The Cairngorms is unique within the UK in offering a sub-arctic ecosystem, which coupled with the wide expanses of mountainside, make it perfect for our reindeer. In most winters, we get weeks of snow cover on the mountains, but it’s less common to have such sustained cover as we’ve experienced this year. From Christmas through to mid February, the norm was snow, both on the hills and in the glens. Perfect for the reindeer, great for all of the snowsports enthusiasts who happen to live within reach of the mountains, but I have to confess the novelty of relentless snow began to wear… a little thin for me. I lost count how many times we cleared our drive at home of snow – all that snow shovelling definitely made up for the gyms being closed!
If you follow our social media accounts, you’ve probably enjoyed all those beautiful photos of reindeer in the snow under a bright blue sky, herders skiing out onto stunning mountains to cuddle reindeer, giving the impression that that is our every day experience. But alas, social media photos can be scheduled for the future. With the current situation, we’ve all just been working two/three days a week, keeping the essentials ticking over, which also means that we can work in separate households.
So every Friday and Saturday, Hen and me had our turn to feed the herd. As January rolled into February, with unerring precision, every day we were scheduled to work also appeared to be the scheduled day for a blizzard, a storm, or generally horrific weather. The reindeer were perfectly equipped, and with their appetites very reduced they would be a fair distance away, not fussed about seeking us out for food. Each time, we would drive up the ski road – a mission in itself as the snow was only cleared enough to allow Cairngorm Mountain’s essential staff access. We would wend our way up the closed road in our wee van, driving as far as we could, debating the safety of walking out to try to find the herd. And each time we would be forced to turn back.
Over the course of the next week, our colleagues would be gifted with better weather than us, and would catch up with the reindeer. More glorious photos for Facebook, then as we watched the forecast for our days, the harsh weather returned. The temperature plummeted to -19C, the Spey froze over. A second work “week” of seeing no reindeer, again foiled by the weather, the deep snow, and the distant reindeer. Now I know we can’t complain too much, when we have the privilege of getting to work with these awesome creatures, but by now we were starting to feel a little less like “Reindeer Herders” and a little more like office staff…
It was now nearly three weeks since we’d seen the herd ourselves, and with hope we looked at the forecast for our next Friday in – the thaw having finally started. Windy, still snowy, but not too bad… We loaded the van with feed, navigated the narrow cleared passage between the drifts (apparently the deepest for 40 years on the road in places), reached the car park and spied with binoculars.
Reindeer! Real live reindeer! Calling against the wind, they heard us, and Pagan led them down.
Phew, we could feel like reindeer herders once again!
One of our adopters has brought it to our attention that the reindeer made an appearance in the Eagle comic, right back in December 1953, a mere 19 months after they first arrived in Scotland. He was kind enough to send us some scans and write a little bit for this week’s blog, so let me hand you over to John this week:
Published between 1950 to 1969, Britain’s Eagle comic was the creation of the Reverend Marcus Morris, an Anglican vicar, and Frank Hampson, who created its now world-famous space hero, ‘Dan Dare’. Alongside the famous space pilot, the weekly comic mixed a variety of other adventure and humour strips, and offered a range of features to appeal to its audience of largely teenage boys. (Publisher Hulton Press also published GIRL, for girls, and Swift and Robin, for younger readers, in similar formats).
Unusually, the comic had an editorial budget well in excess of what might be expected in comparison for a similar title today, and was able to commission a variety of articles – and send their in-house writing team (and freelancers) to all four corners of Britain to cover stories. Reporter Macdonald Hastings (who would go on to become a word-famous war correspondent) filed reports from far-flung parts of the world under the title of Eagle Special Correspondent reportedly making around £5000 pounds a year by 1952.
For Eagle’s 1953 Christmas issue, he was dispatched to the Cairngorms, to visit the Rothiemurchus Forest Reindeer Reserve, where he met Mr Nicolaus Labba the Laplander, who introduced Mr Hastings to some of the herd and offered some thoughts on the future of the project.
N.B. Scans of the whole pages won’t show up on our blog here big enough to read, so we’ve chopped up the article into separate sections so it can (hopefully!) be read easily enough:
So, yes, it’s true – the Cairngorm Reindeer really did rub shoulders with Dan Dare!
