Spartan, one of my favourites.

The reindeer I’ve chosen to talk about in this week’s blog is a reindeer who I like a lot. I met him when he was just hours old and he has now become one of the breeding bulls for the herd. His name is Spartan. He was born in 2016 and was named after that year’s naming theme of ‘lost civilizations’. This means he’s about 5 years old and is coming in to his prime. In this blog I’d like to talk a bit about Spartan’s journey from unassuming calf to sweet-natured breeding bull as well as his heritage and his offspring.

Spartan as a very young calf, with mum Bumble keeping an eye on him

During Spartan’s first year of life he was always an unassuming calf. He wasn’t exactly oozing in character and was a relatively quiet calf. He was always polite and never pushy, and he grew very simple antlers. However, as you can see from the photo below, his antlers are far from simple nowadays. They are one of the largest and most beautiful in the herd.

What a bonny lad!

From a personality point of view, Spartan really grew into himself over the years. He has a sweet, lovely nature, even during the rut. For those who don’t know, the rut is a period in autumn – about a month in duration – where reindeer come into season and the breeding occurs. Breeding bulls are known to alter their nature and become more territorial which can lead to these bulls being more scary and aggressive (hence why we don’t visit the breeding bulls on hill trips in October/November). However, Spartan remained well-behaved despite being swarmed by hormones. Compared to our other breeding bulls he is definitely on the well-behaved end of the spectrum. Perhaps this was due to his much-loved mother, Bumble, being incredibly sweet-natured and passing on those genes to her son. If you wanted to read more about Bumble, you can read a blog on her by clicking here.

Bumble – a monstrously greedy reindeer!!!

Spartan had his first experience of being a breeding bull in 2019 and is believed to be the father of 10 calves that were conceived that year and later born in 2020. However, the selection of Spartan as a breeding bull wasn’t an obvious selection. Each year we have to make the decision of which young adult male reindeer we want to pass on their genetics for the future of the herd, and which reindeer we want to castrate. This decision is made when the male reindeer is at least 3 years old and is integral in keeping the number of reindeer in our herd to a sustainable amount. Moreover, by controlling the breeding it means that we never have to cull any reindeer. When it came time to select which reindeer were to be castrated from the 2016 year we decided that we would keep 2 reindeer as breeding bulls that year. Roman was the first choice and after lengthy discussions, Spartan’s genes seemed to win out over other contenders such as Aztec and Celt. He kind of snuck through the castration net, so to speak.

Roman, in the foreground, grows amazing antlers!

Spartan comes from a blood line that had almost become lost within our herd. And now that he is one of our few breeding bulls, it means that the blood line has a new lease of life. Spartan’s father was the popular breeding bull Nutti who was imported as a calf from Sweden in December 2011. We imported a large amount of young male reindeer from Sweden around that time as we wanted to diversify the genetics in our herd and introduce more blood lines. Nutti unfortunately died in April 2018 whilst free-roaming in the Cromdale hills but as you can see from the photo below, his genetics live on in Spartan whose looks, and indeed nature resemble that of Nutti.

Nutti – explaining where Spartan’s face marking came from!

In 2019, almost immediately after the decision that he would become a breeding bull, Spartan was put into the rut and introduced to his own group of females that were coming into season. It turned out that the other breeding bull contenders were related to more of the eligible cows than Spartan. Therefore, we believe he is father to a group of 10 lovely calves (now yearlings) all of whom were named after ‘peas, seeds and beans’. The calves that we think are probably Spartan’s all appear to be very sweet natured and endearing. They are Cannellini, Lupin, Hemp, Chickpea, Mushy, Pinto, Edamame, Adzuki, Borlotti and Haricot. And with only a few exceptions, many of the calves have distinctive white face markings, just like Spartan. These are most notable on Pinto, Edamame, Hemp, Borlotti and Adzuki, the offspring of Morven,  Emmental, Addax, Clootie and Gazelle respectively.

Winner of the most interesting markings as a newborn calf – Hemp!

Although we didn’t use Spartan in autumn’s rut of 2020 he retains his ‘equipment’ and his name is being discussed as a potential breeding bull for this year’s rut. He is currently in great condition and is having a very peaceful year! In the early months of 2021 Spartan has been free-roaming on the Cromdale hills.

So there you have it! The story of Spartan – one of our friendliest breeding bulls.

