All change at Southern Scotland's only ski area
After dedicating more than a decade of his life to developing the Lowther Hills Ski Club, Anjo Abelaira has decided it’s time to move on, but he’ll be leaving behind a valuable resource for the local community, writes Roger Cox
In the autumn of 2014, Final Words reported on the proposed opening of a new ski area on the slopes of 725m Lowther Hill, near the village of Leadhills in Dumfries and Galloway. According to Anjo Abelaira, the chairman of the newly-formed Lowther Hills Ski Club, the initial goal was to be able to offer between 15 and 40 days a year of lift-assisted skiing, depending on conditions, using two rope tows, one on Lowther Hill itself and one serving a lower-lying beginner area close to the village. Rather than selling lift tickets, the club would sell annual memberships - a very reasonable £35 would allow you to turn up and ski whenever there was snow.
Since then, Abelaira and his team have had a string of successes, not only installing the rope tows as planned, but also building a club hut on Lowther Hill, purchasing a small piste-basher to groom the slopes and offering floodlit night-skiing in the beginner’s area in order to make the most of good conditions in the depths of winter. Perhaps their most impressive achievement, though, has been the planting of almost 2,500 native trees beside the upper ski slope. Not only will these rowans, aspens and Scots pines eventually provide skiers with protection from the wind once fully-grown, they will also improve the snow-holding qualities of the existing runs by stopping snow from being blown off them during storms. Better yet, some of the trees have been planted with decent-sized gaps between them, with a view to creating what the North Americans like to call “gladed skiing.”
The last few years haven’t been easy for Scottish ski areas, with big dumps of snow often being followed by periods of rapid thaw, but Lowther has kept up its programme of modest expansion - last winter a number of boxes and rails were installed, with help from the youngsters of the Lowther Hills Junior Ski Patrol, allowing Lowther to claim to be the only snowpark in southern Scotland.
Having dedicated over a decade of his life to the project, however, not to mention a six figure sum of his own money, Abelaira has now taken the difficult decision to step down as ski club chairman, in the hope that others will take over the challenge. He had hoped to develop the ski area further, but he now believes that options for further expansion have been exhausted, at least in the short term.
“Unfortunately I will need to move my investment away,” says the 47-year-old. “It’s been 11 years now but I can’t keep waiting forever for the land needed to turn Lowther Hills into a small sized commercial ski centre to become available. You can always generate money, you can always get it back, but time you can’t. If I’m going to develop a ski centre elsewhere now is the right time to make the move.”
Abelaira’s hope is that existing members of the ski club and others from the local community will take over the running of the facilities. “At the very least they will keep the hut and use it a bit like the hut of the Scottish Ski Club in Glenshee,” he says, “a place for members to go and have a little bit of fun around the stove.” But whereas he once had plans to create a commercially viable year-round business, he now thinks this is unlikely.
“The skiing industry is very misunderstood in Scotland,” he says. “People think it’s just a case of going to the hill, pressing a button, the ski lifts start running and then you put your feet up, but it’s just not like that. It requires loads of money, specialist skills, tenacity, and long working shifts all year round with very little time off, particularly in the case of small ski areas, and I just don’t see how a ski centre can be developed here - not if you don’t have an eccentric person like me wanting to spend that much time and that much money! But you can have a little club for people who like the outdoors to come and play in the snow - that’s absolutely feasible.”
The main obstacle to further development, according to Abelaira, is land use in the Lowther Hills. “I was not able to convince the landowner [Hopetoun Estates] that my vision for year-round public outdoor recreation was compatible with the current use of the wider area as a grouse moor,” he says. “Mountain resorts are land-based businesses. Without access to land, your business model is crippled.”
“I am still nominally the chairperson [of the ski club] and I can’t release the name of a successor yet, but we’ve been working to ensure a smooth transition with a new team because I want to make sure that the community can take over this fantastic little facility and make something out of it. I’m leaving them enough money in the bank to last for two seasons and I’m leaving them with a good foundation. I’m not expecting a ski centre to develop from here, but at least they will hopefully be able to keep it going as a little club.”
And in a few years’ time, all being well, the members of that little club should be able to enjoy some of the best tree skiing anywhere in Scotland.
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