Obituary: Philip Rankin, RAF airman who became Scotland's '˜Godfather of Skiing'

Philip Rankin, soldier, airman and ski centre pioneer. Born: 16 April, 1917 in Glasgow. Died: 12 March, 2017 in Ballachulish, Argyll, aged 99

Philip Rankin has died at the age of 99
Philip Rankin has died at the age of 99

The genesis of Scotland’s multi-million pound ski industry can be traced back to a German anti-aircraft gunner’s attack on an exhausted RAF airman heading home during the Second World War.

A long mission had taken its toll on Mosquito pilot Philip Rankin and, too tired to remember all his instructions, he omitted to follow warnings to fly at an altitude high enough to avoid the flak known to burst from the Walcheren island area. As a result he took a hit and came down in the English Channel. On impact he was propelled out through the aircaft’s canopy, badly injuring his back.

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But during treatment at Stoke Mandeville hospital a Canadian doctor advised him that, with the right type of exercise, he could make a recovery and suggested that the best results could be achieved if he practised walking uphill on skis or snow shoes.

When he returned home Rankin, a former soldier who had gone into the RAF from the Royal Artillery, set about identifying the best place to put this advice into action. As a native of the west of Scotland he knew the hills there well and quickly pinpointed Meall a’Bhuiridh on Rannoch Moor as an ideal spot.

There, and from that inauspicious wartime incident, emerged the fledgling commercial Scottish ski industry as he toiled to build the first ski tow, carrying scrap metal and wires up the mountain by hand and earning the title of the nation’s Godfather of Skiing. From his initial efforts he established the White Corries ski centre, now known as the Glencoe Mountain Resort where a green run has been named Rankin’s Run in tribute to the snow sport pioneer and visionary.

Philip Naismith Rankin was born in Eglinton Drive, Glasgow, the youngest of three children of lifebelt manufacturer Robert Cecil Rankin and his wife Madge. Educated in Edinburgh and Bristol, he then followed his brother into the family firm, a business importing cork from Portugal. During the Second World War the young engineer originally served in the Royal Artillery before transferring to the Royal Air Force where as Captain Rankin, he became a pilot officer as part of the General Duties branch.

Although he sometimes flew Spitfires, he mainly piloted Mosquitos and, after being based initially in Oxford, served in India, Egypt and Rhodesia. Towards the end of the war, as a flying officer with the Technical Branch, he flew as a photographer, taking reconnaissance images of the Baltic coast before the Russian advance.

But, decades after his night-time altercation with the enemy landed him in the drink, he maintained: “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.”

After the end of the war he returned home to Glasgow but, given the drama he and his fellow combatants had endured, Civvy Street was predictably dull. “I went from quite an exciting life to revert 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 bat over the suspension bridge into the Clyde and took to the hills.”

He had first skied on Meall a’Bhuiridh in 1951 and picked out the perfect line for a tow. His first move was to contact the local landowner, Philip Fleming of Blackmount Estate. The Fleming family readily gave permission for the erection of the proposed tow and it marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship with the estate owner and his son Robin.

For Rankin, the creation of Britain’s first overhead ski lift was initially a hobby that ultimately occupied his every waking hour. Nothing like it had ever been attempted on the Scottish hills and many doubted its potential success, particularly given the country’s erratic weather and snow conditions, coupled with the difficulty of access and erection.

However his small, amateur weekend club was persuaded to follow his lead, accept his plans and his assurances of the public support that he was convinced would follow.

He had chosen his site judiciously. Writing in the Scottish Ski Club journal of 1952/53 he described: “An ample corrie deeply scored with ravines which collect such a mass of snow as to be virtually impervious to even weeks of thaw.” The boulder scree on the corrie floor would be a “draining board”, he said, for any rain or thawed snow preventing the snow from rotting underneath.

But he was something of a lone voice and admitted he had seen the project “rather wistfully” in his mind’s eye, offering a magnificent expanse of run. “Here indeed do we see the key we seek to put Scottish skiing on a new plane as a major British field sport.”

It was a romantic prediction that he turned into a thrilling success story,entailing four years of stubborn determination, raising cash, marshalling volunteers and transporting metal plate and steel cable up the hill. Dedicated workers from the Creag Dhu Mountaineering club, many of whom worked in the Clyde shipyards, and the Scottish Ski Club brought the scheme to fruition. The lift opened in the mid-1950s with a date stamp on the hand sufficing for a ticket. He and friend Robert Finlay, an accountant who helped with the finance and physical labour, had each pledged to Philip Fleming that neither would marry until the lift was built and both kept their promise.

But within a few years Rankin, the engineer, builder, manager and general dogsbody had a new wife, Gudrun, an East German refugee – the ticket collector and bookkeeper and master of everything else. They began married life in a caravan and later built a house near the Ballaculish Hotel where they created a beautiful rhododendron garden from a field of rushes and where he lived for the rest of his days.

Initially known as the White Corries Ltd, his project, which had cost £9000 in the 1950s, expanded enormously over the years. Now operating as the Glencoe Mountain Resort, it was followed by four other Scottish ski centres and kick-started an industry worth more than £30million annually.

After retiring in the early 1990s Rankin, who maintained a keen interest in the venture, was nominated for a UK Honour as a result of his visionary and ground-breaking work. The plea fell on deaf ears. A second attempt last year failed as he was no longer active in the industry and his vast contribution continued to go largely unrecognised in the wider community, save for a Snowsport Scotland Lifetime Achievement award last November.

He was predeceased by Gudrun, who died in 2002. They had no children.