Wherever I wander, wherever I rove / The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
These mist covered mountains / Are a home now for me.
Last year I skied at Glenshee Ski Centre for the first time in almost twenty years. Conditions were excellent: fresh powder, unbroken blue skies, cheerful lifties listening to Creedence. I even saw a snow hare flitting through the snow, an indelible memory to add to the others. In truth, I’d forgotten how good skiing Highland skiing could be.
The previous visit to Glenshee wasn’t quite so romantic. The snow was brittle with ice particles. Low lying cloud shrouded the slopes, pock-marked with wind-scarred patches of jutting rock. The wind was so brutal it seemed to lace its way into your jacket and salopettes. A particularly violent squall blew one of my skiing companions over, cracking her head on one of the wooden fences lining the pistes. We came off the mountain and vowed never to ski there again, returning to Blairgowrie to get drunk. The next day we nursed our hangovers and headaches in the bar of the Angus Hotel, slurping Jack Daniels and coke and smoking cigarettes, while our fathers gave Glenshee one last go. I was 16 years old, and life was a permanent vacation with no place in it for endurance skiing.
Returning, it is plain to see much has changed. Passing through Blairgowrie, as is customary on the A93 from Perth, an air of prosperity hung over the familiar-yet-foreign town. New shops, housing, warehouses and timeshares had sprung up. The Angus had been given a lick of paint, although the bar next door, where my friend and spent our evening, was closed. The town had more than a touch of Scotch grittiness, a washed-out greyness that indicates the effect of persistent rain on granite. Despite the plethora of shops touting tartan shortbread, its high street lacked the chain-store ubiquity of most English towns.
Beyond Blairgowrie, the effects of the slump in tourism that forced Glenshee, and its sister ski area Glencoe, into administration in 2004 were painfully apparent. As we as we progressed along the A93, rising up into the monadock hills, Blairgowrie’s bustling centre yielded to roadside bleakness, places left to wrack and ruin, a trail that tourism forgot. The scars were raw: a number of restaurants and pubs on the road to the ski area had closed, apparently recently, their glass windows punctured by rock-shaped holes. Just before reaching the ski centre we passed the wrecked shell of the Spittal of Glenshee Hotel, ruined by fire in 2014, just a few years after a major refurbishment. Once a popular destination, and for me a talismanic landmark en route to the slopes, it was a depressing sight.
Scottish skiing finds itself in a bedevilling predicament. On a great day the landscape makes skiers forget the expensive and overcrowded Alpine resorts. On a bad day, the weather will make them wish they’d never been born. Working as a liftie at any of the Cairngorm ski areas must be one of the toughest jobs in Scotland. It’s also one of the most precarious. Glenshee Ski centre employs over 100 people, but if there’s no snow, there’s no work.
Nevertheless, Scottish skiing appears to be undergoing something of a renaissance. Glenshee’s management company reported over 83,000 visitors in February alone this year. Major investments, such as a Scottish Enterprise-funded three-man chairlift costing £800,000, have followed significant investment, including a new funicular railway, over at the rival Cairngorm Ski Centre. Irregular snowfall, exorbitant costs and, more importantly, the return of snow to the Highlands after decades of disappointment and disinvestment have seen the angels return. As global weather patterns become irregular and difficult to predict, this may bring more snow to Scotland as snow levels begin to taper off in the Alps.
At Glenshee there are no sophisticated lift systems, no ski-to-the-door chalets, very few Hooray Henrys, zero vin chaud, and, as you have to drive off the mountain, absolutely no apres-ski table dancing in a Jägermeister-induced haze. Instead of St Bernard dogs there is a caravan which has been blown onto its roof by the wind. It is now the only place where you can find anything remotely resembling a unique, unvarnished, utterly authentic and pleasantly unpretentious skiing experience.
For some, this paean to the joys of any kind of skiing may fall on deliberately-deaf ears. Many detest it. The anti-skiing brigade usually fall into two camps: those who find the notion of throwing yourself down a mountain with only some bits of wood strapped to your feet entirely alien, and those of a more Marxist bent, who resent it as the preserve of the pompous bourgeoisie. Both critiques are fair, and fairly accurate. The parabolic 2014 film Force Majeure plausibly renders an interfamilial breakdown using a French resort as a metonym for the icily ambivalent and self-indulgently narcissistic impulses that exemplify the behaviour and attitudes of neoliberal individualism.
