Hillend is not left all at ski

IT'S grey and wet, a day that anyone bothering to venture outside would probably describe as "dreich", with the result that a fine mist has thrown a sheath over what should be one of the finest views of Edinburgh's impressive skyline.

Just visible through the gloom is the dramatic outline of Arthur's Seat dominating the sprawl of city rooftops. Later, the curtain of mist finally lifts to reveal a stunning vista across the entire Capital, towards the Forth and beyond to Fife.

Not that anyone's gazing at the view, though.

Those who happen to be halfway up a hill at the edge of the city boundary are generally more concerned with what's happening with their feet, hoping to avoid landing with a splat on the webbed matting and suffering the indignity of that well-known Edinburgh condition "Hillend Thumb", or its equally uncomfortable cousin, soggy bum.

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Not that the dry ski run that carves a white streak down the edge of the Pentland Hills and, by evening, lights up the slope with twinkling floodlights, is particularly busy. The mid-morning ladies ski lesson has packed up, leaving just two snowboarders with one of the longest dry ski slopes in Europe all to themselves.

Although two classes of P4 and P5 children from Wallyford Primary, at the facility for just their fourth lesson, will later hit the slopes - some quite literally - even then the small group is dwarfed by the scale of the run.

Perhaps, then, it's little wonder that earlier this year - ironically, one of the best on record for Scottish skiing - Midlothian Snowsports Centre was assuming the brace position for one of the worst tumbles imaginable and heading for a crash landing that had the potential to crush its 45-year history faster and with even less grace than a beginner on an iced-up black run.

Despite being widely regarded as the best and most challenging dry slope in the UK, the centre - where top Scots skiers like Olympian Finlay Mickel and brothers Martin and Graham Bell honed their exceptional skills - was still managing to notch up debts of around 500,000 a year. Even though it had ploughed around 5 million into keeping the ski centre operational, Midlothian Council finally floated the idea that it may well have to close.

Since then, there has been a Facebook campaign to keep it open - at last count it had more than 27,000 members - some job losses and talk of an independent trust to take over its running.

Now a move by Independent Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald could go a stage further to securing the facility's future. She confirmed today that she is pushing the Scottish Government to find vital funding for it and two other key local projects as part of her budget- bargaining talks with the SNP.

Could it be, then, that after heading on a downward trajectory that would have made Alberto Tomba proud, things at Hillend are finally looking up?

"There was a genuine threat to the place," says Andrew Goulbourne, the centre's business manager, whose role now is to find new ways to ensure Hillend not only remains open but attracts fresh business.

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"If performance had not improved there would have had to be a difficult choice to close the business down, but right now there's a new business plan in place aimed at averting that risk. We are actually looking at bringing the centre into a profit as quickly as possible."

It sounds like the kind of U-turn in fortunes that could only be achieved with the fancy footwork of some freestyle skiers - a rapidly growing movement that may well pave the way forward for the facility.

Although no-one's saying for definite just now, expanding the single jump currently on offer to thrill-seeking freestylers to give them new challenges and vital practice resources looks certain to be part of the plan to regenerate the flagging centre.

Add the possibility of broadening facilities with new nursery areas, the potential introduction of a toboggan run and a much-needed new marketing campaign to build on Scottish snowsports' current popularity, and it might not only be the ageing chairlift at Hillend that's finally heading up.

Midlothian Council leader Derek Milligan says: "Everyone knows the council is facing tough financial decisions so we need to ensure the centre works as a business as well as a sports and recreational facility.

"A plan is also being progressed which could lead to some exciting developments at the centre in the future."

Just hearing that Hillend could close has been enough to tempt some back to its well-used dendix slope, even if the near vertical slide from the top station remains out of bounds.

Snowboarder Adam Gilroy, 38, has come from Cupar. "I learned to snowboard here and came a lot to practice but kind of drifted away," he says. "If you can snowboard here you can do it anywhere, it's pretty challenging. To lose this place would be a disaster."

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Friends Ann Malloy, from Haddington, and Julie Holmes, of Dunbar, last snapped on their skis as second-year pupils at Knox Academy. Inspired by scenes of Scottish ski slopes smothered in deep, pristine snow last season, the two 45-year-olds are determined to grab some of the on-piste action this year.

"All I can remember is that we'd come here for a lesson, it would be freezing cold and raining," laughs Ann. "Marriage, kids and everything else came along and skiing was never part of the equation.

"It's a bit daft when Hillend is here not to make use of it, so we've booked up for ten lessons and are planning to go to Aviemore in February for a week."

Julie agrees: "We might be rubbish. Actually, we're a bit worried about making fools of ourselves, but we'll give it a go.

"I don't know how many times I've driven past it and thought about having another shot. It would be such a shame if it was to close."

The pair shuffle across the nursery slope, determined not to wipe out two classes of children from Wallyford Primary. Among them, Georgina Robson has the natural fearlessness of a typical eight-year-old. For her, skiing here is all about trying to go as fast as possible.

"I really like it," she grins, pulling on her helmet. "It's quite scary when you go on the tow, so you have to hold on really tight and not fall off. Even if you fall, it doesn't really hurt very much."

Classmate Josh Hunter, eight, says he actually prefers heading up the tow to sliding downhill. "I like going up because you don't have to think about what to do with your feet so much," he explains. "Going down is quite good, though."

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The children are among 30,000 who have lessons at the slope every year as part of the facility's school programme. For many, Hillend skiing is not only a chance to learn a new sport, but a much broader lesson in vital learning skills.

"The children learn social skills," adds Shirley Molak, a parent helper at Wallyford Primary.

"They learn safety and they learn to help each other.

"It feels like Hillend has always been here. You can't imagine it closing down."


A DRY ski run was first established at Hillend in 1964, when enthusiast Boyd Anderson created a 50m test slope at the site and used an old school meals building as a workshop and ski hire centre.

The run was eventually added to, creating two longer runs serviced by a chairlift, a button tow and a T-bar tow. Today it also includes a ski jump area.

It currently employs 70 instructors, most part-time.

Last year around 135,000 skiers and snowboarders used the facility.

Staff cuts, price increases for school visits and casual visitors, and changes to the centre's loss-making cafe were recently approved in a make-or-break bid to keep the centre open.