A few years back I replied to an email from a lady who had visited Glenmore from the USA back in 1969, and had been put up for the night in Reindeer House by Mikel Utsi. She remembered meeting a pure white reindeer in the pen behind the house (what is now the Paddocks), and from our herd records I could tell this must have been Snowflake, one of the first ‘leucistic’ reindeer in the Cairngorm herd.
We corresponded a bit and Sharon, who is an author and public speaker, then came back to visit Scotland again that summer, returning to the Reindeer Centre once more, and has stayed in touch since through becoming an adopter (picking a descendant of Snowflake as her adoptee!). Her unexpected encounter with a reindeer back in the 60s sparked a life-long interest , and she has gone on to write a book about her early travels and her time since spent amongst reindeer herders all over the world. She wrote a wee blog for us too a couple of years back too.
In 2019 Sharon gave lectures on reindeer on Viking ocean cruises, using a mixture of photos she has taken and ones we have provided, and in 2022 the lecture was recorded for Viking TV. And here it is!
Back on the 27th May 2022, it was the official date, 70 years on, since reindeer set foot in Scotland. So, although we are having an Open Day this October for all the lovely people who adopt one of our reindeer (this weekend, in fact!), this year as a celebration we decided to mark the occasion in May with a very informal get together of local friends and ex, current and future reindeer herders. Future herders being all the babies and children of reindeer herders past and present!
By chance this was also the day that Sofia our lovely friend and ex herder was visiting Scotland for the first time in 4 years. Sofia and her family are Sami from the north of Sweden and also related to Mikel Utsi who co-started the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, so it was so great she was there. Sally and Ceris came up from north England and I won’t mention everyone’s names who are local as the list would just be too long… let’s just say there were lots of wonderful faces who have been part of the last 70 years of reindeer in Scotland.
During the day in our shop, as well as banners and bunting we had cake and prosecco (and a non-alcoholic version for the drivers) for our visitors to help themselves so if you were booked onto a tour that day this was a massive perk! All our visitors didn’t think twice to join in our celebrations and dig into the treats.
Then in the afternoon we put up a couple of gazebos in our paddock area, put more cake and drinks and later on had a BBQ and salads to soak up the extra prosecco. It was a really lovely afternoon/evening catching up with everyone. Hearing their stories of when they visited or worked here. Some old photos came out and we just chatted the night away. Needless to say, there were a couple of sore heads the next morning.
The kids had a great time, endless cake… what’s not to love! They were burning around on sugar highs with the odd adult trying to keep up. There were many dogs included in the celebrations but luckily they all know each other so while some were persuading people to throw sticks and toys the others were hoovering up left over BBQ. Looking onto a scene of what could only be described as total chaos was actually rather lovely. Seeing familiar friendly faces who have been joined together by our lovely reindeer… We’ve got a lot to thank Dr Lindgren and Mikel Utsi for. If it wasn’t for them then we wouldn’t be lucky enough to be part of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd and know all these wonderful people.
Andi has recently been working on digitising some of the oldest photos of the Cairngorm reindeer herd. They’re all fascinating to look at, but it’s also been interesting comparing some similarities and differences over the years. From forest plantations to roads to a funicular railway – there’s been a lot of changes in the area in the time that the reindeer have been here. In this blog I’ve done my best to align some more recent photos with older ones of the same views, to give you all a bit of an idea of what these changes look like.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Funny story…. For months Hen’s been meaning to write a blog about the new bridge en route to our hill enclosure, but eventually this autumn found herself too short of time and suggested to Andi that she wrote it instead, hence Andi’s recent blog. And then, displaying a woeful level of forgetfulness, Hen found the blog that SHE WROTE HERSELF, and had NO memory of writing…Wow. So, you might as well read this one too.
I often talk to people who came to visit years ago but can’t remember much about their walk to the reindeer herd in the hill enclosure, other than the fact ‘there was a big bridge’ over a river. Ah, we say knowingly, you mean Utsi bridge. It’s become an iconic part of our most common route on to the mountains to see the reindeer herd. (But it’s not the sole route we use, so if you read on and have no memory of a bridge, then you aren’t going mad – we probably just took you to meet the herd in a different location!)
The original Utsi bridge over the Allt Mor (the river which leads down to Loch Morlich) was built in the 60s, and consisted of not much more than telegraph poles with some planks on them, or at least that’s what it looks like in the photos I’ve seen that remain of it.
Bridge mark II was built in 1979 by the Army, and it’s this one, with it’s high-sided handrails, that is the one that most people will remember. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve crossed it, but being as between late April and early January it’s rare for a working day to pass without doing so at least twice (i.e. once in each direction), and often a lot more – it’s certainly a lot of times. I think my record was 9 or 10 trips up to the hill enclosure once whilst shuttling boardwalking material up there. I cursed the lack of vehicle access that day!
