead line’. Not the nicest of names perhaps, but it is what is says on the tin… Tjakko’s tree, above, is an example of this – the only living female still remaining on it is Ibex, now too old to breed, so this tree will never change. As a result in this situation we stop sending the trees out to adopters once they’ve received it in it’s final state, as there’s no point receiving it again and again with no additions. Ibex does actually have descendants but they are on yet another permutation of this tree, showing her offspring and those of Bumble.

Within the animal world, there is quite a ‘flexible’, shall we say, approach to age and generations, in comparison to humans at least. We tend to breed our female reindeer up to the age of around 12 or 13, but usually only with a bull aged 3-5. This is because we castrate our male reindeer at this age, but females are never castrated as there’s no need for us to do so. Reindeer calve first (usually) at age 3, so a 3 year old bull could be three generations younger than some of his ladies, if he has a 12 year old cow in his harem. Questionable, in the human world anyway, but no reindeer eyebrows are raised. 

5 year old bull Sherlock during this year’s rut, with his older ladies (left to right) Feta (10), Jenga (12) and Torch (11).

The shortest family tree I can find is that of Okapi, consisting of only 8 generations in total including Vilda back in 1954. But again this is a family that has calved itself into a breeding cul-de-sac, as it were, with no new additions since 2013. In contrast, the most generations in a tree is 13, with two year old Sombrero and yearling Solero the most recent of the generations.

Okapi’s family tree (she has outlived both of her calves).

I thought that as a final part to this blog – and a way of getting some photos of actual reindeer into it – here’s some photo evidence of the 8 generations of Okapi’s tree. Vilda we’ve seen already, and I can’t actually find a photo of Sarah. We will no doubt have one in the albums, but we’ve only digitised up to the early 60s so far so I don’t have one to hand… But then comes Eidart, who was apparently the first reindeer that herd owner Tilly ever met, when she arrived here in 1981:

Eidart, with one of her calves

Eidart’s final calf was Trout, who held the joint record for oldest ever member of the herd (aged 18) for many years, until 19 year old Lilac stole her crown.

Trout in her latter years

Trout was an extremely productive female, with 11 calves to her name, the final one being Amber:

Amber

…whose first calf was Esme….

Esme

…the mother of Okapi.

Okapi

And finally – the end of the line – came Oka. Sadly she died before producing any offspring herself, effectively bringing this line of reindeer to an abrupt end.

Oka

So there you have it, a bit of info about our family trees. So should you get one in your next adoption pack, you can think about all those reindeer who came before your lovely adoptee.

Hen

‘Uncover the Mythology of Reindeer’ with Sharon Hudgins

A few years back I replied to an email from a lady who had visited Glenmore from the USA back in 1969, and had been put up for the night in Reindeer House by Mikel Utsi. She remembered meeting a pure white reindeer in the pen behind the house (what is now the Paddocks), and from our herd records I could tell this must have been Snowflake, one of the first ‘leucistic’ reindeer in the Cairngorm herd.

Snowflake outside Reindeer House in 1970.

We corresponded a bit and Sharon, who is an author and public speaker, then came back to visit Scotland again that summer, returning to the Reindeer Centre once more, and has stayed in touch since through becoming an adopter (picking a descendant of Snowflake as her adoptee!). Her unexpected encounter with a reindeer back in the 60s sparked a life-long interest , and she has gone on to write a book about her early travels and her time since spent amongst reindeer herders all over the world. She wrote a wee blog for us too a couple of years back too.

In 2019 Sharon gave lectures on reindeer on Viking ocean cruises, using a mixture of photos she has taken and ones we have provided, and in 2022 the lecture was recorded for Viking TV. And here it is!

Hen

A New Reindeer Centre

In 1989, when Alan and I took over the herd we opened up the ‘best room’ at the west end of Reindeer House to provide a reception and retail area for our visitors to the reindeer.  We grandly named it ‘The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre’. From here our visitors have been able to book in for a Hill Trip or Paddock visit and maybe buy a memento to remind them of their visit.

Alan with reindeer in front of the shop and exhibition

This arrangement has worked for the last 33 years, albeit slightly disjointed with Reindeer House being both ‘The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre’ and accommodation for reindeer herders ( which is the reason why it was originally built in 1960 by founders of the Cairngorm reindeer herd, Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren ).

Over the last 18 months we have been developing a vision for the future, which involves improving the visitor experience down in Glenmore, while of course keeping the increasingly popular Hill Trips to the herd on the mountainside.

