New on Sidetracked:


A Stubbornly Scottish Snow Story
Words & Photography: Hannah Bailey // Additional Photography: Rachel Sarah & Brodie Hood
Feature Photo: Brodie Hood

In the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, a group of snowsports enthusiasts and storytellers explore what it means to be thrawn.

After a blether outside Lesley McKenna’s house by Rothiemurchus Forest, in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, we head out on our usual circuit: along the winding path, into the ancient forest, past granny pines and blossoming birches, with reindeer moss and a thousand lichens underfoot. This is our local running route. A 45-minute circuit in the fresh air of the Scottish Highlands will bring clarity even as it brings you full circle.

I think living with the Cairngorms on our horizon makes us more aware of the importance of circles – the cyclical nature of our lives, and more generally the human experience. When the seasons change, so does the equipment scattered around our homes. For me, that means muddy trail-running shoes to soggy snowboard boots. The circle of what time can offer grows wider as the days last longer, and we are thankful for any light that is brought with it. As the seasons come around again, we are aware of the ongoing cycle of learning and growth in our lives; transformation and change are natural parts of being human, and important virtues to help us get by.

As passionate snowsports participants, winter is especially important to me and Lesley. In many cultures, including ours here in Scotland, winter is linked with introspection. It is a time of quiet reflection, gestation, and preparation for the rebirth associated with spring. These qualities are often thought of as feminine attributes, which makes our perspective as Scottish women all the more intertwined with winter.

Thrawn: the Scots word we have defined as ‘stubborn or absolute conviction’. Other definitions pitch it as a negative term, but during our uphill blethers Lesley and I have redrawn it. For us it captures what the Cairngorms snow community stands for. ‘Thrawn is the ability to make the most of whatever we have got,’ Lesley says. ‘Up in the Highlands we are connected to that energy.’ Lesley and her family are an example of this thrawn nature – a resilient bunch who make the best out of whatever winter throws at them. Sometimes that is not a lot. But my neighbours are some of the most headstrong people around. Being surrounded by the wild landscapes of the Cairngorms, and this community, has made me want to be part of it. I want to be thrawn when really I’m a softie from the city.

Over the past three years, I have learnt a lot about these endlessly fascinating hills through living in Aviemore and spending time with Lesley. But our paths first collided back in 2008 when we both worked for the brand Roxy. I was the wide-eyed receptionist and Lesley was the global snow team manager. We were on different levels, or perhaps timelines, but were united by our shared mission of supporting the women’s snowboard scene – a scene that still unites ladies of shred globally.

Lesley grew up in Aviemore and spent her childhood on Cairn Gorm come rain, snow, or shine. I think she was on skis as soon as she could walk; she thought the fresh powdery snow was fairy dust, and maybe sometimes still does. She was part of the international ski racing circuit until she found snowboarding in the early noughties. This route took her to three Olympic Games and onto the world competitive circuit, but there was always more to snowsports than competition. Her spiritual side opens her to other perspectives that snowboarding offers – in the backcountry, and in a philosophical sense. Lesley advocates for greater recognition and opportunities for women in snowboarding, supporting the next generation of athletes coming through. Her contribution through her decades-long career has been enormous.

Twenty years ago Lesley put out the first all-female feature-length global snowboard films as ChunkyKnit Productions. No-one else was doing it at that time, and by doing so she created many future opportunities for the women’s scene. Growing up in Edinburgh, if it weren’t for Lesley I wouldn’t have even known about snowboarding. As others headed for the Students Union, I opted for the mountains to give it a go – and have now been working in the industry for over 15 years. As a storyteller, most of my projects have been in support of women in action sports, and I have Lesley and ChunkyKnit to thank for guiding the way.

Photography: Brodie Hood // Hannah Bailey // Rachel Sarah

Back on the run, it was a particularly dreich day – which got us talking about the upcoming winter. With each stride through puddles and mud, we blethered on the divided opinions in the Cairngorms snow community due to ever-changing environmental and economic challenges. It felt complicated, but one thing we can all be certain of is the cultural significance of snowsports to the area and community.

We want to remind everyone of the history. How we came to be there standing on two bits of wood or a plank and enjoying the snow all together. We are lucky to get those days on snow, in the magnificent Cairngorms, and to be part of this unique community. We ski and snowboard for the love and fun of it – yet we get so much more out of it for our physical and mental health. Selfishly, we want those fresh tracks, but together we want to share the diamond days that Scotland offers a handful of times each season.

