Turning out show winning cattle for various herds, renowned stockman, John Morton, has certainly made his mark in the show and sale ring over the years.

He spoke to The Scottish Farmer about his successful career in the pedigree cattle world.


I was born and brought up in Ayrshire, where my father worked as stockman and farm manager for Lord Sorn’s polled Hereford herd, so I have been brought up and surrounded with pedigree cattle all my life.

At 12 years old, I won my first show – Moffat – with a yearling Hereford bull and I think it was at that point that I caught the ‘showing bug’.

Once I had finished school, I worked alongside father for six years until the herd was dispersed and I went to work for Robert McInnes’ Friesian dairy herd as a dairyman, as well as attending shows and sales, where we were fairly successful.

After five years, in 1988, I then headed to Dirnanean Estate, near Pitlochry, where I worked as stockman for the Strathardle Simmental herd. During my five years there, I built up the herd to 200 suckler cows and 20 pure Simmentals.

There, I secured a number of titles whilst working with the Strathardle herd, including achieving 6000gns in October, 1989, at Perth Bull Sales, with Strathardle Nugget, an 18-month-old bull.

After leaving Dirnanean Estate, I arrived at Gretnahouse Farm and have been here for 25 years. I now work with a mixture of pedigree cattle, including Simmentals, Charolais and Aberdeen-Angus.

My first sale with Gretnahouse Simmentals was at Perth Bull Sales, where I topped the trade at 14,000gns with the male champion, Gretnahouse Excelsior.

What got you into showing?

Due to my father being a stockman, I was brought up around pedigree cattle and it felt like a natural thing to do. It’s the only thing I’ve ever known and I really enjoy it, especially when you win a show as you’re on cloud nine.

What qualities do you like about the breeds that you work?

All three of the breeds that I work with have similarities and a lot depends on their handling. The Simmentals are a docile breed and have a great nature.

With regards to the Charolais, the modern type in the breed are doing well and will always secure top prices, no matter what ring your in – store or fat.

I was here when we started the Aberdeen-Angus herd 10 years ago and it’s the quality of the cattle that I was drawn to. We were moving towards being more reliant on home-bred cattle and being self contained, so had to get into a more successful maternal breeding line and that’s why the Angus cattle suits us – they always demand a premium in the ring too!

First Royal Highland Show?

I’ve attended the Royal Highland since I was in my early 20’s, representing Ayrshire YF by taking part in stockjudging.

However, my first year showing livestock was in 1990, leading Milnafua Vagabond, a Simmental bull, for the estate.

I’ve never been lucky at the Royal Highland, having been there with great animals and always standing in second place. I’ve since given up showing and now go for the social aspect.

Best animal you’ve ever shown?

That would have to be our home-bred Angus bull, Gretnahouse Blacksmith. Just everything about him was perfection; he was easy to show, had tremendous conformation and I’ve never seen an Angus like him. Haymount have since bought a half share in him.

He was shown at Dumfries Show, the Beef Expo and was destined to go to Stirling Bull Sales, but we decided to keep him. However, I always hate to think what he would’ve made if we’d put him on the open market. He bred bulls up to 15,000gns – that was for Gretnahouse Exocet – and we have retained six full sisters in the herd.

Best animal you’ve ever seen?

That Blacksmith bull is one of them, however the Simmental bull, Wellhouse Dictator, was also fantastic. He was what the breed was needing, with great conformation and shape to him and we managed to secure some semen off him too.

Another favourite that comes to mind would be the Blackcraig Galloway bull Blackcraig Kodiak. For a Galloway, he had tremendous shape and was just eye-catching.

I have no female favourites as I’m not a believer of showing females. I’ve seen them wasted and there’s very few times a show cow will breed due to being fed and pushed too much. As the saying goes, you can’t better a good animal and this is so true in the showing world.

Changes over the years?

The showing circuit is definitely more professional which can be a bad thing for a new start to be able to make a name for themselves. There are so many tricks of the trade that it can’t be easy for someone fresh into the show ring.

I found that with the Angus I had to change how I dressed cattle to suit the breed and it’s the same with each breed you work with.

Another change is that there’s a lot more women showing livestock these days. When I was young, you never saw any ladies showing and now at least a third of stock people are females – it’s a nice change to see.

Abiding memory?

That would have to be winning the Charolais Christmas Cracker Show and Sale three years in succession, which is something no one has ever achieved and we won with different animals each year.

Another would be selling Gretnahouse Ubeauty for 25,000gns at Carlisle, in May, 2004, and Gretnahouse Lord for 25,000gns at Stirling Bull Sales, in February, 2017 – he also stood reserve champion that day.

One other fond memory would be topping the bull sales market and getting champion with Excelsior.

Biggest disappointment?

The year of foot-and-mouth was the worst as we lost 70 cows. We had to build the herd back up afterwards by buying cattle from friends and luckily, we had Charolais embryos retained in the tank with top bloodlines – so that helped us get back on our feet.

Most influential person?

One man would be John Redpath, from Alyth. I worked with him for two years and picked up a few tricks from watching him show his Highlanders and Shorthorns. I like to watch what people do – your eyes are your best friend when learning.

I also have to mention my father, Hugh Morton, for encouraging me into world of showing and giving me the start I needed.

Favourite show over the years and why?

That’s a hard one to answer and I really can’t chose just one. All are similar but different in their own ways and all are fantastic shows.

Best stockman ever?

I would say Anne MacPherson, as she is a person who can turn out cattle amazingly and always gets them looking their best – she’s as good as anyone. Her and I are the only Simmental stockmen that have topped bull sales from over the years.

Best kist party?

Some of the best were at the Birmingham Dairy event, held in July – I had a whale of a time there. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m out of my regular region but I seem to let my hair down a wee bit more down south!

Biggest showing achievement?

Definitely winning inter-breed champion at Dumfries Show, in 2011, with the in-calf Charolais heifer, Gretnahouse Emerald. I was delighted due to it being a local show and because I had showed there for a number of years and never got the top spot! She headed to the Royal Highland Show and was placed second.

Another would be the Simmental bull winning the championship at Perth Bull Sales, as I’ve never won a championship in any other breed, other than with him.

Any hobbies?

I don’t have any hobbies outwith the cattle as showing and breeding cattle is my hobby. However, I do like my yearly holidays away after the February Bull Sales to relax a bit!

Future of the show circuit?

Hopefully, it can get back on the same level as that we have had up to this year but I can’t see many shows going ahead next year. I fear for smaller shows and some of the big shows, as some may not survive without investment.

It will be interesting to witness the 2022 showing year, as I wonder that people may have gotten out of the habit of showing livestock.

It takes time and effort to get cattle into the ring and getting out of the habit may result in some people not taking it back up again.

However, I am sure the show circuit will revive itself as it’s a great advert to the public for our amazing industry.