Tilly, back in 1994, welcoming visitors in the shop (photo by Laurie Campbell)

We commissioned a local architect, Catriona Hill, to come up with a plan that would encompass our vision – a modest, but functional building, which would be accessible to all, provide wonderful reindeer exhibits and the entrance through which visitors will come to either book in for a Hill Trip to see the herd or to see the small group of reindeer on display in the Paddocks.

An initial feasibility study, followed by sketches, preliminary plans, various reports, and a positive pre-application report from our local council meant we lodged a planning application just before Christmas 2022.

So we are now waiting to hear what Highland Council have to say with regards to this and we are keeping our fingers crossed for a favourable decision. Here in the middle of The Cairngorms National Park we are very conscious of the need to construct a sustainable and sensitive building which is in character with the area – the Glenmore Forest with the stunning backdrop of the Cairngorm Mountains. Therefore the timber framed simple build will be wood clad with locally sourced larch, have a single sloping roof and it will be set back into the steep bank, in line with Reindeer House.

Our Paddocks and Exhibition area are much in need of a revamp

This is a very big step for us but we feel that the existing facilities are dated and disjointed and a new building with lovely displays, toilets, bespoke reindeer shop and most importantly the entrance to where the reindeer are on display in the Paddocks will be a mammoth step forward.

But don’t worry, it will still be operated by friendly, knowledgeable reindeer herders who put the welfare of the reindeer first and foremost and who will be the very people that will take you on the hill to see the herd or indeed talk to you in the Centre about our work and love of these beautiful animals! However, the new ‘space’ will be inviting to all visitors and an exciting new workplace for our dedicated staff.

The building proposal for the new Centre. The existing house can be seen at the left.

The timescale for this to be up and running will depend of course on many factors, not least when we are awarded planning permission, building warrant, finding a builder and of course the weather. In an ideal world we would like to start physical works at the beginning of 2024 and hopefully have everything  finished and open by the middle of the year. Watch this space!

Tilly

Our 70th Birthday

Back on the 27th May 2022, it was the official date, 70 years on, since reindeer set foot in Scotland. So, although we are having an Open Day this October for all the lovely people who adopt one of our reindeer (this weekend, in fact!), this year as a celebration we decided to mark the occasion in May with a very informal get together of local friends and ex, current and future reindeer herders. Future herders being all the babies and children of reindeer herders past and present!

By chance this was also the day that Sofia our lovely friend and ex herder was visiting Scotland for the first time in 4 years. Sofia and her family are Sami from the north of Sweden and also related to Mikel Utsi who co-started the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, so it was so great she was there. Sally and Ceris came up from north England and I won’t mention everyone’s names who are local as the list would just be too long… let’s just say there were lots of wonderful faces who have been part of the last 70 years of reindeer in Scotland.

Ceris, Fiona, Sofia and Sally.

During the day in our shop, as well as banners and bunting we had cake and prosecco (and a non-alcoholic version for the drivers) for our visitors to help themselves so if you were booked onto a tour that day this was a massive perk! All our visitors didn’t think twice to join in our celebrations and dig into the treats.

70th birthday bunting!
Our lovely visitors on our 70th anniversary Hill Trip!

Then in the afternoon we put up a couple of gazebos in our paddock area, put more cake and drinks and later on had a BBQ and salads to soak up the extra prosecco. It was a really lovely afternoon/evening catching up with everyone. Hearing their stories of when they visited or worked here. Some old photos came out and we just chatted the night away. Needless to say, there were a couple of sore heads the next morning.

Former herders with potentially the next generation of herders too?!
Former herders Sofia and Chris in the BBQ Hut with Sunny the hand-reared calf. We had been taking care of him for 36 hours by the point and he was already very relaxed in the company of humans and dogs!

The kids had a great time, endless cake… what’s not to love! They were burning around on sugar highs with the odd adult trying to keep up. There were many dogs included in the celebrations but luckily they all know each other so while some were persuading people to throw sticks and toys the others were hoovering up left over BBQ. Looking onto a scene of what could only be described as total chaos was actually rather lovely. Seeing familiar friendly faces who have been joined together by our lovely reindeer… We’ve got a lot to thank Dr Lindgren and Mikel Utsi for. If it wasn’t for them then we wouldn’t be lucky enough to be part of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd and know all these wonderful people.

Fiona

Past and Present Photo Blog

Andi has recently been working on digitising some of the oldest photos of the Cairngorm reindeer herd. They’re all fascinating to look at, but it’s also been interesting comparing some similarities and differences over the years. From forest plantations to roads to a funicular railway – there’s been a lot of changes in the area in the time that the reindeer have been here. In this blog I’ve done my best to align some more recent photos with older ones of the same views, to give you all a bit of an idea of what these changes look like.