This day was when the idea of Thrawn came together. To make a film that highlights what makes the Cairngorms snow community special, from the perspective of Lesley and her family over their generations here. There are so many interesting characters in Aviemore, but Lesley is a local whose family has been part of snowsports in the area for three generations (now four, with her daughter Coira). Her story, and that of her family, is an example of what makes the community so special – and I believe she deserves to be championed for all she has achieved and stands for. So we set off to make a stubbornly Scottish snow film.


Blink and it’s January, the other side of the circle. We are off up the hill to make use of a diamond snow day – one that we are ready for. Being ready as a splitboarder means never unpacking your bag. Lesley and I have hiked up to the summit of Cairn Gorm to meet Euan Baxter, Lesley’s partner and Snowsport Scotland Coach. In return for a photo of him boosting off a rock drop, he tells us the best route, which he has scoped out – a snow hip for Lesley to play on and me to shoot. He is off to collect Coira as we head off to check it out.

What I love about touring is that you don’t get anywhere fast, but you are slowly getting somewhere all the time, and that’s what I need to find the space to think creatively. Down the back of Cairn Gorm, just above Coire Raibert, things move a bit more quickly. We know what we want to get. It is a dream view, with Loch Etchachan and Beinn Mheadhoin as the backdrop to a snow-covered hip that Lesley will hit. As the photographer, I get a much easier job, tucked away to the side of the hit as Lesley laps. I have the time in between to think about the day we are having. These are the days that remind us why we do what we do, and what we want to show through Thrawn. One of these days can sustain us for a season – that’s how it works here and always has.

Lesley’s grandad Chic was part of the pioneering bunch who walked up Cairn Gorm before there were lifts, and he was also an avid filmer who captured the scene through the decades. ‘He was the storyteller of his generation,’ Lesley explains, ‘and my dad was the first ski patroller in the UK.’

Aviemore breeds a special kind of folk who make use of every opportunity available. That is what thrawn stands for: stubborn, but for good reason. Lesley and her family are an example of the special nature you will find here in the Highlands – a resilient bunch prepared for anything. They are headstrong people, and their story inspires through what they have achieved independently and for their community. Lesley is one of 15 Olympians from the Badenoch and Strathspey area, which has produced more Olympians per head than anywhere in the UK.

Sifting through Chic’s Super8, 8mm, and 16mm footage, what struck me was the similarities of these scenes to the present day. A passionate community of outdoors people skiing what snow there is. The same single snow strips existed in the ‘50s as they do today, the same patches of heather exposed to the elements. But, of course, things have changed, as they always have.

As March rolled in I was sitting at my laptop wondering how we would make this film. Outside, it was bare. No snow on the hills to tour, or even to ride the top of Cairn Gorm. It was a slow, erratic, snowless season – not unusual.

When you think of snowboarding in Scotland, you might think of a lack of snow, wind that’ll make you cry, or whiteouts where you can only spot the heather a foot in front of you. Although this is an honest account, with Thrawn I was fuelled to capture the handful of memorable diamond days – the days that are the reason we are skiers and snowboarders in Scotland. Otherwise, facing all the challenges, perhaps we’d wonder what the point is. This is not a necessity, after all; it is a luxury, and a fun one.

I had a draft of an email ready to send to delay the project by a whole season, but I realised that is not the thrawn way. We can make the best of what we’ve got.


We capture the final day of the season on the snow-covered plateau of Braeriach, in the glorious windless and sunny conditions we always dream of. This tour is a special one for many reasons. Hard work, but rewarding, through the glen and up the mountain, then over the plateau and down the gullies. Heading into Glen Einich on bikes, in snowboard boots, with our packs balanced on our backs with boards and skis attached. It’s a worthy challenge that the community loves to take on, following the ever-disappearing ‘escalator’: a strip of snow gathered in the burn line to access the plateau. Adventure for the day and then back home.

The early skiers and weekend warriors have been here, and set these tracks for us already, as Lesley did for me to make this film 20 years ago. ‘I spent a lifetime in mountain sports, travelling the world, and what I was seeking the whole time was back where it started, in the Scottish backcountry,’ Lesley explains.

The Scottish backcountry is also my home and my learning ground. Through making this film I understand the resilience and tenacity of the people here; that their nature is what keeps snowsports alive. The community is ready for the challenges ahead as they have always faced them. They will continue to take on the virtuous struggle to make the most of what is available each season – and come together to find ways to protect winter sports and the mountains for generations to come.

This is an extended behind-the-scenes version of ‘Blethering the Weather’ by Hannah Bailey, published in Sidetracked Volume 29.
Words & Photography by Hannah Bailey // @neonstash
Additional Photography: Rachel Sarah // @rachelsarahm & Brodie Hood // @brodiehoodmedia