For more than two decades, Chris and Elizabeth Irwin had a dream of opening a reindeer centre in Caithness.
The centre would become the UK’s most northerly reindeer-inspired attraction; a core pitstop on the North Coast 500.
In August, the couple’s dreams became a reality, as Lichen Caithness came to life.
Home to reindeer Sven, Levvi and Mr Antlers, the centre has become a hit with both locals and tourists alike.
Visitors can learn about the reindeer habitat, food sources, and climate-specific adaptations before getting their chance to feed the reindeer with reindeer moss.
Speaking to The P&J, Chris said the reception from both locals and tourists has been “brilliant.”
He said: “Having the boys is just fantastic. The way we planned the enclosure, it is on the same property as the house where we live. It’s nice that they are there the whole time.
“It’s been more than we anticipated. At this time of year, we were always Christmas mad but now we have a good excuse to be.
“When we opened in August we had a really good mixture of tourists doing the NC5000 and equally, we have had a lot of locals as well.
“We have been really pleased with the interest in it and good feedback too.”
Couple create their own Lapland at home
The vision for the centre came to life following the couple’s honeymoon to Lapland.
“About 20 years ago, we had just got married and moved to Caithness and went on our honeymoon to Lapland,” he said.
“We were originally going to be going to the Maldives but that was the year they had tsunamis and they were flattened. The tour operator gave us an option; you can either go to the Maldives next year or go somewhere else so we picked Lapland.
“It was while we were over there – at night we used to go a wander – we would see the reindeer in the forest there and we just fell in love with them.
“We had always been a bit obsessed with red deer anyway, even before we moved to the Highlands. When we came back, we started doing a bit of research on how easy would it be to bring reindeer to Caithness.”
As part of their research, the couple reached out to the owner of a herd of reindeer in the north-east of England who had links to the Sami people in Lapland.
In light of logistical challenges and legislation at the time, the venture was put on the backburner.
In 2017, the couple purchased their home in Harpsdale complete with enough land to make their dreams a reality.
Three years later, during the Covid lockdown, Chris and Elizabeth, 42, spent time considering their future as reindeer keepers.
In February this year, reindeer Sven, Levvi and Mr Antlers made the 400-mile journey north to begin their new life in the Highlands.
‘We wanted the reindeer for us’
Reflecting on that time, Chris said it was a magical moment for all the family and the start of an exciting new venture.
He added: “It was quite magical. About a fortnight after they arrived here, we had that spell at the beginning of the year where we had quite a lot of snow. That was the first snow they had seen as the heard in the north-east that they’re from are quite coastal so they rarely get a dusting of snow.
“First and foremost, we wanted the reindeer for us but we thought it would be nice to tell the whole reindeer story because it is supposed to be about educating people about reindeer.
“We put together in our head an experience that would do that. I had grand plans we would be ready for the summer, but I underestimated what we had to do.”
In August, the family welcomed their first stream of customers to their home.
Since then, the Caithness family have never looked back.
Chris said the reindeer have settled in well.
The 45-year-old said: “When they first got here, they weren’t phased by the fact they had come 400-miles.
“From the day they arrived, they have been absolutely amazing,” Chris said.
Business support brought couple’s vision to life
The couple added they are extremely grateful to Business Gateway – Scotland’s national business advisory service – for helping them bring their vision to life.
They were able to access a suite of Business Gateway Highland’s start-up support, including one-to-one guidance from a dedicated business adviser, as well as advice on their business plan, marketing, and funding.
Through Business Gateway Highland, Chris and Elizabeth also received digital support, which helped them develop a strong social media strategy. Since officially launching on Facebook in June, the centre’s followers have grown to 1,700, with their social posts reaching around 35,000 people per month.
Jennifer Irvine, Business Gateway Highland adviser, said: “It’s been fantastic to support Chris and Elizabeth this year, and to see just how well received the reindeer centre has been with locals and tourists alike.
“Like many others, I’m very much looking forward to visiting the beautiful reindeer this Christmas and in years to come.”