Free ranging reindeer below the Northern Corries (1956).
Reindeer house has changed quite a bit – I don’t think anyone who lived there back in the 60’s ever imagined there’d be an electric charging point for their car! (1961)
As important now as it was back in 1960, if you ever see a sign like this, please, pay attention to what it says.
The view across to Meall a’ Bhuachaille from the enclosure. The angles aren’t quite the same here, but the density of the forest down towards Glenmore has changed a lot since the first photo was taken in 1960 (a topic so interesting it’s almost worthy of its own blog!).
Looking out towards Ryvoan pass. The 1960 photo shows mostly cows, whilst our modern photo shows a mixture of bulls (Sherlock!) with cows and calves this spring.
One of the most beautiful backdrops you can see the reindeer against – the Northern Corries of the Cairngorm plateau (1960).
Whilst the angle is slightly different on these ones, you can still see the most obvious change – the funicular railway and ski runs on Cairngorm. The cows and calves in the foreground are near Black Lochan, within our hillside enclosure. The area around silver mount was the initial beginnings of what would become our hill enclosure, being fenced in 1954 (this photo was taken in 1960). Since then, it has expanded significantly, but you can still see that the same boundaries are followed by our fences even now.
Michael Kilby and Vincent Utsi are replicated by herders Lotti (small) and Amy (tall). This is now the entrance to our shop – a door I’m sure many of you will recognise!
As mentioned earlier, the density of trees around Glenmore has changed massively since the sixties. The modern photo, taken from within our paddocks serves to illustrate this point pretty well!
Beware the bull! This sign sits at one of the lesser used entrances to the hill enclosure, with only a subtle makeover between the 1956 sign and our current day one.

Harry

70 years ago today

Here at The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we are ‘popping the bottles of bubbly’ and celebrating, because it was this day 70 years ago that the first small group of reindeer arrived in the Cairngorms for what would be a successful experiment to re-introduce reindeer to Scotland after many years of absence.

An idea conceived by ‘couple extraordinaire’ Mikel Utsi and his wife Dr Ethel Lindgren, their tenacity and zeal paid off and the first small breeding group actually set foot on terra firma here in the Cairngorms on 27th May 1952.

Mr Utsi holding Sarek, before disembarking MS Sarek at Rothesay Dock, Glasgow, 1952

The first consignment was swiftly followed by a second group of reindeer coming in the following October and finally on 29th April 1954 a third group arrived. These reindeer would form the nucleus of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd we love and cherish today.

Mikel Utsi was a Swedish Sami, born 17th May 1908 and brought up in a reindeer herding family in Swedish Lapland. As the second child of 8 children he was expected to ‘make his own way in life’, something I think we can all agree he certainly did!

Mikel Utsi fly spraying antlers, Loch Morlich behind.
Not much changes on our summer morning today, here’s Hen spraying Bond’s antlers (and getting a beady look in return!) in summer 2021.

His wife Dr Lindgren came from a very different background. Born on 1st January 1905 she was the only child of a wealthy Swedish-American banking family. She travelled extensively as a child with her family, graduated at Cambridge University with a first class honours in oriental languages and moral science and studied and wrote her PhD on reindeer herding people, the Tungus after expeditions to NW Manchuria in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.

Dr Lingren with Alice, Anne, Pelle (behind) in 1952

Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren met in Jokkmokk on the Arctic circle in Swedish Lapland and they married in 1947. They then devoted their lives to their ‘dream’ to re-introduce reindeer to Scotland. And 70 years on that dream has been a huge success, providing enjoyment to many. We have a lot to thank them both for.

Mr Utsi introducing Sarek to three Aviemore school children, 1952
Sheena leading a Hill Trip, 2021

The vast majority of reindeer have been born here in the Cairngorms and they descend from original females brought in during the 1950’s. Over a span of 11+ generations, both homebred and imported bulls have been used to ensure genetic diversity in the herd.

Today visitors to the herd, our reindeer support scheme and Christmas events with our trained reindeer are all ways we generate income to help keep this unique herd of reindeer in their natural, free-living environment. We have a dedicated group of ‘Scottish Reindeer Herders’ who are also family and friends and who are involved daily in the well-being and caring of this unique herd.

Vikhta outside Reindeer House, 1962
Volunteer Carol, herders Amy, Lotti and Ruth, with Fiona and Sherlock and Tilly and LX posing outside Reindeer House – May 2022.
Herders on calf naming night , September 2021

So for me as co-owner of the herd I would like to say a big ‘THANK YOU’ to the late Mikel Utsi and Dr Lindgren for establishing this herd and also to our reindeer herders of today who continue to make this imaginative experiment such a success.

