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JOHN ROBERT MOWAT, VICTORIA HOUSE, JOHN O’GROATS, CAITHNESS
By Bill Mowat, Inverness
Vegetable grower; joint-founder of a substantial locally-owned tourism business; finest exponent of Scotland’s most ancient craft and a community activist.
With the sudden death of John Mowat on Tuesday October 3rd 2006, at the age of 66, the community of John O’Groats (popn. 250) lost its living link between the old ‘subsistence-style’ of crofting and modern consumer-conscious agriculture suitable to the soil and weather conditions on the Pentland Firth shoreline.
When he was born in 1940, as the only child of Donald and Annie Mowat, the landscape of John O’Groats consisted of a (diminished in size) Mains farm (The Ha’) surrounded by a patchwork of over family 40 crofts, averaging only 20 acres of in-by land, plus two large common grazings, where hundreds of sheep roamed. Crofters regularly took crops of oats and bere (a early-ripening variety of barley) to the local water-powered meal-mill for conversion to oat-meal (for porridge and cakes) and bere-meal for baking traditional bannocks of unleaven brown bere-bread.
By the time of the onset of Multiple Sclerosis a decade ago, John had turned much of this land, extended as appropriate by lease or purchase, (and in one case by reclamation) into a substantial vegetable producing unit with modern specialist machinery and buildings, one having to employ staff to supplement the work of his sons Don and Steven.
Bags of his ‘John O’Groats tatties’ (with the community’s ‘End to End’ signpost as logo), root-crops such as swedes and other brassicas of the cabbage family, became well-known to customers at Co-op branches in the Far North and independent convenience retailers in Wick, Thurso and rural villages.
As stated by Church of Scotland reader Ms Esme Duncan at his funeral service at the historic Canisbay Parish Kirk, the entrepreneurial spirit took hold of John at an early age, although his choice of a full-time career in (initially) small-scale agriculture was unpopular in the area at a time when Sir David Robertson M.P. was hailing the experimental Dounreay Fast Reactor project as the ‘dawn of a new Industrial Revolution’ for Caithness and the Far North. The UK Atomic Energy Authority was offering training locally to teenager for previously unobtainable professional engineering and administrative long-term careers in their local area.
But John went instead to Inverness for a college study of agriculture; a practical education that he was soon to put to life-long use.
John’s concepts of entrepreneurial activities, the importance of customer relations and rigid quality control were formulated in his early teens as a John O’Groats ‘shore seller’; his was the final group of a generations-long tradition of local lads who hand-made necklaces from sea-shells called locally ‘groatie buckies’, found on John O’Groats’s Shell Beach.
Groatie buckies are northern or arctic cowries, tiny oval ribbed pink or white shells (trivia arctica & trivial monacha) averaging from 8 mm to 12 mm in length. With the lovely ‘slit’ on their base, cowries were/ are talismans of good-luck and fecundity in civilisations ancient and modern almost world-wide: as well as Scotland, cowries are revered in Eastern Europe, Africa, South Asia and the Arab world; the South Seas and Japan.
The earliest local pierced cowrie dates from the 1650s (Girnigeo Castle restoration, 2003): there are written records of the craft from the late 17th century, while there is a reference to a ‘groatie buckie’ purchase in the 1720s.
In 2000, pierced cowries were found in a shell ‘midden’ at Sand, near
Applecross, Wester Ross, during an Edinburgh University ‘dig’ at a
Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic) site. Contemporary organic remains have
been reliably dated to c. 7,500 years ago: Scotland’s oldest craft
dating to its first settlers, before the emergence of settled
John eschewed those deigns in favour of necklaces with modern safety catches made entirely of pierced shells, which he graded with meticulous care by eye alone. First the shells had to be collected, so the tides and sea-states had to be known; many a bone-chilling winter or spring day was spent at the Shell Beach’s tide-lines or rock pools.
Anything less than 500 was a poor ‘haul’, but 1,000-plus shells was exhilaratingly good. Then the shells had to be laboriously pierced with a blunted darning needle mounted in a cork and wood whisky-bottle ‘cap’; done in such a manner as to avoid breaking the inner shell: about 20% losses were acceptable, each ‘string’ requiring around 80 shells.
Thus a great deal of hard (sometimes cold and lonely) work had to be expended in having 4-500 ‘groatie buckie’ strings available before each summer tourist season.
At 4/6 each (22.5 new pence), those paid for school clothes at a time when money in rural Caithness was still scarce. Initially John used dressmakers’ ‘beading needles, but the other lads had no option but to follow his stringing on new-style nylon fishing line, which proved more durable. It was his attention to detail and his reverting to the ‘shell-only’ format that has led to some hailing John as the finest-ever exponent of Scotland’s most ancient craft; alas now almost extinct.
