Dingwall and Highland Marts Ltd

Attribution: unknown (Greenhill street  in Dingwall looking North)

The Markets today

Over the centuries Dingwall has always had markets. In early days the goods sold were mainly fish, fruit, vegetables and grain.

During the twentieth century two main markets dealing with sheep, cattle and pigs have done a flourishing trade. In time they were both bought over by neighbouring marts and in 1992 the two firms amalgamated as Dingwall Auction Marts, Ltd. Their trade covers all the Highland area and Outer Isles, and sales of stock are held somewhere every day.

A subsidiary market every Wednesday sells fruit, vegetables, eggs and plants, and every Friday furniture is sold to buyers from all over the country.

01 Dingwall Commercial Properties

Attribution: unknown

The new Dingwall Auction Mart was opened on Tuesday 15 July 2003 by Captain Roderick Stirling, Lord Lieutenant of Ross and Cromarty, Skye and Lochalsh, but its history extends over almost 120 years, as detailed in the article by Ken Humphreys which follows.


[Ken Humphreys, grandson of P W McCallum, traces the history of livestock auctions in Dingwall.]

Dingwall has been a mart town for almost 120 years, with the first of two centres established in1884.

The first sale of livestock took place on August 5 under the hammer of 35-year-old Donald Mackintosh, eldest son of Donald Mackintosh, thedominie (headmaster) of Mauld School, Strathglass, near Beauly. Trained as an auctioneer in Inverness, Donald started up his auctioneering business on the site of the old cattle tryst at Muir of Ord before acquiring the land known previously as The Shambles, in Dingwall. He resided initially in rooms at 1 George Street until he had the original Carnaby Lodge built.


05 Dingwall Work

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Donald died in 1914 and in 1924 the business was sold to Reith and Anderson (Aberdeen).

The second mart started up in business in 1891 when one of Donald’s employees, Peter William (P. W.) McCallum, set up on his own account on land known as Drynie Park, to the rear of the Commercial Hotel. PW, who had come south from Melvich in Sutherland in the early 1880s, worked originally with the old Highland Railway in Inverness. He became friendly with a local landowner who promised to finance any business he established in the Highlands and, after three years working as a trainee auctioneer with Donald, decided to quit to start out on his own.

PW’s departure provoked considerable unhappiness, leading to an announcement in the Ross-shire Journal stating that “Mr P. W. McCallum no longer represents me (Donald Mackintosh) in the North.” It is not difficult to understand why there was intense rivalry between the two entrepreneurs for as long as the two firms existed cheek by jowl in the small country town.

A week after that announcement, the first weekly sale of cattle, sheep and pigs was advertised under the title “McCallum’s Auction Mart”. PW took into partnership his older brother George Loch McCallum, grandfather of Dingwall Marts’ former managing director, who shares his name. The McCallums moved their mart to the bottom of Church Street in 1899 and, in December 1918, the firm – by then McCallum Brothers Ltd – was bought out by Hamilton’s Auction Marts, Inverness.

With the proceeds from the sale, PW set up a thriving livestock dealing operation, renting and purchasing several farms around Dingwall and further afield. Each year he would send thousands of sheep and cattle south by rail from Dingwall Station to clients from Yorkshire and the Midlands to Essex.

In 1924, Duncan McCallum (son of George, who died in 1915) took over as manager for Reith and Anderson in the former Mackintosh mart premises.

Both Hamilton’s and Reith and Anderson’s marts flourished throughout the northern Highlands, holding seasonal sales in Sutherland, Skye and the Outer Hebrides. There was always keen rivalty between them – from identity of customers to numbers of cattle and sheep – and any transfer of loyalty was always welcomed with great jubilation.

Two years after the end of the Second World War, Reith and Anderson (Dingwall and Tain) was re-formed – with much local support – as a local farmers’ co-operative. Shareholders benefited from an annual dividend and also from bonuses on livestock sold and purchased.