Ben

Reindeer: An Arctic Life

This is the third (but maybe not last!) book I have written about reindeer.  Published by The History Press, I was approached by them in the latter months of 2015 to ask if I would write another book about reindeer.

My immediate reaction was, “I’m not sure, there is only so much that can be written about reindeer!”, but after I had given it some thought I decided to agree.  I don’t dispute I enjoy writing, I am passionate about reindeer and I have had many ‘busman’s holidays’ to reindeer places in the world. It would also be another way of promoting our unique herd of reindeer. So by the end of the year I was already putting pen to paper.

A trip to Mongolia in 2005 – no point going on holiday anywhere where there aren’t reindeer!

The History Press was looking to have the book on the shelves by Christmas 2016 and so I had to get my skates on. In fact as a person who likes a deadline I said I would have the draft ready by the end of March. And much to their surprise I did!

When we talked about the layout of the book the editor was keen to have the book illustrated, rather then include photographs. At first I was not so sure this was a good idea, reindeer are incredibly photogenic and of course live in some of the most iconic places in the world. However now in hindsight I am really pleased that it is illustrated with line-cut drawings and actually I think it may have made me more descriptive in my writing.

I start and finish the book in winter, the time of year that reindeer are without a doubt, in their element.  It is the sort of book you can dip into for fun facts or entertaining stories, and a must for any reindeer enthusiasts, groupie or geek like myself!

Reindeer: An Arctic Life is still in print and if you fancy a copy then buying a signed copy (with personal dedication if you so wish) from us here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre will help to support the herd far more than going to Amazon! You can buy it from our online shop ( along with lots of other reindeer related gifts ) or just ring the Reindeer Centre and speak to a friendly reindeer herder to you prefer to order things the old-fashioned way, or want a personalised dedication.

Tilly

Tilly has also written blogs about her previous books Velvet Antlers, Velvet Noses, and The Real Rudolph.

Fonn: An obituary

We lost one of our old girls a few weeks back, Fonn. She was a really sweet character in the herd and got to the grand age of 17, only one month off her 18th birthday. Considering anything over 10 years old is doing well this meant she did really well! Although the last few years she was starting to look her age she continued to stay in good condition, giving us no cause for concern. This was helped by us letting her get her head in the bag of feed of course!

Fonn in her heyday

As a youngster she had her fair share of calves of which her son Rubiks and daughter Merida are still going strong. Her oldest daughter Joni we lost in 2020 to old age, however Joni also had a few calves over the years so it’s a good sized family. She has 5 grandchildren currently in the herd – Bourbon, Jenga, Jute, Dr Seuss and Ärta. She also has one great grandson, Jelly. I wont get into cousins and second cousins cos I’ll be here all day.

With daughter Merida, back in 2012

In the past 7 years Fonn hasn’t had a calf and as a result lived to a grand age. She was always super reliable when bringing the herd in for feeding time and if we ever needed to catch a reindeer out to walk on a halter as a lure for the others to follow then Fonn was a good one to do this. Last year she re-formed a very sweet bond with her 9 year old son, Rubiks. The two of them remained side by side for 7 months through winter, spring and summer 2020 which considering they’d spent no time together in the years previous to that was quite amazing they remembered each other. Dr Seuss, her 4 year old grandson has turned into one of the most recognisable characters in the herd not only through looks with his big antlers, white face and dark body but he also featured as one of the main reindeer in last year’s TV show ‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas’.

Rubiks licking Fonn’s face, back in January 2020
Always friendly to visitors!

Many reindeer come and go throughout the years and although they are all great characters some leave a slightly bigger hole in your heart than others and Fonn was certainly one of them. Of course it is sad, however the sadness is outweighed by knowing she had such a fantastic life up here in the Cairngorm Mountains. She has succession through her wonderful family which is a mix of Christmas reindeer, females and young bulls so the line will go on and she can be proud of what’s to come.

The last ‘adopt’ photo of Fonn (photo taken for her adoption certificates), looking old but still very well last autumn.

Fiona

Pollyanna – the submarine reindeer

I recently came across the remarkable story of Pollyanna the reindeer. She was a reindeer who lived on a British submarine during World War II. It was my brother who informed me of this crazy tale, knowing my passion for all things reindeer and it was such a weird and wonderful story that I initially thought it couldn’t be true. Turns out facts are sometimes stranger than fiction…there really was a reindeer submariner.

HMS Trident captain, Geoffrey Sladen, with Pollyanna the reindeer submariner.

