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DUNCAN ANGUS MacLEOD,
When the hearse carrying Duncan MacLeod on his final journey from Wick to historic Canisbay Kirk made a detour via the roundabout now marking the ‘End of the Road’, in front of the derelict shell of the now-closed John O’Groats House Hotel, this was entirely appropriate.
For genial Hebridean Duncan, who passed away after a short illness in Caithness General Hospital at the age of 73 on June 30th, 2009, knew it in happier times.
He had a substantial impact on the John O’Groats community during and after his decade-long spell as ‘mine host’ in the House Hotel with its famous octagonal tower; then an iconic building for Caithnessians world-wide.
Long before his move to John O’Groats in 1978, Duncan had done his National Service as a soldier with in the Cameron Highlanders, including a long tour of duty in South Korea, just recovering from the 1950-53 war.
He then went on to carve out a highly successful international banking career for himself, mainly in Africa and the Middle East. He was a community activist in various ways throughout most of his adult life and leaves a lasting impact on John O’Groats, most of which remains positive.
Born in Lochmaddy, North Uist, but with close family links to Ness in Lewis, Duncan’s secondary education was at Portree High, where he was, of necessity, a boarder. The folk of Isle of Skye made a favourable impression on the schoolboy, an affection that remained life-long.
It was to Carbost on the ‘Misty Isle’ that he moved after he sold the Hotel in 1987, although he was to return to live in John O’Groats village for what proved to be his final years. He had been suffering some memory loss for a period, but the brain disorder of his short final illness may have been a legacy from his years in the Tropics.
Duncan’s career began with the Bank of Scotland and he worked in several of the company’s West Highland branches; but it was a transfer to Edinburgh, where the company was based, that was to change his life.
By coincidence, his flat was close to the Capital’s West End Hotel, a favourite ‘watering hole’ for visitors from Caithness and the West Highlands and Islands, plus North and West ‘exiles’ living in Edinburgh, run by Gordon Asher, whose father had been a well-respected GP and Provost of Thurso.
Duncan’s future father-in-law had become a legend following his World War ll service in the North African Desert campaign with the (re-formed) 51St Highland Division. With the 5th Seaforth Highlanders, Pipe Major Asher, a Great War veteran, was the ‘Bearded Piper of El Alamein’, continuing to play under fierce fire as soldiers from the Far North went into action.
The Battle of El Alamein, in late 1942 in the deserts of Western Egypt, is remembered as the decisive victory of the British campaign under General Bernard Montgomery, ending the Nazi German push under General Erwin Rommel to over-run Egypt, to hold the Suez Canal and to move on to control the Middle East oilfields.
Duncan and Gordon’s daughter Marjory (Madge) fell in love and were wed in 1960; their life together spanned 49 years bringing much joy, but also tinged with deep family sorrows. Two of the couple’s four children pre-deceased Duncan, who also lost a sister-in-law to an untimely death.
The young married couple left Scotland for Africa, where Duncan had obtained a post with the Commercial Bank in Nairobi, Kenya.
From there he moved for a longer spell in Uganda as a manager with the Standard (now Standard & Chartered) Bank; for a period he was that country’s only white MP; appropriately a trainee Presbyterian minister from East Africa gave a Bible reading at his funeral service in historic Canisbay Kirk.
Duncan’s next move was a major step upwards in world of international commerce as Assistant General Manager of the Gulf Bank of Kuwait, in that oil-rich Arab emirate.
He learned that a substantial sums of money could be made for his employers in trading on fractions of a percentage point differences in interest rates between various currency exchanges/markets; at that time the Scots had a honourable reputation for honesty and integrity in banking. Duncan modestly claimed afterwards that being a Scot had helped him obtain a top post in running a business with assets then worth many billions of pounds.
But with a young family growing up and needing a boarding school education in the UK, Duncan decided to leave behind the high-flying world of corporate banking at the age of 41, to take up a new challenge in his wife’s home county; fortunately he had his experienced hotel trade brother-in-law Gordon Asher (junior) to manage the John O’Groats House Hotel; while Madge’s parents Gordon and Betty also retired there.
