Obituary: John Bryson Houston, farmer

John Houston: Caring and jovial Kirkcudbrightshire farmer who was a dog and stick man at heartJohn Houston: Caring and jovial Kirkcudbrightshire farmer who was a dog and stick man at heart
John Houston: Caring and jovial Kirkcudbrightshire farmer who was a dog and stick man at heart
Born: 1 October, 1951, in Dundrennan. Died: 30 January, 2015, in Dumfries, aged 63

ONE OF south-west Scotland’s best known farmers and a true character, John B Houston, from Craigmullen, Dundrennan, Kirkcudbright, has died after a short illness, at the age of 63.

Born at Overlaw, Dundrennan, JB, as he was known, was the second son of Jack and Jinty Houston. Following his early education at local primary schools, then Lime House, Carlisle, he attended Loretto School in Musselburgh, where his notoriously thick and unruly hair earned him the nickname of “Thatch”.

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After spells at the West of Scotland Agricultural College, Auchincruive and at the Barony Agricultural College, Dumfries, he returned to assist full-time on the family farms at Overlaw, Newlaw and Chapelton, near Dundrennan – initially working with his father and later to be joined by his brothers, David and Peter.

The farms extended to some 385 ha and in those days were running two herds of pedigree Ayrshire dairy cows, beef suckler cows, and flocks of Blackface and Cheviot sheep. John played a significant role in running the livestock side of the family business, including expansion and modernisation of the dairy and beef-rearing enterprises.

For a short time he also managed Barnkirk, near Newton Stewart, before the family acquired the tenancy of the 125 ha farm at High Boreland near Kirkcudbright in 1982. John moved there and was largely responsible for its successful 
development into an efficient and productive livestock unit.

In due course, the family partnership was split up and, more recently, John lived at Craigmullen, from where he successfully ran his 190 ha suckler cow and breeding sheep unit, comprising parts of Overlaw, Newlaw and Chapelton – by then owner-occupied by him.

He was “a dog and stick man” at heart, with a sharp eye for stock and a huge love of animals. The combination of working with livestock and a keen interest in country sports led to John’s lifelong devotion to working dogs – both collies and gundogs. One of his priorities, latterly, was to ensure that his Labrador, Butt, had a happy home. This was at least the third of his dogs to have that name: “It was easier to remember that way”, he claimed.

But he combined all of this with a penchant for deep analysis and, with an often overlooked business acumen, he made a success of his farming. His lambs frequently topped the trade at Castle Douglas mart and, as a former competitor, he officiated at YFC stock-judging competitions, where he willingly passed on his extensive knowledge to others.

In more recent times, most of John’s land was let to a local farming partnership run by his friend and neighbour, Wickerman Festival founder, Jamie Gilroy, who tragically passed away only a few weeks before John.

Stepping back from active farming allowed John to continue his enjoyment of the land, but it also enabled him to devote time to other interests, including his enthusiastic involvement in the Fermers’ Choir, with which he performed at the SECC Hydro, in Glasgow, as part of the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs, an organisation in which he took a great interest.

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He was a past chairman of the local Stewartry YFC, a committee member of Stewartry Agricultural Society, the Kirkcudbright Burns Club and a keen shot and angler – at which he was only moderately successful. But, as with his skiing trips, he was an enthusiastic participant in the après events, where his favourite saying was: “Plenty of gin, a wee bit of tonic and no fruit!”

His love of wildlife and the natural environment saw him visit New Zealand, the Arctic and the Antarctic, as well as fishing the length and breadth of Scotland with his great friend Willie Kennedy and a motley bunch known as the “Pisscadors”. Gatehouse Cricket Club also benefited from John’s services as wicket keeper for several years and many a visiting batsman was distracted by comments from behind the stumps.

As well as being a competent agriculturalist and a thoughtful, caring person, John was perhaps best known and treasured as an exceptional individual – full of humour, fun and mischief. In his role as chief funster, JB paid little heed to political correctness and conformity – traits which earned him countless friends.

His forthright and fearless approach, his direct and sometimes personal lines of enquiry, plus an ability to deliver outlandish and even outrageous comments with a twinkle in his eye was legendary – as was his capacity to puncture pomposity and inflated egos with deadly accuracy.

One such occasion was when JB attended the Royal Smithfield Show at Earls Court, London, in his capacity as a sheep steward. The show’s main sponsors, Barclays Bank, each year held a drinks party for the Royal Smithfield Club’s stewards, at which copious quantities of refreshments were dispensed from bottles by Barclays’ staff.

After some time, JB spotted a gentleman whose lapel badge indicated that he was “General Manager, Barclays Bank”.

Emboldened by the hospitality he had thus far enjoyed, John approached said manager: “You’re the very man I need to meet. Back home my overdraft is costing me a large gin every five minutes, but I can tell you with some certainty that for the last 50 minutes I’ve been gaining on you!”

And so it was that while the rest of the Royal Smithfield Club stewards queued for taxis in the rain in Warwick Road, JB was delivered back to his hotel in the general manager’s chauffeur-driven limousine.

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As usual, his impish smile retrieved a sticky situation and it was a feature of the man that won him many lasting friendships. Another trait was his impeccable manners, especially with regard to the opposite sex, and it was a wonder to many that John never married.

John was buried at Rerrick beside his mother and father on 9 February, and thereafter a celebration of his life was heard at Kirkcudbright Parish Church, where the minister, Douglas Irving, his brother, David and lifelong friends, Mungo Clark and Donald Biggar, provided a fitting send-off for this “one-off” rural character.