In 1941 HMS Trident stopped for repairs in the Soviet Union and it was at this point that the crew on HMS Trident got themselves a furry new recruit, accompanied by “a barrel of moss”. There’s a couple of different stories as to the recruitment process for Pollyanna. One tale states that she was gifted to the British crew as a token of gratitude for their assistance in fighting the German forces in the Arctic Circle. Another story details that whilst dining with the Russian Admiral, the captain of HMS Trident mentioned how his wife was having problems pushing her pram in the winter snow of England. This led to the admiral stating that what the captain needed was a reindeer, and as such Pollyanna was gifted to the crew. I’m not too sure of the logic there, was the reindeer meant to pull the pram through the streets of London? If so, Pollyanna would do well at our Christmas events.

Pollyanna spent six weeks aboard HMS Trident and it began with her being lowered in through one of the torpedo tubes. The plan was for Pollyanna to live in the torpedo store area (what could go wrong there?!?!). However, Pollyanna had other plans. She took herself out of the torpedo store area and she stationed herself in the captain’s cabin. And why not? I imagine the captain’s cabin was far more comfortable.

However, it wasn’t long before the barrel of moss sustaining Pollyanna ran out. Being an active submarine, HMS Trident couldn’t stop for supplies. But Pollyanna adapted, eating leftovers from the crew’s vegetables and developing a real taste for the old war time favourite, Carnation condensed milk. It’s reported that she even ate some navigation charts. I can’t imagine that would go down well with the rest of the crew! I think she’d have more of an excuse than any human though.

HMS Trident leaving harbour

After six weeks of patrols off Norway, HMS Trident docked in Blyth and all was well. However, when it came time to leave, it became obvious that there was a problem. After all the condensed milk and scraps (and navigation charts) Pollyanna had put on a lot of weight. She couldn’t fit out of the submarine. It took a protracted and coordinated effort of winching Pollyanna through the hatch, but it was a success and there we have it… Pollyanna set her hooves down on U.K. soil after six weeks at sea.

 

Photo courtesy of Royal Navy Submarine Museum

The captain decided that instead of giving Pollyanna the role of his wife’s ‘chief pram puller’, she would instead be gifted to London Zoo where she reportedly became a firm favourite with both staff and visitors. Pollyanna lived for a further five years and in a touching case of fate, both Pollyanna and HMS Trident met their ends within the same year of 1947, when HMS Trident was decommissioned and scrapped. It was said that Pollyanna never forgot her submariner nature and whenever a siren, bell or tannoy was sounded at London Zoo, Pollyanna would lower her head, much like she would have done when the HMS Trident dived.

All of us here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre would obviously never condone keeping a reindeer enclosed. Nevertheless, the tale of Pollyanna does make for a very obscure and touching story I’m sure you’ll agree. The crew seemed to really take to Pollyanna and she reportedly made a massive contribution to the crew’s morale. I do wonder however, where did all of Pollyanna’s poo go? Some questions are probably best left unanswered.

The crew of HMS Trident in July 1945, towards the end of the war.

In the course of writing this blog I have found it entertaining to think of some of our reindeer aboard a submarine. Which one would do best? Of course, we’d never put our lovely reindeer aboard a submarine, not that it’s a request we often come across. But being such resilient and hardy animals, I bet most of them would take it in their stride and ‘keep calm and carry on’. They may well adapt to the situation better than me. Atlantic probably has the best name in the herd for the next reindeer submariner. And I’m counting Scrabble and Svalbard out of selection due to their size. Like Pollyanna, I don’t think we’d get them back out if they got in. And any submarine would have to double the amount of Carnation condensed milk on board. Bond would fancy himself, with his enthusiasm and in living up to his secret agent name. I mean…who wouldn’t want a submarine Bond scene?! Which reindeer from the herd do you think would theoretically make the best reindeer submariner? Or the best reindeer pram puller?

Should these lads be pram pullers instead of sleigh pullers?!

Ben – with credit to Claudia Mendes’ article on War History Online. B&W photos courtesy of National Museum of the Royal Navy.

Winter wonderland

I know snow and ice is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for our reindeer it definitely is! Reindeer are incredibly well adapted for arctic life, with thick coats to keep out the cold and large flat feet to stop them sinking in the snow.

And this winter was certainly a ‘proper’ one. Since the beginning of the year through to mid February we had sustained cold conditions in the Highlands and the mountains and hills were clothed in snow. We also saw considerable snowfall at lower levels, with both Reindeer House and my farm being white for many, many weeks.