Eagle merged with another comic, Lion, in 1969 which in turn lasted until 1974.
N.B. To add some more context, Nicolaus Labba was a cousin of Mikel Utsi, the man who first brought the reindeer back to Scotland from Sweden in 1952, arriving with Mr Utsi in 1952 and spending the next few years as his assistant.
More information about Nicolaus Labba and the history of our herd here in Scotland can be found in our book Hoofprints, available here on our website.
Since Lotti and I have been working at the Reindeer Centre there has been two and a half pages of old English phrases hanging up in the office. It seems to have been there since time immemorial and no one is quite sure how or why it’s up there. We saw this as an opportunity!! Could we enhance our ‘olde’ vocabulary? Well, we were keen to give it a go…we challenged each other to fit in a single word from the list below on each Hill Trip that we did together. Here are some of the words, their definition (followed by their origin), followed by how Lotti and I used them in our tour.
Callipygian – having beautifully shaped buttocks (1640’s).
“Ben and I know all the males in here by name, so we can tell you their name if you have a favourite. Some of the Bulls are so big by now that we can almost identify them by their callipygian bottoms”
Groaking – to silently watch someone whilst they are eating, in the hopes of being invited to join them (unknown origin).
“You might see the Reindeer groaking each other when we put the line of feed on the ground”
Editor’s Note – Groaking is probably the only word in this list that has become part of normal, everyday speech over the years at Reindeer House. Mainly because Hen is regularly accused of it.
Sluberdegullion – a slovenly, slobbering person (1650’s).
“A lot of reindeer adaptations are centred around energy conservation. As you’ve seen, they like to walk on the boardwalk with you and this is all part of the energy conservation instinct: it’s easier than walking along uneven grassland. And here is a good example, none like to conserve energy more than our very own sluberdegullion, Svalbard.”
Curmering – a low rumbling sound produced by the bowels (1880’s).
“Reindeer tend not to make too much noise. However, they do make a noise when moving. In fact, listen out for a noise whilst we walk through the enclosure alongside them, and Lotti will tell you more about that sound soon. I’ll give you a clue, it’s not a curmering.”
Snoutfair – a good-looking person (1500s).
“We run an adoption scheme so you can actually adopt the handsome Dr. Seuss or the fiery Scully here. Alternatively, you could try to adopt Ben here if you think he’s looking particularly snoutfair”
Resistentialism – the seemingly malevolent behaviour displayed by inanimate objects (1940s).
“You might wonder what’s in these green bags at mine and Lotti’s feet. It’s essentially reindeer bribery! Reindeer love their food which is fortunate for us as reindeer herders. The reindeer certainly don’t think the bags have any resistentialism.”
Jargogles – to confuse, bamboozle (1690’s).
“It absolutely jargogles me how quickly the antlers grow on some of our big boys”
Quockerwodger – a wooden puppet, controlled by strings (1850’s).
“We don’t want to treat you as if you were quouckerwodgers, so you can leave when you want, just give Lotti or me a wave and be sure to shut the gates.”
Lunt – walking whilst smoking a pipe (1820’s).
“We will feed the reindeer soon, after which they’re likely to graze the grass or lounge about. Perhaps they’ll even siesta. I’m sure if they were human, they’d love to have a post-work lunt.”
Twattle – to gossip, or talk idly (1600’s).
“So, without further ado, we will head into the enclosure to meet the reindeer. We will gather around one last time when we’re in there to listen to some interesting ways that reindeer have adapted to their environment. Then you’ll have as much time as you’d like to be with the reindeer. So that we remain as one big group, if we could avoid any dawdling or twattling until we’ve gathered around one final time, then that would be great.”
Hugger mugger – to act in a secretive manner (1530’s).
“Cars that are this high up don’t expect to see a big handsome group like us crossing the road, so don’t act all hugger mugger about it, be sure to pick your right moment to cross”.
Cockalorum – a little man with a high opinion of himself (1710’s).
“All of our reindeer do have a name. They are actually named after a different theme every year. This reindeer here is called Bond. He’s a got a history of being a bit of a cockalorum, although he has been behaving better so far this year”
Crapulous – to feel ill because of excessive eating/drinking (1530’s).