Meanwhile, Hamilton’s, Dingwall, who had paid £15,000 in 1919 for McCallum Brothers’ business, continued as a limited company until amalgamation with Reith and Anderson in 1992 to form Dingwall Auction Mart Limited.

Hamilton’s and United Auctions also formed a joint company in 1993 in Inverness but threw in their lot two years later with Dingwall Auction Mart, forming a new company, Dingwall and UA Partnership. In 2000, Dingwall Auction Mart, who still owned the mart premises, bought out UA’s 50% shareholding and there was another name change – to Dingwall and Highland Marts Ltd – a wholly owned subsidiary of Dingwall Auction Mart.

Despite the ravages of BSE in 1996 and Foot and Mouth in 2001 – when the future of all auction marts appeared to be in jeopardy – chairman Edward Mackenzie, managing director Kenny McKenzie and the mart’s directors decided to start a new era in the progress of Dingwall as a market town.

Shareholders gave the proposal to build a new, purpose-built mart on the southern approach to Dingwall, at Humberston Farm, their unanimous backing and, thanks to Tesco’s purchase of the old mart site, a large percentage of the money required was raised.

The new complex has given farmers and crofters the prospect of exciting and, hopefully, prosperous days ahead. It will also continue to bring people into Ross-shire’s county town, adding a new dimension to the many excellent facilities in Dingwall – a town which has played an active part in Scotland’s auction history and is set to play a major role in its future.

One of Hamilton’s most memorable auctioneers was one Kenny MacLennan, who worked with Hamilton’s until 1927. It is said that he had such a tremendously strong voice that it could clearly be heard from one end of Dingwall’s High Street to the other.

The very popular Bob Fraser, from Strath Halladale, was another well-known auctioneer and a noted stockman. He took over in 1932 and it is claimed that, in the mart race, he could divide ewe from wedder lambs simply by glancing at their heads.

Former Lovat Scout and keen sheepdog handler Hugh Mackenzie, who was born in Contin but spent his early years in Strathconon where his father was a forester, joined Hamilton’s staff in 1935 at the age of 15 and served in the office in various capacities until he joined the Lovat Scouts in 1939. So keen was Hugh to become an auctioneer that he was delighted to start work on a weekly wage of 10/- (50p) despite having to pay more than that for his board and lodging. On demobilisation in 1946 he was reappointed to the staff and succeeded Bob Fraser in 1954 as manager, in which post he continued with Hamilton’s until retiral in 1983 when Caithness auctioneer Henry Meiklejohn took the helm prior to the two Dingwall marts amalgamating in 1992.

Teamwork the key at Dingwall

Kenny McKenzie may be “the boss” at Dingwall Mart but he says the success of the operation is all down to teamwork – amongst auctioneers, field and office staff and the yardsmen who ensure that stock handling goes without a hitch.

Some members of staff have been with the company for more than 20 years – Kenny has worked at the mart for a third of its 120 year history – and this continuity makes things easier in many ways, not least for farming and crofting customers throughout the Highlands and islands

Expansion into new premises is also bringing new jobs, and recent recruit Daniel Urquhart is set to gain a thorough grounding in the business, moving through all departments en route to becoming a trainee auctioneer.

Kenny well remembers his own first day, in 1965, when he joined the staff under the “strict but fair” eye of George McCallum.

07 Dingwall Work

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“My grandfather, Evanton blacksmith and engineer Kenny McKenzie, was a household name in farming during the wars, and from an early age I was in no doubt that I wanted to be involved with the land, too,” he says. “I made a bee-line for the old agricultural school at Balmacara, Kyle, at 14 years old, and after two years there and still too young to go on to Craibstone, I went to work at Easter Templands, Fortrose. While there, the late Kenny Gill urged me to make a bid for a job that was on offer at Dingwall mart – and that’s where it all started.”

Starting at the bottom in those days had its good points. The auctioneering lifestyle involved lots of trips to the islands and while the hours were long and the work hard, going from fank to fank, these visits also helped Kenny to forge firm friendships which endure to the present day . He reckons it was a great start, very hands-on, but perhaps not suitable for modern management purposes.

