A walk on the wild side

We journey to Scotland’s spectacular Cairngorms to meet an extraordinary family, and discover while we’re there that reindeers are not just for Christmas…

Ever been invited to a large and rather merry family gathering, a party attended by friendly folk, but also the odd sombre teenager and cheeky uncle? That’s what visiting Tilly Smith and her Cairngorm reindeers is like. And not just because hers is a family business, but also because every member of her silky-nosed herd is introduced by name, and often also with a personal anecdote. ‘That’s Paintpot. He’s the most grumpy,’ Tilly says as a couple of deer trot up to us on the hillside. ‘And that’s North. He’s such a poser!’ She lets out a bellow that carries far across the mountains. It calls them in when it’s feeding time. Soon, we’re surrounded by reindeer of all hues – brown, sandy and silver. Some have mighty antlers and some have none at all, having recently lost them in the annual shedding.

These majestic creatures are akin to an extended family for Tilly and her husband Alan. They’ve been looking after the reindeer – the UK’s only free-ranging group – for 40 years. In the 1980s, they bought the herd from the children of the couple who, in 1952, reintroduced deer to the Cairngorms. ‘We’re not entirely sure why Mikel Utsi [a Sami Lapland herder] and his [Swedish-American anthropologist] wife Dr Ethel Lindgren wanted to bring them here from Sweden,’ says Tilly. ‘It wasn’t easy and it took a lot of work to convince the authorities it was the right thing to do, but I think they really wanted to do something special with their lives and this was it.’

In the years since, the reindeer have flourished and the herd has grown to about 150. They are largely self-sufficient and left to roam to find their own sustenance, but Tilly and her family manage them, keeping the mothers and calves away from the bulls and providing extra food when required. And while the driving rain, icy winds and frequent snow can make it a difficult place in which to remain warm and comfortable for us humans, the reindeer are built for exactly this kind of environment.

‘Their fur coats are incredibly thick,’ says Tilly giving a calf named JK a stroke. ‘Like a tog-factor-15 duvet! And they also have really flat fleet that work like snow shoes.’ Indeed, I quickly learnt the best route across the snow was to follow in the hoofprints of the nearest deer.

The hilly landscape also provides an excellent test for our Audi Q2 Edition #1. Armed with quattro as well as winter tyres, we are more than able to keep up with the family’s quad bike and, more importantly, the reindeer.

The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre has been a hit with tourists for decades and it’s easy to see why. The deer are endearingly gentle animals and happy to graze from an outstretched gloveful of feed. Then there are the stunning views across the National Park to be enjoyed as you walk with the herd – it’s January when I visit and skiers are zigzagging down the slopes opposite, while, below, the partially frozen Loch Morlich shimmers in the sunlight. It’s a magical way to spend a day – and one of the best family parties I’ve been invited to yet.

Words by Emma Barlow. Photographs by Tom Cockram