THERE was snow and ice, reindeer and wintry magic, twinkling lights, lots of fun and, of course, there was Santa.
And for Edinburgh’s McLean family, bruised and battered after the worst year of their lives, missing desperately the teenager they lost along the way, there was the hope of building precious new memories for Christmases to come.
Sixteen-year-old Millie was supposed to have been with her family as they touched down in Lapland for a magical festive treat – a fun reward in a winter playground for her tough time fighting a rare form of soft tissue cancer.
She had dreamed for months of enjoying the flight to the frozen north with them. But, sadly, her condition worsened, and last month the Corstorphine schoolgirl lost her fight. Grief-struck and faced with trying to cope without her, mum Susan, dad Michael and brothers Roddy, 15 and ten-year-old Alexander, agreed she would have wanted them to somehow carry on – and to create new memories to ensure some of the magic of Christmas was not lost with her.
So with Millie never far from their thoughts, the family joined a group of inspirational Scottish children and families – all of them affected in some way by illness – on an unforgettable journey to an Arctic wonderland.
The trip was organised by charity When You Wish Upon A Star, which every year takes more than 100 Scottish children with serious health problems on a fun-filled journey to the top of the world.
For most, the outing is a chance to forget about their troubles for a day, playing in the snow, enjoying ski-doo rides and coming nose-to-nose with the reindeer. For the McLeans, however, it offered a unique opportunity to put some happiness back into Christmas.
“When Millie died we were all devastated,” says mum Susan, 50. “Losing a sister or daughter changes your life completely. As a family we had sat down and talked over how difficult it would be for us to celebrate Christmas now.
“One of the nicest things about this time of year, especially if you have school-aged children, is doing all your own family traditions and being together as a family. However, we now have to do them without our sister and daughter which is a sadness when everything reminds us of our loss.”
Part of the solution they arrived at, says Susan, was to ensure they laid down positive memories to boost them through hard times. “The Lapland trip has changed our lives,” she adds. “It allowed us to create fantastic memories of Christmas 2014 instead of us dreading the memories we would keep of this Christmas.”
Craigmount High pupil Millie was diagnosed with a rare cancer, alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, when she was 14 years old. She underwent intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy and by summer had appeared to be improving.
Millie – who inspired Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi to become patron of Edinburgh charity It’s Good 2 Give after he met her – learned her wish to join the Lapland trip had come true before her condition suddenly deteriorated.
“At one point this year she had thought she might survive cancer,” adds Susan. “For someone who had been fighting cancer for 19 months it was something nice to look forward to, as with cancer you always have to be no more than one hour from a cancer hospital that has agreed to handle your care. Holidays are not part of your life as a cancer patient.
“The Lapland trip had been something she was very much looking forward to.”
When Millie passed away, the family realised they might not still be eligible for the charity trip, one of her “wishes”.
However, because Millie’s brother Roddy has a heart condition, the charity agreed to “grant” him his sister’s wish so the family could be together for their magical day, just as she wanted.
It was a touching gesture that according to Susan has given the family amazing memories which will help see them through the toughest of times ahead. “It was so magical,” she adds. “And we have come home quite buoyed by the whole experience.”
On board the flight to the north were musicians and entertainers and Olympic swimmers Jo Jackson and Rebecca Adlington, who paid tribute to the families. “A lot haven’t had family time in a very long time,” she said. “Seeing the kids have the best time and be so excited to meet Santa, you can see it’s really special for them.”
Also there was Edinburgh couple Garreth Wood, son of oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood and his wife, ex-Miss Scotland Nicola, who raised thousands of pounds throughout the year to fund the outing. The couple, who tragically lost triplets in 2013 after they were born prematurely, recently became the charity’s patrons.
During the dawn to dusk trip, families from across Scotland enjoyed sleigh rides and snowball fights, met huskies and, of course, the man himself, Santa.
“Roddy said the trip was a brilliant escape from everything,” recalls Susan. “He felt honoured to be invited to visit the cockpit and meet the pilot.
“It was the first time in a plane for Alexander, who loved the whole day. Highlights were the sledging, the ski-doo rides, toasting marshmallows over an open fire in the beautiful snowy forest and having a full Christmas dinner on the plane home.
“We loved everything about the day – the When You Wish Upon A Star team, the snow, the forest, the Sami people, the reindeers, crossing the Arctic Circle, Santa Claus and being all together in a sleigh pulled by huskies through the forest.
“Everyone involved in organising and fundraising for the trip showed such amazing friendliness and generosity of spirit, for us they are all real local heroes.
“It was a truly fantastic experience.”
And while Christmas without Millie will never be the same, the family now has fresh memories to carry them forward.
“We know that Millie was excited about us going to Lapland as a family, she talked about it and she would have loved it,” adds Susan.
“We weren’t really looking forward to being there without her. But the trip has made us more positive about the future.
“We are looking around us now with new eyes.”