'While an auctioneer sees an animal in the ring for a matter of seconds, it’s been on a farm for a lifetime, and the farmer is entrusting you to get the best price for them on the day in those few moments'

It was as I was standing around the new RSABI Health Huts recently, watching everyone having a good chat and laughing as they waited, that it reminded me of what auctioneers provide to the agricultural community.

It’s such a place of trust and camaraderie, full of good hearted, decent folk and fantastic characters. I’ve been invited to weddings and christenings and asked to do eulogies. I’ve had some of the best times at farm groups and charity fundraisers, as well as around the ring. It is such a privileged trusted place auctioneers enjoy in the community.

You see it in the ring. When an auctioneer sees an animal in the ring for a matter of seconds, it’s been on a farm for a lifetime, and the farmer is entrusting you to get the best price for them on the day in those few moments. The homework obviously starts way before, though, from visiting the farm, canvasing and assessing the stock, giving a view on the trade. For big sale days, you’ll be studying the catalogue, busily making notes and speaking to buyers.

Someone once said to me that auctioneering is like theatre. Standing on the rostrum is a performance and you have just one chance and a short window to hook your audience. You need to have a quick mind and good knowledge of the trade. We used to have, and are hoping to reintroduce for trainee auctioneers, speech therapy to learn about voice control and being clear; you have to adjust your delivery to your audience which could be a farrow cow one day, a vase another.

My first job at the Marts was as an office boy at the Central Mart in Aberdeen. I started on 16th May 1979, I still remember the date. My duties were getting the butteries and taking the cheques to the bank. I’d always loved being around the marts, going every Friday with my dad. I moved on to clerk where I mainly did farm groups, then valuations, everything from farms to antiques. In 1986, I moved to Insch to sell prime sheep and cattle.

The huge sense of community I remember from the farm groups of old, too, when we’d have a hilarious time when the group finished and the drams were poured – it was like a mini Hogmanay, a mix of business and pleasure. It doesn’t happen so much now. I remember after one, heading off to a house locally with Philip Reid who I clerked for, for over 20 years, to continue the party. The house was dark, but he rang the doorbell and all the lights came on, Philip high tailing it back to the car shouting “wrang hoose” as he jumped into the passenger seat and we sped away.

Marts have got us through some of the industry’s toughest times too and have been a constant for many. Marts were closed for six months when Foot and Mouth broke out and prices were horrendous, but as soon as the marts reopened the prices sprung back to normal. Trade stopped overnight with BSE and we didn’t sell an OTM for over 10 years. It was around this time that marts started looking at non-livestock sales.

Promoted to the management team at ANM in 1992 under Brian Pack, I was charged with developing the non-livestock “Saturday Sales”. They were every six weeks, and I didn’t miss one. We’d be in Middlesborough, Lockerbie…prime cattle one day, a cement mixer or selling off equipment from Edinburgh Slaughter House the next. There was great variation: different places, different audiences, and it didn’t matter whether you were selling a bull for £5000 or a sleeper for £30, we had a job to do.

When I first started, there would be tea at every place. You’d have a good chat and I’ve made great friends. It’s different now in some ways, as there’s less labour and family working on the farm, but there’s still a great rapport between farmers and auctioneers. Now, it can be that you are the only person a farmer has seen outside the farm that week. You talk about the livestock trade but you’re also often a bit of buffer to talk about other things that are going on. It can be a lonely place now, with fewer people on the farm.

The lack of labour also means that more farmers are finding it hard to get time to the marts. Technology is playing its part here, mostly with machinery sales – many still like to see the livestock in the ring before buying – and it suits some to do business like this so many of the marts have hybrid sales which also allows them to reach a wider audience.

The social aspect has struggled to come back a bit since Covid, but it is coming. That’s why RSABI’s Health Huts have been so great and will be rolling out through the marts. We’ve got the Christmas Classic coming up later this month which always draws a crowd. Butchers up from London, some of the best cattle and sheep stock from Orkney to Perthshire, a great buzz and anticipation, and lots of involvement from the Young Farmers. I think the record has been £7000 for a champion; and £16,000 for a Charolais bull. There’s a huge thrill getting these high prices, and I’ve loved doing charity auctions over the years too, especially for cancer charities, where you really feel part of this amazing feat and so humbled. The most remarkable was probably the sale of the Oor Wullie statues in Dundee which raised over £883,000.

I’m looking forward to the year ahead as I get more established in my role with the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland (IAAS). The industry has its challenges but we also need to navigate the opportunities and take the marts confidently into the future.

Prices are still good across all classes with fat cattle at £5/kg, and well attended breeding sales. Cull cattle numbers are up which is perhaps an indicator of the wider farming landscape and one we’re all watching. The marts continue to move with the times and are looking at EID to improve safety and efficiency, and we’re seeing a strong new generation of auctioneers coming up through the industry as well as contributing to the IAAS board.