Scotsman Obituaries: Alasdair Houston, Scottish cattle breeder and entrepreneur

Alasdair George Houston, MBE, DL, FRAgS, farmer, cattle breeder, Chairman of Gretna Green Ltd, entrepreneur. Born: 5 January 1962. Died: 21 June 2021 in Dumfries, aged 59

Alasdair Houston always had a twinkle in his eye, despite tough times
Alasdair Houston always had a twinkle in his eye, despite tough times

Almost every one of the hundreds of tributes to Alasdair Houston who died recently, referred to him as a gentleman and many enhanced this accolade with words such as “perfect” and “complete”.

Making this description all the more remarkable is that he was also a very successful businessman. As the driving force behind the development of Gretna Green into one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions, he had recently demonstrated his resilience in rebuilding and adding to the business in the wake of the Covid pandemic.

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Alasdair had shown this same ability to pick up a business after it had been hit with a totally unforeseen disaster when his famous Gretnahouse pedigree cattle were culled in the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak. Although none of his cattle were infected with the virus, he watched them being slaughtered as part of the wider disease control plan. He then rebuilt the herd from scratch, and the Gretnahouse name is now, once again, renowned in the farming world, hosting two of the UK’s top pedigree breeding herds of Charolais and Aberdeen Angus cattle.

In a further demonstration of his resilience, one of Alasdair’s final acts was to finally secure private funding to create a monumental public artwork, The Star of Caledonia. It was conceived 20 years ago as a symbol of ambition, recovery, energy, innovation and regeneration after the devastation of the Foot and Mouth pandemic. The Star, built on a piece of farmland the family has donated, will welcome everyone entering Scotland at the Border at Gretna Green.

For centuries, people the world over have known the village of Gretna Green for weddings, as couples eloped over the Border from England to take advantage of Scotland’s more relaxed marriage laws. Pre-Covid, Gretna Green performed 10 per cent of all weddings in Scotland, and welcomed over 800,000 visitors a year to this family business, started by Alasdair’s great-grandfather. Reflecting its importance nationally, the team at Gretna Green Ltd earlier this year. won the Queen’s Award for International Trade. A decade earlier, Alasdair had been awarded an MBE for services to tourism.

In developing the centre, Alasdair and his team saw, in 2006, that if the village was to fulfil its destiny as the wedding destination, wedding parties needed good places to stay and celebrate, so a new hotel was built, Smith’s. In 2014, he bought a second hotel, fully refurbished and rebranded it “Greens at Gretna, First Hotel in Scotland”. And in 2016 he bought a third hotel in the village, the 97-bedroom Gretna Hall.

Although diagnosed with cancer in 2018, Alasdair continued to look forward in business, setting up new sales divisions including a Chinese orientated retail website two years ago. In farming, Alasdair’s main interest was in breeding pedigree cattle and his attention to bloodlines brought his cattle to prominence. Initially he worked with two Continental breeds, Charolais and Simmental, both of which his father had imported in the 1970s. Alasdair took over the cattle in 1985, and, after a decade and a half of careful and well-thought-out breeding, Gretnahouse cattle often came at the top end of the trade.

Then in 2001, it all went up in smoke with the herd incinerated as part of the forced cull of livestock during the Foot and Mouth pandemic. Making this slaughter more difficult to take, none of the herd had tested positive for the virus.

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However, his determination not to give up sent him back to the drawing board. He traced and bought back bloodlines of Gretnahouse stock previously sold to herds around the country and, aided by some frozen embryos he had stored, started up again. He built back the Charolais cattle first, and Alasdair’s Gretnahouse herd is once again one of the most influential in the national Charolais herdbook, with bulls selling for over £25,000 twice at recent national sales. His leadership skills and enthusiasm for the breed saw him appointed the chairman of the Charolais breed society. Not content with that, in 2010 he moved into breeding Aberdeen Angus cattle, hitting the jackpot in 2014 with the aptly named "Gretnahouse Blacksmith”, a highly influential bull with a much sought-after bloodline.

In May 2021, shortly before his death, Alasdair admitted he was “honoured and overwhelmed” when awarded the Sir William Young Award by the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland in recognition of his “exceptional contribution to the world of cattle breeding”.

An accomplished athlete in his youth, Alasdair was a speedy rugby player at outside centre and wing when he captained the first XV at Glenalmond College. He went on to play at both Langholm Rugby Club, and later as a student at Magdalen College, Cambridge, prior to suffering a serious back injury in a car crash that stopped a very promising rugby career. Undaunted, he decided, post-recovery, to do the Cresta Run, the infamous toboggan run in St Moritz, Switzerland, with a group of friends. Much to the horror of his sisters, he completed his official run unscathed, as well as completing it unofficially, a second time on a tea tray at 3am after a few drinks! He held a private pilot’s licence, justifying it, with a twinkle in his eye, by saying he could observe what his neighbours were up to.

He loved meeting people both professionally and, along with his wife Lucy, in his personal life. They, and their children Tara and Rafe hosted some legendary parties over the years.

Ali, as he was known by friends, was a great raconteur with a fierce intelligence. He loved people and was interested in giving young people a helping hand. He greatly enjoyed being involved with the South of Scotland Youth Awards

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