Obituary: Colin Haygarth, gunsmith

Born: 23 February, 1930, in Birkenhead. Died: 29 June, 2014, in Thurso, aged 84

Colin Haygarth: Queen Mothers gunsmith could trace his gunmaking credentials back 300 years

Colin Haygarth was one of the most influential figures in Scotland’s post-war gun trade, a craftsman who could trace his gunmaker’s credentials back through more than 300 years.

His mother’s family was descended from 18th century Perthshire pistol-makers whose customers included Bonnie Prince Charlie.

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Generations later, from a modest start as a Saturday boy in a Liverpool gunmakers during the Second World War, Haygarth built up the biggest gun dealers in the Highlands, encompassing Scotland’s most extensive gun repair facility, and acquired his own Royal client, Her Majesty the Queen Mother.

The only gunmaker and cartridge loader to be granted a Royal Warrant by the Queen Mother, he was also the oldest working gunmaker in the UK, still putting in seven days a week until suffering a stroke just shortly before his 80th birthday.

Born in Birkenhead, he was the son of Harold Haygarth, a Great War veteran wounded at the Somme, and Beatrice Macready, who sewed uniforms during the First World War. Beatrice, who had briefly been married previously, already had a son, Jack, who was more than a decade older than young Colin.

While Jack went off to fight in the Second World War, winning the Military Cross and Croix de Guerre for bravery and serving with the regiment that liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the end of the conflict, his little brother contributed to the war effort from home.

By this time the family had moved to Greasby, a village near Heswall, in the Wirral, and young Colin was a country sports enthusiast, enjoying fishing and shooting. In 1943, aged 13, he got a Saturday job in the workshop of WC Carswell & Sons, reaming the chambers into Sten gun barrel blanks made at the Royal Ordnance plant nearby.

In 1946, on leaving school, where his classmates included the actress Patricia Routledge, he began an apprenticeship at Carswells which was interrupted a couple of years later by national service in the Cheshire Regiment at Deepcut Barracks, Aldershot, and Eaton Hall near Chester.

However, the post-war era proved difficult for the British gun trade and, although Carswells managed to stay in business, it could not afford to keep him on. As a result he left the gun trade behind for a number of years, taking various jobs including posts as a shipping clerk at Liverpool’s Albert Dock and as a pipe lagger on HMS Ark Royal which was being built on Merseyside by Cammel Laird.

In the mid-1950s he worked at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority’s (UKAEA) uranium enrichment plant at Capenhurst in Cheshire but was soon called up to serve during the Suez Crisis of 1956.

The following year he married Rosemary, who had been a customer of his mother’s dressmaking business in Birkenhead, and they moved north to Thurso in Caithness, on the edge of the Scottish mainland, where worked for a while for the UKAEA and set up a small gun repair workshop in a room at the family home which he initially ran in tandem with his job at Dounreay.

His business was an immediate success and became his sole focus: work poured in, as up until then all gun repairs had to go to Birmingham, Glasgow or Edinburgh, and the enterprise expanded rapidly with Haygarth also dealing in new and used shotguns and ammunition.

When his father retired from the civil service in 1963, he and his wife also moved to Caithness, buying the old village shop in Dunnet, east of Thurso, where the property was converted and became the first full-time gun shop to open north of Inverness, quickly establishing accounts with all the major manufacturers and importers of shotguns, rifles, air rifles, ammunition and fishing tackle.

Reputed to be one of Scotland’s best all-round shots, Haygarth excelled in disciplines including pistol, smallbore and fullbore target rifle, driven game, wildfowling, rough shooting and stalking and was a fine trap shot, once selected for the Scottish team alongside motor racing legend Jackie Stewart.

He also built new shotguns and rifles and bought his own cartridge loading machines. By 1986 the business was loading about a million cartridges a year and boasted clients including the BBC, Gleneagles Hotel’s shooting ground, Norwegian shipping magnate Fred Olsen and, of course, the Queen Mother.

The family first came into contact with the Queen Mother in the 1960s, as a result of a laundry mishap at her Scottish home, the Castle of Mey, just a few miles along the road. Her housekeeper had inadvertently shrunk Her Majesty’s dressing table cover and contacted the newly arrived Beatrice Haygarth for help.

The seamstress promptly ran up a replacement which was immediately spotted by the Queen Mother who found the whole incident highly amusing. The next day she arrived at the shop to thank Beatrice, who was only two days younger than the Royal visitor, and the two struck up a friendship.

Haygarth went on to supply cartridges, clay pigeons and accessories and to service and repair the Royal party’s guns for the next 37 years.

The Queen Mother would regularly arrive at his shop in the 1960s and 70s, having been driven down from the castle by her chauffeur, and on several occasions Haygarth, a highly intelligent man with a dry sense of humour who treated all his customers equally, regardless of their social stratum, was her dinner guest.

In the late 1979s, after both his parents died within months of each other, his wife ran the retail side of the business for a few years until his son Ross took over the reins and began an apprenticeship with his father. The family has since successfully weathered dips in business following recessions and changes in the gun laws after the 1987 Hungerford massacre, when a gunman killed 16 people in the south of England, and the 1996 Dunblane atrocity when 16 small children and their teacher were shot dead in their primary school north of Stirling.

Aside from his lifelong business interests in gunmaking, Haygarth also ran a grouse moor and pheasant shoot, stalked, ran several clay pigeon clubs and was local secretary of the British Field Sports Society for many years. He had travelled extensively, shooting in Italy and Spain, and was a keen motorcyclist – despite an accident with a lorry, just after his national service ended, which put him in hospital for 14 months and left him with a permanent limp.

He did not own another bike until 1981 but maintained an interest in the TT races on the Isle of Man, which he had first visited in 1938, and latterly had an impressive collection of classic motorcycles as well as an interest in classic cars.

Widowed in 1991, the same year that he was awarded his Royal Warrant, he continued to work every day until 2010 when, at the age of 79, he suffered a major stroke.

After eight months in hospital he moved into a residential care home, ironically on the Glorious Twelfth that year.

Haygarth, whose record of 67 years in the trade is unlikely to be broken, is survived by his children John, Fiona, Lynda, Ross and Calum and extended family.