A Reindeer Herder and Artist

Sheena counting reindeer. Lace is the dark reindeer with her head up and antlers visible.

My involvement  with the reindeer goes  back 30 years when Tilly and Alan were my neighbours and Alex and Fiona where still very wee.

I came up to the Highlands to work at Badaguish Outdoor Centre for people with additional needs before I was due to start a nursing degree . I never left – I fell in love with the mountains, and then a reindeer herder!! And now the reindeer.

Sheena catching up with the free rangers out in the hills.
Sheena bringing back Ochil and her calf Vanilla to the enclosure after they spent the summer free roaming.

My wonderful friendly golden retriever Rosie used to end up at Reindeer House after following any walker passing by my house down at Badaguish. Tilly would phone me and I would often end up there socialising, helping out, then for dinner and end up walking home with Rosie after a wee whisky or two!

 I eventually went  to university but not to study nursing. I did a Honors Fine Art degree in 2004.

Sheena drawing on the hill!

Over the years I have kept in touch with Tilly and the  reindeer, volunteering, an extras pair of hands or legs walking out onto the mountains to help herd in the girls for calving or just going up to spy the herd in the summer months on the mountain.

Several years ago,  I got a call to work with the team and use my artistic talents for ‘Christmas Fun’ (weekends in December when Santa visits the Paddocks). By this time Fiona was all grown up and coordinating all things Christmas and the herd on Cairngorm along with her mum and the team. Now I am just a regular part-timer in the team.

Sheena doing some harness training with the male reindeer.
Sheena and Choc-ice chilling out together.
Sheena driving the Christmas lorry!

So, when I am not a reindeer herder you might find me working in my studio at home as an artist, working on some colorful wild abstract paintings. These days I also work on some reindeer crafts, inspired from my trip to Jokkmokk, Sweden in 2020 with fellow reindeer herders Fiona, Joe, and Olly where we stayed with friend Sofia, Mikel Utsi’s great niece. Inspiration for art was everywhere. The snow, visiting herds of reindeer, northern lights, traditional cloths, and traditional food.

That part of Sweden is the capital of Sami culture in Sweden holding the Sami winter festival, which involve reindeer racing, reindeer parades, and all things Sami culture. And I had a wonderful time in the Sami Museum viewing the traditional arts on show. This was very much my inspiration for small reindeer art and crafts for the shop.

The Jokkmokk crew with borrowed dogs! Fiona, Sheena, Olly and Joe.
Jokkmokk winter market.
Beautiful Sami colours.
Some of Sheena’s wonderful things we sell in the shop!
Sheena’s lovely dogs – Ginger and her mum Elsie on top of our local hill.
Sheena and Oatcake!

Sheena

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

Christmas shopping

Once again, the festive season is sneaking up on us, and for anyone who is a wee bit stuck for gift ideas, we’ve got lots of options on our webshop.

Adoption pack

For the reindeer fanatic in your life, how about adopting the Herd for them? As an adopter, you become one of our valued supporters and in return for your financial support, you will receive a certificate and photograph of the reindeer and additional information about reindeer along with two newsletters over the year. For UK adopters, we also send a few unique souvenirs. You can also visit the herd for free (one person admitted free per adoption). The adoption subscriptions are spent entirely on the upkeep of the reindeer including their food and welfare in the form of medicines and veterinary care. Click here to find out more.

All sorts of stationary – notepads, pens and pencils.

Toys and cuddly keyrings for all ages.

Handy eco cotton pouch, and locally made leather bookmarks.

Tea towels of different colours, reusable travel cups, locally made wooden coasters and branded thimbles.

A selection of books, telling the story of the herd.

All of these, and lots more, can be found on our webshop by clicking here. Happy shopping!

The making of the charity naked calendar

It’s hopefully common knowledge amongst our reindeer supporters and adopters by now that we have released a charity naked calendar for 2023. Raising money to support our local Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team and over a period of 18 months we braved the weather in all conditions taking off our clothes and posing with the reindeer for 13 pictures to feature. Initially we had planned to sell 500 copies but due to popular demand have sold 750 with a further 300 just ordered and under pressure to sell them before early January!

