Roger Cox: Hillend slopes all down to one man’s vision

The slopes at Hillend in sepia tones
The slopes at Hillend in sepia tones
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THERE’S something mildly exotic, particularly at this time of year, about looking out over south Edinburgh at dusk – say, from the top of Morningside Hill – and seeing the floodlights at Hillend twinkling in the distance.

Half close your eyes on a cold, wintry evening, and you could imagine yourself in a ski town somewhere in the Alps or the Rockies, only with more wind, superior architecture and better curry.

Schoolchildren enjoy the slopes at Hillend in 1965. Picture: TSPL

Schoolchildren enjoy the slopes at Hillend in 1965. Picture: TSPL

The view has been like that ever since 1966, when Edinburgh’s artificial ski slope was first illuminated (with gas lamps, to begin with) to allow night-time skiing, but the facility was actually opened to the public the previous year, on 8 December 1965, which makes this Tuesday its 50th anniversary.

Tomorrow, then, in order to mark the occasion on a day when people aren’t at work, Hillend (or the Midlothian Snowsports Centre, to give it its official title) will offer free lift tickets to the first 50 skiers, 50 snowboarders and 50 telemarkers who show up when they open at 9:30am. I know what you’re thinking: “Where are they going to find 50 telemarkers?” and it’s true that heels-free skiers are a relatively rare breed these days, but Louise Sharp, manager of the ski school at Hillend, is hopeful that they might actually achieve that number.

“There are free tickets available on a first come, first served basis,” she says. “Obviously if we can get 50 telemarkers we’ll be delighted – that’s pretty much all the telemarkers in Edinburgh!

“We haven’t got any telemark equipment [at the centre] so telemarkers will have to bring their own, but for everyone else the tickets include their equipment as well. The only conditions would be that they can all ski or snowboard or telemark – and use the tows, obviously. They can’t be beginners. We will be running ski and snowboard taster sessions throughout the day too, but people will have to book into those ahead of time.”

As is so often the case with ski centres, Hillend largely owes its existence to the vision and enthusiasm of one man. Just as Glencoe (celebrating its 60th in February – more on this anon) grew out of Philip Rankin’s conviction that the north side of Meall a’Bhuiridh would be the perfect place to build a ski resort because its gullies “collect such a mass of snow as to be virtually impervious to even weeks of thaw” so Hillend was largely the brainchild of the philanthropist George Boyd Anderson.

At the London Ski Show of 1962, where a group of ski instructors from the Spey Valley demonstrated a new brush-like artificial surface, Boyd Anderson and Edinburgh councillor Herbert Brechin approached the great Scottish skiing pioneer Hans Kuwall and outlined a plan to run a pilot dry ski slope project in the Pentland Hills. A 50m test slope was opened in March 1964 on the east side of Buiselaw, after Boyd Anderson came to a gentleman’s agreement with the captain of the Lothianburn Golf Club. Kuwall and Precilla Torrence offered instruction there two days a week, teaching both primary and secondary schoolchildren, and the response was so positive that it was soon decided that a longer slope was required. In the winter of 1964-65, the slope was moved to its current location and in 1965 it was lengthened to 200m, before being officially opened to the public on 8 December. New-fangled refinements such as a chairlift and floodlights followed soon after.

It’s no secret that Hillend has been through financial difficulties in the recent past, and there were fears it might be forced to close in 2011, before it received a vital injection of £500,000 from SportScotland. Its popularity, though, is undeniable, even when you take out of the equation the approximately 40,000 children who use the facility for PE lessons each year. Last Saturday, on what must have been one of the windiest days of the year, the place was mobbed in spite of the weather, with tiny tots practising snowplow turns in the beginner’s area, racers hammering through gates on the main piste and hardly a spare seat to be found in the cafe at lunchtime. Had he been able to see his creation still so well-used, even on such a miserable day, Boyd Anderson would have been delighted.

PS – Don’t forget to pick up a copy of our sister paper Scotland on Sunday tomorrow for your 20-page Scottish Ski & Board supplement.