Over at our second site for reindeer at Glenlivet we over-winter part of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd out on the hill, just the same as on the Cairngorms. At this time of year the reindeer are grazing on ground lichens, their preferred winter diet and they will use their lovely big feet to dig down through the snow to the lichen below.  Because of their thick insulating coats they do not seek any shelter and so in the worst of storms they remain on the tops of the ridges where the lichen grows best.

We do like to check the herd regularly though and so as often as we can we go out to see and feed them, although this was impossible for much of this winter due to the inaccessibility of the Cromdales in such deep snow. The reindeer never say no to extra food and when we call them down they come running. We don’t need to feed them much to satisfy them because the reindeer have a lower metabolic rate in the winter, so just a little bit of food is sufficient, and allows us to cast an eye over them to check all is well.

Sometimes skis were the only option for moving about on the Cromdales!

It’s a lovely sight watching the herd weave their way down through deep snow. They are past masters at conserving energy, which means they walk in each others footprints, to save working too hard. It often amuses me to consider which reindeer does the hard work at the front. Is it always the greedy ones that break track or do they ‘take turns?! I suspect it’s the greedy ones.

Once fed, they will drift away and settle on the higher ground in the snow for the night. A bed of snow is very comfortable for a reindeer.

Tilly

 

Memorable Reindeer of the Past: Bumble

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a “Memorable Reindeer” and I thought we were overdue a bit of reminiscing. And who better to talk about than Bumble? 

Bumble in her prime, 2015

Bumble was born in May 2010, to mum Tjakko. Jack had just started volunteering with the herd, and managed to film the whole birth. By the time the other herders arrived, they found the new mum and calf, along with Jack, all curled up asleep in the heather. It set the scene for how tame Bumble would be for the rest of her life, completely at home in the company of people. Indeed, most of her family are similarly friendly and greedy – including older sisters Dixie and Ibex.

Newborn Bumble with mum Tjakko

That autumn, as the cows and calves began returning from the high tops of the mountain free-range, one unknown little calf came in without her mum. Alone though she was, she didn’t seem scared of us, and was straight into the food. A process of elimination quickly identified her as Tjakko’s calf, orphaned over the summer. We named her Bumble – fitting in the “Bugs and Beasties” theme – and following on from Tjakko’s 2009 calf Crumble. With her silvery legs and confident character, she quickly won us round and stole my heart.

Bumble as a calf, November 2010

Bumble was a marmite reindeer – her confidence and persistence in trying to break into every bag of food either frustrated or amused herders. I found her hilarious. She never grew a “good” set of antlers – they were always simple with basic points pointing in every direction like radio antennae. It just added to her air of goofiness. In general, reindeer aren’t keen on being touched, but Bumble had no sense of personal space and was quite happy being scratched and petted. She even had a starring roll in a commercial we did for Tuffphone, pawing at a food bag and standing squarely on the phone to prove how sturdy it was as if on cue.

If there’s a bag, it has to be checked for food…
Bumble had a reputation for her ample “booty”, earning her the nickname of Beyonce.

 

Typical sighting of Bumble, moving at full pelt towards the feed bag

Like her mum, Bumble had a real stubborn streak, and leading her on a headcollar could be… interesting. Indeed I remember several times being told, “She’s your favourite, you have to lead her”. Thankfully as she got older she became better behaved, but it was definitely unwise to starting a tugging war with her, as she would just dig in her heels!

On the freerange in her summer coat

Bumble had several calves in her life, the first being Biscay, in 2014. While most cows head away from the herd to calve in private, Bumble didn’t think it was worth risking missing a feed, and tended to give birth within sight of the enclosure gate. Her carefree attitude about human company meant she was utterly unphased by us being nearby during and immediately after the birth, and I was lucky enough to watch her give birth to her second calf, using binoculars from a discreet distance. 

Bumble completely unphased by motherhood – with her newborn calf Biscay.
Sally teaching Ben how to check over a new calf, with Bumble lending young Spartan for practice – she’s keeping a close watch to check everything is done correctly.

It’s always fun catching up with the females on the free-range in summer, and one year I found a group including Bumble, who was at the “extreme moulting” stage of the year, and whilst she occupied herself with the bag of food I’d brought, I proceeded to groom off virtually all of the loose fur, leaving her rather lighter and cooler for the hot summer days! If any walkers came across the pile of discarded fur, goodness knows what they’d have thought!

