Philip Rankin – RAF Pilot and the ‘Godfather of Scottish Skiing’

As we approach winter in the Highlands, with temperatures dropping below zero centigrade once more and the nights drawing in; it’s a good time to think about the beginnings of the Scottish Ski tourism industry which, fingers crossed, will see a better year than the last few! If you’d like to book me for your transport to and from ski resorts or the mountains this winter, just get in touch by emailing andrew@highlandhistorian.com!

Philip Rankin was born on 16th April 1917 and his activities in the 1950s can be proclaimed as the beginning of the Scottish ski industry. A contemporary and friend of Hamish MacInnes, the creativity and imagination of this pair in Glencoe is a huge part of why the glen is renowned worldwide for its outdoor activities. Their creativity was part of what led to the drive of the Scottish Ski Club, Creagh Dhu Climbing Club and Scottish Mountaineering Club to regularly visit Glencoe whilst mountaineering, climbing and skiing as pastimes in Scotland were all in their infancy. As his nickname dictates, Philip Rankin became the ‘Godfather of Scottish skiing’ as we know it today.

But in order to get to that point, Rankin had an adventurous and dangerous experience of the Second World War which he barely survived. Rankin flew Spitfires and Mosquitos for the Royal Air Force and was based in Oxfordshire, Cairo, Calcutta and Rhodesia. In his own words, he described himself as;

“… the most expensive and useless pilot in the RAF… I always arrived just after the battle was finished or left before it started. It wasn’t until 1945 (1944 – ed.) that I first scratched the paint on anything.”

The incident he referenced occurred in late 1944 whilst flying an RAF Mosquito on a photographic reconnaissance mission over the Nazi-held island of Walcheren in the Netherlands. It was certainly a little bit more catastrophic than “scratching the paint” as Rankin’s plane was riddled by anti-aircraft guns. Running out of power, Rankin’s plane began to dip into the English Channel after he had nursed it away from danger. This scenario, for most, would have been deadly.

As luck would have it, an air-sea rescue crew had spotted the Mosquito’s trail of smoke and had followed it towards the point it entered the water. Shortly after being flung through the plane’s canopy, Rankin was plucked from the ocean and was believed to be paralysed. He eventually ended up being treated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire.

It was at this point that the encouragement which subsequently led to the invention of the Scottish ski industry occurred. Rankin had a Canadian doctor whose remarkable advice to Rankin for the most effective form of physiotherapy was to walk up snow slopes, preferably on snowshoes or on skis with skins! This bizarre advice must have been rooted in Rankin’s love of the mountains and skiing, but the encouragement came with a stern warning not to use the skis to go downhill – advice which it appears Rankin ignored. Although little is written about his recovery, it appears that Rankin was incredibly lucky and recovered remarkably well.

As with many people’s experience of life after a period of excitement, Rankin found himself bored and searching for a way out of a dull existence after the war. By his own admission:

“I went from quite an exciting life to reverting to my destiny, alleged, of being a partner in a small Glasgow light engineering firm, which I found extremely boring. I went skiing, I think, to get away from the tedium…”

It was during these forays to the mountains that Rankin started to consider possible sites for ski runs similar to the permanent resorts which were already well established in the Alps. Scotland had nothing like this and despite a few attempts at uplift, including motor vehicle engines being used to run removable rope tows and a caterpillar vehicle known as ‘The Weasel’ (which, according to some sources was a fellow survivor of the battle of Walcheren!) as well as attempts by the Scottish Ski Club and inventive skiers like Donnaie Mackenzie and William Blackwood on Ben Lawers and Cairngorm; there was no concerted effort or group of activists working together until Rankin made his successful attempt to build a permanent ski uplift in Scotland.

It was through Rankin’s role as Editor of the Scottish Ski Club Journal that, in 1952, he enlightened members to his consideration of Meall a Bhuiridh to the east of Glencoe as a focus for efforts. This may have surprised many of his readers as there had been such a discussion and enthusiasm for Ben Lawers and Cairngorm. Rankin’s impassioned articles often stirred support for his ideas and he quickly gained a pivotal position in the Club. Of the on-going discussions about the creation of resorts, he wrote:

“Scottish skiing is in that awkward stage between pigtails and perms, when lemonade is no longer good enough and our legs cannot stand cocktails.”

Rather than the much-discussed Cairngorm and Ben Lawers, for Rankin, Meall a Bhuiridh was ideal and offered the slope, the north facing aspect and the access from Glasgow on the A82 that lit up his imagination. Showing an understanding of the great limiting factor which still causes problems for today’s Scottish ski resort owners, in the 1952/3 edition of the Scottish Ski Club Journal, Rankin wrote:

“It has an ample corrie deeply scored with ravines, which collect such a mass of snow as to be virtually impervious to even weeks of thaw.”

He may also have been aware that members of the Glasgow-based Creagh Dhu Climbing Club, otherwise known as the ‘Mafia of Glencoe’ due to their infamous activities, had been skiing there since 1938. It seems that this article and Rankin’s enthusiasm were enough to put an end to the Scottish Ski Club’s aims of opening a ski resort on Ben Lawers and turned their collective attention to Glencoe.

Further support came from the owner of the Blackmount Estate, Philip Fleming and, after Rankin had quit his job, some of the yard staff from the engineering firm who were also members of the Creagh Dhu, offered to help Rankin achieve his dream. Between 1953 and 1956 work began on the T bar uplifts and progress was dependent on Rankin’s ability to muster and haggle for metal materials from yards in Glasgow and the major pieces of metal work took at least 4 people to lift. The project was reported to have cost around £5,000. In an interview in 2013, Rankin named Jack Williamson, Jimmy Hamilton and Bill Smith as key members of the original work party.

By 1956 the tow was working and opened to the public before the realisation that there was the requirement for a lower chairlift to bring skiers up from the car park, with the lower T bar’s base being at an altitude of c.2350ft. This was achieved in 1959 when the access chair lift was completed. In remembering Rankin after his death, Alan Forbes of the Scottish Ski Club wrote:

“A few years later the access chair broke down and all the skiers had to climb to the plateau and on the descent a prominent Argyllshire landowner shouted to Philip that it was like the old days and Philip replied that It had discouraged the riff-raff and he thought he might leave it off for a week or two!”

In 1960 the resort opened fully under the company ‘White Corries Ltd.’ which was set up privately by Rankin. Rankin and his wife Goodrun ran the Glencoe ski resort successfully from 1960 until 1992 when he retired. His last ski run on the mountain was in 2000 as an octogenarian.  In an interview with journalist Roger Cox, Rankin remembered this run and gave an indication of his love of the higher slopes where the original uplift was built:

“It was a very good one and I remember I took a tremendous pearler in the process… Oh, I don’t bother about the lower slopes, the top of that mountain – that’s the real thing.”

To mark Rankin’s achievements and impact on Scottish skiing he was awarded a lifetime achievement award by Snowsport Scotland in November 2016 as well as having a green run opened in his honour on Beinn a Bhuiridh called ‘Rankin’s Return’. Philip Rankin died aged 99 years and 11 months in March 2017. The fact that the original uplift created by Rankin’s enthusiastic and hands-on approach is still in operation today, over 60 years since its conception, is a remarkable achievement and is evidence of his accuracy and knowledge of how ideal the position was for both the uplift and the ski run on Beinn a Bhuiridh.

Andrew Grant McKenzie MA (Hons) FSA Scot

www.highlandhistorian.com

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