A Scottish ski-maker is carving a niche with his premium kit. We visit a wintry business that’s gaining momentum.
As the train approaches Birnam in rural Perthshire, about halfway up Scotland, mist falls over the autumn-tinged forests that line the tracks, silhouetting them against what remains of the afternoon sun. It’s cool and damp, and the smell of burning oak drifts through the town from a nearby chimney. It’s not hard to understand why Shakespeare set part of Macbeth nearby.
Given our surroundings, it makes sense that Jamie Kunka has an axe hanging in the corner of his workshop next to the kind of saw that two cartoon characters might use to fell a redwood. “I guess they’re there to remind me not to stray too far from my original dream of making wooden skis,” he says. “They’re not the fastest things to use but manual tools give them that handmade feel.”
For someone who seems to appreciate that quality is not always instant, success came early to Kunka, 34. He has been making skis for a decade and in 2014 he won funding to set up The Lonely Mountain Ski Shop – his workshop where he takes custom orders and turns them into reality. “The first ski I ever made was in 2013 as part of a university product-design project,” he says. “I was trying to take some traditional ski-making techniques and the idea of having a ski that’s a little bit more suited to reducing climate change and then marry that with some of the more hi-tech materials such as carbon fibre.”
After sending a friend through Scotland’s mountains wearing some of his 20 prototypes and barely two years after starting up, Kunka travelled to Munich in 2016 to attend ispo, the world’s leading sporting trade fair. He picked up a gold award for his Sneachda model (“snow” in Scottish Gaelic). The award provided a launchpad for Lonely Mountain and now Kunka – who works with only Hemp, his tricolour border collie, for companionship – shifts about 40 pairs of his skis a year to customers from Japan to Canada.
To make the Sneachda, along with the Ord (meaning “hammer”) powder skis and Lonely Mountain’s other models, the ski-maker builds a sandwich of seven materials. That includes a wooden core and skin, a layer of carbon fibre that reduces weight and provides strength, and low-friction plastic film on the base to protect the skis from stones and ice. Then he presses it all together for two days, before shaping it into skis at a custom-built station and adding any pyrography. He shows monocle an in-progress pair with two stags burned into them – they lock horns when the skis are put together. The result is skis that are about 90 per cent wood and can be revarnished and refurbished. Customers are willing to part with £1,750 (about €2,000) to get their hands on a pair. Why does Kunka think that skiers are drawn to his products? “They stand out for being very minimalist compared to modern skis, with their garish, lurid designs,” he says. “They’re a little bit more traditional and modest.”
Kunka’s dream of building his business came in part from a childhood in Aberdeen taking ski trips to nearby Glen Shee, an early aptitude for woodworking (he started out making longbows) and a television programme he watched in university in which a survivalist met a Swedish traditional ski-maker. “I thought, ‘Wow, I want to do that,’” he says. “In the past few years we’ve turned over about £40,000 [€46,000] a year but because of a new pricing structure and other things, I’ve had to put my prices up so this year we’ll expect slightly more,” he says, adding that so far he has wanted to remain a one-man (and dog) band. “I’ve had a few opportunities to expand financially and take on staff but I would hate to see my skis lose quality or be pushed in a direction where I didn’t want to go. I quite like it being boutique and perhaps a little bit mysterious.”
There’s certainly an air of mystery about his setting: an open-fronted lock-up with capacity for two or three cars that looks out over hillside woodlands and homes that carpet the valley of the river Tay. He found it by coincidence when he was in town one day. “When I moved here, people told me that there was a ski-maker in Birnam in the 1960s called Leopold Vielhaber,” says Kunka. “His workshop was about 100 metres away. I feel like Birnam is the heart of Scottish ski-making.”
Even if that might sound like damning with faint praise, Kunka has plans to grow the Lonely Mountain Ski Shop’s profile. “This is an interesting business so it’s almost marketed itself,” he says. “But I’m still amazed when skiers down the road haven’t heard of me. So that gives me an idea of the work I have to do in getting the name out there. We have a short film that my friend Euan Wilding did about the company that was in the Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival – that should drive a few sales.” And what will come after that? “It would be great to go to Chamonix or somewhere, set up a little stall and let people have a go on my skis,” says Kunka. “That’s something that’s definitely in the pipeline.”