It is bad luck to have both your family businesses virtually destroyed by two separate pandemics; but it is a major feat of resilience to come back stronger, while keeping your sense of humour firmly intact throughout.
Alasdair Houston, from Gretna Green, lived his life with a determined, honest, and competitive energy that built two businesses: twice.
Over the course of 35 years, he made his own unique mark on the world of pedigree cattle breeding, as well as the wedding, hospitality and tourism industries.
In 2001, the first 21st century pandemic to hit the UK – Foot and Mouth Disease – destroyed the family pedigree breeding herd of beef cattle. Alasdair rebuilt the herd from scratch, and the ‘Gretnahouse’ herd is now famous in the farming world as one of the UK’s top pedigree breeding herds of Charolais and Aberdeen Angus Cattle.
Then, in 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic hit Alasdair’s other family business. Gretna Green is the first village in Scotland, and is famous for weddings, as prospective couples eloped over the border from England to take advantage of Scotland’s more relaxed marriage laws.
Gretna Green is home not just to the farm; but to the Gretna Green wedding and tourism business, Gretna Green Ltd, a family business built up through several generations.
Pre-Covid, Gretna Green performed 10% of all weddings in Scotland, and welcomed over 800,000 visitors a year from around the world. Then, by March 2019, none: the business was completely closed to visitors for the first time since Alasdair’s great-grandfather, Hugh Mackie, first started welcoming brides across the Scottish border in 1885.
In 2021, Alasdair and his team at Gretna Green Ltd. won Queen’s Award for International Trade, ironically at a time when the business was completely closed to visitors. The prestigious business award was in recognition of recent pre-Covid successes with its online business and international tourism.
Thankfully, by June 2021, when the Award could finally be presented, the business was slowly welcoming back small wedding parties, though not yet international visitors.
Welcoming people was something Alasdair did both in his personal life as well as his professional life. Ali, as he was known to his friends and family, loved to laugh and knew how to have fun. He hosted some legendary parties over the years.
Ali was a great raconteur with a fierce intelligence; had a twinkle in his eye, a good line in banter, an infectious smile and great gusto for a good time.
He loved people and was interested in giving young people a helping hand, whether it was his family members, his godchildren and enjoyed being involved with the South of Scotland Youth Awards.
An accomplished athlete, Alasdair loved to move at speed: on foot, (as anyone trying to keep up with him on a farm walk will attest), with a ball or bat in hand, in cars, bikes or skis, flying (he held a Private Pilot’s license) and on occasion, less traditional modes of transport. He was a speedy rugby player at outside centre and wing for Glenalmond College, Langholm Rugby Club, and Cambridge University until he suffered a serious back injury in a car crash that nearly stopped short his life and certainly 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) completing his official runs unscathed, as well as completing it unofficially, a second time on a tea tray at 3am after a few drinks!
Alasdair spent over 35 years of his life growing the family businesses, taking over the helm from his father, Robert Adair Houston, who, by Alasdair’s own admission, was a hard act to follow; a pioneering entrepreneur who put Gretna Green on the map as a modern tourist destination and was one of the early pioneers of the French Charolais cattle breed in the UK, importing stock in 1970.
Alasdair took over this herd in 1985, and by 2001 years of careful breeding saw him at the top of the tree in both Charolais and Simmental breeds.
Then in 2001, it all went up in smoke; literally. The ‘Gretnahouse’ herd was incinerated as part of the forced cull of livestock during the Foot and Mouth pandemic, even though none of the herd had tested positive for the virus.
Alasdair, confined in quarantine on the farm with his family, had to witness the cull, as the stench and smoke of his beloved herd hung over the farm for days.
Alasdair admitted that the experience ‘sent him slightly mad’, and his determination to not lose everything sent him back to the drawing board: ‘I made spreadsheets that covered the walls and floors of the farm office,’ as he traced the Gretnahouse offspring to herds around the country, and that, aided by some frozen embryos that he had stored, he started buying back some of the Gretnahouse bloodlines, and then tracked down others that he admired.