Bumble on the summer free range occupying herself with some food whilst I groomed off her excess old winter coat.
I was always delighted to catch up with Bumble.

Bumble was last seen on the free-range in late 2018, in great condition and her usual cheeky self. The next time that group was seen she wasn’t with them, and whilst I held out hope that she was just off doing her thing and would turn up, it wasn’t to be and, despite searching, she was never seen by us again. It was one of those frustrating occasions where we will never know exactly what happened – she was a big strong lass in the prime of her life and not a reindeer we would expect to lose – but there are risks on the mountains, and it is the payoff for the wonderful natural life our herd lead that occasionally one is unlucky. 

One of the last photos of Bumble, out on the summer free-range – sent to me by Ruth as a “Look who weve found”
Weathering the storm – Bumble in a blizzard.

For me, Bumble was one in a million and there is a little less joy in the herd without her – when I decided to get a new tattoo it was her crazy antlers that I chose to have tattooed on my side. But her line continues through her son Spartan, who ran as a breeding bull in 2019 and fathered a lovely batch of calves. Among them are several unexpectedly tame calves (from shyer mums) who I see a little bit of Bumble in. Life in the herd goes on.

Greedy but gorgeous.

Andi

Reindeer herders come craftsmen/craftswomen!

As well as being highly qualified reindeer herders… (a qualification that takes years of course 😉 ) quite a few of us herders have our own wee side-lines which we either do as a hobby or to get an extra bit of pocket money each month selling our goods online or through our reindeer shop.

Olly has been part of the reindeer herding family for over 5½ years now, since he was 17. Although he is one of the youngest herders he is by far the most practical when it comes to handyman, maintenance and craftmanship work and the list goes on! He has fixed many a thing at Reindeer House and constantly gets roped in to help with projects including woodwork and building. As well as being a reindeer herder he has worked for a bushcraft company, teaching groups of kids the skill set and more ‘simple’ life when it comes to living and embracing the outdoors… away from the hustle and bustle of normal life!

Olly with a handmade stool

Throughout 2020 Olly has established his own company, Corvus, doing everything from putting up shelving to building sheds, whittling spoons and his latest venture of hand carving beautiful wooden cups. Each one turns out different due to the nature of the wood and working with the grain. He now has his own social media following and Etsy shop which is proving to be extremely popular. During winter/spring last year when the whole country went into lockdown, Olly lost work with the bushcraft company due to restrictions not allowing it to go ahead and has really made the most of what could have been a very long year – instead he has broadened his skill set and kept Reindeer House up to scratch in maintenance… Thanks Olly!

A carved Sami-style cup

See links below for keeping in the loop and what’s for sale through Corvus.

Corvus: Facebook page and Etsy page

I’ve (Fiona) been crafting with reindeer antler for over ten years now. I guess I’ve been inspired by the beautiful handicrafts made by the Sami people throughout Scandinavia having visited there in the past – their craft is a whole new level but having been self taught through trial and error I’ve worked out what sells and along the way got to work with a really great product. The best sellers are of course the necklaces, bracelets, keyrings and earrings I sell through our reindeer shop. These are affordable and don’t take too long to make. Pairing reindeer antler with colourful wooden beads it makes for a unique present or souvenir. I then took it a step further and now I do antler/wood handles for knives, bottle openers, cheese knives etc. This has been fun working out and having Sami friends to quiz along the way means I’m getting the best of the best advice!

One of my knives with an antler and curly birch handle

I’ve made cake knives for friends weddings and even reindeer antler rings. I don’t have a company as such but call myself Antler Crafts. It’s a great way to switch off, especially if it’s a bad weather day, I can tinker around in the workshop and my bedroom making bits and bobs from the reindeer antler.

Antler Crafts: Facebook page

And a cheese slice!

Andi has been in the reindeer herding scene now for well over ten years and full time since 2011, but has a very different hobby to Olly and I who work with wood and reindeer antler. Andi has self taught herself the art of taxidermy.

Not sure Andi would have her hand under those talons if this Buzzard was still alive!

Whenever she, or someone else (usually other reindeer herders) finds an animal or bird which has recently died through natural causes, we pop them in the freezer ready for Andi to work on. She is self taught in building manikins and tanning skins to restore these beautiful animals. Although we appreciate it is not everybody’s cup of tea there is certainly enough interest for her to keep up this unusual hobby. Seeing some of these animals up close through taxidermy may sometimes be the only way you can really appreciate their colouring or structure as in the wild they are often they are seen in a split second and you may never know it’s true beauty.

