JOHN SWAN and Sons was one of the great livestock auctioneering companies and now those that created it have been lauded as the ‘Great livestock salesmen’ in a recently published book.

This fascinating monograph is a concise and authoritative account of the history if how Britain came to be fed. Things may be changing in the 21st century, but the foundations rest on the system of trading pioneered by John Swan and his family two centuries ago.

Ignore history in the search for efficiency and profit in the online markets and global trading of 2020, and you’ll miss this excellent account of why and how, that Andrew Humphries has put together for this book.

The story begins with the drovers who first brought herds and flocks down the drove roads and routes to the cities they served. The aim of this trade was the transportation of livestock from the Highlands and from lowland Scotland, to England and, eventually, London. History told us that this increased Scottish prosperity as well as feed the whole of Britain.

The Swans arrive on the scene just at the point where the great trysts and livestock fairs of the pre-Victorian era were about to be eclipsed. John’s sons, James and Tom, had been instrumental in bringing thousands of animals to these busy and colourful markets, where, mainly by haggling and word of mouth, they would change ownership, with a handshake or a slap of hands. This was about to change.

The Swans were astute and clever agents who could size up the value of a beast or a lamb and get a good price for it. Moving from Earlston, first to Edinburgh, they eventually set up or traded in markets throughout Scotland and became pioneers of the system of auction marts that replaced the haggling of the past, where word-of-mouth deals covered a multitude of sometimes dishonest practices.

Andrew Humphries, drew on contemporary accounts, providing many anecdotes about such traders, both scrupulous and unscrupulous, whose colourful practices always enlivened the story of farming. The picture of the three Swans, in their white coats and notebooks, threads the story – with their individual skills and personalities.

Highly respected and efficient, the story makes you admire the style of a man who can change out of his auctioneer’s coat, into a waistcoat, collar and tie, as he sells the final pen of sheep before he slips away to catch a train home to Edinburgh.

It’s not only the story of three men – it gives full weight to the role of John’s wife, who advised her husband that he’d get nowhere in the quiet backwater of the Earlston and needed to go to Edinburgh to make his name. A rare blemish in the book is the omission of her name.

The arrival of the auction mart is not the end of the story – for world trade also features, with accounts of how cattle imported live from North America transformed the British market, and how welfare issues helped to change practices that also affected the transportation of livestock in trains.

A range of issues are neatly presented – together with a well-illustrated account of how stratified sheep-breeding was transformed during the period of the Swans, and how the marketing of the day supported and encouraged it.

The era of the Swans ended when H and H took over the company in 2015, but not their legacy. Richard Rankin, the CEO of H and H, said John Swan’s company’s role was crucial in establishing the modern marketplace. The family’s flagship mart at St Boswells still operates in the centre of the livestock industry in the Scottish Borders for H and H.

  • John Swan and Sons – Great livestock salesmen is published by H and H, with all profits going to farming charity, RSABI.

It is available for £5 at all Hand H marts and via email for the same cost plus P and P from Alison Agnew –