Iain Gordon Chalmers spent a lifetime navigating lines between Scottish estate owners, tenants, employees and the public on properties dotted across Scotland, covering hundreds of thousands of miles to do so. He began a career spanning more than four decades after qualifying as a Chartered Land Agent in 1958, starting as assistant factor on the Stirling family’s Fairburn Estate in Ross-shire. From then until retirement from independent practice in 2004, he would see land agency and chartered surveying transformed. Not least were changes to the work itself. Things went from the old-style factoring familiar to Iain’s own father Gordon Chalmers through to implementing the rights of public access to land and the countryside brought in by the newly minted Holyrood government.
Iain got a taste of the old at 18, working as a “mud” student on The North British Aluminium Company’s Glenshero Estate near Newtonmore, where his father factored. Days began with the 6am milking of cows to provide milk for estate and farm staff. He would then walk a six-mile tour in the morning and another in the afternoon as shepherd for a hill ewe hirsel, or small flock. Helping difficult births, burying lamb corpses and attending the itinerant Royal Highland Show as a herdsman were all part of the mix.
An appetite for the physical effort of walking the hill for work, in any weather, lent Iain an easy credibility on Highland land matters. He could talk with all comers, from foreign would-be estate buyers or long-established owners to stalkers on iconic red deer estates and ghillies on the Spey or Findhorn rivers. For his formal qualifications, after National Service in England, Iain completed the Cirencester Royal Agricultural College’s two-and-a-half-year Estate Management Course.
After a happy start at Fairbairn, a period crowned by his marriage to Fiona Grant, his wife of nearly 50 years, Iain left the Highlands in 1960. His destination was the factor’s job on the Balfour family’s diverse estate in Fife, overlooking the Forth. It was a huge post for a youngster just qualified from his Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors exams. The work entailed managing in-hand and let farms, forestry interests, retail milk rounds, a sand-and-gravel quarry and brick works. The jack-of-all-trades skills required were exactly those increasingly demanded of his profession more widely. The collective challenge over Iain’s career would be for agents constantly to update their many areas of increasingly specialised knowledge while persuading clients to pay for that expertise.
That tension was already evident in Iain’s limited experience of employment by land management firms. The first was in March 1967, when he opened a joint office in Elgin to look after four estates taken on by a new partnership between HJ Bell of Perth and the English agents Strutt and Parker, Lofts and Warner. Iain headed North for the job “with a joyous heart” – accompanied by Fiona, four children, a spaniel, a peke and a donkey.
Within a year, the partnership collapsed, but Iain got offers of work from both parties. He went with Strutt and Parker, so starting the firm’s independent operation in Scotland. As their local partner, Iain would travel from Durness to Stranraer and places in between, covering some 50,000 miles a year and hardly getting home. All that on roads unrecognisable from today’s and through snowier winters.
Fixing a fair price for land management advice was challenging. Strutt and Parker’s idea of a fee was what they charged for managing fertile Home Counties properties. Unable to square that circle with Highland estate owners, they closed the Elgin office, offering Iain an associate partnership in Edinburgh. He and Fiona declined, negotiating instead that Iain be able to offer existing clients his services as sole agent, a bold undertaking at his age. That meant Iain launched an independent practice in May 1971 from a home office on Logie estate, where Fiona added secretarial duties to her work of raising children and running the house. In due course the office decamped to Forres with a professional staff and many students and young land agents over the years.
One of those he mentored recalled Iain’s professional mantra as: “Give the best advice to the client you can – and then shut up and do what you’re told”. That was perhaps a necessary survival strategy for agents in Scotland, where land ownership is amongst the most concentrated on the planet. Iain would have said his approach was more pragmatic than political, not least because he saw even centuries of ownership by a single family as brief moments in time for the land itself. And it was the land he loved.
Iain spent much time latterly doing arbitrations for Agricultural Landlord and Tenant cases. He would sometimes act for one side or the other but more often as arbiter. He had learned the sense of fairness needed to cool disputes from his father, a “Jock Tamson’s bairns” approach of treating all with equal respect. He also drew on a faith built over 80 years as a Church of Scotland member. Having been ordained a Ruling Elder in the early 1960s, he served variously as Treasurer, Session Clerk and Convener of Vacancy Committees, mostly at Edinkillie Parish Church.
Retirement brought new roles, the hardest being that of Fiona’s carer during four years of an auto-immune disease from which she died in 2009. Through deep grief, he always said his professional life would have been impossible without her unceasing help and wise counsel.
Iain filled his final years with choral singing, fishing, stalking and charity work. The latter included volunteering for the Samaritans helpline and driving cancer patients from Moray to Aberdeen for the Clan Haven. He lent his passengers a careful ear, having survived a serious cancer himself.
He was delighted to find late love in his last four years with Mary Chaplin, a widow herself and friend of Iain and Fiona’s.
Iain’s elder brother Stewart, and four children Catriona, Emma, Alasdair and Patrick, survive him.
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