Many reindeer hooves have crossed the bridge over the years too. Obviously reindeer can, and do, cross the river directly a lot of the time, but the free-ranging herd will cross the bridge instead at times if making their way towards the enclosure of their own accord. Tell-tale droppings on the bridge give away their route!
We lead reindeer to and from the enclosure over the bridge, and the most eventful time is always their very first time, usually at around 5 months old, learning to walk on a halter. Actually the bridge itself is no issue at this point – it’s getting on the bridge which can be really hard as there are steps up on to it.
After over 40 years, the second incarnation of Utsi bridge was starting to show signs of wear and tear, the central support starting to get more undermined each time the river was in spate, and eventually it became obvious that it needed to be replaced. We don’t own the land that the bridge is built on so this didn’t come down to us thankfully, although we did attend meetings with regards to how it would happen, and made sure that the plan was definitely to complete the new bridge fully before the old one was removed!
Work began in November 2020, but ground to a juddering halt with the second lockdown after Christmas, and even though construction was permitted to continue, the impassable road and deep snow conditions of January and February 2021 made any progress an impossibility. It was mid-April before the bridge was finally completed, just before we re-opened to the public in late April, so all of our visitors in 2021 have walked to the reindeer herd via Utsi bridge mark III. This version is quite considerably bigger, and makes quite a landmark, but I’m not yet as fond of it as I was the old one.
We all kept pieces of the old bridge, so I have two of the uprights which once supported the handrails in my workshop at home. Maybe one day I’ll use them for gateposts somewhere! Alan and Tilly (owners of the reindeer herd) kept the four 30’ long steel girders that stretched the 60’ span of the river, which had to be helicoptered out from the site to the nearby car-park, and then collected via tractor and (large!) trailer! No doubt they will one day become part of one of Alan’s many sheds.
So if you are visiting us, particularly in the summer and autumn months, have your camera ready for this iconic bridge in case you happen to be lucky enough to cross it en route to the reindeer herd. You’ll be following in the footprints of thousands of visitors, hundreds of reindeer and dozens of reindeer herders, spanning nearly 7 decades.
If you’ve been to visit our reindeer on the hill at Cairngorm, it’s likely that you’ve walked over Utsi Bridge. Named after the charismatic Sami, Mikel Utsi, who was responsible (along with his wife Ethel Lindgren) for reintroducing the reindeer to Scotland, this bridge gives access over the Allt Mor river to the Chalamain Gap, and – more importantly for us – our hill enclosure.
The first incarnation was replaced in 1979 by the Edinburgh and Heriot Watt Universities Officer Training Corps, as a summer engineering project, but after 41 years and being crossed by thousands upon thousands of feet (and hooves), it had reached the end of its safe working life and was due to be replaced. However, as it was the only crossing point for some distance, the new bridge would have to be built first, before the old one was removed. Anyone who has been here will also appreciate how difficult the location was for a major build too – there was no chance of getting a digger down into the valley for example – and as it is in a sensitive area other considerations were also necessary. All of the new materials had to be airlifted in, and the old bridge airlifted out, and this had to be done outside of capercaillie breeding season, to prevent disturbance.
Work began in October 2020, and the work crew from ACT Heritage did a fantastic job, working through rain, sleet, hail, high winds and snow. Not to mention the extra complications of an ongoing pandemic! It was also nice that the crew included Ross, the fiancé of ex-herder Ali. They were very good with us, and would always stop work to give us space when we were leading reindeer across the old bridge. Though the orange safety netting was definitely an entertaining obstacle when leading antlered animals! The second national lockdown from Christmas brought work to a halt for a while, but in March a helicopter lifted out the old bridge, and our twin bridges were down to one sturdy, hopefully long-lasting, shiny new bridge.
Not wanting to lose a piece of the Reindeer Company history, Alan drove a tractor and trailer all the way from our hill farm to collect the old dismantled bridge. Apparently the old steel girders were of a quality that is impossible to buy these days! There is a plan to reinstate the old bridge at a suitable location at the farm.
It has taken the reindeer a bit of time to get used to the new crossing – the steps were perhaps not quite designed for reindeer strides – but once they’ve been over it once or twice they get the hang of it. It’s great having the edging alongside the steps to guide them in the right direction – the old bridge was rather awkward as the steps didn’t have a rail on each side, so calves would sometimes “miss”! And with the new ample width, we’re still debating if we can be bothered carrying one of our Christmas sleighs down the narrow path to get a photo of a full team of reindeer in sleigh on the bridge – it would fit!
