The Skier’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Skier’s Tale

by Alistair Lawson

My introduction to skiing was at the age of five, which was neither today nor yesterday. In those far-off times, post-war austerity was the prevailing reality, parents seemed to preface every utterance with ‘Before the war …’, factories still made things and the coins in one’s pocket still declared the king to be ‘Ind. Imp.’

One by-product of those times was that ex-servicemen were determined to catch up on six years’ worth of enjoyment forfeited, none more so than the members of Dundee Ski Club. My father was one of the founding members in 1936 and, after the war, a tradition was established of going away for a long weekend in mid-February, when the snow was at its best. Thus was founded the ‘Dalwhinnie weekend’, when the club booked all the accommodation in the ‘Grampian’ and ‘Loch Ericht’ hotels, and travelled up by train or by resurrected pre-war cars. Wives and children went too, some only to snowball and sledge, moving on to skiing when judged able.

1947 was ‘that winter’, which everyone remembers and talks about, even yet, 60 years later. Within walking distance of Dalwhinnie was Loch Ericht – frozen solid and with snowdrifts adorning the surface. My first ski run was down the ever-so-gentle slope of one of those snowdrifts and onto the flat surface of the loch.

Subsequently, skiing boomed. Post-war austerity faded, rationing was lifted, the ‘New Elizabethan age’ lifted spirits, Harold MacMillan told us we had never had it so good, car ownership boomed and disposable income was invented. Scottish skiing, from having been the cranky obsession of a few, took off, and mechanised uplift appeared. At first, uplift was D.I.Y. – old tractors were coaxed up the hill, their wheels taken off and an endless rope run around the power take-off. One of my frustrations as a 12 year-old was the inability of my juvenile hands to hold onto the rope for long enough to get towed all the way up the hill and being forced to bale out prematurely and settle for a shorter run down. Eventually, skiers who had been to the Alps came back with sneaky sketches of ‘proper’ ski-lifts, and these began to be copied in Scotland.

Dundee Ski Club led developments in Glenshee, with Blairgowrie, Perth and Aberdeen clubs as assistants and / or rivals. Elsewhere, the Scottish Ski Club, founded in 1907 – yes! – favoured Ben Lawers and Cairngorm, while Glasgow Ski Club adopted Glen Coe as its own. Glen Coe has always remained the smallest of the centres, but has its place in history as the one where commercial (as opposed to club) uplift was pioneered in 1956. As distinct from the other centres, it has a west-coast weather régime, meaning precipitation is greater – albeit possibly as rain – but with the possibility that there is a net accumulation of snow over the season, resulting in great skiing conditions at Easter and into the Spring.

The ‘small is beautiful’ philosophy at Glen Coe served it well until it was eventually side-lined by the new Aonach Mor Centre (a.k.a. Nevis Range), where huge investment, a wider spread of runs, uplift by gondola, plus a vigorous summer trade, based on tourists and competitive mountain biking, meant that Glen Coe was just too near – and too small – to compete. In the 1990s, the original operators found that they could not continue, and agreed that the Glenshee company should take over. Operating two centres, one remotely, eventually turned out to be too much for them too, and the experiment ended in 2004. Since then, two further sets of owners have come and gone, each searching for the elusive blend of luck, weather, investment and more luck. Because Glen Coe had earlier shunned elaborate development, recent operators have been faced with catching up, refurbishing uplift equipment and extending the runs, all of which are more difficult when looking over one’s shoulder at better-financed rivals. And then there’s the impossibility of building a business plan round the vagaries of the weather …

Alistair Lawson
Alistair Lawson

To link my own tale to that of Glen Coe, by the time the Glenshee company took over in the 1990s, I was a director at Glenshee, and we were all very excited at the idea of having two centres, balancing, as we thought, the advantages and disadvantages of east-coast and west-coast weather. However, like Arnhem, it was ‘a bridge too far’ and it turned out that we had over-stretched ourselves.

The various ‘saviours’ of Glen Coe, have tried – building on the West Highland Way running right past the centre – developing the restaurant for summer trade, considering a hikers’ bunkhouse, mountain-biking trails in imitation of Aonach Mor, wildlife interpretation, hang-gliding and even a dual, mountain-sports-and-sea-sports vision. However, it’s all uphill. Attracting trade when 60 mph rain is driving horizontally across the hillside is never going to be easy.

One background fact, woven invisibly into the fabric of the Glen Coe story is that the Black Mount Estate, on which the skiing was developed, has for long been owned by a family called Fleming. They have in turn been merchant bankers and art patrons, but their ranks also included a maverick son called Ian, who wrote books about a bloke called Bond …