In December 2006 an in-depth article appeared in this newspaper looking at the future prospects of the Scottish ski industry.
The picture it painted was not a rosy one. Two climate scientists were quoted as saying the snow would definitely be gone from Scotland’s hills in 80 years’ time thanks to global warming, and one of their colleagues suggested it could disappear in as little as 20.
One bombshell statistic made even those estimates sound conservative: the number of skiable days at Nevis Range, Glencoe and the Lecht had halved since the turn of the millennium. Anyone reading must have wondered if Scotland’s ski resorts would be able to stagger on past 2010, let alone 2026.
A couple of years after that story appeared, it seemed a ski centre was on the verge of closing down for good. In March 2009, Glencoe’s then-owners put the resort up for sale and, for month after month as the clock slowly ticked down to the following winter, no buyer was forthcoming. When, in the October, Falkirk businessman Andy Meldrum finally stepped in to keep the lifts running, many must have felt it was only a temporary stay of execution.
But then something unexpected happened: we had a bit of a cold snap. The winter of 2009-10 was the snowiest some younger skiers and boarders could remember, and we’ve now had more snow than we know what to do with for four out of the last five seasons.
And so, in the space of a few short years, we’ve come full circle, from a situation where it looked as if we were going to lose a ski centre to a situation where it seems we’re about to gain a new one. Fortune’s wheel don’t ’alf spin fast sometimes.
Anjo Abelaira is the chair of the Lowther Hills Ski Club, and this winter he is hoping to offer the only lift-served skiing in southern Scotland, on the slopes of 725m Lowther Hill, near the village of Leadhills in Dumfries and Galloway.
“The plan is to have permanent facilities on the hill,” he says, “so a permanent, 600m-long ski tow, which will suit intermediates, and a small area for beginners with two portable ski tows. We’ll also have a clubhouse where people can have a warm cup of tea and get a bit of shelter.”
Abelaira is keen to stress that the Lowther Hills set-up is going to be very different from a conventional ski resort. Rather than simply selling tickets to anyone who turns up on a given day, the new ski area will operate more like a golf club, with an upper limit placed on the number of people who can use the facilities, and priority given to those who have purchased membership. Having seen how some similar clubs in the north of England have suffered from overcrowding in the past, the Lowther Hills Ski Club will start off with a modest membership of just 400. Annual subs are a very reasonable £35, and at time of going to press there are still more than 200 slots available.
Abelaira has worked in the ski industry all over Europe, including in Portugal, where the skiing is about as marginal as it is here in Scotland, and he has clearly done his research. Based on records for the local area, and for the Lake District Ski Club at Raise, he reckons the new club should be able to offer as many as 40 skiable days in a good snow year, dropping to 15 in a bad one. That’s nowhere near as many days as the existing ski resorts in the Highlands are able to offer, and size of the ski area isn’t really comparable either, but for anyone living locally – or even in Glasgow, just an hour’s drive to the north – it certainly makes for an intriguing proposition.
In addition to Abelaira, the Lowther Hills Ski Club committee includes Chris Penny, a former lift operator at Nevis Range, and Rab Paul, Charlotte Paul, Graham Roberts and Vicky Cumming, all children (now in their 40s) of some of the skiing pioneers who operated portable lifts in the area from the 1960s to the 1980s. During this period there were various attempts to establish a permanent ski centre, most notably in the late 1980s when Bob Cumming produced an ambitious proposal for a ski development at Whitestone Cleuch, just south of Wanlockhead. Those attempts may all have come to nothing, but – without wanting to tempt fate – it seems that this time, finally, the Lowther Hills are poised to become a permanent part of the Scottish ski scene.