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.
This winter there seems to have been a lot of dogs both resident and visiting Reindeer House. Starting with the long-term residents and dogs you’ll all know well we have Sookie and Tiree. Sookie will be 15 this year. She still gets out and about joining us on walks and slow (Fiona) runs around Glenmore. She even manages to get up our local hill Meall a Bhuachaille. It’s around 5.5km with a 450m accent. She picks and chooses the days she wants to join us. If we leave with a lot of other dogs or it looks like we are going to be walking too fast for her then she sometimes turns around about 100m into the walk and comes home. We’ve left it up to her nowadays and she probably joins us around 50% of the time. If it’s too hot that day she also chooses to stay back. Otherwise, her day mainly consists of sleeping, which if I was 15 years old (105 in human years) I’d be doing exactly the same.
Tiree is my (Fiona’s) dog, though Joe may try to claim her! She joined our team in 2014 and is 7 years old now. Being one of the most energetic ones of the household she needs lots of exercise. Unfortunately she is a bit reactive so if someone is going for a walk/run which is in a busy area she has to stay home but without a doubt will get out later on with someone after work or if folk are doing a quieter walk. She’s a fantastic hill dog and makes sure her hill crew are together, often joining the person who is furthest back in the group. She joins in our ski, run and biking adventures. She’s even pretty good at swimming! As she lives outside she has a very thick coat on her and LOVES the winter and snow so she is in her element just now.
Another resident at Reindeer House just now is Dug. He belongs to herder Ben H and what a great addition he has been to the dog team. He’s 9 year’s old and with such a lovely, friendly nature he wouldn’t say boo to a ghost! With an overshot jaw and an unusually long tongue he often has his tongue sticking out uncontrollably which only adds to his lovely character! A few of the herders refer to him as Mr Long Tongue, or the Anteater. Joining us in November for the winter season, Ben and Dug have fallen for the area and will now be sticking around for the next year at least!
Newest arrival to Reindeer House is Fraoch (Gaelic for Heather) belonging to Joe and Fiona. She is a Border Collie pup, born in November 2021 so still very young! Although the other dogs grumble at her she has fitted in wonderfully and although Tiree would deny it just now I’m sure the two of them will be as thick as thieves in a few months…. Or maybe years? Lol
We then have the regular visitors through herders visiting and working. Tilly has her two border terrors… I mean terriers, Moskki and Tuva, who are totally devoted to her. Sheena also has a mother and daughter combo in her golden retrievers, Elsie and Ginger. Tip is Alex and Emily’s dog who pops in now and again, she is a New Zealand Huntaway and very loyal, though has a very, very loud voice. I think it’s getting louder as she gets older. Maybe her hearing is going and she needs to go into more effort to be heard! Mel took on Skip, a collie x Australian Kelpie, in 2021. The two of them are a perfect match with their energy levels and seem to have endless amount of it as they always seem to be out running, skiing or biking. With her first few months being brought up with Alex, Emily and Tip she knows Reindeer House well and fits in great. Ben B often takes Mable to work with him who is a lovely golden lab. Though I think if she had a watch she’d be clock watching for when Ben takes her home at night. I think Reindeer House is just a bit too overwhelming and prefers the quiet, less chaotic life with Ben and Jess at home. Saying that she’s easily won over with a tasty biscuit or decent walk.
As well as all these regulars we have friends visiting who tend to come with their dog in toe including Mara, Foss and Ruadh. Also this winter friends from down south were staying for a few days and they had an enormous Golden Retriever called Sam who I think it’s safe to say he was actually a Polar Bear, not a dog! Dennis also came to visit who belongs to ex-herder Ryan. Dennis is actually one of Moskki’s pups from 2019 so it’s always nice to see him and he’s very similar to his mum. Seasonal herder Sally pops up from the lakes now and again and brings Midge her 4.5 year old collie with her.
So as you can see it’s more of a Dog Centre than Reindeer Centre. All the dogs get on just fine, with the inevitable grumble here and there, but that’s mainly from Tiree as she’s the unsociable one. But no fighting, that’s the main thing. Fraoch is getting on just fine with them all and learning fast how to socialise with them individually.
Enjoy all the lovely dog photos taken over the years of this motley crew! Herders and dogs!
Back in July, the dreaded Covid-19 eventually struck down Reindeer House. With around 6 staff living in Reindeer House at any one time, it seemed almost inevitable that it would get us at some point – regardless of how careful everyone was being – and to be honest we’re all amazed that we made it as far as July 2021. Although I admit the 8.30pm phone call from Fiona (“Hen? Bad news…”) still came as a bit of a surprise to me at the time.
