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

Houdini

Houdini is 11 years old now. He joined our herd when we brought reindeer over here from Sweden in 2011 as a way to boost the genetics in our own herd. At the time he was a calf and the way he got his name was during his time in Sweden while my brother Alex was there training them ready for their journey over to Scotland. On a number of occasions when Alex would head to the corral in the morning all the reindeer were securely inside the fencing… except for one. After a good bit of persuasion with food he’d coax that calf back in to join the herd in the corral. The weird thing was he couldn’t work out where he was getting out… and that is how he got his name, Houdini! He must have eventually watched him and worked it out because Houdini did come over to Scotland and didn’t remain in Sweden.

Houdini in Sweden in 2011.
Houdini in the Cairngorms!
Teenage Houdini – August 2013.

For his first few years with us he was too young to breed but with a quiet and greedy nature we soon realised that he’d be a good one to use as a main breeding bull in the future. His antlers were always a good size but never had much shapeliness to them. As a bull he was an interesting character. Sometimes when bulls are quite tame when they rut they can see us as part of their herd and in the rutting season this meant fending us off from trying to steal his females! Not that we actually wanted his females but he wasn’t to know that. So feeding him and his hareem had to be done with caution. Other bulls such as Kota, and Spartan never gave us a second look… nature of the beast I guess, they are all very different. Houdini over the years fathered many calves, including Olmec, Texel, Holy Moley, Jelly etc… Like their dad, as well as mums influence too, they all have a very sweet nature.

Houdini in September 2019 – ready for the rut.

In 2020 Houdini was 9 years old and we’d used him as a main breeding bull for a few years so we decided to give him a break now. This meant he had a visit from the vet to be gelded so Houdini will live out his life in our herd as a Christmas reindeer. We couldn’t possibly have a herd full of bulls or going into the rutting season would be complete chaos and very difficult to manage. We would risk relatives breeding with one another so we must geld reindeer that we don’t want to breed from. This would happen at the youngest of 3 years old, or like Houdini at the age of 9. It is our Christmas reindeer that would take part in events and are trained to harness and pull the sleigh.

As Houdini was already a good age we did train him to wear harness and pull the sleigh but the reality of him actually doing many events are pretty slim. As a big reindeer who has had a lot of stress on his body over the years with rutting he also needs to take it easy. We trained him at the Reindeer Centre in Glenmore and he did really well. For a big, old boy who hasn’t done anything like that before he was great. With our normal Christmas tour not happening in 2020 due to COVID we did a few local events. Houdini joined the team that did a local hotel on Christmas day but he just had to walk at the back of the sleigh, nothing too tasking. In 2021 he went through the training again and he joined my team and for the first time since he came into Scotland, he came south of the border to the north of England.

Houdini, closest to camera, leaving the hill enclosure to visit England!

We were doing an event at Stockeld Park in Yorkshire. It was a two day event so both days we turned up for 11am into a huge grassy pen and did a parade around their enchanted forest at 3pm. The parade loop went around their cross country ski route and passed lit-up animals, ogres, Little Red Riding Hood’s house, a wicked witch riding on her sleigh as well as a lake with fountains and a few enormous lit-up unicorns with fairies dancing on top… I know I couldn’t quite take it all in either! We set off on our first out of four loops in total we were going to be doing that weekend, two each day. I thought it was a bit much to ask Houdini to pull the sleigh on the first day as it was his first event and discovering unicorns on his first ever event should be done while walking at the back of the sleigh and not having to concentrate on the sleigh as well. So he joined myself at the back of the sleigh with Anster, Beret and Beanie. Frost and Celt were pulling it with Lotti leading. As we enter the enchanted forest it was great seeing Houdini take it in but not reacting. Each lit-up animal we passed he’d stare at, but by the fourth round on day two he barely even gave each display the time of day, even the huge unicorns.

Houdini at the back of the sleigh – observing the craziness of his first proper Christmas event!
Houdini’s lovely bottom on the left – doing a fantastic job at the back of the sleigh!

