There’s a poster that has been kicking around the Reindeer Centre for as long as I’ve known. It’s since been framed and we keep it in our shop area as it’s a rather sweet poster with some words of wisdom when it comes to reindeer herding.
In case the image is too small to read properly, the text is:
Shepherd thy herd closely when calving for thy calves are more precious than rubies.
Kill not thy healthy reindeer except they be in abundance or be castrated and castrate not thy young reindeer for they will grow slowly and fatten as quickly as thy bulls.
Husband thy pastures carefully that they not be over-grazed or destroyed by fires or trampling and never allow surplus reindeer to graze on winter lichen ranges.
Love thy reindeer as thy sons and daughters, protecting them from wolves and bears, and assuring them abundant food and water all the days of their lives.
Thou shalt not cause they reindeer great stress or make them to run swiftly for they will lose weight or overheat and die as surely as though smitten by thy sword.
Healthy reindeer grow fat and have many calves, whereas sickly and diseased reindeer bring only shame and an empty purse.
Seek solace for thy reindeer in cool breezes when hordes of mosquitos and warble flies haunt the summer ranges.
Suffer not thy old, thy sickly not thy castrated reindeer to endure another snowfall for these reindeer are unproductive and will not fatten further.
Attend to thy tablets carefully for the keeping of tally sheets and daily journals is the hallmark of a successful reindeer herder.
Honour thy pasturelands, its waters and all its creatures, large and small, for they are a family that has endured for centuries.
In reference to point 2, I’ll add that we don’t cull any of our herd at all – when they were reintroduced from Sweden in the 50s it would have been the intention to cull ‘extra’ males who weren’t needed for breeding, but the direction of the herd changed pretty quickly to being purely a tourist attraction. No reindeer burgers here!
And on point 9, a diary has been kept daily since the 50s, recording the movements of the herd and any interesting information, and this is something that we continue to this day. Of course now it’s on a computer rather than hand-written, but everything is religiously recorded, day in and day out.
Whilst the majority of our reindeer are docile, friendly and laid back, there is always an exception, so in this week’s blog I thought I’d introduce you to Pony…
Pony was born in our “Games and Pastimes” themed calving of 2011. It might not seem an obvious game, but it was a bit of a stretch, naming her after the My Little Pony craze. The broader picture is that her older brother from the Bugs and Beasties theme was named Horse, slightly ironically, in the hope that if we gave the calf a rather rubbish name then sod’s law would mean it had a long life, as mother Mawar was renowned for losing her calves at a young age. It seemed to have had the desired effect so we stuck with the animal theme for Pony, then later for her brother Goat (in the Cheese theme).
Pony is quite easy to pick out among the other normal coloured cows of the herd as she is missing the very tips of her ears. Sometimes if a reindeer is quite poorly as a calf they don’t maintain the blood supply to the extremities and the tip of, or occasionally the entire ear, can drop off. Whilst changing their appearance somewhat, it doesn’t seem to have any other negative impact on the reindeer.
Pony’s mother Mawar was a lovely sweet natured reindeer, but perhaps Pony has a chip on her shoulder from missing her ear tips, as she has always had a bit of attitude. Or perhaps it comes from further back in her family tree as her auntie Lulu isn’t averse to snorting and waving her antlers at people! Unfortunately I also found out that Pony can hold a grudge, and I inadvertently got myself on the wrong side of her in 2018.
It was May, and Pony was in our hill enclosure looking very pregnant and ready to calve. One day she had headed away from the herd, so myself and Kate made an early start the following morning, assuming she must have a new calf. And indeed she did, a very cute wee male, quite a distance from the main herd. We like to bring them in to a smaller “nursery” pen where we can keep an eye on the new mums and young calves, so Kate and I started following behind Pony and the calf, gently herding them in the right direction.
Reindeer calves are very capable but his wee legs got more and more tired, until eventually he lay down and didn’t want to walk any more. Normally at this point we would just carry the calf with mum following behind, but Pony already had a reputation for defending her calves, so I decided to try to pop Pony on a headcollar. She was a bit suspicious but hungry enough after giving birth to snatch a bite of feed from my bag, at which point I grabbed hold of her antler! Kate nipped in and we put on the headcollar. Pony was NOT impressed, and even less so when Kate picked up her calf, with me holding her back enough to not wallop Kate with those antlers!