European ski slopes are cluttered with effete, self-aggrandising imbeciles. It would be easy to attribute the rising cost of one week ski pass (£200) to the socio-economic influence of the global super-rich, but skiing and affluence have always gone hand in hand. Its increasing expense has simply returned it to the domain of the very wealthy and their entitled offspring – in other words, those who popularised the sport in the first place. The rise and rise of the Anglo-centric Alpine music festival further indicates this shift from genteel leisure activity to raucous, uber-cool hedonistic retreat for the Rich Kids of Instagram. Book yourself on a quiet week in Les Trois Vallees today, and chances are you’ll end up sharing a chairlift with three dickheads on a stag do.
I equate skiing with total freedom – no small irony given the amount of equipment you need to get up and down the mountain – a spiritually-neutral Dasein drawn from its pure physicality – the balanced mechanics of sweeping effortless arcs through the snow – and one’s proximity to the Sublime: the magisterial mountains, their absolute stillness, their icy air the clearest you’ll ever taste. A frozen wilderness soothes the tortured psyche of the urbanite: “above all summits it is calm”, to quote Goethe.
Skiing was once such a significant part of my life that its absence now feels akin to the loss of a limb, or a loved one. It was – still is – the only thing I can do with any degree of confidence, competence and skill. I was lucky enough to start skiing when I was just five years old, and as I family we usually spent one week per year in France or Austria, plus a weekend in Scotland. I spent a number of years as the only English-speaking child in ski school, until I was old enough to join the adults skiing. Through a process of teaching, emulation and terror I became a competent, though completely uncompetitive, skier.
After doing my ski season, however, I only skied three further times in the following years. A decade passed before I skied again. But it’s like riding a bike: you don’t forget. And, let’s be clear, its infinitely superior to and more challenging riding a fucking bike. Someone needs to have a word with Mr Wiggins.
After my father was bitten by the skiing bug in the early 1980s, he gravitated from skiing the paltry hills outside Buxton towards braving the feral climate of Scotland, with the eventual aim of seeing the blissful, sunkissed Alps. Ski Sunday was a mainstay of our TV viewing on the weekend, slotting into a schedule that included the Antiques Roadshow, Songs of Praise, Heartbeat and poorly-roasted beef. We’d watch Permin Zubriggen, Peter Wimsberger, Franz Klammer, Marc Girardelli and the British Bell brothers attempting terrifyingly-precipitous downhill races, their excessively elongated planks chattering over a course that seemed to consist solely of rutted hard-pack ice.
Every March a crop of steely-eyed Round Tablers – the majority from Sandbach and Tarporley – would decamp to Blairgowrie for their annual weekend of downhill racer emulation and, rumour has it, wife swapping. This annual shindig came to be dubbed the Round Table Skiing Weekend, but skiing was normally fairly low on the list of priorities after drinking, dancing, shagging your mate’s wife (allegedly) and wallowing in regret. The Saturday night was always fairly debauched: a boozy gala dinner in the basement of the Angus, followed by dancing to local band The Stingrays and their repertoire of mid-1980s MOR hits – their dancefloor gyrations every bit as bad as their ski technique.
My father was made of stronger stuff. He was all about the skiing, and rarely let a hangover get in the way. Our family usually made the journey to Scotland at high speed in his crimson Saab 900 early on the Friday morning – pausing briefly at Lockerbie for a hastily-consumed Little Chef Breakfast – before winding our way through Perth to hit the slopes before lunch (dropping off my ski-agnostic mother and little brother in Blairgowrie). A supplementary stop would be made just outside Glenshee to hire ski equipment for me: painfully uncomfortable, red Nevica boots, ancient Dynastar skis whose base had been scored and gouged by glacial rock, and a pair of unbranded ski poles of differing height which looked for all the world as though they had been mangled under the wheels of a snowplough.
The winding journey from Blairgowrie to the Glenshee ski area frequently left me suffering from acute car sickness, courtesy of my father’s enthusiastic/aggressive/irresponsible driving and the rear seatbelts of the Saab, which seemed designed to squeeze the contents from a child’s stomach. By the time we arrived I was almost senseless with nausea and anticipation. We’d hastily pull on our ski gear on the sleet and wind-lashed car park (garish all-in-ones from C&A, Carrerra goggles and Gore-Tex headbands) before clip-clomping like marionettes to buy our lift passes and ascend by poma into the vicious winds whipping the sugar-like snow off the slopes and sandblasting our exposed faces.
