The real Rudolphs

You don’t need to visit Lapland to see Santa’s other helpers – there’s a herd of wild reindeer in Scotland. Lucy Gillmore meets Hobnob, Flapjack and friends

Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen – and Rudolph, of course. Everyone knows the names of Santa's reindeer. The reindeer born in the Cairngorms this year, however, were all named after cakes and biscuits: Hobnob, Flapjack, Doughnut, Oreo, Jaffa and Muffin took their first faltering steps in May. Tilly Smith and her family choose a different theme each year for the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd's new calves. Cookie's mother is called Wham, Snowball's mother is Blondie...

The fact that there are wild reindeer roaming across the Scottish Highlands seems, strangely, to be one of those surprisingly well-kept secrets. As travel companies twist parents' arms to ignore their carbon footprint – and the credit crunch – and jump on a plane to Lapland to meet Santa, few people seem to realise that there are reindeer far closer to home.

And they've been here for over half a century. A Swedish herder, Mikel Utsi, and his wife Dr Ethel Lindgren, reintroduced reindeer here in 1952. Utsi had been on holiday in the area and noticed that the vegetation was very like that in the Arctic. He wrote: "Looking across Rothiemurchus Forest to the Cairngorms from the railway bridge at Aviemore on a cold morning in April 1947, I was instantly reminded of reindeer pastures in Lapland."

The reindeer don't clash with the red deer, as their diet is very different and, in fact, Utsi found evidence of the two types of deer being hunted together in Caithness eight centuries ago by the Earls of Orkney in the Orkneyinga saga.

Tilly and Alan Smith worked with Utsi and Dr Lindgren and took over the Reindeer Company, as it was then known, after the Swedish couple died. Today, it's a small family business with around 150 reindeer. They know every reindeer by sight, its character, its history – and its name.

The first time I visited the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, it was rutting season. I was with my 'bah humbug' ex-boyfriend who doesn't 'do' Christmas let alone cute, fluffy reindeer on a cold hillside in October. As we stomped up the slope he was stonily silent. An hour or so later, I had to drag him away.

There is something magical about the whole experience. The approach through Narnia-style pine forest towards Glenmore – the surrounding mountaintops blanketed in snow, the loch sparkling in the watery winter sunlight – helps, of course. But it's more than that.

On a cold December day this week, Reindeer House was bustling with people bundled up and pulling on wellies for the morning hill visit. Emily and Ceris, two of the girls who work at the centre, grabbed a couple of sacks of feed and we were off, trudging up a rocky mountain track.

Because they are free-range, the reindeer occasionally wander too far afield. Last winter, Emily told me as we paused to catch our breath, the snow was so deep that she had to fetch back around 40 reindeer from the local skiing trails, approaching them on cross-country skis. "Reindeer walk in single file and they caused a bit of a traffic jam for the cross-country skiers," she laughed.

At a fork in the path, four of us branched off from the main group. We were going to see a handful of the Christmas reindeer in a separate enclosure. Around 60 reindeer are hired out in December to take part in Christmas parades around the country, from Thurso to Truro. It's Cairngorm reindeer, in fact, that open Harrods' Christmas season every year. We were taking John and Gail Usher from Norfolk to visit Wallis – their reindeer. A friend had adopted Wallis for them as a Christmas present three years ago. For £34 a year you can become a member of the Cairngorm Reindeer Conservation Programme and receive a photo of your reindeer, a certificate and two annual newsletters.

"We have his picture up in the lounge and come every year to see him." John told me, slightly misty-eyed, as they fed him handfuls of cereal mix and stroked his velvety nose.

This is one of their busiest times of year, of course. Apart from the Christmas parades, back down at Reindeer House at the weekend children can visit Santa's Bothy and the Elves' House beside the paddock, where you can also see a handful of reindeer if you don't want to trek up into the mountains. We met Crann, the head of the herd, looking a little forlorn without his antlers (which they lose after the rut). You can see them displayed in the small shop. They weigh four kilos – each. Just the thought of lugging those around is enough to give you a headache.

The paddock and small exhibition in a ramshackle hut has real retro appeal. You feel as if you're stepping back in time to an age when Christmas wasn't commercial and visitor attractions were free from interactive displays and high-tech gizmos. It's very 'Blue Peter', with children's drawings stuck to the walls and tinsel draped everywhere. The reindeer centre had just received a request from a child for "Rudolph's footprint" so Alex – Tilly and Alan's son – was busy making a plaster cast of Crann's hoofprint.

In the rustic, low-key shop, you can buy everything from reindeer rugs to reindeer mugs and Tilly's book The Real Rudolph, which is peppered with anecdotes about the herd. The whole place has a simple, old-fashioned charm that is enchanting.

Reindeer are for life, of course, not just Christmas, and Tilly's family has made them its life. When the reindeer get back from their Christmas road trip and realise they're home their joy is tangible, Emily told me. They may not be able to fly, but when they're released back into the mountains "they kick up their heels and run full pelt back up the slopes. It's a magical sight."

Animal magic: Where to see the herd

The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, Reindeer House, Glenmore, 01479 861228

10am daily: watch the Christmas reindeer eat breakfast in the paddock. 11am daily: hill visits, £9 per adult for the hill visit, £4.50 per child aged six-16, children under six are free. Family ticket (two adults and up to three children) £27. Weekends, 1.30-3.30pm: meet Santa and find out about the Christmas reindeer.

You can also stay in cosy Reindeer Cottage, which sleeps four to six people and costs £100 per night for two people and an extra £22 per additional person. Children under six are free.

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