70 years ago today

Here at The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we are ‘popping the bottles of bubbly’ and celebrating, because it was this day 70 years ago that the first small group of reindeer arrived in the Cairngorms for what would be a successful experiment to re-introduce reindeer to Scotland after many years of absence.

An idea conceived by ‘couple extraordinaire’ Mikel Utsi and his wife Dr Ethel Lindgren, their tenacity and zeal paid off and the first small breeding group actually set foot on terra firma here in the Cairngorms on 27th May 1952.

Mr Utsi holding Sarek, before disembarking MS Sarek at Rothesay Dock, Glasgow, 1952

The first consignment was swiftly followed by a second group of reindeer coming in the following October and finally on 29th April 1954 a third group arrived. These reindeer would form the nucleus of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd we love and cherish today.

Mikel Utsi was a Swedish Sami, born 17th May 1908 and brought up in a reindeer herding family in Swedish Lapland. As the second child of 8 children he was expected to ‘make his own way in life’, something I think we can all agree he certainly did!

Mikel Utsi fly spraying antlers, Loch Morlich behind.
Not much changes on our summer morning today, here’s Hen spraying Bond’s antlers (and getting a beady look in return!) in summer 2021.

His wife Dr Lindgren came from a very different background. Born on 1st January 1905 she was the only child of a wealthy Swedish-American banking family. She travelled extensively as a child with her family, graduated at Cambridge University with a first class honours in oriental languages and moral science and studied and wrote her PhD on reindeer herding people, the Tungus after expeditions to NW Manchuria in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.

Dr Lingren with Alice, Anne, Pelle (behind) in 1952

Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren met in Jokkmokk on the Arctic circle in Swedish Lapland and they married in 1947. They then devoted their lives to their ‘dream’ to re-introduce reindeer to Scotland. And 70 years on that dream has been a huge success, providing enjoyment to many. We have a lot to thank them both for.

Mr Utsi introducing Sarek to three Aviemore school children, 1952
Sheena leading a Hill Trip, 2021

The vast majority of reindeer have been born here in the Cairngorms and they descend from original females brought in during the 1950’s. Over a span of 11+ generations, both homebred and imported bulls have been used to ensure genetic diversity in the herd.

Today visitors to the herd, our reindeer support scheme and Christmas events with our trained reindeer are all ways we generate income to help keep this unique herd of reindeer in their natural, free-living environment. We have a dedicated group of ‘Scottish Reindeer Herders’ who are also family and friends and who are involved daily in the well-being and caring of this unique herd.

Vikhta outside Reindeer House, 1962
Volunteer Carol, herders Amy, Lotti and Ruth, with Fiona and Sherlock and Tilly and LX posing outside Reindeer House – May 2022.
Herders on calf naming night , September 2021

So for me as co-owner of the herd I would like to say a big ‘THANK YOU’ to the late Mikel Utsi and Dr Lindgren for establishing this herd and also to our reindeer herders of today who continue to make this imaginative experiment such a success.

So raise your glass to The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd and may they thrive in the Cairngorms for many years to come.

Free-ranging herd in 1956
Happy free-ranging herd, summer 2021

Tilly Smith. Co-owner of the Cairngorm Reindeer

A podcast with Tilly about 70 years of reindeer on the Cairngorms, produced by Pinsharp Studios, can be found here.

Adopters’ Open Day at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre

Back in 2012, when we got to the 60th year of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, we thought we ought to mark the occasion in some way. Therefore, in the October of that year, we ran a special weekend aimed at all our amazing reindeer adopters, who show us so much support from year to year, and without whom we couldn’t continue in the way we do today. As the weekend finally rolled around, the sun shone, the adopters flocked our way and everything ran like a dream. And somehow, somehow, the stress of organising such a big event (bang in the middle of the run up to our hectic Christmas season) faded into the past… So in March this year, when Tilly announced that as we were 65 years old now we should do a similar event, I blithely said “Ok Tilly! Whatever you say, Tilly.” More fool me.

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About a week later, I realised that I was going to have to be in charge of the organisation. The Sunday at the farm could mainly be left to Tilly, but the Saturday here at Reindeer House was going to be mostly my domain – whether I liked it or not – with Andi as my trusty sidekick. Heather organised the 2012 do, but isn’t working here anymore; Fiona would be far too busy organising the annual Christmas tour; and all the other staff have started here much more recently. Damn. Even just choosing the weekend proved problematical. It had to be October, but the ‘usual’ weekend clashed with the Aviemore Half-Marathon, and another clashed with the Craggy Island Triathlon, where half the staff decamp to each year. The weekend before, at the very beginning of the month? Tilly’s first grand-child would be due then… It would have to be the 21st and 22nd (ironically, the baby then resolutely refused to put in an appearance until 2.5 weeks after his due date, meaning Tilly’s son Alex had bigger fish to fry by the time we got to the Open Day. Granny Smith (haha) is delighted though).