We made our way in, by some miracle nobody died or got skewered on Pony’s antlers, and we released Pony and her new calf out with the rest of the new mothers. Sadly for me, Pony never forgave me for this perceived wrongdoing (though they were never more than 6 ft apart and the tired calf seemed relieved to be carried!). From that point on, I had to watch my back, as anytime I was anywhere near Pony’s calf she’d come after me, threatening me and snapping at me!
This love has persisted over the years, and when Pony had her next calf in 2020, a wee female, it fell to me to bring her in. Pony had calved much nearer this time, and shot off away from me, the wee toot scrabbling after, all going smoothly until they got to the gateway, which Pony went through, but her calf went straight into the fence. Shutting the gate behind Pony to prevent her spinning back round and beating me up, I was free to disentangle the calf. We named her Turtle, and she is a very sweet lass, though I’m waiting for the day her mother’s attitude comes through!
Pony’s hatred of me rose to another level in the autumn, when Pony managed to wedge a chunk of bone she was chewing on beneath her tongue, necessitating a visit from the vet and an operation to remove it. As I was one of the herders there (giving up my evening to wait for the vet to arrive…), Pony seems to have linked the pain and discomfort with somehow being my fault… I went to check she was ok the next morning and got chased for my efforts! What a reindeer!
For my part, I still like Pony, and this winter decided to try and win her round by offering her extra tasty treats from a bag. She cottoned on quickly and is quite willing to accept the offering, but it’s fairly daunting as she comes flying over with her ears back, and I hold the bag up partly as a shield! I think her lack of ear tips does make her look more angry than she actually is at times, but I’m still pretty cautious around her, doing my best not to tread on her toes, so to speak!
Just the other day, we were noticing that her oldest daughter, Suebi, who until this point has been a sweet natured lassie, seems to be getting more “opinionated” with age, so fingers crossed we’re not going to end up with another Pony on our hands!
This past year has been my first full year as a reindeer herder. Despite becoming a reindeer herder seven years ago in 2014 (remember then? simpler times!), I was very much a seasonal herder. I would arrive for a few months in the summer whilst either my university course was having a break, or in-between travels abroad.
Therefore, last winter was my first winter as a reindeer herder. And what a memorable winter it was! Firstly, it was lockdown, so it was very different to how things usually operate which was new and exciting whilst also being unpredictable and slightly chaotic. But also, there was the snow. So. Much. Snow. And I thought it would be a good opportunity to share a couple of videos and photos from the crazy weather, including this short clip of Joe and I leading the herd downstream in blizzard-like conditions at the start of February.
And it’s not just reindeer that we fed throughout the winter! Opportunistic snow buntings joined in most days too:
I am writing this at the start of May where we have had quite a bit of fresh snowfall over the past couple of weeks, so maybe we are not through all the snowy weather just yet. But I am sure it won’t be anywhere near as much as the volume of snow that fell this winter. Overall, it was a lovely first year as a reindeer herder, albeit very unusual as the whole country adapted to changing circumstances. Now I look forward to my next year and hopefully getting to see all the ‘normal’ activities such as Christmas events and parades.
Every year we try and post a blog in May with lots of calf photos – because let’s be honest, it’s all any of you really want to see at this time of year!
We don’t, however, reveal which reindeer have calved at the moment, as we like to wait until after the June newsletter is sent out to our reindeer adopters before revealing who has become a mum. The reason for this is two-fold – the main one being so as not to spoil the surprise element for adopters of opening that envelope in June, and scanning down the calving list to find our whether ‘their’ reindeer has calved.
The second reason is that sadly not every calf born will survive, and reindeer are at their most vulnerable in their first few weeks of life. While we don’t shy away from the fact that reindeer don’t last for ever and do die, sometimes at a very young age, we also don’t want to upset anyone unnecessarily by allowing them to see photos of their adopted reindeer’s super-cute newborn online – only to find them suspiciously missing from the calving list in the newsletter a couple of weeks later. It would be unfair of us to upset those of a perhaps more delicate disposition with the realities of life if it can be easily avoided by not naming who is who, at least until the calves are past the most vulnerable month of their lives.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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’.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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!
See links below for keeping in the loop and what’s for sale through Corvus.
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!
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.
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.
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.
You can follow her on social media and she also has an online Etsy shop you can check out.
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.
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.
Sheena is definitely the most artistic of us all… even though she would try and say otherwise!
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.
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.
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!
Loch Ness Leather is a company ran by a reindeer herder from back in the day, HeatherHanshaw. 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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