By Kathryn Dick

For this week’s ‘Stockmen of our Time’ we head North to meet the well-respected husband and wife duo, Hughie and Jan MacKenzie.

Based at Strathnaver, Kinbrace, Jan was brought up on the family croft, Langdale, home to the family for four generations.

In 1999, Jan took on a contract farming position at the 12,000-acre North Loch Naver Estates, managing a flock of 500 breeding NCC ewes and 300 young sheep too on her own.

Jan then became tenant of Langdale in 2000, after her father retired and since then has acquired another tenancy croft, whilst also maintaining a 250-strong North Country Cheviot flock at Langdale, jointly owned with Hughie.

Brought up on Welbeck Estates, near Caithness, Hughie left school at 16 and worked at Welbeck for three and a half years before moving to Clebrig, in 1982, to work for the Nicholson family.

After 25 years at Clebrig, Hughie left to work as stockman for the renowned Badanloch flock based at Kinbrace, in 2007, where he currently manages a flock of 1050 North Country Cheviot breeding ewes.

What got you into showing livestock in the first place?

“It was Hughie that got me into showing as I wasn’t into it before I met him and just attending the shows alongside him got me interested,” said Jan.

“Going to Caithness Show with a pen of hill sheep from Welbeck as a youngster instilled the ‘showing bug’ in me. Once I started working at Clebrig, I began to attend the Sutherland Show and have shown there every year since 1983,” Hughie added.

What qualities do you like about the breeds that you work with over others?

“We both find that the North Country Cheviot’s hardiness and ability to live and thrive on poor quality ground on the hills is the main attraction,” Jan explained. “They are self-sufficient, adaptable and have an ability to thrive on poor quality grass whilst rearing sturdy lambs.”

What was your first Royal Highland Show?

“I first attended when on a day trip with Elmwood College in 1980, before showing my first sheep for Clebrig in 1996. I’ve shown there ever since,” commented Hughie.

Jan added: “When I first began showing Northies, the Royal Highland Show didn’t have a separate judge for the different Cheviot types – the park type judge scored both them and the hill sheep, which wasn’t very successful. A few years later when the breed got it’s own judge, we began to show more from around 2003.”

What was the best animal you’ve ever shown?

“I have the choice of two. First, was a tup that I bought in Dingwall for £1000, in the form of Heathmount Hurricane LouLou. He was a well put together sheep and stood male champion at the Royal Highland Show in 2003, and later went on to be one part of the inter-breed champion pairs team that same year. "That was the first time that a hill sheep pairing had accomplished the inter-breed title and it’s never been achieved since,” Jan stated.

“My second, would be a home-bred Langdale gimmer that stood inter-breed sheep champion and reserve show champion at Sutherland Show – she was a great example of a good Northie female.”

Hughie added: “My favourite was a sparky ewe out of the Clebrig flock. She stood supreme at the Royal Highland Show in 2003, and was the other half of the champion inter-breed pairs. She also stood inter-breed champion at Sutherland that same year.”

But what's the best animal that you’d ever seen?

“I’m not a cattle person but I would have to say that Blackcraig Kodiac was a great Galloway bull. He was special and it was obvious that he had something about him that caught the eye,” said Hughie

“In the late 1980s, Torrish Estate sold a tup by a Lochbeg sire to Heathmount and he had great breed character. Another was Charlie Symons’ South Country Cheviot ewe, Highland Queen, which stood inter-breed champion at the Royal Highland Show twice – another great animal.”

Jan added: “Highland Queen was a beautiful beast and one of the reasons why I started my own flock of South Country Cheviots. She was an exceptional ewe with such presence about her.”

Changes over the years in the showing world?

“Numbers of people showing has fallen over the years and less people are showing sheep, especially within our section. There are a few younger ones coming through and they need to be encouraged to go to shows,” Jan commented.

“The turnout of animals has increased by several levels since I first attended shows and if your animals are not on top form then it’s a non-starter,” explained Hughie.

You’re most abiding memory?

“Having your tup being part of the Royal Highland Show inter-breed winning pair was a feeling that I’ll struggle to beat. Knowing that you have got your name down in history for the breed is amazing, but achieving it as a couple made it an even greater day!” said Jan.

“That was a great day, however, I would also mention the year I watched the first four-figure tup sell through Lairg in the 1970s, from Hamish Campbell, Altnaharra – he made £1200 to Badanloch and you could have heard a pin drop in the ring when he went over £1000!

"I was also lucky enough to sell the first five-figure North Country Cheviot on behalf of Badanloch for £11,000, in 2009,” added Hughie.

Biggest disappointment of your career?

“We don’t dwell on disappointments, but I would have to say the year that we lost all our tups to CLA, during my time at Clebrig. At that time we had obtained three generations of very good Hethpool Hillbilly tups and they were all lost,” Hughie stated.

Jan added: “For me, it is always being out-bid on tup that I wanted!”

Most influential person in your career?

“When I started working at Welbeck there were two shepherds – John Gunn and Anson MacKay – and farm manager, Alec Coghill.

"From those three men, I gained valuable experience, especially from John, and as a youngster I couldn’t have been given a better start in the job with those guys,” commented Hughie.

“For me, I would mention my dad as he always got me involved on the farm, encouraged me and was proud of all my achievements,” Jan said.

What’s been your favourite show over the years and why?

“Our local Sutherland Show, as it’s a little show that’s very well run, promoting local livestock amongst a lovely atmosphere. It’s a show that is very close to our hearts,” they agreed.

“Another would be the fairly recent Lairg Show, held in November. It’s a relaxed affair and the hill sheep always look tremendous at it.”

Your choice of best stockman ever?

“On the up-and-coming scene, Bob and Becca Rennie, of Attonburn, are a force to be reckoned with.”

“We would also say Joyce Campbell, of Armadale, as her stock are always tremendous wherever she sells and she is a great ambassador for the Northie breed,” they both agreed.

“I would also mention the late David Sutherland, of Borrobol, as he used to have tups turned out to perfection at Lairg in my early years,” added Hughie.

Best and worst advice you've received?

“My first year showing at Sutherland I hadn’t got on that well and Hughie McLeod, of Forrest Farm, came over and told me not to be too downhearted and to come back and do better next year. I never forgot that he bothered to come and speak to me and his advice only goes to prove that encouraging youngsters does have an effect!” said Hughie.

“A bad one would be accepting the invitation for ‘one more for the road’ knowing full well I should’ve stopped about 10 before that!”

Biggest showing achievement?

“Winning the inter-breed pairs at the Royal Highland Show, in 2003, as it was a first time achievement for the breed and to win any inter-breed title at Highland is very rare,” both agreed.

Any hobbies outwith farming?

“We both enjoy training and taking young dogs to nursery trials – it allows us to get away from the farm on the odd occasion! You also can’t beat a good party!” said Jan.

What’s the future of the show circuit?

“Hopefully the shows will return next year and shall remain strong – we hope that Covid-19 hasn’t put an end to the smaller ones.

"Now that younger people play a huge role within the world of showing, we also hope that they’ll be encouraged to keep and show livestock as they’re the future of the show circuit,” they concluded.