How a Border’s Dynasty Changed the Way We Eat

28th August 2020

A reader’s review of the book written about the history of John Swan & Sons by Andrew Humphries MBE entitled “Great Livestock & Salesmen”


Hiding in plain sight in this fascinating monograph is a concise and authoritative account of the history is 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, back in the 19th Century.

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 ultimate aim of this trade was the transportation of livestock from the Highlands and from lowland Scotland, to England and eventually London. This would increase 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, drawing on contemporary accounts, provides many anecdotes about such traders, both scrupulous and unscrupulous, whose colourful practices will always enliven 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, you have to 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 get to Edinburgh. It was the making of the family – and she also brought about a successful return to Earlston market later. Possibly the only 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 which arose, helped to change practices that also affected the transportation of livestock in trains. Not surprisingly, the competition of this new trade also brought with it a threat to British farming – as did the end of the Napoleonic wars.

All these 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&H took over the company in 2015, but not their legacy. Richard Rankin, the CEO of H&H, provides an overview of the company and how its 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 – and appropriately its revolutionary octagonal shape is a Grade 2 listed structure.

This is a portrait of an era dominated by great entrepreneurs which transformed the marketplace. The story of today’s big traders is still in the making, and if you fancy a part of that, how the Swans did it may well give you a few tips.

[We would like to thank Mr J Huddart for his personal review of this short history]


A Short History Book On The Great Livestock Salesmen, John Swan & Sons goes on Sale in aid of Charity.
We are pleased to announce the publication of a fascinating book on livestock entrepreneur, John Swan, with all profits to be donated to charitable organisation RSABI.  It has been written by Andrew Humphries, MBE and celebrates the life of a man who was known as ‘the great livestock salesman’.

Published by our printing division, H&H Reeds, the book is available for £5 at all Harrison & Hetherington Auction marts located throughout Cumbria, the North East and Southern Scotland and via email from Alison Agnew