Lost Alpine dreams at Scotland’s abandoned ski resort

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It was a dream to turn part of Scotland into an Alpine wonderland where skiers would enjoy never-ending schuss in a stunning tree-lined mountain setting.

But today, all that remains of the Mar Lodge ski resort is a concrete stump deep in the Deeside estate where the chairlifts up Creag Bhalg ran for just two seasons.

The ski resort built on Creag Bhalg on the Mar Lodge Estate in Deeside was to bring some Continental-style glamour to winter sports in Scotland but the venture only lasted two seasons. PIC: www.dawnsblackphotography.com.

The ski resort built on Creag Bhalg on the Mar Lodge Estate in Deeside was to bring some Continental-style glamour to winter sports in Scotland but the venture only lasted two seasons. PIC: www.dawnsblackphotography.com.

Two Swiss brothers, who made a vast fortune in industry, brought their ski resort ambitions to Scotland after buying the Mar Lodge Estate, once home to the Duke of Fife, in 1962.

John and Gerald John Panchaud brought 10 snow guns to Deeside to turn one of the hills, Creag Bhalg, into Scotland’s first low-altitude ski resort.

READ MORE: Aviemore: Remembering the Alpine-style holiday resort in the Highlands

There was great enthusiasm for the idea at a time when skiing around Aviemore was already drawing people from all over the UK and the appetite for winter sports on home ground was high.

All that remains of the Ski School d'Ecosse is this concrete lump in the woods, where the chairlifts once started. PIC: NTS.

All that remains of the Ski School d'Ecosse is this concrete lump in the woods, where the chairlifts once started. PIC: NTS.

At Deeside, the hope was to create a resort of the quality and luxury normally found in the Alps with the Deeside royal connections adding an extra level of glamour to the enterprise.

The resort’s Ski School d’Ecosse brought a “Continental gaiety” to Scotland, one newspaper reported at the time, while offering “up-to-the minute comfort, two restaurants with bar, après ski in the lodge’s historic ballroom and fast thrilling descents through forests.” Two restaurants and a bar were also on offer.

READ MORE: Remembering the high-altitude weather men of Ben Nevis

The newspaper added: “This season will go down in the history of Scottish skiing as the ‘season of Mar Lodge. The regal past of the Lodge has not been obliterated with the change of function.

A report from The Scotsman on Scotland's new ski resort. PIC: Contributed.

A report from The Scotsman on Scotland's new ski resort. PIC: Contributed.

“Indeed most of the magnificence of other days has been retained… and the facilities are as new as tomorrow.”

The Mar Lodge resort enjoyed instant popularity when it opened in December 1963, just days before Christmas. During that first season, Aberdeen Ski Club arranged for 2,600 people to be transported to the Deeside slopes from the city. Aberdeen University Ski Club was another great patron.

Ahead of the opening, the Press and Journal wrote of a vast mountain area opened up by the Swiss brothers who had brought some of the finest skiing to Scotland.

“The long run down from Belnn A’Bhuird is acknowledged as the longest schuss in the United Kingdom.

“This is off piste ski-ing of very high order, which together with the high standard amenities will mean that Mar Lodge will one of the few resorts in Scotland within reach of the main centres of population offering Alpine standards comfort and snow conditions.”

Dick Jackson, chairman of the Aberdeen Ski Club led the project with his brother Victor employed as the architect of the resort.

But, amid the hype, the ambitions faltered with the promises of this wonderland quickly melting away.

The resort’s location by a “warm hollow” next to the River Dee did not help keep the pistes pristine in the end. The skiing at Mar Lodge had “definite” limitations, it was soon reported.

By January 1964, it emerged the snow-making machines were unable to make the white stuff until the temperature dropped to freezing. The first race between Aberdeen Ski Club and the university club had to be cancelled as a result. Three hundreds skiers turned up for the competition – but all that was there to enjoy was the scenery. Not a flake had fallen on Deeside for weeks as the mildest winter since 1938 failed to create the alpine arcadia.

Plans were drawn up to expand the resort onto higher mountains with skiers driven up the slopes in Land Rovers to try out the runs. Funding for proper access roads faltered.

Ben Dolphin, a ranger at Mar Lodge Estate, which is now owned by National Trust for Scotland, said: “When the brothers bought Mar Lodge in 1962, it was the coldest winter in 100 years. It was very, very prolonged and there was a lot of snow.

“The problem is, the hill isn’t very high, it is only 600-odd metres when you are usually talking in Scotland about a height of 900 metres for skiing. The hill was also south facing with south westerly prevailing winds. It was never going to get a lot of snow.

“There were leaflets printed up that glamourised the resort and much was made of the snow making area, but it was really too mild a lot of the time.

“If the resort had been built at any other time, it might have stood a chance.”

The last season recorded at Mar Lodge was 1964/65 but the popular estate hotel - with its massive roaring fire - remained a hit for many years after.

The brothers finally sold Mar Lodge in 1989, shortly before Gerald’s death. A few years later, his widow sold Amhuinnsuite Castle on the Isle of Harris, which they had owned since the 1970s.