Around half the staff, myself and Andi included, don’t live onsite, so only half of the staff were affected. But Reindeer House is quite small with not much space for all its residents to keep away from each other, so once one person in the house caught the virus, everyone else went down like dominoes, one by one. Poor Joe resisted the longest, valiantly testing negative day after day for a full week, so by the point he had finally succumbed and done his 10 day stint, the poor lad had been isolating for 17 days!
Although we closed to the public completely for one day, everyone spent that one day working out how we could possibly continue working to some extent, and actually it all worked out rather well, with two ‘teams’ of staff – the plague-ridden Reindeer House lot dealing with all the office work, while the healthy outsiders dealt with the reindeer on the hill and the guided tours, with no crossover whatsoever. What a blessing to have a business where the main ‘thing’ is all outside, with no need for visitors to come anywhere near Reindeer House at all! While obviously it would have been an unwelcome financial hit to have had to cancel all the Hill Trips for the 2.5 week period, it would have also been terrible to have had to disappoint so many people who were already booked in and champing at the bit to see the reindeer, and this thought did spur us on too to find a way to make this still possible.
We settled into a steady pattern. Andi and I would arrive first thing in the morning and head up on to the hill to check and feed the reindeer herd, making sure everyone was present and correct, applying fly-spray to their antlers if necessary, and giving them their first feed of the day. Then back down to Reindeer House, where we’d have a morning ‘meeting’ over the garden fence. Reindeer House’s plaguey residents would come trotting out into the garden as soon as they saw us through the windows (People! People to talk to! Social interaction!) and thankfully for pretty much the entire time the Centre was closed, the weather was glorious and we could have a good catch up before we headed home. For Andi and I the working day was finished by 10.30am.
Most days, before we headed home, other ‘outside’ (i.e. healthy!) staff would arrive, tag-team style, have a gossip, and then would head up to the carpark ready to meet the morning’s visitors, who had all been emailed a map of where to meet instead of arriving at Reindeer House. And then the same again in the afternoon for the second Hill Trip. It all seemed to work quite well, and (for me anyway), made for a rather relaxing 2.5 weeks… Thanks to the weather playing ball and all our visitors coping very well with the last-minute change to the way their Hill Trip would work, it wasn’t too much of a hiccup. Writing this in the middle of a hectic autumn, with 3 times the number of reindeer in the hill enclosure that there was in July (due to the rutting season) and to-do lists coming out of my ears – I’m very glad it all happened in the summer and not right now! I am very aware however that we (as in the world in general) aren’t out of the woods yet and perhaps it’ll all happen again to us here at Reindeer House, but if so let’s hope it’s not anytime soon…
Back in the summer of 2014, it was not just reindeer that us herders looked after. We had the responsibility of caring for Walter and Jesse. Two Soay sheep that had been left by their mothers.
Walter was the first to come to Reindeer House after Tilly, owner of the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, noticed him deserted in one of the fields at her farm on the Glenlivet estate (https://www.wildfarming.co.uk/). Tilly and Alan have a range of animals at Wild Farm, including Soay Sheep, and rather than let them face life without a mother at just a few days old, Tilly decided that Reindeer House would be a good place to help nurse first Walter, and later Jesse, back to health before re-joining the flock.
The names may well sound familiar to the adult readers. That is because looking after these two lambs came just after the period that we at Reindeer House were watching the television series ‘Breaking Bad’.
Fiona, Hen, Andi, and I were living at Reindeer House. With Zac and Abby also working here at the time. During summer we would often eat lunch ‘al fresco’, basking in the sun that illuminated the front garden, but we would share our garden with Walter and Jesse.
Walter and Jesse were only with us for a short time before they re-joined the flock, but they left a big impression on both us and the visitors. In fact, Walter and Jesse used to greet visitors to the paddock as their outdoor space was located by the paddock door. They even came with their own sign in their garden that read: “These are not Reindeer Calves”. Just in case any confusion occurred.
It was obviously a great responsibility looking after these lambs in their most vulnerable months. Feeding occurred every few hours throughout the day and the night. This involved plenty of ‘night shifts’ where a member of the household would wake up, boil the kettle, mix the milk with nutritional supplement and warm it up before a tasty bottle feed occurred. However, Fiona, Hen, Andi, and I were not the only Reindeer House residents. We had the dogs. The late Misty and evergreen Sookie who did not know what to make of their new housemates at first. It didn’t take them long to get on famously.
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