A brace of beautiful brown hares.

You can follow her on social media and she also has an online Etsy shop you can check out.

Andi’s Taxidermy: Facebook page and Etsy page

Manouk worked with us for a couple of years from 2018-2020 and still lives locally. I was always very jealous of her artistic skills and beautiful drawings.

Some of Manouk’s beautiful cards

Over the last couple of years she has been sketching landscape and mountain scenes as well as her day to day subjects such as the friendly local sheep in nearby fields. She has turned her art into gift cards and sells them online. Check out her Etsy shop and get yourself some lovely cards.

Manouk’s Etsy page

Sheena is definitely the most artistic of us all… even though she would try and say otherwise!

Sheena busy at work!

She has a real eye for colour and shape and you can be midway through a conversation and she’ll whip out her sketch book and pencil and start sketching the surroundings. We’ve been to many music festivals over the years and while everyone is taking photos there is Sheena with pencil and paper capturing the moment in a very different way. She is so encouraging to anyone who wants to give it a go, giving them sound advice but at the same time making sure they create something from their own mind, not hers.

Art pieces on recycled wooden boards, plus a couple of prints
Sheena’s ptarmigan and mountain hares in our shop window

She paints on wooden plaques and canvas as well as making clay animals and selling them through our reindeer shop. Mind you it only makes it to the shop if another reindeer herder doesn’t buy it first! Sheena doesn’t have any social media pages or online shop, but some of her items are always available in our shop here at the Centre, and can occasionally be found in our online shop too.

Small canvases

Joe has been a seasonal herder now for over 3 years and when he’s not working here he’s usually a mountain guide so knows the hills throughout Britain very well. More recently he’s got into photography, buying himself a fancy pants camera! He’s got a great eye when it comes to capturing a moment or scene – this was always very apparent on the photos he took on his phone so now he has the high tech equipment the photos are even more mind blowing. So with his love for being in the mountains coupled with his knowledge and fitness to take him to some incredible places in the outdoors I suspect there are going to be some pretty amazing photos to come out of it. We will definitely rope him in to get some good reindeer shots, so watch this space – particularly for our upcoming 2022 calendar perhaps!

Well chuffed with his new toy!

Loch Ness Leather is a company ran by a reindeer herder from back in the day, Heather Hanshaw. I don’t want to call her an ex reindeer herder cos you never really know when these ex herders dip their toe back into the odd bit of herding… Both Heather’s parents have always worked with leather and created businesses from it and Heather has now taken on that role and has built the most amazing company and products to go with it.

Heather hard at work (well mostly!) and some of her beautiful products

Some of you already have a keyring she has made as these have been going out in adoptions packs since last May for all adoption renewals (about which she wrote a blogfor us about last summer). She knows the rule for our shop – if it’s got a reindeer on it then we’ll sell it – so now we also have whisky hip flasks and dram sets available online.  Living locally to us, we can easily catch up on her latest products; usually done during a dog walk or once the chaos of COVID is over lots of lovely social times, dinner and drinks! While checking out her website see if you can recognise those fancy models she got to advertise her products.  😉 Lol!

Fancy models! Well, reindeer herders in disguise… Hats and bags all made by Loch Ness Leather. Photo copyright: Catriona Parmenter

Loch Ness Leather: Facebook page and website

Meeting Snowflake – one of the first white reindeer

This week’s blog is by Sharon Hudgins, and tells of a very memorable stay in a stone house in the Cairngorms, many years ago… As ever, if you also have a memorable story that you think might make a nice blog, please email it over to us! We love to publish contributions from others if we can.

I discovered the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre in 2017, while doing research for a book I’m writing about the Scottish Highlands. I should really say “re-discovered” the Reindeer Centre, because, to my surprise, research revealed that I’d actually been there once before, nearly half a century earlier.

In 1969, as a young American university student on my first trip abroad, I traveled by train around England and Scotland with my college roommate. Early in the trip, our route took us to Aviemore in the Cairngorms, because my roommate was an avid skier. We rode the ski lift up to the ski area, but that second week of May there was no snow suitable for skiing. It was just cold and sleeting on top of the mountain, cold and raining when we got back down to the bottom.