I had the pleasure (if you can say that) of being the photographer for the calendar, seeing all my friends and colleagues in their birthday suits and helping to put the whole thing together. It wasn’t something I had ever thought I’d be doing when I first came to work here five years ago but we are a quirky bunch, and I wasn’t at all surprised when as a group we decided to go ahead and create a calendar baring all!

Photographer Joe with his favourite reindeer Kipling. The face behind the camera, and the one that belongs to Mr September’s bottom 😉

The Idea

I think the idea came from several of us when our reindeer had featured in The Royal School of Veterinary Studies Charity Naked Calendar in 2020. We got a free copy from them, and the calendar hung proudly in our kitchen for the duration of the year. I guess during this time we became inspired to do one ourselves and celebrating our own 70th year anniversary, it seemed like the perfect time to do such a thing. Raising money for a charity was the second thing to consider and I don’t think we ever looked passed the idea of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team. The dedicated volunteers involved already do an incredible job in the mountains and all the funding they receive goes back into the service they provide. So, with the idea set and charitable cause in mind, it was time to start taking off our clothes and get the photos!

The Early Stages

When planning how to make the calendar, it seemed only best to take a picture during every month of the year to showcase the reindeer looking different in the various seasons. With this in mind, January was to be the first month and the January of 2021 was particularly cold with temperatures being recorded as low as -18 as well as up to three feet of snow lying at a time. Fiona stepped up to be the driving force and get the calendar going by volunteering to get her picture first and Lotti also paired up to do it together. There was so much snow that it was easier to approach the reindeer by skis and the plan was set to involve these as well. Taking my camera out for the first time to do this I had no idea how to plan the picture or whether my camera should indeed focus on the bums or reindeer. What seemed like a straightforward idea turned out to be harder than first appeared with the reindeer constantly moving, never staying in the same position for more than two seconds. I clicked away taking several different pictures and hoped that one would suffice. January done, only 11 more months to go!

Miss and Miss January! This photo didn’t make the grade but has been used as a promotional picture – it even made it on to the front cover of a German newspaper.

The following few months saw a familiar trend with the reindeer not behaving for the camera, either facing the wrong direction, not interested in what was happening or sometimes we simply couldn’t find them on the free-range. Maybe they too thought it was a strange idea for the herders to stand next to them with no clothes on.

Coming Together

As the months got warmer, not surprisingly we had more herders volunteering to take part in the action. One of the things I noticed was the different ways in which people participated in. Some herders would arrive to the photo shoot with a dressing gown, and we would practice a clothed shot to make sure we were happy. I would then turn around while they removed their gown and we’d be able to get the picture without me seeing too much of them, a rather dignified way of doing such a thing.

Hen and Andi (Miss and Miss October) making sure they’re happy with their poses before baring all.
The ever chic Mel (Miss December) in her dressing gown!

Another technique of having their photo taken was to strip off completely starkers baring all and plan a photo pose on the spot. Sometimes I wouldn’t know where to look but there was lots of laughter about the ridiculousness of it all. We had to get quite imaginative towards the end making sure no two pictures or poses were the same. Some photos were taken on the free – range, others in our hill enclosure, woodland and one shot also involved water. The entire team of herders did an amazing job getting their kit off and we managed to feature every member of staff who worked here at the time along with a couple of past herders. I should also say an extra well done to Hen, Lisette and Harry who went out of their comfort zone to feature and Amy, who within her first month or working with us also volunteered to be in the calendar no peer pressure involved!

Ben (Mr February) was unfazed about being in his birthday suit and continued to carry out his reindeer herding duties unclothed. Needless to say the reindeer were also not bothered.
Sheena (Miss June) and Sherlock getting ready for the photoshoot in Black Loch.
After the photoshoot, Sheena went for a wee swim and Sherlock decided to follow… anything for food!