When Duncan arrived in 1977, serious coastal erosion threatened the integrity of the landmark building erected just over a century earlier by the local estate on a low sand-dune near the ‘original’ Johnny Groat’s House (a ferry inn) to coincide with the opening of the North Highland rail line by the son and grandson of Robert Burns’s music publisher George Thomson. The House Hotel was formally inaugurated by Queen Victoria’s oldest son. the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) in 1876.
Colonel William Thomson had added the name Sinclair when he married into the Freswick & Duncansby estate family. His architect son, also William, interpreted the well-known John de Groat story in the ‘Scottish baronial style’ of the era giving it a unique eight-sided tower, surely somewhat more elaborate than the Dutchman’s room with an octagonal table to give equal seating places to all of his squabbling heirs back in the 16th century!
This was ironic, as just over a century earlier, a Sinclair ancestor of architect William had almost certainly used the stones from the ‘original’ Groat family’s inn, with its famous table, to build the estate’s ‘girnal’ (grain store) nearby; now the John O’Groats knitwear shop. The Orkney ferry had moved to Huna, on the neighbouring Mey estate, so making the Groat family’s inn redundant, after nearly 250 years in their charge, with a replacement built at Huna.
The coastal erosion had been caused by the removal of c. 1 million tons of shell-sand from John O’Groats’s once-famous 2.5 mile long snow-white beach, first as wartime ‘dig for victory’ emergency; the slow-dissolving shell-sand continued to be used for more than another decade to lime and so fertilise the acidic soils of the Highlands as a result of the 1947 Agriculture Act, with the ‘need’ for home-grown food that introduced peace-time taxpayers’ subsidies to British farmers.
When Duncan arrived, the House Hotel’s foundations were threatened with the eroding shell-sand dune looking like a fragile white ‘cliff-face’, only yards away from its main restaurant with views over the Pentland Firth and getting closer with every winter storm.
No sand had been removed from the flagship hotel’s immediate backyard, but its protective beach had been swept away to replenish sand-diggings further along the coast, lowering the coastline there by twenty feet or so.
That problem was solved when the Government’s Scottish Development Agency was persuaded to fund built a concrete sea-wall behind the Hotel and the nearby Last House that was similarly under threat.
Duncan proved a genial mine-host at John O’Groats with his easy ability to mix with peoples from all backgrounds and to make End-to-End charity fund-raisers feel special. The Hotel’s public bar was the key social hub for especially the younger generation of local people where they mingled with visitors; while others preferred the intimacy of its lounge bar with its range of malt whiskies, where Duncan’s excellent singing voice in his native Gaelic tongue came to the fore at ceilidhs and other events.
He enthused over the custom of a celebratory slap-up meal for visitors who had achieved their goal of reaching John O’Groats; under him, the Hotel had a reputation for fine cuisine using local ingredients, especially lobsters and other shellfish off the local boats.
Its honeymoon suite remained popular with newly-weds, while Duncan could be relied on to be on hand to greet visiting celebrities such as Ashes cricket hero Ian Botham, world champion boxer John Conteh, as well as several high profile industry leaders, trade unionists, politicians and key public servants. The high-quality meals attracted the attention of some specialist tour operators from Europe; Dutch parties were prominent customers.
The 1980s was a decade of optimism for the future of John O’Groats, which Duncan did much to convey and support; a new boat was on the way for on the summer Orkney passenger route from the recently upgraded John O’Groats Harbour, while facilities for visitors at nearby Ducansby Head had been improved and there was talk of a roll-on, roll-off car-ferry for Gills Bay, while the local Sutherland family (themselves descended from the Groats) were making their valuable collection of historical artefacts available to the public at their upgraded Last House.
With 20 acres of adjoining land, Duncan fully co-operated in replacing the plethora of overhead utility poles and wires with a tidy new underground network, and with the provision of a main sewage scheme, serving the village and the End of the Road area.
