Santa's little helpers
On a mountainside in the Cairngorms, Andrea Krudde, finds the free-roaming, very friendly reindeer are much more than the red-nosed stars of Christmas.
I'm wondering how it was, exactly, that I came to be carrying a sack of grain, up a hill, in the rain, trying to avoid being antlered in the bum. As well as the reindeer, I’m here to meet Tilly Smith who, along with husband Alan, took over an Aviemore reindeer farm in 1989 from former owners Dr Ethel Lundgren, a 6ft anthropologist and Mr Utsi, a 5ft 4” Sami Laplander who decided to introduce a small number of Swedish mountain reindeer as an experiment to illustrate the breed’s suitability to Scottish climes. It proved very successful and the Cairngorm reindeer herd of 130 adult reindeer is now the only free-range herd in Britain.
Tilly’s love affair with reindeer started in the summer of 1981 when she volunteered for the Cairngorm Reindeer Company as a young zoology graduate. Within months she fell head over heels with local boy Alan, a keeper at the farm. ‘I had to marry him to stay, that’s what I always say!’ When the herd was put up for sale following Dr Lundgren’s death, Tilly and Alan bought it.
Reindeer are a domesticated animal bred for life alongside man and provide meat, clothing and transport for people living in the Arctic. After meeting the reindeer, it’s soon obvious why they were perfect for the job. Once I’m up on the hillside, I’m overcome by how gregarious the reindeer are as they gather around, politely waiting to be introduced. The ever-enthusiastic Tilly reels off lists of names, pointing to different families, fawns and leaders as they make their way to greet us. The weird thing about reindeer is that they are almost completely encased in dense fur to help them survive in Arctic temperatures; even their noses are furry, making them look a bit like inside-out Ugg boots, albeit prettier. Reindeer are much smaller than you'd expect and are also completely silent apart from a strange clicking sound made by a tendon in their legs slipping over bone. Experts believe this noise evolved as a way for reindeer to stay within their herd during snow blizzards, communicating when vision was obscured.
Thanks to a bit of pre-visit research, I’m clued up enough to realise that we’re visiting the herd during ‘rutting season’, which is basically one big reindeer love-in. Taken in by their fluffy teddybear appearances, I ask Tilly if they mate for life and am met by a screech of laughter. ‘Oh no! One bull has a harem – much more exciting.’ Tilly calls to her fellow keeper: ‘Shall I introduce her to Crann today?’ He’s the superstar pin-up of the Cairngorm herd, with huge, macho antlers. ‘He gets a bit possessive during rutting season so we’re a bit more careful with him, but the rest of the time he’s lovely,’ warns Tilly. I linger by the gate just to be sure.
Up high in the Cairngorm hills, looking out over one of Scotland’s most beautiful national parks, I can’t help but envy Tilly and her family. One touching moment comes when she explains that reindeer can’t really cope in captivity. If they don’t have an expanse of space to roam around they’re known to get depressed or even suffer from illness. Yet Tilly’s herd – given a free range to wander – are very affable and interested in people. It's this combination of total freedom and utter contentedness that makes the herd so remarkable. Looking across at the ageless Tilly, I realise reindeer and human beings aren’t so different after all.
The Not So Real Rudolph
Rudolph was invented by Clement Seymore in the 1822 poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’, which features St Nick, the patron saint of travel (and thieves oddly) and his ‘eight tiny reindeer’.
The reindeer are thought to be inspired by Norse god Odin who was said to ride around on an eight legged horse dispensing punishments and rewards to the Norse people.
Rudolph became well known after featuring in a free book given away to children visiting a department store in Chicago.
The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, Glenmore, Aviemore, 01479 861228, www.reindeer-company.demon.co.uk
There is a daily visit to the reindeer, weather permitting, departing from the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre at 11am, with an additional visit at 2.30pm during the summer months. During the winter, the visit may be dependent on whether they can find them. When they say they're free-ranging, they mean it!
For more information on where to stay, what to see and how to get to the Cairngorms, visit www.visitcairngorms.com. If you choose to camp wild remember to visit www.outdooraccess-scotland.com for details of your rights, responsibilities and how to stay safe.