A Sale in the Highlands

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    “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime,” wrote Mark Twain in “Roughing It.”

    We just returned from 16 days in Great Britain, 14 of those in Scotland.


    Originally my wife Sue and our close friends Tad and Debbie McMillan planned on making the trip in 2019 or 2020 but COVID-19 changed our plans.

    We arrived on a Thursday afternoon after crossing seven time zones on our eastward flight. “Jet Lag” is a real phenomenon as we fought to stay awake for over 24 hours attempting to reset our internal clocks. It didn’t work very well, and coming back home is even odder.

    I often chide people who claim to have visited Wyoming when they mention they were in Jackson Hole. “That’s Las Vegas, you missed Wyoming,” I often tell them.

    We were guilty of the easy lure of tourist attractions just as our outside visitors often are when they mistake Jackson for anything remotely resembling Wyoming. We did a lot of the tourist things you do in a strange city, or an even stranger country when you initially arrive.


    Despite falling into the tourist grove, we had a fabulous “holiday” (as the Scots and Brits call a vacation.) Our days in Edinburgh, Inverness, and Glasgow were wonderful.

    Ride a bus, see the city, then go to the venues that catch your eye. That was the plan, along with taking well-planned, well-organized tours with expert guides. Add in too many visits to restaurants, local pubs, and entirely too much shopping and you have the programmed portion of our holiday in a nutshell.

    Thankfully, not everything we did was a traditional tourist venture.


    We rented a car on the first Sunday for a trip to the Isle of Danna, a windswept, isolated section of nearly treeless grass on the west side of central Scotland.

    Living on the island were Elaine and Gordon, along with a thousand sheep. Elaine raised border collies and was a friend of Tad’s late father Chauncy. Chauncy had championship border collies in Powell, where he was a local legend.

    Chauncy bought a border collie from Elaine one year and began a pen pal relationship. Later he made the trip to Scotland to see her operation.


    Tad repeated the trip with the other three of us in tow, the Island of Danna was an amazing expanse of windswept grass dotted with sheep and herds of Red Stag, an animal larger than a mule deer but smaller than an elk that has equally impressive antlers.

    The rental car was an experience unto itself with Tad nervously driving the 150 miles from Edinburg to the island and me repeating the trip back to the hotel in the misty twilight and absolute darkness of central Scotland. Driving on the “wrong side of the road might seem easy in theory, but it’s vastly different in practice, especially on the narrow one-lane Scottish roads that pass for major highways.

    Suffice it to say we made it. Tad had a little problem with keeping to the left lane, and I overcorrected in that direction to avoid hitting mirrors with oncoming traffic or so I thought.

    On Monday, we drove to the little farming town of Stirling. They had a sheep sale that morning at the local livestock auction.

    The parking lot resembled the Riverton Livestock Auction’s parking area, but the trailers and trucks were smaller, designed for sheep, not cattle and horses. A lot of smaller SUVs and Ford Rangers pulled these double-decker livestock-hauling versions of tiny houses.

    Several thousand sheep were in immaculate indoor stalls awaiting sale, and the equally clean parking lot was fully paved.

    Locally big ranchers get better prices at the Riverton Livestock Auction. You can have better steers than a producer with a few hundred head rolling through the ring, but you’re not going to get his prices. Small producers with a few head just don’t get the price the big boys do.

    That wasn’t the case that Monday afternoon.

    When animals are auctioned at the sale barn in Scotland the owner stands in the ring with them. Everyone knows whose stock is on sale and in juxtaposition with what happens here in Fremont County, the local guys, the smaller farmers, got better prices to the man.

    There weren’t any exceptions. A farmer (in Scotland there are no ranchers, just cattle farmers or sheep farmers) with just a couple of head, or perhaps up to two dozen brought higher prices than those bringing in 75 to 125 head to the ring.

    The way they sold market lambs, ewes, and breeding rams was different as well. They sold them by the head.

    If you go to the Riverton Livestock Auction, they’ll list the weight of a single animal or the average weight of a group, and then the auctioneer sells them by the pound. If you have a 550-pound steer and you get two dollars a pound, you gross $1100. In Scotland, you don’t need to do the math. They list the animals’ weight in advance but then it’s priced by the head.

    The best prices went for lambs weighing 75 to 85 pounds, bringing around 100 to 115 pounds each (the currency). If they had horns, which many breeds did, they brought less money, just like horned cattle do here.

    The auctioneer had a cadence different than the familiar rhythm of our guys, but it was equally mesmerizing after a while. He seemed angry during every sale, angry to the point of screaming at times at the buyers, but when he hit whatever it was that passed for a gavel. He always grinned and made a little joke to the buyer.

    His gavel was a chunk of elm, in an elongated “L” shape, polished to a fine sheen and he whacked it with authority on a hard chunk of plywood to seal the deal on each sale.

    The Cheviot, Texel, Suffolk, Highland Black Face, and hybrids all brought good prices according to the friendly Scottish farmers we sat with.

    One hybrid, called a “Mule” by the Scotsmen, a cross between a Leicester ram and a Highland Blackface ewe brought the best price for ewes and lambs.

    One menacing Texel ram sold for 1400 pounds, almost $1830 American. If you do a little cross mathematics with cattle and sheep that equates to a 14 times price increase on the average breeding ewe sold that day.

    A prime Angus cow can now get between $1500 and $2000 locally, meaning if a bull of the same breed maintained the Scottish ratio it would bring somewhere north of $21,000. That’s a big price differential.

    The Texel rams that day, and from the ones we saw from the window of the trains we took around the Scottish countryside are massive, resembling giant, 300-pound bulldogs more than the Suffolk and Columbia rams we are familiar with in Fremont County.

    The livestock auction is not on any travel agency’s menu, but it gave us a taste of the real Scotland, a taste far removed from the overpriced restaurants, high-end bars, and luxury hotels we experienced.

    I’m not complaining the accommodations, libations, and meals were all top shelf, top shelf in a tiny little island with much more character than the rural Scottish Highlands should offer.

    It took me two-thirds of a century to visit one of my ancestral lines, but I’d go back again.

    It was a fabulous getaway.  


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