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A career at the core of Orkney’s marts

Auctioneer John Copland has plied his trade on the various islands of Orkney for half a century where, as he tells Ewan Pate, there have been plenty of highlights to looking after such an extensive territory.

John Copland
John Copland
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A career at the core of Orkney’s marts

John Copland’s 50 years with Orkney Auction Mart and its predecessor Kirkwall Auction Mart have seen him dealing with numerous farmers from the various islands of Orkney, helping them with the day-to-day business of marketing their livestock.


And it is a task he is quietly proud of with the Orkneys’ well-deserved reputation for quality livestock, especially beef cattle.


The islands are home to the highest concentration of suckler cows in Europe and although there has been some decline during the last 25 years there are still some 25,000 of them.


Although the northerly latitude guarantees some harsh winter weather, the disadvantages are offset by fertile soils and great conditions for growing grass during summer.


Add in the fact that cows are mostly beef bred and the health benefits of a ‘ring-fenced’ island environment and it is easy to see why store cattle and sheep from Orkney have a fabled reputation for quality.


And it is in this setting that John Copland worked in livestock auctioneering for the last 50 years, his contribution to farming and rural life on the islands recognised by the award of an MBE in the 2020 New Year Honours list.


The award came just ahead of his retirement from Orkney Auction Mart and 50 years after he joined what was then Kirkwall Auction Mart in March 1969 as an 18-year-old trainee auctioneer.


It turned out to be his first and only job application and there have been plenty of highlights along the way.

In January 1993, the two Orkney marts, Kirkwall and West Mainland, amalgamated to form Orkney Auction Mart and by 1994 John had been appointed general manager of the new firm.


New site


Almost immediately he set to work on organising the construction of a new out-of-town market.


John says: “We had a suitable site because back in 1962, Kirkwall Mart bought the 81 hectares (200 acres) which had formerly been the Royal Naval air station HMS Sparrowhawk.


“The land was initially used for grazing, but we made the fields much smaller to accommodate smaller batches of cattle and sheep before and after sales and then we converted the runways into alleyways.


“The main runway, which cut the site in two, was sold for a new road and an underpass was installed for our use.”


John and two of his staff then toured Scotland looking at recent market designs to make sure all the latest ideas were incorporated in the design of the new building.


It was opened in 1996 by then Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth.

“It is not easy to finish cattle here, but we produce great quality stores which suit mainland buyers mainly from the North East”

John Copland



The 1990s however posed challenges in Orkney, as they did elsewhere in the UK as BSE restrictions began to bite.


“Although there were only 98 cases over 10 years, Orkney Council had to set up a cull station and incinerator for over 30-month cattle,” says John.


“It had a massive financial impact on the farming economy.


“Then, in 2001, we had to live with all the restrictions of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, even though the nearest cases were 300 miles away.


“I am proud to say we were however allowed to hold the first auction sale in Scotland after the outbreak was brought under control.”


John also remembers the effect of the loss of the social aspects of market life, with the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions serving as a painful reminder.


Fortunately, the Orkney mart had already installed video cameras in the ring years earlier to enable consignors from the islands to see their stock sold.


John also talks of the differences he has seen in the stock brought forward over the years.


While the Orcadian speciality is store cattle, there remains a small demand for prime cattle from the four butchers on the islands. But with no abattoir on the isles, cattle and sheep have to be slaughtered at Dingwall on the Scottish mainland.


Most of the island’s herds are spring calving, with the cows overwintered largely in slatted housing.


The acreage of cereals is small and straw is always a scarce commodity.


“It is not easy to finish cattle here, but we produce great quality stores which suit mainland buyers mainly from the North East,” says John.


“We can have 12-15 regular buyers ringside at the larger cattle sales buying for themselves or for customers.”


Continental breeds are still dominant in Orkney, but John has noticed a growing number of other breeds being introduced.


Cattle are kept on 19 islands, including those connected by the Churchill Barriers.


The Orkney sheep flock, which stands at some 44,000 ewes, produces prime and store lambs and is even more dispersed, grazing across 35 isles. There are also 2,000 dairy cows spread across 14 farms.


However, there are far fewer farmers in Orkney than when John stated his career. At that time, there would be 1,500 farms and crofts compared to about 550 full-time units today.

Animal transport


One of the challenges of island life is of course animal transportation and it is a subject John has been fully engaged with over the decades.


The stock from the outlying islands has a ferry journey before it reaches the market by lorry, but even that takes a lot of organising as there are now only three active hauliers involved with livestock transport in the Northern Isles.


Bigger journeys lie ahead though, with most stock ferried from Kirkwall to Aberdeen on a journey taking almost eight hours.


John says: “I have been involved in a number of animal welfare committees, some more effective than others and some which never even produced reports.


“But we did have a breakthrough when we visited SAC’s Bush Estate at Edinburgh and saw prototypes for roll-on, roll-off cassettes suitable for longer ferry journeys.


“It looked an excellent idea but none of the ships on the Kirkwall to Aberdeen route were tall enough to accommodate a two-deck container for cattle.


“The answer was to develop a cassette which could take cattle on the lower deck and sheep on the top and that is the system which is used now very successfully.


“The stock are well bedded and have feed and water available.”


It is a system the Orcadian farming community will have to be ready to defend in the forthcoming Government review into the live export of animals.


“It is absolutely vital that time on the ferry is regarded as neutral time and not included in the lorry journey time,” John says. “Otherwise the Orkney livestock industry will be in real trouble.”


His career too has involved more than his daily work leading the mart team.

Although John and his wife, Barbara, now live near Kirkwall, they had their own croft for many years.


He was a member of NFU Scotland’s Highlands and Islands committee and gave evidence to the Foot and Mouth Inquiry 10 years ago.


He has also provided valuable liaison services for rural charity the Royal Scottish Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RSABI) and for several years he organised collections of plastic bale wrap with recycling proceeds going to the charity.


Show commentating


As regards agricultural show commentating, John has virtually cornered the market, although not without some initial persuasion.


“I used to have to prime the commentator with all the information about the exhibitors and their stock but when

The Queen visited in 1978 I was asked just to do it myself.


“I have now helped for 50 years at Orkney County Show and also commentate at Dounby Show and East Mainland Show.”


Mr Copland has also been the secretary of the Orkney agricultural discussion society for at least 15 years.


In his spare time, or at least what little he has of it, he is a stalwart of Orkney Rugby Club, an outfit well used to travelling the length and breadth of Scotland to play in league games.


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