After the weekend we headed north again and before he knew it he was back on the hill with the herd. I wonder if he spread his knowledge of unicorns in Yorkshire onto the other reindeer? Houdini was an absolute star! He took everything in his stride and over the years has brought so much to our herd, we are very proud of him. He might do the odd local event now but leave the ones further afield to the younger reindeer. Stockeld was perfect for him as a big comfortable grassy pen was good on his older joints. It’s a bit like me, when we stay at farm bases across the country now I need a comfy bed at night or I wake up a bit stiff!

Houdini (in the middle) enjoying a snooze with his team mates at Stockeld – November 2022.

Fiona

Reindeer and boats

During this year’s Christmas tour we ended up taking the reindeer on boats a couple of different times. The reindeer visited Northern Ireland, Orkney and the Isle of Lewis. I was lucky enough to go with them to Stornoway on Lewis and this got me thinking about the journey taken by the first 8 reindeer in the Cairngorm reindeer herd from Sweden with Mikel Utsi in 1952.

View from the ferry from Ullapool to Stornaway

The reindeer were reintroduced to Scotland by a couple called Dr Ethel Lindgren and Mikel Utsi. Dr Lindgren was an American anthropologist whose speciality was reindeer herding people. She travelled much of the arctic studying different indigenous reindeer herders including the Sami. Whilst Dr Lindgren was with the Sami she met, and later married a reindeer herder named Mikel Utsi. For their honeymoon Dr Lindgren and Mikel Utsi came over to the Cairngorms and immediately recognised the artic habitat here as perfect for reindeer. Upon finding out that reindeer had become extinct in Scotland they decided to bring the reindeer back. In 1952 the first group of reindeer came over from Sweden, this is where boats now come into the story. The group consisted of 8 reindeer, 2 bulls, 5 cows and a castrate male named Sarek. Interestingly the boat they travelled to Scotland on was called the S.S. Sarek. The crossing from the north of Sweden to Glasgow was a fairly rough one and the reindeer were at sea for four days travelling 700 miles. Once the reindeer arrived they were quarantined at Edinburgh zoo before finally making it to the Cairngorms.

Mikel Utsi (right) and Sarek.

Once the first group of reindeer had settled in, Utsi and Lindgren brought another consignment of reindeer over later on in 1952. By 1954 they had finally procured a lease of silver mount, the hill at the far end of the reindeer enclosure, from forestry commission. This allowed more reindeer to be brought over from Sweden in 1954 and 1955.

Bulls Fritzen and Ruski in April 1955

The herd has grown in number steadily since the fifties until it reached 150, which is the number we are now maintaining. Throughout that time a few more consignments of reindeer have come over from Sweden to introduce new bloodlines into the herd. 68 years on the reindeer still happily roam the Cairngorms, at the moment every single reindeer is free-roaming for the winter.

Lotti

Looking back: The arrival of the first reindeer

2017 is our 65th anniversary, and just lately I’ve been trawling through the records of the reindeer herd for one reason or another. As such I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, and think it is time I started another occasional blog series, this time about the history of our herd.

If you’ve been on a Hill Trip with us, you may know the basic story. Sami reindeer herder Mikel Utsi visited the Highlands of Scotland in 1947, and was immediately struck by the similarities to his homeland of northern Sweden.

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Northern Sweden (top) and the Cairngorms (bottom)

Looking across Rothiemurchus Forest to the Cairngorms from the railway bridge at Aviemore, on a cold morning in April 1947, I was instantly reminded of reindeer pastures. Travel in the Highlands showed that many species of ground, rock and tree lichens which are elsewhere the chief reindeer food were plentiful and of little use to other animals. Red deer and domesticated animals graze on plants and fodder than reindeer seldom eat. The Orkneyinga saga tells us that about 800 years ago red deer and reindeer were hunted together, in Caithness, by the Jarls of Orkney.”

