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Issue 6 - It's a dog's life

Scotland Magazine Issue 6
February 2003


This article is 15 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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It's a dog's life


For decades, shepherds like Murdo MacKenzie tended sheep in the wildest, most isolated parts of the Cairngorm Mountains. Driving them for miles across unforgivably harsh terrain, they would eventually arrive at Braemar market, on the far side of the mountains. The remote location of these trails has secured their part in history, but with two teams of 10 dogs and sleds, history is being revisited, and some of the quietest corners of Scotland are being rediscovered … at dog’s-eye-level.

The enormous sign of a paw print at the roadside does little to suggest the scale of the activity taking place a mile up the rough track at the Cairngorm Sled-dog Adventure Centre. Approaching by foot, the peaceful harmony of birdsong is obliterated by an unexpected cacophony of barks, yelps and whines that erupts from a multitude of dogs, leaping excitedly onto kennels and scarpering along their exercise lines. If it weren’t for the Mexican wave of wagging tails, one would be tempted to flee in terror, but the dogs’ delight is understandable: for them the sight of mildly panicking visitors is likely to mean one thing: a damned good run.

Under the expert eye of their breeder, trainer, handler and number-one fan, Alan Stewart, the dogs are exercised daily. This is no mean feat when some of the huskies in the team are capable of running up to 60 miles a day when in peak fitness. With the Cairngorm Mountains looming in the distance, and forests and lochsides on the doorstep, there is no shortage of training ground, and how much more alive the countryside feels with the dogs’ excited yelps echoing through the woods!

Strapped into harnesses two abreast, the dogs pull the sled, seemingly oblivious to the weight within it. With Alan in charge, up to four visitors can join him charging through the wilder parts of Rothiemurchus, a beautifully preserved private estate encompassing enormous dark forests, silent lochs, bubbling streams and pastureland.

Whilst the scenery whisks past in a blur, sled transport takes some getting used to – to say that the first few hundred metres may feel precarious is an understatement. Amidst much enthusiastic barking, the dog team careers along narrow, pot-holed tracks with snow piled high on either side, as if in a bob sleigh run. Lurching this way and that, passengers find it’s far more fun to relax and just enjoy the
experience rather than trying to retain any kind of composure. Admiring the views from a position so close to the ground offers a different perspective on nature; great swathes of pine forests tower above with branches bent double by snow. Look up – not down – at sparkling crusts of snow on fence posts. Splashes from icy puddles are so much closer to your face …

This is equally thrilling for both dogs and passengers. Following long-worn ruts in the paths, the sled team weaves through thick forestation, the runners clanking against the ground, the dogs noisy, Alan gently shouting encouragement. They run come snow or rain, but the heat brings problems. From May through to mid-autumn the temperatures can be too high for some of the dogs, especially the Siberian huskies who are bred to withstand extreme cold and cannot exercise in heat beyond 12°C. But as for the dogs’ second favourite pastime, sleeping, they happily kip outside year round. Each of Alan’s 28 dogs has its own keg-barrel kennel, fashioned from a used Macallan whisky keg, with each dog’s
name painted on top.

The daily trips with visitors, which play a vital part in the dogs’ exercise routine, take place in the morning, midday or evening.

In the winter they pull more traditional sleds across the snowy wastes (this part of the Rothiemurchus estate was once used as a training ground for Norwegian soldiers), and for the rest of the year pull all-terrain vehicles. All the harnesses and sleds can be seen in a small exhibition Alan has set up at the Centre.

The dogs are Alan’s life, for at the Centre, located just a few miles from Aviemore, Alan is making history. In 1999 he and a friend (who had worked with dogs at the South Pole’s British Antarctic Survey base) became the first people ever recorded to cross the Cairngorm plateau with a dog team.

“It was so cold even our eyelashes froze up,” Alan remembers with a shiver.

Spurred on by success, and with a number of dog-sledding race wins and placings in the United Kingdom and Europe, Alan left his career as a commercial diver.

“The Centre is my dream. I was looking for a way to enjoy life and combine my passion for dogsledding. The opportunity to run with dogs, breed them and race them was staring me in the face,” he explains. Now he is the first and only professional sled-dog racer in the UK, and is breeding and training a dog team good enough to race against Europe’s best.

“If we were playing football here I’d be trying to build a team to play in the World Cup. Sadly my country is still playing Sunday pub football – the UK is 15 years behind Europe in sled-dog racing,” chuckles Alan as he rubs the head of Buster, the pride of his clan.

Alan admits it is Buster who “makes it all tick”. This fine German pointer is the lead dog, and has led all Alan’s dogs over the Cairngorms and Ben MacDui, the UK’s second highest mountain, in the midst of winter. Taking part in a major European race over the Italian and Austrian Alps, Buster hurtled into the history books as the first lead dog ever to compete from the UK. For Buster this is a far cry from his past, living with the Italian owner of a fish and chip shop in central London. The mutual adoration between Alan and Buster is clear, a bond strengthened through endurance and shared learning, and one that has seen Buster sharing a sleeping bag with Alan on some of the colder Scottish expeditions (some of Alan’s dogs are prime sled-dogs but not bred to withstand more extreme temperatures). The bond is now being extended with the arrival of Buster Junior, a yapping bundle of fur produced through the cross-breeding of Buster with Buffy, a Siberian husky.

Using his current dogs, Alan is breeding and training his Mid-Distance Euro Team, a combination of Alaskan and New Mexican desert hound. Beyond their daily trips out with visitors, the next project will help to relive the days of Murdo MacKenzie. Alan is planning a private sled trip in midwinter to recreate the Braemar market journeys in recognition of the many gamekeepers and shepherds who worked the local land in a way far removed from today’s farming practices, aided of course by a great many of his dogs. It is these dogs that Alan and his family have put their faith in, and whom Alan and son John hope to compete with at the Winter Olympics in 2006.

As we watch a herd of red deer silently moving through the forest clearing, Alan takes stock of his dogs and his surroundings.

“With major commitment from my wife and son I now live a wonderful life with my sled-dogs, but it is not for everybody. It’s a great challenge, but we Stewarts cherish living here at the foot of the Cairngorm mountain range.”

The dogs are now peaceful; Buster lazes soft as a mop in his keg. As he dozes amidst this truly Scottish tableau of heather, forest and mountain, I’d bet him a big juicy bone that he’s dreaming of tomorrow’s trip.

The Sled-dog Adventure Centre is not the modern establishment its name suggests. At its heart is tiny Moormore Cottage, a stone bothy more than 300 years old. The former home of Murdo MacKenzie and many other gamekeepers and shepherds, it was last inhabited by a Finn who introduced the first reindeer to Scotland. The cottage stood empty since his departure in 1955, until the Laird of Rothiemurchus Estate, John Grant, leased it to the Stewart family in 2001

With the Laird’s support, the Stewarts’ efforts have transformed the bothy from a derelict shell lacking basic drainage into their family home. The original woodwork has been preserved, there is running water and satellite communication is under consideration as there are no local phone lines.

The cottage also houses Europe’s only sled-dog museum, part of which is dedicated to the remarkable life of ‘Scotty’ Allen, a local Scot who emigrated and founded the sport during the Gold Rush period. Scotty’s grandniece opened the Centre last year, and since then a number of former residents of Moormore Cottage have returned to visit their old home

The Centre is open every day and offers a three-hour insight into sled-dog history, training and life, including a one-hour dogsledding trip for £45 per person. Call in advance for bookings on +44 (0)7767 270 526