Whatever else has changed, all auctioneers need the ability to get on with people – and he says he is fortunate that both Ian Tolmie and Paul Spencer put a lot of store on maintaining good relationships with customers.

“We all spend an inordinately large part of our working days talking, but good communication skills are essential for an auctioneer.”

The job does not leave a lot of spare time, as Kenny’s wife, Dorothy, and family – airline pilot Kenneth, helicopter pilot John and paediatric nurse Jan – can testify, but Kenny is pleased to play any part he can in local activities. He undertakes many charity auctions and also served as a committee member and president of the Black Isle Farmers’ Society. In his professional life he is a long-serving member of the Institute of Auctioneers.

Becoming joint managing director at Dingwall, with Henry Meiklejohn, in 1998, was the beginning of a new chapter and, when he took sole charge in 2000, Kenny almost immediately became involved in planning the mart’s move into a new, state-of-the-art complex at Humberston. That has added a new workload for everyone in the company, but he pays tribute to the spirit that has prevailed through recent hectic months.

“We are helping to write an important chapter in Dingwall’s, farmers’ and crofters’ history and it is a privilege to be part of it,” he says. “We have had the most amazing support for what is a huge undertaking for a small, independent auction company, and we are all committed to making the new mart a focal point for the agricultural industry in the north and for the people of Dingwall.”

[Extracted from the official programme published for the formal opening of the new Auction Mart by kind permission of Dingwall & Highland Marts Limited.]

A mart full of memories

The other day I took a stroll down memory lane, and don’t mind admitting, struggled to clear the lump that came into my throat. With no one else around I let myself into the old Dingwall Mart, which this week held its last ever sale of livestock.

All around me were the stage and props of a drama which has been not far from me since early childhood.

I was raised by a grandfather who founded one of Dingwall’s two auctioneering companies and whose life, though long retired from the rostrum, still revolved around buying, selling and dealing with livestock. From an early age I came to know the auctioneers, yardmen, farmers and dealers who frequented both marts.

My grandfather was obsessive over a number of matters, in particular the crucial importance of being able to rise early. His frequently repeated mantra to his grandchildren was, ‘He who rests, rusts’, and he led us all by example.

Winter or summer the old man would rise at 6.00 am, go through to his large bathroom and start up a primus stove to boil a kettleful of water to fill a shaving mug so that he could set to work with his cut-throat razor.

My bedroom was across the corridor, and each morning I would awake to the sounds of the primus stove being regularly pumped, and my grandfather sharpening his razor on the leather strop which hung from a bell pull.

As soon as he had shaved, his routine was to make a large pot of tea. He would then bring cups to all the adults in the house, meanwhile summonsing all the children to his bathroom where he would make us sit around on the sheep’s fleece carpets. This was his opportunity to hand us all a cup of tea, delivering at the same time some pearls of wisdom which he had garnered over a long and successful life.

Another thing about my grandfather, which my beloved claims I have inherited, is that he strongly objected to the younger members of his family sitting around doing nothing. He would always find something for us to do, and in my case this often involved travelling with him to the mart to act as his ‘go-for’.

Through time this developed into driving sheep and cattle to the sale, collecting his various purchases into the lots he required and then either walking them to the livestock loading bank at the railway station or to a field on one of his farms.

Of course I was always accompanied, when cattle or sheep droving on the highway, by one of his shepherds with their collies. How none of the dogs or sheep was not killed by motorists was a miracle, as amidst much screeching of brakes there were often some narrow misses.

Although we no longer have sales of pigs through the auction mart, things were very different 50 or 60 years ago. In those days a large number of farms in Easter Ross and the Black Isle kept a boar and some sows. Most of the weaners and some in-pig gilts would be sold at a special monthly sale in the Dingwall Mart.

It was not uncommon in the late 40s and early 50s for as many as 1,000 pigs to come under the hammer in one day, with Harold Paul, Munlochy, regularly winning the awards and gaining top prices.