The A93 bisects the Glenshee ski area, separating it into the valleys off Glas Maol and Meall Odhar, or the slopes off Cairnwell or Carn Aosda. Glas Maol boasts a 2K red run, which feels like 10K if skiing into a stiff headwind. There is no back country skiing to speak off. Anyone who goes off-piste will find themselves lost on the monadocks, facing a long walk home along the A93 or certain death. Skiing in Scotland is particularly hard work, particularly lethal. One of my dad’s friends Paul broke his leg in an innocuous fall on his first visit. On a later visit, the same guy tried to ski over a patch of mud only for his skis to refuse and eject him face-first into said mud. I once attempted an off-piste short-cut only to be upended by a well-concealed patch of heather. Crashing into the piste-dividing wooden fences was an acutely painful way to end your day. The inexperienced skiers in our group were frequently cracked in the face by a lashing T-bar.
In all the years we skied there good snow was rare, but such was our collective desire that we’d ski on anything, in anything: the slithers of slush on Sunnyside, the wind-blasted sheet ice of the Tiger (the terrifying black run that I still haven’t tackled), patches of heather and grass. Mud. One family decked their kids out in sailing gear, the only way to keep the horizontal rain from reaching their skin.
In the late 1980s my father bought week in a timeshare at Craigendarroch, near Balmoral, a purchase which coincided with a protracted period of snowlessness in the Highlands. It sounded the death knell for our Scottish skiing adventure, and we rarely donned our gear on that wind-coursed car park again. Passing slowly along the A93 we’d stare wistfully at the immobile poma tows, the half-empty café, the handful of cars in the carpark. It could have been the summer, but more often than not it was February, the make-or-break month for the ski centre’s coffers.
Those journeys north of the border gave me my first sense of place, of the geographical constitution of our supposedly United Kingdom and the mythical-historical power of the Scottish Highlands. The landscape and climate began to change around Cumbria, so that by the time you hit Gretna you sensed a geo-political shift. (That, and the massive sign saying ‘Welcome to Scotland’ presaging the anti-English roadside graffiti.) Vehicles became stouter and more mud-bespattered – a reflection of their agrarian-utilitarian purpose. The roads became more winding, the surfaces more uneven, the monadocks bleakly beautiful. The A93, a former military road itself became a palimpsest of previous journeys and past experiences, future hopes. I loved the Highlands. They spoke to me in a way I didn’t yet understand.
My emotional bond with the landscape was reinforced by my old man’s music selection: the effect-laden atmospherics of Dire Straits, and the gruff vocals and sharp guitar work of Chris Rea. Dad-rock in every sense. (Clarkson-rock if you want to be hypercritical.) On those repeated journeys we soaked up our musical diet of Brothers in Arms and New Light through Old Windows, the lachrymose lyrics and lugubrious licks of two songwriters from the north east appropriately reflecting the panoramas of the Cairngorm peneplain.
I now find myself wondering whether there is a deliberate intertextual link between Brothers in Arms and Robert Burns’ poem, ‘My heart is in the Highlands’. There’s a certainly visual connection between the Cairngorms and the rocky outcrops of the Falklands, the conflict which Mark Knopfler sought to commemorate with his song. Knopfler’s fascination with the historical-mythological power of Gaelic landscapes found its first expression in the soundtracks to the films Local Hero and Cal, both of which were produced prior to the production of Brothers in Arms, and which helped define that album’s epic sound.
We listened to both records over and over, almost obsessively. Poring over the tiny lyrics printed in the gatefold sleeves of the two cassettes, I had my first encounter with lyrical poesy. Staring out of the window, I saw poetry of a different kind. There is an emotional bond in those songs, my inability to listen to ‘Brothers in Arms’, ‘Why Worry’ or fucking ‘Stainsby Girls’ without a well of emotion rising: being back there again, in the lap of my family, a young boy sick with excitement, ready to clip on his skis, whatever the weather. And beyond that, the hard-fought history of the Highlands, the impact of the Clearances, the enduring battle between individual communities and the environmental-economic realities of their age, within which tourism and the ski industry play but a small part.
Despite all the blood, sweat, tears and mud, there is nowhere I’d rather ski than Glenshee. So when my kids are of skiing age, that’s where I’ll be taking them. Not because I can’t afford to go anywhere else (I can’t), but because if you can ski in Scotland you can ski anywhere. Indeed, sometimes you will wish you were skiing absolutely anywhere else. But there’s only one place like it. Next time it snows heavily over Scotland, get up early, take the car and go. See for yourself. And be sure to take some good music with you.