Scotland’s first ski lift 60 years on
IN THE winter of 1952/3, members of the Scottish Ski Club were given a glimpse into the future when the latest edition of the Scottish Ski Club Journal flopped onto their doormats.
In contrast to the Alps, where commercial ski areas with permanent tows were well established, skiing in Scotland was still in its infancy. Ski club huts had been erected at such popular snow-sliding locations as Ben Lawers in Highland Perthshire, and there had been various experiments with so-called “portable” ski tows – most of which turned out to be anything but portable – but there was still nothing that looked even remotely like a proper ski resort.
In light of all this, when the SSC Journal’s editor, a young engineer from Glasgow called Philip Rankin, wrote an article suggesting it was time to build permanent ski tows on the northern slopes of Meall a’Bhuiridh in Glencoe, many of his readers must have thought he was some sort of fantasist. But Rankin knew what he was talking about. He had been studying his chosen mountain carefully, and knew it held its snow well into the spring, long after all the neighbouring peaks had turned brown.
“It has an ample corrie deeply scored with ravines, which collect such a mass of snow as to be virtually impervious to even weeks of thaw,” he wrote.
Not only was the proposed ski area snow-sure, it offered some seriously challenging skiing for those who wanted it. In his article, Rankin suggested that the steepness of some of the terrain might cause even the bravest skiers to “consider carefully the merits of prudence as against taking it straight”.
If any wealthy businessmen came to hear of Rankin’s plans following the publication of his article they didn’t race to put them into action, so, as if to prove himself right, the former Spitfire pilot quit his engineering job in Glasgow and set about turning his dream of commercial skiing at Glencoe into a reality; the first permanent lift on the hill – and the first anywhere in Scotland – eventually opened for business in 1956.
Inevitably, much will be done to mark the 60th anniversary of commercial operations at Glencoe in 2016, but on 1 March this year there will be another celebration: a party to mark the 60th anniversary of Rankin’s game-changing article in the SSC Journal – arguably the tiny acorn from which the whole Scottish Ski industry grew. It will also be an opportunity to pay tribute to the visionary 96-year-old who masterminded the construction of Scotland’s first ski resort, and to the team of tough, resourceful pioneers who helped him.
“The plan is to have an evening reception at the Log Cabin Cafe and try and get all the old-timers together,” says Glencoe’s current owner Andy Meldrum, who took over in 2009. “We’re hoping to get members from the original working party, the original ski patrol and any staff from the early days.”
“It’s just incredible what they managed to achieve,” he continues. “Very often when somebody puts a resort together, ten years down the line they’ll look at it and go ‘I wish I’d put that tow here’ or ‘I wish I’d put that lift there,’ but today everything is in more or less the same place – which means they pretty much got it right first time.”
Rankin still lives near Glencoe, at Ballachulish, although he hasn’t skied there for some time. “I skied at the millennium and then I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to get any better’ so I made a firm decision to stop,” he tells me, over the phone.
Does he remember his last run at Glencoe?
“Yes, I remember it was a very good one, and I remember I took a tremendous pearler in the process.”
I ask if that was on the lower slopes, where the runs are less steep than higher up the hill. He sounds affronted. “Oh, I don’t bother about the lower slopes. The top of that mountain – that’s the real thing.”
During the Second World War, Rankin flew Spitfires for the RAF. He was based first in Oxfordshire, then Cairo, Calcutta and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). “I had a fine old first class tour of the world,” he chuckles. “I must have been the most expensive and useless pilot in the RAF, I think. I always arrived just after the battle was finished or left before it started. It wasn’t until 1945 that I first scratched the paint on anything.” [He was shot down over the North Sea after flying too close to a German anti-aircraft battery, and had to be fished out of the water by Air-Sea Rescue.]
When the war finished, Rankin returned home to Glasgow, but found civilian life dull. “There was a feeling of tremendous anti-climax,” he says. “I went from quite an exciting life to reverting to my destiny, alleged, of being a partner in a small Glasgow light engineering firm, which I found extremely boring. I really went skiing, I think, to get away from the tedium of regular business. I was never more happy in my life than the day I threw my bowler hat over the suspension bridge into the Clyde and took to the hills.”