He built back the Charolais herd first, and then, 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 sought-after bloodline.
Both ‘new’ herds have had great success, with Charolais regularly in the top UK breed averages at Stirling and Carlisle, and the relatively young Aberdeen Angus herd achieving an outstanding run of success producing numerous influential bulls that sell at auction for five-figure sums.
He was a well-respected as an expert breed and interbreed cattle judge having been invited to judge all the major shows in UK and Ireland.
For most people, this one comeback in his farming career would have been enough, but Alasdair was also at the helm of Gretna Green. Pre-Covid, the business employed over 300 people locally, and one of the largest employers in Dumfries and Galloway and was Scotland’s largest privately owned visitor attraction and wedding destination.
Together with his sister, Susan Houston, who remains in the business, he built the ‘Gretna Green – Runaway Weddings Since 1754’ brand – focussing on the village’s unique history as a wedding destination. 10% of all weddings in Scotland take place in Gretna Green – most of them at one of the Gretna Green Ltd. wedding venues – either in the Blacksmith’s Shop itself or in one of the three hotels.
‘Hotelier’ was certainly not in Alasdair Houston repertoire of skills when the company made the decision in 2006, that, if the village was going to fulfil its destiny as the wedding destination, then wedding parties need good places to stay and celebrate, so a new hotel was built: Smith’s.
In 2014, he bought a second hotel locally, fully refurbished and rebranded it ‘Greens at Gretna, First Hotel in Scotland’, In 2016 he bought a third hotel in the village, the 97-bedroom Gretna Hall, the former manor house for the Gretna Estate that his great grandfather Hugh Mackie had originally bought for the farmlands in 1885.
Alongside the physical expansion of Destination Gretna Green, the company invested in Brand Gretna Green online, and www.gretnagreen.com is now a fast-growing E-commerce division and in 2019, the company launched a new .CN Chinese retail website, seeking to increase reach of brand Gretna Green into China.
Other business activities include various property interests; retail shops at Gretna M74 Services; the historic ‘Old Toll Bar, First House in Scotland’, coffee shop and restaurant.
For many years Alasdair was a non-executive director of H&H Group plc, the Carlisle-based livestock auction, property and insurance company.
By 2016, Alasdair had put in place an executive team and was looking forward to stepping back slightly from day-to-day operations, especially after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018.
For the past several years Alasdair fought a dual battle for survival, but, thankfully, Alasdair saw Gretna Green started to welcome back small-group wedding parties, and the gradual reopening of Smiths Hotel and Gretna Hall.
One of Alasdair’s final acts was to finally secure private funding to ensure the future of another of his projects, a monumental public artwork, The Star of Caledonia, which he first conceived 20 years ago as a monument to resilience of the people of the local area, on both sides of the border, who had to build back after the devastation of Foot and Mouth pandemic, as a symbol of ambition, recovery, energy, innovation, regeneration.
The Star will welcome everyone entering Scotland at the border at Gretna Green and will be built on a piece of the farmland close to the border that the family has donated to the project.
His vision for The Star of Caledonia is as a gift to the local community where he spent his life and to the people with whom he shared life’s battles and triumphs. Alasdair was deeply rooted to the local area; and knew that, when you live in the borderlands, borders are just artificial lines on a map, not barriers to human connection and doing business.
In 2011 he was awarded an MBE for Services to Tourism in Dumfriesshire and became Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Dumfries.
Despite all his achievements, he always appreciated that the greatest joy in life was his family; and was happily married to Lucy for 24 years, with two children, Tara and Rafe. He also leaves behind his mother, Moira, his sisters Susan, Valerie, and Fiona, as well as nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters-in-law, mother-in-law, numerous godchildren, and countless friends and colleagues.
- Alasdair George Houston MBE, DL, FRAgS, Born January 5 1962. Educated at Glenalmond College, Perthshire; Magdalen College, Cambridge, (Modern Languages and Land Economy) and Edinburgh University School of Agriculture. Fellow of the Royal Agricultural Society Scotland, Vice President of Royal Highland Agricultural Show. Past Chairman of the British Charolais Society.