I added up how many years I’d been involved in Christmas tour with the reindeer the other day, and was astounded to realise that this was my eighth season. As I frequently tell visitors, “I only came for the summer!” but I seem to have fallen under the spell of the reindeer and the Cairngorms. Hen has been here even longer than me. So with several new herders this year, Fiona sent us off with Morna, with the idea that we’d show her the ropes as it were. Morna has been working with the herd all year, so knew the reindeer very well, but Christmas tour brings its own challenges which can take some adjusting to.
Over the months running up to Christmas, we’d been fairly entertained by the enthusiasm of Morna, Ruth and Olly about tour, and wondered how long it would take for the novelty to wear off! But spirits were certainly high as we got ready to set off for our week away, and we had great fun working out our team name: usually we’re just Handi, but this time we would be even MORHANDI!
I hope you enjoy the photos below – we certainly enjoyed our week, and it was really odd when we dropped Morna off to visit her family and were left with just two of us in the cab… it felt like we’d lost part of our team!
A few months ago, we found out that we had been nominated for an award for rural tourism at the Scottish Rural Awards ceremony being held mid-March at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. We still aren’t entirely sure who nominated us so if anyone can shed light on this please do. There were 13 awards altogether given out during the night. Some of the categories were Education, Conservation and the Environment, Artisan food and drink, agriculture and more… It was a black tie event so for those of you who know us, you’ll know that black tie isn’t something we do on a regular basis but we made an effort and myself, Tilly, Alex and Emily went down to Edinburgh for it.
Ex-herder Heather let us stay at her house in Edinburgh so it was all very easy. Tilly and I had our first experience of Uber Taxi’s… When in Rome and all! So we made our way to Dynamic Earth in our posh frocks and kilt to be greeted by many more posh frocks and kilts. There was even quite a few tartan trousers! We were certainly out of our comfort zone, considering that morning all four of us were up on either the Cromdale hills or the Cairngorms being blasted by the wind and feeding the reindeer… oh how things changed. Free champagne on arrival… ye-ha! Then we sat down at our tables as guest speaker and Scottish comedian Fred MacAulay opened the night. He certainly knew how to capture an audience. We then had our three-course meal, which was super and afterwards the awards commenced.
We weren’t really sure what to expect but with 150-200 people there, all in their glad rags making the most of a night out it was certainly a good atmosphere all round. The Rural Tourism award came up towards the end and so Fred called out all the finalists. Other business’s we were up against were – Isle of Aaron Distillers, Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, Findlay’s Cream O’ Galloway Farm, The Famous Grouse Experience, Luss Estates Company, Oban Winter Festival, The Enchanted Forest, Aaron The Island and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh at Logan. So after all the finalists were announced they came to the three who had won. Cairngorm Reindeer got the highly commended award, runners up were Oban Winter Festival and the winners were Findlay’s Cream O’ Galloway Farm, so a representative for each went up onto stage to collect their award. Naturally Tilly was our representative so off she went with a big smile on her face to collect our award from Fred MacAulay. Fred also mentioned that many years ago he worked on Cairngorm Mountain and during that time came across the reindeer and that they enjoyed a bit of shieling pie!
This really is a great reflection on what the Cairngorm Reindeer and Wild Farm mean to Rural Scotland and this recognition means so much to all of us so thank you to whoever nominated us! I hope Mr Utsi and Dr Lindgren, founders of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, are smiling from above and that we have done them proud.
Recently we attended the Kincraig Fayre. We threw a few reindeer in the trailer and drove down the road. Kincraig is only 15miles from the centre so we headed out for the afternoon. Kincraig is a small highland village in the Strathspey. Every year we attend the Kincraig fayre and it is a great way to meet some of the local people.
Preparation for a reindeer event needs to happen first thing in the morning. We need to bring the reindeer down from the hill so we head up first thing to hand pick some friendly reindeer. We decided on four reindeer to bring down from the enclosure. All of our reindeer are trained to walk on a halter. So we shepherd Strudel, Jonas, Cambozola and Aonach into a small pen, where we put a halter on each. We can now walk them along out of the enclosure and down the path to the road. It is quite funny walking a reindeer, imagine you are out walking your dog, now imagine your dog is three feet tall, with giant antlers and wants to eat all the leaves off the trees! Once we are at the road we can load the reindeer into our special transport truck. Then the short drive down to the centre to unload the reindeer into the paddocks where they will spend the time socialising with the tourists and the paddock reindeer until it is time for the fayre.
So as it happens we decide to load the paddock reindeer into the truck and take them to the fayre for a change of scenery. The paddock reindeer on this day were Fergus, Scrabble, Sooty and Matto. With the reindeer loaded, we gathered some food for them, along with buckets for water. We loaded several hurdles which we will use to build a temporary fence to enclose the reindeer. Down the road we drive, past Loch Morlich and on towards Aviemore before joining the B Road south. We shortly arrive in Kincraig and are greeted with waves and children shouting excitedly “Look, the reindeer are here!”
We spent a lovely afternoon in the sun, speaking with local people about our reindeer. The four reindeer are enclosed on a patch of grass next to the Community Hall. The reindeer curiously wondered around the enclosure munching grass and occasionally allowing people to pat them and feel their warm coats. The reindeer ate plenty of mix and had water to drink, while we made sure to sample the cake and the candy floss. The event passed by without drama. We did keep a pretty close eye on Fergus though as we half expected him to try and jump over the fence. But even Fergus behaved and event came to a close around 4.30pm.
