You most likely won’t have seen a wild reindeer in your travels around Scotland. That’s because there’s only one free-ranging herd and they live in the beautiful, rugged landscape of the Cairngorms. And you can take a ranger led walk to go visit them!

A thousand or so years ago there were wild reindeer roaming Scotland; they were native animals and are thought to have roamed across a large swathe of the highlands. As is the story with all our large mammals though, the native reindeer gradually died out due to hunting and changes in climate.

Back in the 1950s reindeer were reintroduced to Scotland by a Swedish gent, Mikel Utsi. He came to the Cairngorms, saw that the area had the perfect climate and environment for reindeer and wondered why there weren’t any around. So he brought a few mating pairs over and the Scottish reindeer herd was born.

In the past 60 years the herd has grown to around 150 individuals; a mix of mature males with their huge antlers, young males, females and, since they are a breeding herd, little calves too. (Yes, you might see some baby reindeer if you go at the right time of year.) The reindeer herd roam the mountains of the Cairngorms throughout the year, and there are daily ranger led walks from the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre to meet them.

Getting to the herd

You need to arrive early (be in the queue at opening time) to get your ticket from the Reindeer Centre, after which you’ll meet your guide in a car park a short drive away and from there begin the walk to find the reindeer herd. It takes about 30 minutes but it isn’t a particularly strenuous walk.

The walk is partly uphill, it can be muddy and the gravel track is quite rocky at some bits, though the rocks act almost as stairs. There are also some actual stairs and a narrow bridge – it’s not a walk suitable for anything wheeled, unless you’re an excellent mountain biker.

Don’t let any of that put you off though; I did it once when I was 5 months pregnant, the 5 year old did it with no problem at all, my husband did it with the little man strapped to his back and our 76 year old Auntie with a bad hip did it with gusto, albeit with a bit of help from me and my nephew. (She’s not your average 76 year old).

Once you’re up the hill it’s an easy walk along a series of wooden boardwalks and through a couple of paddocks until you get to the main area with the herd. The wooden boardwalks are a bit slippery when they’re wet. I can vouch that the mossy, heathery, long grass of the hill makes for a soft landing though!

The guide (who impressively knows each of those 150 reindeer by name) gathers everyone round for some reindeer chat and feeding instructions while in the distance the reindeer begin to make their way over to the group. They aren’t daft; they know there’s food in the bags that have been brought up the hill.

Reindeers are better than people…

It’s only when the reindeer start to get closer that you realise how striking and how big they actually are. Especially when they’re standing next to a toddler.

The reindeer know how the whole thing works; they come over, you take a handful of food out of the sack and they will eat it straight out of your cupped hands. Some of the reindeer are greedier than others, some are more forceful than others, some are more slabbery than others, and they all have their own personalities. They are incredibly gentle though, if a little impatient when they’re waiting on a handful!

You can spend as much time with the reindeer as you want to and you’re free to head back to the car park when you are finished. You just make your own way back down the same path you came up. All in, the experience lasted almost 2 hours including the walk up to the herd and a quicker walk back down.

That day, there wasn’t a single face that didn’t have a smile on it; from the youngest to the oldest and everyone in between. The 5 year old absolutely loved the reindeer eating out of her hands. She giggled and smiled the entire time. The toddler wasn’t as gung-ho as he usually is, but to be fair the reindeer were probably a bit intimidating for a tiny human a third their height.

The Cost

The ranger led trip costs £16 for adults, £13 concession, £10 for kids and under 3’s are free.

Top tips:

  • There is no advance booking so get there at least at opening time to secure your spot.
  • You can get a lift to the car park meeting point if you don’t have a vehicle with you.
  • Dress appropriately. We went at the end of November and it was pretty chilly. It’s usually windier up higher too.
  • The fields can be pretty boggy and wet. If you need them you can hire wellies for 50p from the reindeer centre.

The Verdict

If you’re in the area I’d highly recommend meeting the Cairngorm reindeer herd as a family friendly activity. The walk to the herd was short enough that everyone in our very varied group enjoyed it – even the little lady who is prone to a good moan about sore legs if she’s been walking for more than 3 minutes.

It’s a fun activity for all ages and the reindeer really are gentle giants. We had a superb morning and it was the highlight of our trip for all of us.

You can visit the Cairngorm reindeer herd by heading the Cairngorm reindeer centre and purchasing your tickets there for the ranger led walk. The Cairngorm Reindeer Centre is located at Reindeer House, Glenmore, Aviemore, PH22 1QU.