Obituary: Neil Macpherson, entrepreneur and founder of the Highland Wildlife Park
One of the north’s true entrepreneurs, Neil Macpherson, died on 8 November aged 83.
Neil was the youngest of four brothers and was educated at Eton and, Trinity College Cambridge.
His National Service was mainly spent in Austria with the Cameron Highlanders. It was here he developed his love of skiing and mountaineering which was to influence the rest of his life.
He toyed with the idea of emigrating to Canada and spent 18 months there in the 1950s, long enough to top his year in accountancy exams. The thought of a career in accountancy was too much and he returned to Scotland to commence land agency.
Neil set up his first business in 1962 with Ken Hughes and John Bingham to create Bingham Hughes and Macpherson. It was a difficult time to set up a business as it was a period of high rate of personal taxation and an emphasis on the economic contribution by large as opposed small businesses. Entrepreneurship was not fashionable and considered hazardous. The preference was for the security of employment within a large firm which were seen at that time to offer lifetime careers.
Despite this Neil saw the opportunity for a new business and Bingham Hughes and Macpherson was set up as the sole land agency firm operating out of Inverness. They were factors for many of the estates in the North of Scotland helping estates move from the old traditional ways of estate management and access for the elite, and making the transition to the modern role of estates accessible to all. Neil was managing partner through the merger of Bingham Hughes and Macpherson and Renton Finlayson creating Finlayson Hughes (now CKD Galbraith).
One winter, coming back from one his factoring jobs on the West it dawned on him how privileged he was in seeing so much wildlife which so many summer visitors did not. He wanted to share this and had the idea of setting up a Wildlife Park with indigenous animals of Scotland. He and his wife Janet studied maps and pinpointed various locations ending up at Dunachton with Sir Andrew Forbes Leith, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the idea.
To ensure the swift construction of the Highland Wildlife Park, Neil and his family spent many weekends and school holidays in a caravan on site, carefully watching the enclosures and buildings were erected.
The Park’s first red deer were fed turnips within the park grounds and the perimeter fence closed around them one winter’s night. Eyebrows were raised with the re-introduction of wolves, bears and bison but they all accepted their new homes without exception. Beavers were imported from Russia and Sweden, being the first beavers in a natural habitat in Scotland since the 16th Century.
Once up and running Neil’s real love was the interaction of the red deer throughout the year. In those days they had the majority of the 200 acres in which to roam. Their most famous bear was Hercules who many will remember in his bid for freedom in the Western Isles and wrestling with his owner Andy Robbins. The Highland Wildlife Park was opened in 1972 and initially employed eight full-time and 20 seasonal workers. It was supported by the then Highland and Islands Development Board, which stated: “It fits in splendidly with the growth of the Spey Valley and a great attraction to the growing number of tourist as well as to families living in the Highlands.”
The Park was a huge success until the new A9 was built and they no longer had an access off the trunk road. The Highland Council in those days refused to allow any signage on, or access off, the new A9. The Park admissions reduced significantly as a result but the Park continued and was sold to the Zoological Society in 1985. Neil remained involved on an advisory basis and very much enjoyed celebrating the Park’s 40th anniversary with Princess Anne as the guest of honour.
Neil was just beginning to enjoy his retirement from Finlayson Hughes when his wife Janet decided to open the Inverness Branch of Redmayne Bentley. Neil was ideally placed to help her in this venture and became a stockbroker aged 60. He and Janet successfully ran the office for 9 years and Neil finally retired for the second time aged 69.
The Spey Valley and Cairngorms played an important role in family life. Throughout the 70s and 80s while their three girls were active on the ski race circuit, Neil was a Chairman of the Cairngorm Ski Club, and an extremely competent ski race organiser along with Janet. He retained his links with the Chairlift Company by being a member of the Old Board, one of the perks of this being a free season’s pass which he made good use of right up till last season. He was also Chairman of the Daviot Hall committee in the late 70s and presided over the funding and opening of the new village hall.
He and Janet were keen supporters of the Eriskay Pony Societies who were trying to preserve this species and set up a small but successful breeding stud. Latterly he was treasurer of the Clan Macpherson Society. Separate to all of this Neil remained a keen walker/mountaineer and skier all of his life and he loved nothing more than sailing around the Western Isles.
Retirement allowed Neil to spend more time tending his trees at Daviot, supplying wood to keep the boilers going all winter and clearing up after the endless storms. He also found time to travel and his major trip aged 70-plus was to the Tien Shan Mountains in Khyrgystan. Here an intrepid band of grandfathers and Russian porters set off on a three week adventure, made more interesting for Neil by the loss of all his luggage on the flight in and the realisation that trainers can get you up, and down mountains when required!
Neil is survived by his wife Janet, daughters Mary, Alison and Kirsty and six grandchildren.