Roger Cox: Celebrating 60 years of Glencoe ski area

The anything-is-possible spirit of 1956 is flourishing, if you know where to look, writes Roger Cox

A skier on Glencoe in 1956
A skier on Glencoe in 1956

If you suddenly found yourself in possession of a Tardis, and were able to travel freely through space and time, when and where you go?

For me, the era would have to be the mid-1950s and the location would be a toss-up between Malibu, California (all those perfect waves, old-school surfboards readily available and hardly anybody else out surfing) and what is now Glencoe Mountain ski resort (all that varied terrain, a basic lift system just installed and hardly anybody else out skiing).

In the archives at Glencoe, there’s a beautiful old photograph of one of the very first ski tows ever built there, running on the area of the hill now known as the Main Basin. A skier wearing a flat cap and what may or may not be plus fours is being pulled gently uphill, silhouetted against the snow, but apart from him the place seems deserted – there’s nobody else using the tow, nobody skiing the inviting-looking run behind him. The only other things in the picture are a couple of small rocks in the foreground and the snow-capped peaks on the other side of the valley, so indistinct they almost look as if they could have been painted on by hand. It’s all-too-easy to imagine yourself into the ski boots of this mystery 1950s skier, plotting your next descent through pristine snow as you slide slowly back up to the top of the mountain, the adrenaline starting to flow as you reach the summit and let go of the T-bar.

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    Skiers in Glencoe, 1956

    Exactly 60 years ago tomorrow, the first paying customers arrived at Meall a’ Bhuiridh to use the ski tow built by Philip Rankin, Jimmy Hamilton and other members of the Scottish Ski Club. Or, at least, Glencoe Mountain’s current owner Andy Meldrum is as certain of that as he can be.

    “We did a bit of research and we’re pretty sure it was the 20th of Feb,” he says. “It’s been hard to absolutely tie it down because the only thing we can find from the old records is ‘near the end of February’. We’ve asked all the old timers who were there, though, and we think we’ve nailed it down to this weekend as being exactly 60 years from when the first lift ran.”

    Tomorrow evening, Meldrum is planning to mark the ski area’s 60th birthday in spectacular style. A procession of skiers wearing headtorches will wind their way down the mountain, creating a little river of light of which outdoor art collective NVA would be proud, and at the same time a fireworks display will be set off from the top of the hill. Meldrum is also hopeful that Glencoe pioneers including Rankin and Hamilton will be able to attend; many of the original crew are now in their 90s, so night skiing is probably out, but if the weather plays ball they should get a grandstand view of proceedings from the bottom of the hill.

    The story of how Rankin and co managed to create a ski centre at Glencoe is very much of its time. Many of the people involved in the project, including Rankin, had fought in the Second World War, and they approached a series of apparently insurmountable problems with an admirable, anything-is-possible attitude. No ski resorts in Scotland? Fine, let’s build one. We need permission to build one there? Fine, let’s ask the landowner. We need to move a load of heavy machinery almost to the summit of a steep, rocky, boggy Munro? No problem, we’ll get ourselves an ex-army tracked vehicle at a knock-down rate – there’s a guy in Crieff who’s selling them off for buttons. And so on, and so on.

    Skiers in Glencoe, 1956

    When I interviewed Rankin a few years ago about the early days at Glencoe, he perhaps best summed up the mindset that allowed the ski centre to happen when he said: “There was terrific enthusiasm amongst all the originators – you never had to look very hard to get some help.”

    It’s tempting to say that this sort of thing could never happen in today’s short-termist, every-man-for-himself world, but the vestiges of the Spirit of ‘56 are still there if you look hard enough. Take the Lowther Hills Ski Club, for example, which over the last couple of years has succeeded in setting up its own ski tows near the village of Leadhills, mostly with the help of volunteers. And, indeed, look at the Glencoe Mountain ski area itself – threatened with closure in 2009, then bought at the 11th hour by Andy Meldrum, with the aim of ensuring its survival for the benefit of the people who use it.

    When I interviewed Meldrum in early 2010, he told me: “We’ll make it work or go down in flames. But we won’t go down in flames. With the people we’ve got, and the plans we’ve got, I think we’ll survive.”

    So far, so good.