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One of the crates being winched on board the S.S. Sarek in April 1952

Mikel Utsi decided it was time that reindeer once again roamed the mountains of Scotland, and five years later, that dream became a reality. The Ministry of Agriculture gave permission for Mr Utsi and his Swedish-American wife Dr Ethel Lindgren (an anthropologist who had studied in China and Mongolia as well as Swedish Lapland) to bring the first consignment of reindeer over to Scotland, and at first they were granted an area of around 300 acres near Moormore in the Rothiemurchus forest, which was completely fenced to contain them. Moormore is now better known as the Cairngorm Sleddog Centre. Mr Utsi knew this was not ideal for the reindeer however, and had his eye on the higher ground of the Cairngorms themselves – much more suitable reindeer habitat.

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Mikel Utsi (right) and Sarek on board the S.S. Sarek

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The first consignment of 8 reindeer landed at Clydebank in Glasgow on the 12th April 1952, having travelled on the S.S. Sarek from Sweden, which had been somewhat rough four day crossing. The group consisted of two bull reindeer (Aviemore and Murjek), four cows (Mona, Kristina, Margaret and Rowena), and a castrated male who was named Sarek. After a month in quarantine at Edinburgh Zoo, the reindeer finally made their way north to the Cairngorms to the Moormore enclosure.

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Reindeer in the forest, looking up to the Cairngorms

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It wasn’t a particularly auspicious start, with the reindeer struggling to cope with the low ground and the insects, but in 1954 Mr Utsi finally got permission from the Forestry Commission to lease Silver Mount, which many of you will know as the hill at the far end of the current reindeer enclosure, the back drop to the majority of our guided tours throughout the year. Later the same year free-grazing up to the summits of the northern corries of the Cairngorms was finally allowed, as well as the continued use of the Silver Mount enclosure. Finally the reindeer could escape the insects and the herd began to thrive. Further groups had been introduced from Sweden too; Inge, Alice, Anne, Pelle, Assa, Ella, Ina, Maja, Siri and Tilla in October 1952; Nuolja, Kirtik, Ranak, Neita, Noki, Rovva and Vilda in early 1954. Bulls Fritzen and Ruski followed in 1955.

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The 3rd consignment of reindeer on the M.S. Nuolja in 1954

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Bulls Fritzen and Ruski in April 1955 – the 4th consignment

To keep a closer eye on his herd, Mr Utsi felt it was important to be on site as much as possible. He made a hut at ‘Road End Camp’ in the 50s, tucked away in the woods at the base of Silver Mount, building it from the wood from the crates that the reindeer had been transported to Scotland in. This made life much easier as there was no bridge across the Allt Mor at that time, or indeed, a road up to where the Ski Centre is now, so for Mr Utsi the herd was now much more accessible. Today, the hut still stands, and some of you may have even been there – in recent years we used to stop for a rest at Utsi’s Hut on some of our half-day treks with visitors. A shelter was also built at the top of Silver Mount, and although this no longer stands, there are still a few old, weathered, pieces of planks lying around up there, which are the last remnant of the shelter.

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Mr Utsi harnessing Sarek at Road End Camp in October 1955. Utsi’s Hut is on the right.

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Trekkers at Utsi’s hut in more recent years! With reindeer Gandi and Svalbard.

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The shelter on top of Silver Mount in July 1954

By the mid-fifties the herd had grown to around 20 animals, and the herd was doing well. There’s lots more to tell you, but it’s a story for another day! However, if your appetite to learn more of our history has been whetted, we have a lovely book called ‘Hoofprints’ in our online shop on our website which is all about the history of the herd with loads of beautiful photos, so pop over there for a wee look.

