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Donina Stewart Skiing in The Cairngorms

I have strong memories of the Cairngorms. I think everyone who has lived in the Highlands does. You drive through them on the A9, rattle past them on the train and sometimes get the opportunity to ski down them in the winter. I will always remember the contrast of brilliant white snow and the dark water of Loch Morlich when at the top Ptarmigan cafe.  I’ll remember skiing down the heathery slopes and the veins of snow that remain all year round. 

My grandmother Donina Stewart is exactly 70 1/2 years older than me. We share a half birthday.  She was born in 1923 and grew up in Dulnain Bridge in Speyside with the Cairngorms as a backdrop. After growing up in the hills she left to train as a nurse in Inverness where she met my grandfather Alistair Stewart. Then onto Edinburgh, London and, after marrying, to Kenya.  I interviewed her to hear her memories of the hills and what has changed in her 95 years. 

You have lived in Africa with Grandpa and when there lived near two of your sisters. What would you all reminisce about while away from home? 

We would still meet for a picnic! Kenya was very like the highlands really - lovely trees all around. But we would remember as children when we were taken by buses to the bottom of the Cairngorms then climbing up from the bottom with no roads on a track as a school girl. Then coming home in the evening and having a big bonfire and bacon and eggs by Loch Morlich.  

You were never allowed to the mountains till June. It was too dangerous, it was a major event to go up the Cairngorms because there was a lot more snow back then. The snow was so bad that the funerals happened with horse and sled and they couldn’t dig the graves because the ground was frozen. It was such a different world really. There was no electricity, much the same as in Kenya.

There was nobody in the Cairngorms, it was a wild place with deer and wild cats. No houses nearby like today. 

We were the only ones with skis back in the day, Alistair was unique having a car! So to ski behind the car on Loch Morlich was very special.

Whilst at school we saved our pennies to go to the Tumutumu Mission in Kenya to support a Church of Scotland Mission. When in Kenya with Alistair we discovered that a boy, whose name was James Matoua, used to study at Tumutumu school was our help. We became great friends and when I was left alone at home James was left behind to look after me and his wife and a little boy who was the same age as Lachie would play. A small world really! 

The Highlands must have changed a great deal in your lifetime. What do you think is the biggest difference for children and young now growing up in the Highlands?

It didn’t change until much later. We had come back from Kenya and walked up the old route, we were having a picnic behind the shelter stone and suddenly the ski lift, we didn’t know it has existed, opened and the Americans arrived in big hats and handbags. We were having a tin of sardines after slogging up the hard way! Each small village in Speyside was its own community, even going to Inverness was a major event

Even to see an airplane we all ran out of our houses to see.

Stella and Donina Stewart

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