When he wrote his SSC Journal article, Rankin had already had plenty of experience of Meall a’ Bhuiridh, having first skied there in 1951 and spotted “the perfect ski tow line” in the area now known as the Main Basin. He wasn’t the first person to try to put a ski tow on the mountain, however – that honour goes to Bill Blackwood, described by former Scotsman skiing correspondent Ed Rattray, in his book Scottish Skiing: The Golden Years 1950-1990, as “the most persistent of the tow builders” in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War.
Blackwood’s home-made tow was only a temporary affair, however, so Rankin set out to convince the Scottish Ski Club – and the local landowner, Philip Fleming, then-owner of the Blackmount Estate – that development on Meall a’ Bhuiridh needed to be “on a proper scale or nothing”.
He succeeded on both counts – Fleming even gave him “about half” the money he needed to get started. The first fixed tow was installed during the summer of 1955 at a cost of £5,000. It had a capacity of 250 skiers per hour, and ascended almost 300 metres. However, skiers still had to hike a good distance from the car park to get to it, so the Access Chairlift was added in 1959.
“We did it arse-up from any sane way of doing it,” Rankin says of the initial development. “We put the ski lift on the top and walked to it because there was no other way we could get there. But we very soon realised that if [the resort] was going to be commercial there was no way we were going to sell that walk up the hill. Obviously that was only going to work for the real enthusiasts, so the next move was to put the first chairlift there.”
By all accounts, installing ski lifts in the 1950s was hugely labour intensive. In Scottish Skiing, Rattray says he’s still puzzled about how “Philip Rankin’s squad” managed to transport so much heavy machinery to such a remote location over such difficult terrain. One answer, it seems, was the acquisition of an ex-military armoured personnel carrier called a Weasel.
“It was the only way you could get stuff up [the hill]” says Rankin. “There was a genial rascal called Andrew Allen who was a contractor in Crieff, I think, and he bought a whole consignment of ex-military stuff including these Weasels. They were marvellous mountaineers, but of course they weren’t meant for rough ground – their tracks were pretty feeble. They did a job, but it was a difficult way of doing things.”
Rankin was also helped by a group of keen mountaineers and skiers from Glasgow who shared his engineering background – people like Jack Williamson (“the boss of that lot”) and Jimmy Hamilton (“a very skilful engineer who never got enough credit for all that he did”). Another member of the original work party was Bill Smith, who used the new lift to ski over 10,000m of vertical in one day in 1957 – the first “Everest” achieved on a Scottish hill.
If there was a true Golden Age of Scottish skiing, Rankin believes it was in those very early days at Glencoe. “There was terrific enthusiasm amongst all the originators, you never had to look very hard to get some help,” he recalls.
Since Rankin retired from running Glencoe in 1992, the resort has had its share of troubles, almost going out of business for good in 2009, but current owner Andy Meldrum’s decision to turn it into a Community Interest Company (thereby opening access to EU funding) seems to have ensured its survival for the time being, and the last couple of years have seen some much-needed investment in infrastructure.
Rankin visited the resort last winter, after many years away, and was amazed at the changes he saw.
“I was very agreeably surprised at what it’s become,” he says. “To my absolute amazement we went across the Plateau in a Land Rover – they’d made a roadway up – and there were these sort of snow buggy taxis buzzing around all over the place. I was absolutely astounded. But all very good – good good stuff – a lot of it stuff I’d dreamed of doing but there was just no possible way of financing it.
“They still haven’t put up the lift that I’d like to see, though,” he says. “I would like to see one going up what is called the Spring Run. It would be a very easy one to do from an engineering point of view, because if you went up the right hand side looking up you could have everything buried on clear rock, so there’d be no need for enormous quantities of concrete, which is what costs a lot of money. But I can’t complain about that – they’ve done wonders.”
l For more information about skiing at Glencoe, see www.glencoemountain.com If you were involved in the early days at Glencoe, or if you know somebody who was, please contact the resort on 01855 851226 or [email protected]