Hen

Superstitions

Since it’s Friday the 13th, I thought I would try to write up a blog about superstitions from reindeer herders around the world. I thought it would be a fairly easy subject to research, but it turns out it is rather difficult and trying to determine what was actually believed way back when, and what has been made up for the tourist industry is exceedingly difficult. I have tried my best to be as accurate as possible and only report on reliable information, but do feel free to correct me if any of what is said below is wrong. Sámi shamanism, traditions, superstitions etc. are very difficult to come by because up until the mid-20th century, the Sámi underwent ‘Norwegeniasation’. The Sámi were not allowed to speak their own languages, were converted to Christianity by missionaries and it was shameful to have Sámi roots. Attitudes have now changed and it is cool to be a Sámi now. There is even a festival in Norway called Riddu Riđđu where people can explore and enjoy their Sámi roots. Anyway, here are some little snippets of traditions and beliefs of reindeer herders around the world.

 

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A band at Riddu Riđđ,  holding a Sámi flag on stage. (Photo from norwayfestivals.com)

The Chukchi, a group of reindeer herders from Siberia, thought it akin (bad) to sell a live reindeer, but would happily sell a dead reindeer. There is a book called ‘In a Far Country’, by John Taliaferro, which is a true story describing how, after whaling ships were trapped on Alaska’s north coast by ice, a missionary named Top Lopp decided to herd reindeer out to the 200+ whalers who would otherwise starve to death, with the help of 7 Eskimo herders, in the late 1800’s. The book describes the troubles that the men faced in trying to purchase live reindeer to herd across the Bering strait to the men stranded in Alaska. It talks about the Chukchi being offered a fortune in tobacco and cloth, but they would always refuse. The Chukchi would sell dead reindeer at 75 cents apiece, up to 500 at a time, but never a live reindeer.

Chukchi reindeer herder, Sergei Elevye, with one of his bull reindeer
Chukchi reindeer herder, Sergei Elevye, with one of his bull reindeer. (Photo from mediastorehouse.com)

The Sámi had and have a very close bond with nature, and natural phenomenon which nowadays can be easily explained by science, were of course much more exciting/terrifying occurrences. The aurora borealis, or Northern lights are of course one of the most fascinating and obvious phenomena in the north. Some northern Finnish reindeer herders used to believe that they were caused by a fox running extremely fast across the sky, whipping up the colours with her tail. The Sámi of Sweden feared the lights and would even hide away from it, or at least try to cover themselves if they could not hide. It is also extremely bad luck to mock, or even make notice of the lights, to some. It was believed that if you whistled at the lights, they would swoop down and kill you. However, if they did try to kill you, you could clap your hands and they would leave you alone.

This close connection with the natural world often meant that they would pray and give sacrifices to many different Gods. They also believed that everything had a spirit including certain trees and rocks. There were often stones that people would have to greet, otherwise the stone could get angry and come down on them. Unusual landforms, especially rocks, were often called seidi‘s and were worshipped to bring the worshipper protection. They were also seen as gateways to the underworld.

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A seidi in Balsfjord (Image from wikipedia.com)

It is also believed that white reindeer bring good luck and all herders should have a white reindeer in their herd. Luckily, we have quite a few in our own herd, including Blondie, and her son Lego. Fiona has also heard that if you see a white reindeer, the sun and the moon all at the same time, it brings good luck. So have a look out next time you come on one of our visits!

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Blondie, relaxing on a sunny day.

The Sámi also joik, a form of acapella singing; its themes usually include animals, people and special occasions in life. The Sámi also joik about Stállo, who is a mythical being, very rich and very smart, and who is able to change shape and can even change the landscape so people become lost. He is an evil entity, and often the joiks describe how to trick Stállo.

We haven’t had many reindeer born on Friday 13th, since it really is only May that the reindeer calve. We did have one handsome male reindeer born, called Peru. He lived up until around 8 years old, and was a ‘Christmas reindeer’. There are actually only 4 reindeer still alive who were born in 2005 with Peru, so I think he did ok to get to 8 years old. Obviously, I don’t know if one has been born today or not, but it doesn’t seem to be too bad an omen for the reindeer.

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Peru looking handsome in his summer coat.

 

Imogen

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