“We’re on the last Hill Trip of the day so the Reindeer here are getting quite a lot of food this afternoon, but they’ll make light work of that. Hopefully they don’t feel too crapulous afterwards. But they are ruminants, so they often have a bit of grass or sedge for dessert once the mix has finished.”
Lethophobia – the fear of oblivion (1700’s).
“The reindeer here live in some of the harshest environment that the U.K. offers. In winter, the temperatures can reach as low as -20 degrees Celsius and the wind speed can exceed 100mph. However, this doesn’t trouble the reindeer too much, it hasn’t led to them developing any lethophobia. They are hardy animals who love the cold.”
Elflocks – tangled hair as if matted by elves (1590’s).
“The reindeer’s coats help keep them warm in the winter – reindeer have been known to survive down to very low temperatures when they have to. They do this by having thousands of hairs per square inch, all of which are hollow, making them great at trapping a base layer of heat next to their skin. As you can see the hair is currently lovely and sleek; it stays like this throughout winter and sheds in the summer. If you saw them in July it would look like they’ve got Elflocks.”
Curglaff – the shock one feels upon first plunging into cold water (Scots, 1800’s).
“Reindeer aren’t particularly tactile and some of them here today can be quite shy at times, so don’t be surprised if a reindeer looks curglaffed if you approached too far into their personal space.”
It’s just a couple of weeks after the shortest day of the year as I write this (6hrs and 35 minutes of daylight up here) and the weather has certainly been wild and wintry, with deep snow and thick ice across the lochs. With short days and extreme weather come additional seasonal immigrants, such as snow bunting from Scandinavia, and some of the animals in new disguises, with ptarmigan and mountain hares changing their colours to suit the elements. The wind turns harshly abrasive, carrying tiny pieces of ice, freezing rain, or thick blizzards, and the nights open up to all the phases of the moon or the open milky way. It’s like the mountains find themselves in a whole new dimension.
Recently I’ve discovered that poetry can be a great way of condensing a particular feeling, season, or place, and it’s truly delightful when a poem seems so relevant to a Hill Trip, day out with the free-range reindeer, or view of the Cairngorms and the Strathnethy from up on the hill. Here I have gathered some of my favourites which I hope can bring those of our supporters who haven’t been able to visit (I’ve said it a lot, but what a strange year…) back into the feeling of a day on the hill with the reindeer. Some of my photos from this winter are included too!
The first poem which comes to mind is the Ryvoan Bothy poem, one which anyone who has visited Ryvoan Bothy, a couple of miles away from us, has probably seen pinned inside the door. Many of our visitors in the summer also take the gorgeous walk up to the “Green Lochan” or An Lochan Uaine so I imagine a lot of the places mentioned in this will be familiar to many.
Ryvoan Bothy Poem: I shall leave tonight from Euston by the seven-thirty train, And from Perth in the early morning I shall see the hills again. From the top of Ben Macdhui I shall watch the gathering storm, And see the crisp snow lying at the back of Cairngorm. I shall feel the mist from Bhrotain and the pass by Lairig Ghru To look on dark Loch Einich from the heights of Sgoran Dubh. From the broken Barns of Bynack I shall see the sunrise gleam On the forehead of Ben Rinnes and Strathspey awake from dream. And again in the dusk of evening I shall find once more alone The dark water of the Green Loch, and the pass beyond Ryvoan. For tonight I leave from Euston and leave the world behind; Who has the hills as a lover, will find them wondrous kind.
The poet and writer whose work is most famously connected to the Cairngorms is Nan Shepherd (1893- 1981). The first woman to feature on a Scottish banknote, she was a student and then lecturer at Aberdeen University in English Literature, the part of her life which she enjoyed alongside hill walking, through which she extensively explored the Cairngorms. The Living Mountain, her last published book is an awesome and personal, although at no point self-absorbed, memoir to her days on the Cairngorm plateau. Although a lot of her work is in plain English, I think her work is pretty unique for preserving Doric (the strong dialect in the North East of Scotland) so well, and so beautifully.
Loch Avon – Nan Shepherd Loch A’an, Loch A’an, hoo deep ye lie! Tell nane yer depth and nane shall I. Bricht though yer deepmaist pit may be, Ye’ll haunt me till the day I dee. Bricht, an’ bricht, an’ bricht as air, Ye’ll haunt me noo for evermair.