Despite its provenance, all this was frowned on by ‘officialdom’: the lads needed a ‘pedlar’s licenses’, but being under 18, that was unavailable, so police raids followed, encouraged (it is said) by the House Hotel’s then proprietor.
John and a colleague then established a little open-air stall to beat the regulations and continue to sell the shell necklaces and post-cards: out of that grew John O’Groats Crafts, now the biggest locally-owned business there (First & Last at pierhead; Seaview Hotel and franchise of Tourist Information office, all run by his cousin Walter).
John’s education began at John O’Groats Primary where his teacher was the war-widow Margaret ‘Daisy’ Miller, whose MN officer husband had been torpedoed; their only child Margaret was a classmate who wed anti-apartheid activist Bob (now Lord) Hughes MP, from Aberdeen.
John’s influential single-classroom teacher who opened young eyes to wonders of the ancient Classical (Greek and Egyptian) worlds, later in life married John McEwan. He lived to the age of 105 and his wife encouraged him to publish (with the help of the current Chancellor of the Exchequer) the groundbreaking book ‘Who Owns Scotland’.
John was the first generation to be able to attend Wick High without a bursary (1944 Education Act) and after practical College training, John converted crofting locally into a viable livelihood for himself, his young family and others. At that point her reluctantly left the world of ‘groatie buckies’, and meeting thousands of tourists annually, behind him.
He was one of the first to volunteer when the local Auxiliary Coastguard Unit was founded in 1960, following the George Robb trawler disaster.
Local people were appalled to realise that one of the 12 crewmen had managed to swim clear of the breaking-up outward-bound Aberdeen vessel in late 1959. Her skipper had apparently prematurely turned the vessel into the Pentland Firth, mistaking Noss Head for Duncansby Head in the minimal-visibility sou’easterly storm.
But Polish war-veteran Bruno Saborowski died of hypothermia on the
stony beach at Queeniecliff, beneath the Stacks of Duncansby before help
could obtained: the local volunteer unit was formed to have
locally-available specialist cliff-scaling skills to avoid a repeat,
which fortunately never came.
John was on hand to join the ‘volunteer’ (now ‘retained’) local fire company when it was established: both emergency organisations had uniform-clad mourners present at his funeral service. He was also a leading light in local Scottish Crofters’ Union branch.
He was earlier active in the Royal Observer Corps company based at the Duncansby Head underground post; war-time enemy aircraft recognition had given way to radiation monitoring exercises, in case of a Soviet nuclear attack during the Cold War era.
John was an active member of the Duncansby Head Grazings committee, custodians of some of Scotland’s finest cliff and sea-stack coastline, a ‘hirsel’ where members (local crofters) were entitled to a regulated number of sheep each. The ‘natural’ grassland there had been ceded to members of the local community from the Mains (Ha’) farm in 1902, following agitation in the wake of the 1886 Crofters Scotland Act.
John was influential during the 1980s in ensuring the grazers’ consent improved road access to the magnificent cape and parking facilities there as well as the construction of a coastal path. The cliff-top fence, that most visitors think is to protect them from the sheer rock-edge, was in fact installed by the ‘grazers’ to prevent sheep-losses.
For relaxation, John’s chosen sport was .22 rifle shooting, where he attained international standard. As well as the regular indoor winter shoots in the Village Hall, John was a frequent winner of the New Years’ Day open-air competition and the magnificent Victorian cup for the annual summer Wappenshaw (weapon show), whose origins may go back centuries, frequently graced his side-board.
John married Elsie (nee Steven), a member of a progressive local crofting family, with electric light (from wind generator) before mains power arrived in 1952 and who had also diversified into seasonal tourism (tea-rooms, camping site).
John gradually became immobile as a result of the debilitating MS disease, but his sudden passing was unexpected.
Elsie, whose mother was born and brought up in the ‘Last House’ (now a folk museum) could trace her descent directly from the last John Groat, inn-keeper and ferryman, of the first half of the 18th century.
As his land-holdings grew, John could proudly say that he tilled much of the land (Mains farm etc.) that the legendary Groat family had been granted by King James IV and the Earl of Caithness as far back as 1496, continuing there for generations for almost 250 years.
Their oldest son Don manages the enterprise, ably assisted by Steven and two full-time workers, with extra staff needed during busy vegetable-harvesting periods.
Now Don, who inherited his father love of small-bore rifle shooting, can only trust that consumers stick with first-class local foods with a Tesco ‘superstore’ opening within weeks in Wick, to be followed in 2007 by a rival Asda/Walmart facility opening in Thurso.