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Bumble making a new friend!

The spring and summer passed in a hectic haze of the usual reindeer related activities and millions of visitors, and we managed to get the Save the Date cards out, and then the general info out with the June newsletters. Thankfully Heather had done a great job of organising everything the first time around and much of the stuff was still filed away on the computers here, just need updating a bit. As time passed I started to get more and more twitchy, and in the final couple of weeks was starting to sweat a little. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not always the calmest under pressure! I started making lists, and delegating left, right and centre, but gradually it all started to come together. It probably helped that I had a couple of days off in the week running up to the event, although I did insist on working on Fri 20th to save everyone from a day of answering the phone the find a squawking Hen on the other end, worrying about whether such and such had been done yet! But everyone here was absolutely awesome, and I needn’t have worried at all as everything came together perfectly. In fact I was barely needed…

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The back shed all ready for the big day

We opened at 8.30am on the Saturday, and started off the day with a Hill Trip at 9am, followed by another at 11am. All the reindeer who had visitors coming were in the nearest part of the enclosure (the ‘Bottom Corridor’), which made life easier without having to trail around all over the various parts of the enclosure to show everyone ‘their’ reindeer. Kota, the breeding bull on the hill, still in full rut mode, was just over a fence with his girls and ensured that everyone got to see just how impressive he was as he grunted at anything that moved, peed on his legs and charged about…and tried to climb the fence once or twice. Eeek. Thankfully he remained the right side of the fence all day long.

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Kota looking super handsome! Photo: Belinda Beattie

Down at the Reindeer Centre, sleigh training demonstrations were in full swing, and everyone could try their hand at lassoing, Sami-style (not on a real reindeer but rather on a skull mounted on a post!). We had set up a little marquee beside the shop to provide some cover in case of awful weather, so lots of people parked themselves in there with a tea or a coffee and caught up with old friends, or made new ones! Visitors could also walk to Utsi’s Hut, the wee cabin in the woods built from the crates the first reindeer arrived in back in 1952, and Fiona did a special hill run in the afternoon up Meall a Bhuachaille behind Reindeer House, with everyone guessing her time for a donation towards the Everest Marathon Fund. Overall, there was a lovely atmosphere and it was all very relaxed, with people pottering around and just enjoying being here. And the weather was relatively kind to us too! It was mild, not windy, and only a little bit of rain at times…

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In the afternoon we trialled an ‘Open Hill’ system where visitors collected their tickets and maps, and made their own way to the hill enclosure, to be met by a herder on the gate, and a couple of herders in with the reindeer who could show them who was who and answer any questions. This seemed very popular too, although the weather deteriorated a bit as the afternoon went on.

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Fiona and Tilly doing a sleigh training demo. Photo: Barbara and Martin Butters

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Fiona setting off on her hill run! Photo: Belinda Beattie

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Reindeer harnessed up and ready!

And then on to Tilly’s talks at Glenmore Lodge! She ran one at 5pm and another at 6pm, and both went very well apart from some technical issues with the powerpoint, meaning some of the photos didn’t show up. This probably made the 6pm talk a little smoother, as at least she was prepared for the issues! Tilly also played a wonderful 20 minute film made in the 50s for the BBC about Mikel Utsi, the man who started it all, bringing reindeer back to their rightful home in Scotland after a 2000 year absence – thankfully the technology gods were with us for this one and it played fine!

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Tilly’s talk at Glenmore Lodge. Photo: Belinda Beattie

So all in all it was a wonderful day, but most thanks must go to our wonderful reindeer adopters, who give us so much support from year to year. We all went home exhausted on Saturday evening, but the fun didn’t stop there as most folks met up again the following day over at our farm, along with a few new faces too who hadn’t made it to the Saturday. But the blog does stop here, as Sunday’s write up can wait for another week!

Although first here’s some more photos…enjoy!

Hen

Matt O'Gorman
Enjoying a walk to Utsi’s Hut. Photo: Matt and Toni O’Gorman

Martin and Barbara Butters

Paintpot (and LX) meets one of his adopters! Photo: Martin and Barbara Butters

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Oatcake

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Tilly and Fiona. Photo: Clare Stokes

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Strudel and North. Photo: Carola de Raaf

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Kara meets her adopter Candice! Photo: Candice Bell

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Santa’s little helpers! Photo: Candice Bell

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Making friends on the hill. Photo: Belinda Beattie

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Sooty and his adopter. Photo: Belinda Beattie

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Jonas and Fiona

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First glimpse of Utsi Hut (Photo by Karen Sinclair)

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Utsi’s Hut. Photo: Martin and Barbara Butters

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Welcome to the hut! (Photo by Karen Sinclair)

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Sookie tried to go home with someone! Photo: Martin and Barbara Butters

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Cheer

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All too much for some reindeer by the end of the day! Photo: Belinda Beattie