We needed to find a bed-and-breakfast where we could stay for the night and dry out our wet clothes. But it was already 6 p.m., and we had no idea where to go. That area wasn’t as developed for tourism as it is now. We finally found a tiny grocery store and asked the lady behind the counter if she knew a B&B where we might stay. She didn’t—but she asked the people standing in line, waiting to pay for their groceries, if any of them knew someone who could take us in for the night.

A man at the back of the line said we could stay at his place. We normally wouldn’t have accepted such an offer from a strange man. But we were soaking wet and didn’t seem to have any other options. Besides, everyone in the store seemed to know him, so it seemed like a pretty safe bet.

Reindeer House as it was back in the 60s

When we arrived at his grey stone house, we were surprised to find that his wife was an American. She seated us in front of the blazing fire in the sitting room, fed us a hot supper there, and chatted with us about our travels in Britain and our studies in the U.S., before fixing up two beds for us to sleep in that night.

The fireplace where we warmed up that evening

But the most memorable part of that chance encounter in the Cairngorms happened the next morning. After we’d eaten a hearty Scottish breakfast, the man took us out to the paddock behind the house to meet his reindeer—including a pure white reindeer which he said was the only white reindeer in Britain. I thought it was really cool to have reindeer in your backyard—especially a white one—and I never forgot that unusual experience.

Fast forward to 2017, when I was planning a journey around the Scottish Highlands to gather material for my book, retracing the exact route I had taken on that first trip in 1969. While researching “Aviemore” on the Internet, I came across a map showing the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre in that area. And I wondered if there was some connection with the reindeer owners I’d met there nearly 50 years before.

Through emails with Hen, one of the Centre’s herders, I discovered that the couple who had taken us in on that rainy night were Mikel Utsi, who had first introduced free-ranging reindeer to Scotland in 1952, and his wife Dr. Ethel Lindgren, who was also a reindeer expert.

Mikel Utsi
Dr Ethel Lindgren

I also learned that the white reindeer I had met in 1969 was named Snowflake, the first pure white reindeer born in the herd – and her distinctive white descendants are still part of the herd today.

Snowflake was just one year old when I met her.

When my husband and I visited the Reindeer Centre in the summer of 2017, I was delighted to see the same stone house where I’d once stayed overnight, with its reindeer paddock still out back. Although our travel schedule precluded a hike up into the hills to see the main herd, we did get to visit some of the reindeer kept inside the fencing behind the house. And I also stocked up on reindeer books and souvenirs in the Centre’s gift shop—which was originally the room where I’d dried out in front of the Utsi-Lindgren’s fireplace.

The stone house where I stayed in 1969.
My husband and I meeting the (very scruffy moulting!) reindeer in 2017.

My husband and I are also happy to have become supporters of the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre by adopting two reindeer, LX and Mozzarella, direct descendants of that beautiful white Snowflake that I’d met so long ago, when she was only one year old. Whenever it’s safe to travel again, we look forward to visiting the herd up on the hills, meeting “our” two reindeer, and letting them know that once I’d even met their great-great-great-great-etc. grandmother, too.

My adoptees Mozzarella and LX

Sharon Hudgins is an American author who has written books about Siberia and Spain. She is now working on a memoir about the Scottish Highlands. See www.sharonhudgins.com

 

Long time, no reindeer

It’s been a bit snowy here in the Cairngorms this winter.

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!

There’s a loch there somewhere! Loch Morlich froze solid enough that some people skied right across it.

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.

Our path off the car park blocked by a 10 ft drift. No reindeer today then…

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.

The main ski road.
A passage cleared through drifts higher than the van.

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…

Our wee van excelled itself at being a snow van. That’s the main ski road that we’re stopped on…

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.

Hen sights the reindeer just above the snow drift

Reindeer! Real live reindeer! Calling against the wind, they heard us, and Pagan led them down.

Call and they shall come (possibly)

Phew, we could feel like reindeer herders once again!

Wild weather but happy herders with hungry Holy Moley

Andi

Reindeer in Space? Not quite!

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).
Part of Eagle’s cover – dated 24th December 1953
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.
John 
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. 
Nicolaus Labba and Mikel Utsi, 29th May 1952 – the day the reindeer first arrived in the Cairngorms after their journey from Sweden and subsequent quarantine at Edinburgh Zoo.
Labba with Sarek in Feb 1953.
With Sam in August 1953, the calf who’s photo made it into the Eagle a few months later!

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.