So raise your glass to The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd and may they thrive in the Cairngorms for many years to come.

Free-ranging herd in 1956
Happy free-ranging herd, summer 2021

Tilly Smith. Co-owner of the Cairngorm Reindeer

A podcast with Tilly about 70 years of reindeer on the Cairngorms, produced by Pinsharp Studios, can be found here.

The Bridge over the Allt Mor

Funny story…. For months Hen’s been meaning to write a blog about the new bridge en route to our hill enclosure, but eventually this autumn found herself too short of time and suggested to Andi that she wrote it instead, hence Andi’s recent blog. And then, displaying a woeful level of forgetfulness, Hen found the blog that SHE WROTE HERSELF, and had NO memory of writing…Wow. So, you might as well read this one too.

I often talk to people who came to visit years ago but can’t remember much about their walk to the reindeer herd in the hill enclosure, other than the fact ‘there was a big bridge’ over a river. Ah, we say knowingly, you mean Utsi bridge. It’s become an iconic part of our most common route on to the mountains to see the reindeer herd. (But it’s not the sole route we use, so if you read on and have no memory of a bridge, then you aren’t going mad – we probably just took you to meet the herd in a different location!)

Utsi’s bridge as it has been for many, many years.

The original Utsi bridge over the Allt Mor (the river which leads down to Loch Morlich) was built in the 60s, and consisted of not much more than telegraph poles with some planks on them, or at least that’s what it looks like in the photos I’ve seen that remain of it.

The very first bridge was a bit more ‘rustic’!

Bridge mark II was built in 1979 by the Army, and it’s this one, with it’s high-sided handrails, that is the one that most people will remember. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve crossed it, but being as between late April and early January it’s rare for a working day to pass without doing so at least twice (i.e. once in each direction), and often a lot more – it’s certainly a lot of times. I think my record was 9 or 10 trips up to the hill enclosure once whilst shuttling boardwalking material up there. I cursed the lack of vehicle access that day!

Many reindeer hooves have crossed the bridge over the years too. Obviously reindeer can, and do, cross the river directly a lot of the time, but the free-ranging herd will cross the bridge instead at times if making their way towards the enclosure of their own accord. Tell-tale droppings on the bridge give away their route!

Fiona, Sofia and Alan leading reindeer up to the hill enclosure in spring many years ago.

We lead reindeer to and from the enclosure over the bridge, and the most eventful time is always their very first time, usually at around 5 months old, learning to walk on a halter. Actually the bridge itself is no issue at this point – it’s getting on the bridge which can be really hard as there are steps up on to it.

After over 40 years, the second incarnation of Utsi bridge was starting to show signs of wear and tear, the central support starting to get more undermined each time the river was in spate, and eventually it became obvious that it needed to be replaced. We don’t own the land that the bridge is built on so this didn’t come down to us thankfully, although we did attend meetings with regards to how it would happen, and made sure that the plan was definitely to complete the new bridge fully before the old one was removed!

The new bridge under construction, already dwarfing the older one!

Work began in November 2020, but ground to a juddering halt with the second lockdown after Christmas, and even though construction was permitted to continue, the impassable road and deep snow conditions of January and February 2021 made any progress an impossibility. It was mid-April before the bridge was finally completed, just before we re-opened to the public in late April, so all of our visitors in 2021 have walked to the reindeer herd via Utsi bridge mark III. This version is quite considerably bigger, and makes quite a landmark, but I’m not yet as fond of it as I was the old one.

Tilly and Sherlock crossing the new bridge – with a bit more space for large antlers than the previous one!

We all kept pieces of the old bridge, so I have two of the uprights which once supported the handrails in my workshop at home. Maybe one day I’ll use them for gateposts somewhere! Alan and Tilly (owners of the reindeer herd) kept the four 30’ long steel girders that stretched the 60’ span of the river, which had to be helicoptered out from the site to the nearby car-park, and then collected via tractor and (large!) trailer! No doubt they will one day become part of one of Alan’s many sheds.

An old photo of Tilly on the second bridge when it was quite young, showing off the massive steel girders quite nicely!

So if you are visiting us, particularly in the summer and autumn months, have your camera ready for this iconic bridge in case you happen to be lucky enough to cross it en route to the reindeer herd. You’ll be following in the footprints of thousands of visitors, hundreds of reindeer and dozens of reindeer herders, spanning nearly 7 decades.

Hen

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