Scottish obituary: Alasdair Houston, Scottish breeder and entrepreneur


Alasdair Houston always had a sparkle in his eye, despite having a hard time

Alasdair Houston always had a sparkle in his eye, despite having a hard time

Almost every one of the hundreds of tributes paid to the recently deceased Alasdair Houston has called him a gentleman and many have heightened this distinction with words such as “perfect” and “complete”.

What makes this description all the more remarkable is that he was also a very successful businessman. As a driving force behind the development of Gretna Green into one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions, it had recently demonstrated its resilience in rebuilding and increasing activity in the wake of the Covid pandemic.

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Alasdair had shown this same ability to take over a business after being struck by a completely unforeseen disaster when his famous Gretnahouse cattle were slaughtered during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001. Although none of his cattle were killed. was infected with the virus, he saw them being slaughtered as part of the larger plan to fight the disease. He then rebuilt the herd from scratch, and the name Gretnahouse is now once again renowned in the agricultural world, home to two of the UK’s finest Charolais and Aberdeen Angus breeding herds.

In a further demonstration of his resilience, one of Alasdair’s last acts was ultimately to 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 ravages of the foot-and-mouth disease pandemic. The Star, built on farmland donated by the family, will welcome anyone entering Scotland at the border at Gretna Green.

For centuries, people around the world have known the village of Gretna Green for weddings, as couples fled from England across the border to take advantage of Scotland’s looser marriage laws. Before Covid, Gretna Green celebrated 10% of all weddings in Scotland and welcomed more than 800,000 visitors a year to this family business, founded by Alasdair’s great-grandfather. Reflecting its national significance, the team at Gretna Green Ltd earlier this year. won the Queen’s Award for International Trade. A decade earlier, Alasdair had received an MBE for tourism services.

In developing the center, Alasdair and his team found in 2006 that if the village was to fulfill its destiny as a wedding destination, weddings needed good places to stay and celebrate, which is why a new hotel was built. , Smith’s. In 2014, he bought a second hotel, completely renovated and renamed “Greens at Gretna, First Hotel in Scotland”. And in 2016, he bought a third hotel in the village, the 97-room Gretna Hall.

Although diagnosed with cancer in 2018, Alasdair has continued to look to the future in business, creating new sales divisions, including a Chinese-oriented retail website two years ago. In agriculture, Alasdair’s main interest was breeding purebred cattle and his attention to bloodlines brought his cattle to the fore. Initially he worked with two continental breeds, the Charolais and the Simmental, 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 thoughtful breeding, the Gretnahouse cattle often came to the top of the trade.

Then in 2001, it all went up in smoke with the herd cremated as part of the forced slaughter of cattle during the foot-and-mouth disease pandemic. Making this slaughter more difficult to carry out, none of the herds 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 redeemed Gretnahouse bloodlines previously sold to herds across the country and, aided by a few frozen embryos he had stored, started again. He first rebuilt the Charolais cattle, and Alasdair’s Gretnahouse herd is once again one of the most influential in the national Charolais herdbook, with bulls selling for twice over £ 25,000 in recent national sales. . His leadership qualities and his enthusiasm for the breed led him to be appointed president of the Charolais breed society. Not content with that, in 2010 he embarked on the breeding of Aberdeen Angus cattle, winning the jackpot in 2014 with the aptly named “Gretnahouse Blacksmith”, a very influential sire with a much sought after lineage.

In May 2021, shortly before his death, Alasdair admitted he was “honored and overwhelmed” when he received the Sir William Young Prize from the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland in recognition of his “outstanding contribution to the world of cattle breeding ”.

An accomplished athlete in his youth, Alasdair was a quick rugby player at the center out and wing when he was captain of the first XV at Glenalmond College. He went on to play at Langholm Rugby Club, then as a student at Magdalen College, Cambridge, before sustaining a serious back injury in a car accident which ended a very promising rugby career. Intrepid, he decided, after 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 finished his official race unscathed, as well as officially, a second time on a tea tray at 3 a.m. after a few drinks! He held a private pilot’s license, justifying it, his eyes sparkling, saying he could observe what his neighbors were doing.

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

Ali, as his friends called him, was a great storyteller with a fierce intelligence. He loved people and wanted to give a helping hand to young people. He really enjoyed being involved in the South of Scotland Youth Awards

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