It was truly the end of an era, last month, when the great Scottish skiing pioneer Philip Rankin passed away at his home in Ballachulish, at the grand old age of 99. There had been various experiments with mechanised uplift for skiers on Scottish hillsides before Rankin came along – my personal favourite involved the use of a tracked Second World War vehicle known as a Weasel on the slopes of Ben Lawers in Perthshire in 1951 – but Rankin was the man who had the vision to establish Scotland’s first permanent ski resort, on the slopes of Meall a’ Bhuiridh in Glencoe, and as such he can accurately be described as the father of the Scottish ski industry.
Rankin flew Spitfires and Mosquitos for the RAF during the war, based first in Oxfordshire, then Cairo, Calcutta and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). And as I found when I interviewed him in 2013 – as the ski hill he established, by this time known as Glencoe Mountain Resort, prepared to celebrate its 60th birthday – he retained something of the stereotypical airman’s insouciance and modesty.
“I had a fine old first class tour of the world,” he chuckled, when I asked him about his war service. “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.”
The incident in which he “scratched the paint” happened one night when he was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire from the island of Walcheren. Forced to crash-land in the English Channel, he was thrown through the canopy of his Mosquito and badly damaged his back. Fortunately for Rankin, however – and for future generations of Scottish skiers – a Canadian doctor at Stoke Mandeville hospital, where he was treated for his injuries, suggested that the best way to recover would be to walk uphill as often as possible, preferably on skins or snowshoes.
A native of Helensburgh, Rankin knew the hills of the west of Scotland well, and soon identified Meall a’ Bhuiridh – easily accessible from the A82, scored with deep, north-facing corries that hold their snow well into the spring – as a good place to work on his rehabilitation. It was the time he spent here that convinced him – correctly, as it turned out – that this could be a viable location for Scotland’s first permanent ski resort.
Rankin set out to convince both the Scottish Ski Club and the local landowner, Philip Fleming, that a ski development on Meall a’ Bhuiridh needed to be “on a proper scale or nothing,” and he succeeded on both counts. Then, using his pre-war training as an engineer, and helped by a group of keen mountaineers and skiers from Glasgow who shared his engineering background, he set to work. 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. Skiers still had to hike a good distance from the car park to get to it, however, so the Access Chairlift was added in 1959. Rankin and his wife Gudrun retired from running the resort in 1992, but Rankin always retained a keen interest in its fortunes – and he continued to ski there well into his eighties. His last ever run on the hill, he told me, was in 2000.
“It was a very good one,” he said, “and I remember I took a tremendous pearler in the process.”
I made the mistake of assuming that an octogenarian skier would have preferred to keep to the easier, lower slopes of the mountain. “Oh, I don’t bother about the lower slopes,” he replied, sounding a little put out. “The top of that mountain – that’s the real thing.”
Had he lived a little longer, Rankin would have turned 100 tomorrow. At the end of last year he was recognised with a lifetime achievement award from Snowsport Scotland, and a new green run at Glencoe was recently named in his honour. There’s a pleasing sense of the wheel having come full circle to the idea of future generations of Scottish skiers making their first turns on “Rankins”.
But perhaps the man himself should be allowed the last word. In an article in the Scottish Ski Club Journal in 1966, with his dream of ski lifts linking the summit of Meall a’ Bhuiridh to the valley floor finally a reality, Rankin wrote: “This is the beginning, not the end, of the [Glencoe] tale. There is much to do for the betterment of fun and frolic, some of which we have thought of and some of which will no doubt occur to us later. Essentially, Meall a’ Bhuiridh is a mountain developed by skiers for skiers and, as such, a happy place, come fair or foul. Our best achievement will be to keep it so.”