For just six weeks a year, the normal job description of a reindeer herder changes a little, and many of us start driving massive trucks around the country. Well, 7.5 tonne trucks anyway, which are pretty big in comparison to our wee 3 tonne truck (affectionately named Brenda) who we use for day-to-day transport for the rest of the year.
On a busy Christmas weekend we can have up to 8 teams of reindeer and herders out and about across the country, so we hire 5 flatbed trucks and put our own specially designed and built boxes on the back, each with ample space for sleigh, kit, feed and of course most importantly, the reindeer themselves. There’s even internal lights! Each of the 5 boxes is a slightly different design, and over the years everyone has gotten attached to a particular box. Alex’s box is the most unique in design, with the space for the feed and equipment running down the side of the reindeer compartment. Great for Alex, who is tall, but not ideal for someone short like Hen, who can’t reach far enough over the barrier to grab the bags at the bottom! Fiona’s box has a rather heavy ramp, again difficult if you’re shorter, though Fi has the strength to heave it up herself. The “Post Box” did indeed start out its life as a Royal Mail box, and still has a few bits of red paint! It has a roller door into the sleigh compartment which takes a fair bit of practice and agility to get open and shut! The Metal box is a little smaller than some of the others so tends to be used for more local events – fitting enough feed in it for 2 weeks away can leave you short of room to move.
And then there is the newest box, nicknamed the Royal box as it seemed so posh and shiny when first made, and the name stuck. This is my favourite box, and having taken it out on tour for the last few years I’m now very familiar with its quirks. Our ramp has been tensioned beautifully (i.e. quite a lot) so it’s easy for us shorties to put up, but also meaning that you can unintentionally “ramp-surf” as you’re opening up the back gates, finding yourself hovering several feet in the air and having to gingerly edge your weight down the ramp until it touches down.
Like most of the boxes, the Royal box has a “corridor” with access to storage for all of the reindeer feed, lichen, straw, buckets, odds and ends, shovel, broom, etc; the sleigh compartment for the sleigh itself, all the decorations and harness; and then of course the biggest area is for the reindeer. Our reindeer travel loose, and whenever we check on them (if we stop for fuel, for example) they’re usually lying down catching some shut-eye! It’s reassuring for us that they seem to like the box, and virtually load themselves, always happy to walk up the ramp.
The boxes are bedded thickly with straw, poo-picked after each journey (let’s just say we’ve discovered another use for the “diesel gloves” you can pick up at garages…) and completely mucked out & pressure washed each time we return home. Keeps us and the reindeer smelling fresher and helps prevent that embarrassing moment when you emerge from the box with “something” stuck to your shoe!
Getting kit in and out of the corridor can be fairly entertaining, and over the years the pastime of “lorry yoga” has evolved, providing gentle muscle stretches for the herder on tour as you manoeuvre and contort into weird positions to get (sometimes heavy or awkward) things in and out. The straw bales are the worst, as they frequently try to take you with them as you eject them from the shelf! Getting them back in is even harder, especially when they weigh half as much as you do…
Driving the trucks is something I half dread and half look forward to each year. As I’m not old enough to drive them on “grandfather rights”, I did a training course a few years ago and passed the dreaded test to get my license. The problem is we go for over 10 months of the year without driving anything so big, so there’s always a bit of apprehension when the trucks are picked up for the season and you first get behind the wheel… It’s funny though, as everything is bigger, the mirrors are bigger, and they just feel totally different to a car, and your brain automatically seems to click into “slow careful truck-driving” mode. Everything has to be done slower as the trucks are so big, and it’s essential to give the reindeer a smooth ride, so it instantly stops you hurrying and gives you a new sense of patience. Our top speed, even on a motorway, is restricted to 56mph, but it’s quite delightful to pop on cruise control and just potter along to your destination.
There are a several things I didn’t know about before starting to drive the trucks. Firstly, the ruts on motorways, created by the endless trucks using the slow lane – whilst I never tend to notice them in a car as the wheels are closer together, when you’re in a truck you can get “sucked in” which is rather disconcerting. Secondly, the frustration of being limited to 56mph when trying to overtake on a motorway. All trucks theoretically have the same limit, but speedos can have a bit of variation, meaning that you’ll sometimes get stuck trying to overtake a bigger truck that’s going just fractionally slower than you. When going uphill, their extra weight slows them down and we gain on them, but once we reach the top of the hill and start heading down again, their weight speeds them up and off they shoot again! This may explain why you sometimes see trucks “duelling” for miles along a motorway… The other time your limiter is frustrating is when you come up behind a car doing 50mph on the motorway, you pull out to overtake, at which point they instantly speed up, just enough to pull ahead, so you tuck in behind them again, at which point they slow back down again!
Most of the time though it’s great fun driving a truck, and I still love arriving at an event, the organiser pointing out a tricky bit of manoeuvring that you’ll need to pull off (archways being a major culprit, sometimes with mirrors folded in and a couple of inches to spare each side) and looking hugely impressed when a girl manages to pull it off!