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
One of our adopters has brought it to our attention that the reindeer made an appearance in the Eagle comic, right back in December 1953, a mere 19 months after they first arrived in Scotland. He was kind enough to send us some scans and write a little bit for this week’s blog, so let me hand you over to John this week:
Published between 1950 to 1969, Britain’s Eagle comic was the creation of the Reverend Marcus Morris, an Anglican vicar, and Frank Hampson, who created its now world-famous space hero, ‘Dan Dare’. Alongside the famous space pilot, the weekly comic mixed a variety of other adventure and humour strips, and offered a range of features to appeal to its audience of largely teenage boys. (Publisher Hulton Press also published GIRL, for girls, and Swift and Robin, for younger readers, in similar formats).
Unusually, the comic had an editorial budget well in excess of what might be expected in comparison for a similar title today, and was able to commission a variety of articles – and send their in-house writing team (and freelancers) to all four corners of Britain to cover stories. Reporter Macdonald Hastings (who would go on to become a word-famous war correspondent) filed reports from far-flung parts of the world under the title of Eagle Special Correspondent reportedly making around £5000 pounds a year by 1952.
For Eagle’s 1953 Christmas issue, he was dispatched to the Cairngorms, to visit the Rothiemurchus Forest Reindeer Reserve, where he met Mr Nicolaus Labba the Laplander, who introduced Mr Hastings to some of the herd and offered some thoughts on the future of the project.
N.B. Scans of the whole pages won’t show up on our blog here big enough to read, so we’ve chopped up the article into separate sections so it can (hopefully!) be read easily enough:
So, yes, it’s true – the Cairngorm Reindeer really did rub shoulders with Dan Dare!
Eagle merged with another comic, Lion, in 1969 which in turn lasted until 1974.
N.B. To add some more context, Nicolaus Labba was a cousin of Mikel Utsi, the man who first brought the reindeer back to Scotland from Sweden in 1952, arriving with Mr Utsi in 1952 and spending the next few years as his assistant.
More information about Nicolaus Labba and the history of our herd here in Scotland can be found in our book Hoofprints, available here on our website.
Following the TV programme on Channel 4, ‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas‘, we have been overwhelmed with lovely letters of support, incredibly generous donations and new ‘adopters’. It really has been a fantastic lifeline for us here at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre and I can honestly say our lovely reindeer have touched the hearts of many, both at home and abroad.
The lovely letters we have received have been incredibly varied and while protecting people anonymity I thought it would be nice to share some of the contents of these letters.
A young lass from the Midlands sent a wonderful letter, written and illustrated by herself. Her attention to detail was amazing and I can’t resist sharing her lovely drawings with you.
If any of you budding young reindeer enthusiasts would like to also send in anything we would love to receive it. Getting letters through the post is always special and here at The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre we would love to receive any works of art or prose! Our postal address and email address can be found on the Contact Us page of our website.
Quite a number of letters and cards came from people reminiscing about days gone by, maybe an occasion when they met the original owners of the herd, Mikel Utsi and Dr Lindgren. Although we have a considerable archive here at Reindeer House of the history of the herd, many of the stories recalled were new to me and so all the more interesting.
I smiled at the recollection of one couple who attended a talk given by Dr Lindgren and described her as ‘large’ (not fat) and very straight backed and a loud voice. Well I certainly chuckled at this description! Dr Lindgren indeed a very tall lady and the above description hits the nail on the head. I knew Dr Lindgren well in her latter years and I was terrified of her! She was so worldly, intelligent and dominant, but she was also kind and considerate when necessary. I would love to hear from anyone who knew her personally and has a story to tell – she was quite a character and had many different interests and skills, other than reindeer.
And then there was a lady who met Mr Utsi, in North Sweden, before the first reindeer came to Scotland in 1952. This was a lovely encounter, which was described in detail to us. Back in 1951, the lady who wrote to us went on a skiing expedition with her school to Swedish Lapland. Many of them had never skied before, but quickly got to grips with the sport and by all accounts had lifetime memories from their time there. While there they were taken to see a herd of reindeer and the owner Mikel Utsi told them that he was introducing his reindeer to Scotland! What a wonderful memory and I am so glad this lady was able to see the TV programme on Christmas Eve and see just how it is all those years later!
There was a strong common theme through the many letters we received with comments as follows:
‘ best viewing ever over the Festive season’
‘Thank you for adding ‘animal magic’ to a home alone Christmas’
‘A Baby Reindeer’s First Christmas was absolutely brilliant and a stroke of genius – wonderful publicity, informing such a wide audience of all the great work you are doing for the community’
‘The programme brought back lovely memories of when we used to visit you in your early days’
So thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone you has been in touch to reminisce, donate and adopt reindeer. It has been a huge help to us and most importantly ‘put a smile on our faces’.