The Cover Shot

The final picture to take was the cover shot which was also the harshest weather experienced throughout. On a snowy and windy morning, Fiona, Lotti and Ruth took one for the team and shivered away as I tried to fumble with the camera and take a photo. By the time they got their clothes off they could barely feel a thing and the whole experience was very uncomfortable. The reindeer of course were fine. When we got back to the house and the girls had thawed out, we glanced at the photos to see how they looked. Unfortunately, the snowflakes blurred every single picture and none of them were good enough. We went out again a few hours later to repeat the whole freezing ordeal once more (sorry girls!) but thankfully on the second time of asking we got a picture we were happy with and no resulting frost bite.

Joe, Fiona and Lotti (plus dogs) attempting to take the photo for the SECOND time that day!
Snow flurry over – Ruth, Fiona and Lotti get into position…

The Finished Calendar

After the final editing tweaks, the calendar had finally been created. It was great to hold a copy for the first time and start selling them in our shop. It wasn’t long until several newspapers got in touch wanting to write a story about the calendar. The Daily Record and a couple of other tabloids did an online piece about us, and our local papers also wrote two stories. We even featured as page 3 models in the Strathspey Herald and also on the cover of German newspaper BILD showing some of our bare bottoms. It’s still all quite surreal that we have created the calendar, everyone is immensely proud of it and couldn’t be happier with how many we have sold so far.

The day the first batch of calendars arrived!!
Page 3 models!

For now, I just hope we can sell as many as possible and I can’t wait to see what the final figure will be for the mountain rescue team.

Joe

The Many Uses of Antlers at Reindeer House

With a herd of 150 reindeer, nearly all of whom are growing and casting a pair of antlers every year (exceptions include 2-year-old Juniper who doesn’t grow any, 16-year-old Dixie who only grows one, and 2-year-old Holy Moley who also only grows a single antler), it’s fair to say that we see our share of antlers. From that we’ve figured out some interesting uses for them as the following pictures show… although some photos may contain red deer antler as well as antler from reindeer…

The lovely Dixie, back in 2017, proudly showing off her single antler!
Skip next to a pile of collected antlers found on the free range April 2022 – she’s disappointed none are for her!
Firstly, they make great displays in the shop, we use them to hang all sorts of ornaments and pieces of shop stock – demonstrated here by our lovely headbands.
A slightly stinkier variation on the hanging technique, in the kitchen of reindeer house this large set of antlers are used for drying shoes, gloves and all other sorts of equipment. Very effective!
Dog leads, ski goggles, head torches. This antler sees a lot of use here at reindeer house, as the dogs are always looking to go for a walk.
They even work as door handles!
And make great wall hangers for cards and decorations.
Sometimes used for shelving support, as precarious as our mugs and plates look, I am yet to see the antlers let us down.
More shelves and shop stock supported by antler.
Our bird feeder is decorated with antlers which the red squirrels love chewing on.
We also make use of some antler nubbins (yes, that is the technical term) in the kitchen. Seen here keeping our cupboards shut,..
…..and our pepper grinding smoothly (or roughly?)
And finally, my favourite use of an antler, because sometimes s*** happens.

Harry

Shiny new shop stock!

We’ve had quite a few new additions to our shop recently, so I thought I’d grab this opportunity to tell you all about some of them, in case you fancy indulging your reindeer themed fancies!

Magnets! Featuring our beautiful calves, plus adults Celt, Athens and Origami.

Hats! Of many types to keep your head warm!

From left to right: Wendy’s Woolies; our own branded hat; Woolly Hatz Aviemore style; locally knitted beanie. Our branded hats are available on the website, but if you fancy one of the others just give us a call!

Leather decorations, made by Loch Ness Leather.

Locally made slate coasters.

The cuddliest of reindeer teddies!

And perhaps preorder a special calendar too?!

All of the products above, along with many others, can be ordered via our main shop at https://www.cairngormreindeer.co.uk/shop/

We do also have our shop over at Teemill, who print to order on ethically produced T-shirts, Hoodies and Tote bags – https://cairngormreindeer.teemill.com/have a gander!

We have several designs available on different clothing.

… plus our first jigsaw!

Andi

Book Now