In a public-spirited manner, Duncan provided land for the (then) Caithness Tourist Board to build its information office, using the lovely red John O’Groats sandstone for the first time in decades; a site for the District Council’s new public toilets/wash facilities and ground for John O’Groats’s main public car-park, funded by the Regional Council’s rates and taxes. All of this was aimed at boosting visitor numbers and prolonging their stay.
A key was to local year-round jobs was to be a ‘craft village’ with publicly-funded units made available on lease to existing and young entrants for ‘gift goods’ manufacturing year-round; they could retail their products to the then estimated 250,000 visitors in season, while winter-made products could be sold nationally and internationally through the annual Highland Trade Fair etc.
It only partially succeeded, mainly due to two 1990s own-goal U-turns by the Highlands jobs agency, by then known as Caithness & Sutherland Enterprise CASE; it allowed existing (manufacturing) tenants to purchase, but sold other units as storage sheds thus detracting from the whole. It also effectively refused to fund local youngsters to go on relevant skills courses unavailable in the Highlands, but which they would need.
The above was confounded by Highland Council planners refusal to enforce conditions, that had taken negotiations stretching over years to codify; another was the bureaucratic decision by Edinburgh transport officials to remove its ‘A 9’ end of the road status, granted at the dawn of motoring.
But Duncan, even with hindsight, can hardly be blamed; his public-spirited legacy to John O’Groats must be that at least he tried when others had not cared nor bothered; in some aspects, he succeeded brilliantly.
As well as at the Hotel and in wider matters involving John O’Groats he acted in Caithness as a part-time ‘mentor’/consultant for the Highlands and Islands Development Board using his vast knowledge of international commerce to help young business entrants hone their ideas and to aid existing businesses aiming to serve more than a local market to ‘up their game’.
For a period after his move, he became a full-time officer for the HIDB in Skye and Lochalsh; he was later Highlands and Islands organiser for the Federation of Small Businesses and an active Rotarian.
Duncan sold the John O’Groats House Hotel with its 20 acres of land in 1987 to the late Michael Courtney, of Penzance, Cornwall, whose link was as owner of the John O’Groats and Land’s End photo signposts.
He had earlier offered it at a keen price to selected local businessmen, but they baulked at the expense needed to gut and internally rebuild the bedrooms, only a few of which had modern ‘en suite’ facilities.
In turn, Courtney sold it on after a short spell to high-profile Peter de Savary; from a flower-filled stage at a public meeting in John O’Groats Village Hall the entrepreneur promised a new start with an upgraded, expanded House Hotel using traditional architecture, together with a high-tech audio-visual theatre. But he delivered nothing.
The John O’Groats to Land’s End link was first referred to by author/diplomat Daniel Defoe in his Tour of the 1720s; but local belief in that joint marketing of both extremities would boost the area proved both naïve and mistaken.
Since then, the House Hotel building has seriously deteriorated, being closed for the past 15 years and changing hands several times, without any result. No-one can say for sure what the negative cost of its dereliction (and the perception amongst would-be visitors that John O’Groats is closed for business) has had on the Caithness and wider Highland economies, but it is likely to run into eight figures (sterling).
John O’Groats remains the best known destination for tourists on the Scottish Mainland north of Inverness.
The latest of a series of draft taxpayer-funded studies for a ‘new start’ for John O’Groats, especially the ‘End of the Road area’, were ironically presented by property company GVA Grimley, hired by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, in the Seaview Hotel during the week of Duncan’s death.
At the well-attended funeral service, Kirk reader Ms Esme Duncan took the service, while Duncan’s younger brother Rev. Dr Roderick MacLeod delivered an impressive eulogy; Roddy, a former Western Isles Councillor, is Kirk minister at Furnace on Loch Long in Argyll.
Family members and other mourners came to pay their last respects from the Western Isles, Skye, from throughout Caithness and the Inverness area, while the son of a friend from his Uganda days travelled North from Devon.
Duncan is survived by Madge, their married daughter Ann (Shearer), who lives locally with her husband Jocky and family and their youngest daughter Marsaili; their son Gordon Angus and daughter Kirsty both died in young adulthood, as did Duncan’s sister-in-law Mrs Gail Asher. There are five grandchildren.