Setting off for an overnight climb and camp in the Cairngorms, our mountain guide friend, John, tucked a shepherd’s crook down the side of his pack and led us, a small flock of two, down the trail from the Sugarbowl carpark. Passing through woods of birch, rowan and oak, we came out beside a rocky stream bed where a new, sturdy footbridge spans the Allt Mor. It replaces an old bridge that had been cracking under years of mountain weather and the changing tempers of the burn. An old, lichen-spattered stone still sits beside it, and you can just make out the words Utsi Bridge.
It is named for Mikel Utsi, a Swede who visited in 1947 and saw a habitat so reminiscent of the reindeer pastures of Lapland, and so abundant in lichens – reindeer’s chief food – that he was convinced the creatures could thrive here. He was right. The Cairngorms, which are the largest area of high ground in the British Isles, are often called a small slice of the arctic, with a tundra-like environment on the tops. Reindeer were, in fact, native here, once upon a time, but the last traces of them date from 800 years ago. These include the 12th century Orkneyinga Saga that recounts the Earls of Orkney hunting red deer and reindeer in Caithness. A low lying, boggy landscape at the far north-eastern tip of Scotland, the conditions there would no longer support reindeer, so, evidently, a combination of over-hunting and climate-change wiped them out.
By April 1952, however, Utsi and his wife, Dr Ethel Lindgren, had secured all the necessary permissions and preparations to found their Reindeer Company, and shipped across two bulls and five cows from Sweden. The reindeer settled and thrived and more have been added to their number every few years to maintain a healthy gene pool. Now 150 strong, the herd is split between the Cairngorms and the Cromdale hills.
We crossed the Utsi bridge and walked up the forested trail on the other side, coming out onto the open moor. Ahead is Airgiod-meall, ‘Silver Hill’ in Gaelic, which was the new reindeers’ first home. Although they now roam freely across 10,000 acres, the herd are still privately owned and are routinely brought into an enclosure here for extra feed, care and management. This practice follows the ancient traditions of reindeer herding that go back thousands of years and span nine countries and 30 different people groups, mainly in the arctic regions of the world. Of the 5 million reindeer on the planet, 3 million are completely wild and the rest are semi-domesticated in close relationship with the people who follow their migratory patterns. Traditionally, they are a resource for transport, meat, milk and skins, though the Cairngorm ones provide only pleasure for their many visitors.
Half way along our walk, in a cleft shrouded in mist, we come across part of the herd. They are lying quietly together in a patch of grass, all facing the same way and all motionless apart from their rhythmic chewing. It looks like a solemn ritual or the reindeer equivalent of a mindfulness retreat. They are unafraid and undisturbed by us stopping to take photos and gaze at them. We don’t move close, but their thick pelts, furry antlers and large, dewy eyes are captivating. Accustomed to people, they sometimes wander across for a greeting and in hope of food. But if this ever happens, never feed them unless guided by their herders.
This human bonding to once-wild animals goes back into our most ancient history and deepest instincts and lies at the root of our relationship with sheep. Most of the world’s domesticated varieties have their origin in the wild mouflon sheep from the Caspian region of Eastern turkey. Among the earliest animals to be domesticated (though well after dogs), they were first tended in what was then Mesopotamia about 10,000 years ago. Initially kept for meat, milk and skins, it was only later that wool became a valuable resource. Gradually, through migrations and trading, sheep farming has travelled to every continent (including, briefly, to Antarctica!) with adaptations across a vast range of climates and cultures.
Sheep play a significant role in the history of Scotland, triggering the Highland Clearances and changing landscapes from coastal areas right up to the hilltops. They’re an important element of the rural community where I live, in the upper valley of the Spey, which stretches across the north-east of the Cairngorm mountains. And – much to my surprise – they formed a key thread in my novel, Of Stone and Sky. Surprise, because I didn’t really know much about them before a shepherd strode into my imagination one night and compelled me to tell his story.
In my post last month, I talked about that night eight years ago and of our recent camping trip in the Cairngorms on the summer solstice. It was both the anniversary of the book’s conception as well as an opportunity to plant a copy at the top of Angel’s Peak, which features in the novel.
I registered the deposit on BookCrossing.com and await with interest to learn its destiny. That was the same trip where we saw the reindeer and John carried a crook. He brought it, because, in the story, the shepherd disappears and leaves a strange trail of his possessions leading up into the Cairngorm mountains. The last to be seen is his crook, caught in the cliff on Angel’s Peak. Although, is it really there? The presence of the crook remains as much of a mystery as the vanishing of the man.
John’s crook, like many in sheperding families, has been passed down through the generations. It was made by his great-grandfather, John Fairbairn, who was a tenant farmer on lands in the Borders of Scotland. Like many crooks, the shaft is made of hawthorn, varnished to a honey brown. It is also surprisingly short, though we don’t know if it once broke or the maker was just a very small man. But while many crook handles are a simple curve, often made of smooth buffalo horn, this one is a perfectly curling sheep’s horn. In fact, it would be useless for hooking a sheep by the neck, so probably served more as a walking stick.
Another fascinating feature of the crook is the story of the ewe from whom it was made, which is partly told in the horn. On its edge, there are two clear cuts. This passage from early in Of Stone and Sky, explains their significance:
‘On one of the gates, a length of plastic twine flipped in the breeze where Colvin had tied a ewe by her horn so he could check later if the lambs were feeding well, as her teats were so large. She was the last to birth and he had made two cuts in her horn. As every shepherd round here knows, ewes that are barren or need help with delivery get one cut, and if either event occurs another year, a second. But big teats warrant two cuts straight away, and two cuts mean a difficult mother not worth the effort. She will be sold for mutton.’
We do not know what John Fairbairn’s ewe did to deserve her fate, but it’s somehow comforting that he nevertheless memorialised her in the making of his crook, carried her for the rest of his days, and that her memory lives on in the family’s hands. To crown it all, she has now risen to the heights of Angel’s Peak and a starring role in the climax of Of Stone and Sky.
To see the Cairngorms Reindeer, in their base at Glenmore or on a walk up the hill, visit their home site here. For a guided walk in the Cairngorms – or anywhere in Scotland – with John Lyall, who is a climber, a qualified British Mountain Guide and a member of the Cairngorms Mountain Rescue Team contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org. To get a copy of Of Stone and Sky, see here.