For several years after starting farming I kept two or three Large-white x Landrace sows, and our twice yearly sale of weaners provided us with some much-needed cash.

Until the early 60s, the other farmyard animal sold at special sales in the marts was the horse. Even although, by soon after the end of the Second World War, the tractor had largely taken over the cultivating and transportation roles of the Clydesdales and Highland Garrons, most farmers were not 100 per cent convinced that the horse would not continue to play an essential role. Indeed, one of the regular debating topics at Young Farmers’ speechmaking competitions would be ‘Will the day ever come when the tractor displaces the Clydesdale?’

The top horse breeders would take a tremendous pride in the way they turned out their two- and three-year-old fillies and colts, trotting them to and fro so that buyers could assess their potential. A number of horses would have one or more faults and it was intriguing to what lengths sellers would go to disguise these.

One of the favourite tricks of the trade, to make an inactive horse come alive, was to stick a fingerful of ginger up its buttocks just as the nanimal came into the sales enclosure. This would certainly make the poor brutes lift their feet high, as they were trotted to and fro. No doubt it brought a few tears to their eyes at the same time!

Most horse dealers were well worth the watching, but there were exceptions.

Among the horse dealers who sold regularly in the Dingwall marts was a Johnnie Williamson from Cradlehall, just outside Inverness. He was one of the few horse-traders who relied on his reputation for honesty to ensure customers returned regularly to buy from his consignments. Johnnie, like many dealers, was a well-built, couthy individual, who constantly sported a pork-pie hat. He knew everyone and everyone knew him.

His name cropped up recently in a conversation about the Dingwall mart worthies with 82- year-old Sutherland farmer, George Murray, Morvich.

“It was quite amazing how many well-kent characters about the mart had their own idiosyncratic way of dressing, particularly their headgear,” George told me.

“For instance, there was your grandfather, old ‘PW’, who was given the nickname ‘Hard Hat’ because throughout his business life he wore a black bowler hat, and was instantly recognisable.

“Then there were the two old fellows who came down regularly to sell stock from the islands of Skye and Raasay. There names were Douchan MacPherson and Donald McCallum, and both gentlemen could be relied on to turn out, in all weathers, dressed in full length yellow oilskins and sou’westers.”

I told George that I had happy memories of both these islanders. Many years ago, at the time of the Skye autumn cattle sales – which took place at various stances around the island – Douchan had invited several of us to his home, just outside Portree, for an evening’s hospitality. There we met his distinguished wife and large family, some of whom support the mart to the present day.

My memories of Donald McCallum concern his interest in the marketing of Highland Cattle and Blackface sheep. Donald usually went around with a white West Highland Terrier, often tucked under his arm.

A mystery man, no-one could ever understand where Donald had made his reputed fortune; certainly it was not out of the grazing he had on the Island of Raasay. He was an expert on the natural history of the Inner Hebrides, a subject in which I also have long had an interest.

On one occasion he told me he had three volumes of Cassell’s Natural History sitting at home and if I was interested he would take them with him, for me to have, next time he came to Dingwall.

I gratefully took him up on his kind offer and to this day I have cherished the three first edition books, with their magnificent colour plates, which would have been state-of-the-art etchings when the books were first printed in 1889.

Another ‘larger than life’ dealer who each week shifted a lot of stock from the Dingwall mart was J T Sinclair, Wick, widely known as ‘Skink’. Indeed there were some sales where Skink would buy up a large percentage of the livestock on offer. He was admired by farmers for putting a solid ‘bottom’ to the trade, but like many dealers he was a gambler and would occasionally come unstuck.

On such occasions the tough wee company secretary of Reith & Anderson, Campbell ‘Lugs’ Mackay, would impose tight restrictions on the amount of credit available until previous liabilities had been cleared.

In the lead-up to the opening of the new mart I hope to give a few brief sketches on other characters who frequented the Dingwall marts half a century ago.

Construction of New Building

All photos in this section are reproduced by permission of Alasdair Cameron, Wellhouse

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