Writing with equal admiration about their homeland are the Eveny, the reindeer herders of Siberia. Considering reindeer are so intrinsic to their culture that they both feature in their creation story and provide a livelihood, it’s not surprising that many of their songs and poems mention reindeer. Very little of this has been recorded though, however, in Reindeer People; Living With Animals And Spirits in Siberia (Piers Vitebsky) this song is translated and shows the deep connection which the Eveny have with their animals and the land.
I have come from afar, I have not beheld you for so long, With all my heart I love you, My Homeland!
The Autumn leaves fall, My voice echoes far, My song is about you, my homeland, Birthplace of my ancestors
If the reindeer do not come, If the herd turns away, If the reindeer do not come, There will be no more Eveny!
It is difficult to source the lyrics or lines of poems and songs by minority cultures and people (which are the reindeer herders of the north) such as the Eveny or Sami, due to the suppression which these groups have faced, and also the fact that many of the poems are part of an oral tradition, passed on over time but not recorded. An exploration of Sami poetry, a lot of it related to the reindeer can be found here.
Over on the North American continent, the caribou (which are genetically the same species as reindeer: Rangifer tarandus) have a different relationship with people because they’re not herded or domestic, instead living wildly and sometimes being hunted. Richard Kelly Kemick captures the full seasonality of their lives in his book, Caribou Run which follows the year as the animal. I find this one intriguing:
The Love Poem as Caribou – Richard Kelly Kemick It’s hard to imagine. As doves, yes, or even vultures. But there’s nothing of a ballad in the hard weight of antlers. You can’t cut into an ode, stripping its skin to bones cabled with muscle, or search its creased face for something you can almost explain. And a sonnet has never made me see myself inadequate beneath the bright light of evolution’s long apprenticeship, acutely aware of the many failings of my own form. But maybe it’s in how a love poem will cross a body of water without being about to see the other side. Or maybe it’s in the deep prints left in the drifts, that speak of how hard it must have been to move on from here.
On the same continent, Mary Oliver is a poet who has spent a lot of time observing nature, and in her writing brings the reader on a quiet walk with her.
The Poet Dreams of the Mountain – Mary Oliver Sometimes I grow weary of the days, with all their fits and starts. I want to climb some old gray mountain, slowly, taking the rest of my lifetime to do it, resting often, sleeping under the pines or, above them, on the unclothed rocks. I want to see how many stars are still in the sky that we have smothered for years now, a century at least. I want to look back at everything, forgiving it all, and peaceful, knowing the last thing there is to know. All that urgency! Not what the earth is about! How silent the trees, their poetry being of themselves only. I want to take slow steps, and think appropriate thoughts. In ten thousand years, maybe, a piece of the mountain will fall.
And lastly, heading back home to Scotland and the Scots words and phrases, our rewilding landscapes, and great, airy glens we will finish with a poem which couldn’t possibly be more relevant. This one is in the first few pages of the book Hoofprints, a book which celebrates the 60th anniversary of Reindeer in the Cairngorms. It proclaims the “Reindeer Council of the United kingdom is proceeding with the experiment of importing reindeer to Scotland” – Punch magazine, August 1951. Look out for the hints of hunting, these refer to the plan that once the reindeer would be established in Scotland, they would contribute meat to the post-war rationing. Thankfully, after giving the animals names and getting to know them, our herd has always been kept for it’s own environmental and educational value to the Cairngorms.
Stag party O Lords of misty moor and ben! O monarchs of the mountain glen! Crowned with your proudly branching span Surveys your kingdom while you can.
Where Affrie’s corried glen divides, In Atholl’s furthest forest rides, Amid the firs that fringe Loch Shin Will feed the herds that fed the Finn.
Their splayed and hairy hooves will pound, Your ancient Highland stamping ground And Stalkers (snug in hats with flaps) WIll hunt the quarry of the Lapps.
Will later landseers art portray Proud Scandinavian stags at bay, And (taxidermic’ly prepared) Will foreign heads delight the laird?
Will other antlers grace the walls As hatstands in suburban halls- Sad pointers to the fact that you Have yielded to the Caribou?
Shall reindeer, blue of flesh and blood, Reign where the ruling red deer stood, Or will one more invasion fail And wiser councils yet prevail?